When reflecting on Black History Month as a black Catholic, I find Frank S. Horne’s remarkable poem titled “On Seeing Two Brown Boys in a Catholic Church” apropos.
As membership dwindles in African-American Catholic parishes, fewer African-Americans enter religious life and systemic racism goes unnoticed and undocumented, one would wonder what reason does an African-American have to remain in the Catholic Church.
The opening words by Horne seem to indicate that membership in the Catholic Church for African-Americans is great. Horne declared, “It is fitting that you be here.” One can only imagine if this statement is valid.
Unfortunately, when reading further in this poem, African-American Catholics must reflect on Horne’s stunning comparison. He explains that African-American Catholics will encounter hopelessness like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “And Gethsemane …/ You shall know full well …/ Gethsemane … .”
Indeed, this can be a scary thought; I don’t know of too many people who are ready for a Gethsemane experience where one prays with anguish as blood drips from the forehead like Jesus (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:40-46).
However, the poem becomes even more disheartening as Horne talks about Christ’s crucifixion. He systemically gives his version of the crucifixion narrative in reverse order. Horne tells the brown boys, “Look you on yonder crucifix.”
The boys are to look at Jesus and see themselves on the cross. They are to reflect on the maxim that Jesus was nailed and pierced, that his blood drips endlessly with a thorny crown. Horne then repeats the directive to look, warning the boys: “You shall know this thing.”
With all these images and more hidden in this poem, what caused Horne to encourage two brown boys to remain in a Catholic Church? Or better yet, why should I stay in an institution that has issues?
In his pastoral letter “The Challenge of Racism Today,” Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington said that we “still have a long way to go to realize the harmony to which we are called as a human family. One wound to that unity is the persistent evil of racism.”
Here I can only speak for myself to avoid sounding like an expert on African-American Catholics.
Horne brings forth an embedded truth in ecclesiology that everyone is welcome in the church regardless of color, nationality, economics or gender. Horne also reminds the two boys of their beauty: “brown boys/ With Christ-like eyes/ And curling hair.” They should see themselves as “imago Dei,” made in the image of God with Christ-like eyes.
Horne’s admonishment is similar to St. Peter’s epistle, where he articulated that members of the church must rid themselves of all types of malice. St. Peter said that as members of the church, we all are a chosen race. We are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pt 2:9).
Therefore, in the words of the civil rights song, I “ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round, turn me ’round/ I’m gonna keep on walkin’/Keep on talkin’/ Marchin’ into freedom land.”
I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart will rub the balm of Gilead on the wounds of those suffering from racism and inequality in the Catholic Church.
As Cardinal Wuerl stated in his pastoral letter, “We must all seek to affirm and rejoice in the gift of our diversity.”
Howard is the founder of Eat the Scroll Ministry and is a national speaker and writer for Sadlier Publications. He is a guest columnist for Catholic News Service.
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