Juneteenth and Black Catholics in the Diocese of Raleigh

Juneteenth (Jubilee Day) is a holiday celebrated in the United States commemorating the liberation of the last group of African Americans enslaved by the Confederacy in the state of Texas. Sadly, the liberation came two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the "Emancipation Proclamation." It took the Union troops this long to assemble a force strong enough to overcome the resistance and enforce the new legislation. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger landed his Union troops in Galveston, Texas, and read General Order 3, which stated all slaves were now free with equal human rights, the right to property, and the new relationship between former master and slaves became one of employer and employee. The holiday is celebrated annually on June 19 throughout the United States.

The diocese spoke with Tristan Evans, AAMEN Coordinator for the Diocese of Raleigh, about Juneteenth and his thoughts on the experience of being a Black Catholic in the Diocese of Raleigh.

How has Juneteenth traditionally been recognized in our diocese?

TE: In our diocese, the African Ancestry Ministry and Evangelization Network (AAMEN) holds its annual ministry family reunion during the month of June. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we had to postpone our celebration this year.

How does it feel to be a Black Catholic in 2020?

TE: Personally, I am blessed to be Catholic and extremely proud to be a Black Catholic. Until the arrival of COVID-19 and the current unrest the country is experiencing, the Black Catholic community was actively unpacking the many treasures of Black Catholicism to share throughout the diocese -- most importantly the causes of six Black Americans on the path to sainthood within the Catholic Church: Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Henriette Delille, Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, and Servant of God Sister Julia Greeley. This will truly be a monumental event for the Catholic Church in America. Whichever of these amazing witnesses to the faith is canonized first will represent the first African American to be canonized a saint. That to me is exciting. But equally exciting is sharing the gems of Black Catholic history with those receptive to hearing the message. For instance, many of those reading this article have no idea our Church had three African Popes (St. Victor I, St. Gelasius and St. Miltiades), nor that significant contributions to the way we understand the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Trinity were works of Black Catholics (St. Augustine and St. Athanasius).    

However, in the midst of this joy and excitement come moments of great frustration that dampen my mood, as it does for many other Black Catholics. This frustration leaves us asking "why" and "how" can certain things like the social sin of racism rear its head in the church in the year 2020. Have we learned nothing from history, are we sweeping things under the rug so we won't have to face them, or do we just not really care enough to make a difference? How is it that the contributions of Black Catholics are only whispered in remote corners of our diocese when the true universality of the church should be celebrated and shouted from every mouth that can speak? We cannot settle for small photo opportunities of people dressed in colorful garb one day, and the next our brothers and sisters become invisible in plain sight. How can we contribute to the building of great cathedrals and pristine churches, yet some of our Black brothers and sisters from Africa have to beg for a place to celebrate the Mass? Have pastors fallen asleep when their Black brothers and sisters are only asking to spend a little more than an hour with our Lord? Is there room at the inn? How can the Church's bishops pen beautiful documents against racism (at least eight written between 1958 and 2018), and yet we find no significant concrete manifestations of the words? Thank you to the few pastors and people of good will who try to move the ball forward, but what happens when those pastors retire, move somewhere else, or pass away? Who will pick up the banner and carry on? These are serious concerns that offend the Church's dignity and the Church cries out for justice.

Where do you see Christ in the injustices Black people experience?

TE: When I see the suffering and injustice Black people are experiencing, I see Christ under the weight of the cross and Christ crucified. When I look at some of the acts of police brutality, how many in the Black community are falling behind in the technological world, education that is not preparing them for the world ahead, to name a few areas of challenge; we ask ourselves where is our Simon of Cyrene? Who is willing to walk this journey with us under the weight of the cross so we can reach our resurrection day as unified children of God? We need some people of courage to put down the cell phone and help get the knee of racism off our necks because this is a matter of life and death. Think about the many union soldiers who gave up life and limb so that all men could be free -- and the men and women of the Civil Rights movement who were courageous in facing down injustice. Christ gave up His life for all of us sinners. He did not count the cost, nor should we. Unfortunately, posting a Black box on your Facebook profile or holding up a Black Lives Matter sign does not bring Mr. Floyd back to life nor the dwindling, disenfranchised Black Catholic community back to life.

How can the Church can be more supportive of the Black Catholic community?

TE: It's time for the Church leaders to implement real actions beyond lofty platitudes. As I mentioned before, there are at least eight Church documents, if not more, on this topic. They are even posted to the diocesan website under African Ancestry Ministry. They address Racism, Evangelization and Catechesis, Liturgy and Pastoral Care. One of my favorite areas is the history of Black Catholicism. It shows how strong the Black Catholic community was during the formation of this diocese, which actually covered the whole state of North Carolina. It tells of the struggles of our first African American priest of the diocese (Monsignor Thomas Hadden) and the challenges he had in becoming a priest in the south, similar to the struggle of Father Augustus Tolton in some regards. You'd be surprised at a number of parishes that were started by Black Catholics -- parishes that we worship in today.

Where there are African Ancestry Ministry and Evangelization Network (AAMEN) chapters, I would encourage pastors and parishioners to integrate the gifts of that community into the life of the parish. This history is not just the history of Black Catholics but the history of your Catholic Church here in the diocese. Don't let the devil rob us of our full universal heritage. We will all be abundantly blessed in the end and show forth our Christian unity through love.

What would your message be for somebody who isn’t Black but wants to show their support for the Black community?

TE: First you have to be committed. This is a lifelong endeavor that you live out on a daily basis. Racism is a permanent evil in this world, and it requires vigilance and personal spiritual growth. Look into your heart first to root out any signs of prejudice, injustice and hostility. Then work through the sacraments of reconciliation and Holy Communion to gain the graces that strengthen love and justice.

Second, engage and build meaningful relationships with your Black community. Start in your local parish because you all already have something of great importance in common -- your Catholic faith. But it should not stop there. Engage those in your neighborhood, at work, at school and in your social settings. Learn about where they are from and other life experiences. Listen and share yours as well.

Simultaneously, deepen your knowledge of the contributions of the Black community to the Catholic Church and the challenges they faced and are facing currently. And share with them your struggles too. We are not called to be strangers. And think about it, if we do this as Christ asked of us, we will be spending eternity with each other anyway.

Here are some items to start with:

  • Venerable Pierre Toussaint
  • Venerable Henriette Delille, S.S.F.
  • Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, O.S.P.
  • Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton
  • Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A.
  • Servant of God Sister Julia Greeley, O.S.F.
  • St. Victor I
  • St. Gelasius I
  • St. Miltiades
  • St. Monica
  • St. Athanasius
  • St. Augustine
  • Monsignor Thomas Paul Hadden
  • Bishop Joseph Gossman
  • Bishop Vincent Waters
  • Rent the Movie "Courage to Love"
  • Visit the African Ancestry Ministry page on the diocesan website
  • Attend Mass at a historic Black parish
  • Attend an African Mass
  • Read the "Saints of Africa"
  • Visit the history of the Black Catholic schools and parishes on the diocesan website

Learn more about the AAMEN ministry