Washington DC’s Black Catholic Community Looks to New Archbishop Wilton Gregory for New Leadership

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory gestures during a panel titled “Confronting Racism in Our Hearts and in Our Nation” Nov. 13, 2017, at Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS/Georgetown University/Rafael Suanes)

The leafy neighborhood surrounding Holy Comforter Saint-Cyprian Roman Catholic Church has transformed in recent years. Longtime parishioners have watched as the African American families who found a home at this church for more than a century left for more affordable housing in the suburbs, and young white families moved into the newly renovated townhouses surrounding the District’s Lincoln Park, east of Capitol Hill.

So when Judy Rodney, a stalwart attendee at Holy Comforter, went to visit her son in a similarly gentrifying neighborhood in Atlanta, she expected to find tension in the Catholic parish similar to the unease she sometimes witnesses between white newcomers and black residents at home.

Instead, she was awed by what she saw. “I was shocked to see this church. It was very diverse, and it was standing room only. We had to get there half an hour early to get a seat for Mass,” Rodney told her fellow Bible study attendees at Holy Comforter, all of them African American, after her trip.

She credits Atlanta’s archbishop, Wilton Gregory, for fostering a church culture that made that inclusiveness possible. And this week, Gregory will leave Atlanta to become the first African American archbishop of Washington. “It may make a positive change for us, too,” Rodney said to her Bible study group.

As the longtime cleric officially assumes his appointment by Pope Francis to one of the most prominent leadership roles in the American Catholic Church on Tuesday, Washington’s black Catholics are watching his first steps with pride and excitement — and with hope that Gregory can address the needs of their community.

Black Catholics are a small segment of the Catholic population nationwide, about 3 percent. But in Washington, the community has always been significantly larger (15 percent, by the Pew Research Center’s count in 2014) and a wellspring of civic involvement. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a list of the nation’s historically black parishes, it included more in the Archdiocese of Washington than any other diocese in the country except Lafayette, La.

The District’s four most recent mayors — Muriel E. Bowser, Vincent C. Gray, Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams — are all African American Catholics or were educated in Catholic schools.

Karl A. Racine, the District’s attorney general, fondly recalls his roots in the city’s predominantly African American parishes and boasts of the nuns and priests who are among his relatives. He said that when he heard Gregory would be the next Washington archbishop, he asked friends in Atlanta about Gregory’s involvement in black community issues and was pleased by what he heard.

“I’m sure you’re going to see this is a city with a high percentage of black folks who are going to be supportive of him, that need him. . . . There’s always been a difficult relationship, at least what I’ve observed, between African Americans and Caribbeans and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church,” he said. “The Catholic Church does a lot in the community, but obviously scandal, as well as instances of timidity on issues of race, sometimes cause members like me to want more out of leadership.”

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Source: The Washington Post