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Telling stories of black Catholics makes invisible visible

Being black and Catholic may be common in New Orleans, but it remains rare in Spokane. The Diocese of Spokane has ordained only one black Catholic priest.

Bob Bartlett
Bob Bartlett

In research on African-American Catholics for his doctoral dissertation in leadership studies at Gonzaga University, Bob Bartlett discovered that most stories of black Catholics remain untold, making their role in the church invisible.

That invisibility affects students he has worked with for 18 years as director of Unity House, Gonzaga University’s multicultural center.

It also made it hard for him to find a place to tell the story of John Hopkins, the only African American ordained as a priest in the Diocese of Spokane—even during Black History Month.
“For people on the margins, the difficulty of telling stories is a constant reminder of trying to drive a square peg into a round hole,” he said.

Bob often hears people on the margins asking if they are selling their souls in offering commitment to organizations, causes, communities or ideals in the dominant culture that fundamentally differs from their own.

“When we tell stories of people, we can learn from their lives,” said Bob, who completes his degree in May and plans to teach. “There’s value in ‘counter storytelling,’ sharing about the lives of people not included in the dominant narrative, people who can teach us who we are.”

The dominant society tends to silence people who are critical of organizations—considering them crazy or dismissing them as cynics—rather than hearing them, Bob said.

While lack of access to stories helps racism metastasize, he believes counter stories can pull people out of malaise.

“Hearing stories of people’s lives verifies that their experiences exist and brings us to a different understanding of an organization, its leadership and structure,” Bob said.

Learning about African-American Catholics reinforces his involvement in the church, even though there are few black Catholics in this area.

He has since found black Catholic churches
, plus Xavier University in New Orleans. There are also black Catholic churches in Houston, Dayton and Milwaukee. Some of these churches have paintings of Jesus, Joseph, Mary, the wise men and stations-of-the-cross figures as black people.

Black Catholic churches are as diverse as white Catholic churches—some are liberal, some conservative, some sing the Hallelujah Chorus and some rock with Gospel music, said Bob, who holds degrees in sociology from Mesa State College at Grand Junction, Colo., and a master’s degree from Washington State University at Pullman in 1987.

He also has found stories about black theologians
, bishops, priests and nuns who worked for civil rights in the 1960s. One was John Hopkins of Spokane.

Born in Missoula, Mont., John moved to Spokane as a child, graduating from Gonzaga Prep, where he was student body president, a member of the debate team and the class valedictorian.

He graduated from Gonzaga University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy, and then completed a four-year course in theology at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.

In June 1961, Father John became the first black priest in the Catholic Diocese of Spokane.

Ordained at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, he celebrated his first Mass at his home parish, St. Ann’s Catholic Church, which is Bob’s parish.

Father John served as assistant pastor at Our Lady of Fatima and at St. Anthony’s in Spokane, before leaving ministry to pursue a career in social, political and legal affairs.

During the 1960s, he helped form a Spokane interracial council, drawing together religious, lay, business and civic leaders. They challenged racial bigotry in the city.

After leaving Spokane, Father John was the first black person to earn a doctor of philosophy degree at Columbia University. That was in 1976. Then he earned a doctorate in education from the Teacher’s College at Columbia.

He taught both at the Bishop White Seminary at Gonzaga University and at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Bob listed some of Father John’s accomplishments:

• He wrote two books—Racism: A Philosophical Perspective and The Continuing Mis-education of African American Youth.

• He traveled throughout the United States, Europe and South Africa.

• He served on a team of 25 people responsible for negotiating and overseeing the implementation of sections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that called for the elimination of segregation.

• He worked as a research associate at Columbia University’s Institute on International Change.

• He conducted an extended study of interracial and multinational cooperation and conflict in South Africa.

In 1989, he died in Washington, D.C., at the age of 59. His memorial Mass was at Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane.

“While Father John’s life and works as Spokane’s first black Catholic shepherd lies in obscurity, his story cries to be heard,” Bob said. “His life, lived with a passion for justice as a black man in an overwhelmingly white place, exemplifies both speaking his truth and offering alternative ideas to the community and world.

“Separatism or surrender are not the only options. People can be who they are, seeking moderation, tempering blame with praise, becoming tougher by being heated and cooled, angered at incongruities between the values they hold and the values of organizations they serve,” Bob explained. “Changes can come from the margins of organizations by those who do not fit.”

He wrote about John and other black Catholics as a way to make the invisible visible, the unknown known, the voiceless have voice.

“How can we inspire black Catholics to become priests if we do not know of any?” he asked. “How can we convince blacks to remain Catholic if we hide the history of black Catholics in this country?”

Bob grew up in Keyser, W. Va., attending Episcopal, Methodist and Church of God in Christ churches that different members of his family attended.

“I went from church to church, each one claiming it was the only true church—a 98-percent African American non-Bible-thumping Methodist church, a white Episcopal church his father’s white parents attended, and the Church of God in Christ his mother’s mother attended. A Catholic cousin wanted to be a priest.

From this background, Bob resonated with the eclectic background and the quiet in worship in the Catholic Church.

As he grew into Catholicism, Bob
liked knowing that being Catholic he was a part of a global church that said the same Mass and prayers all over the planet.

“It’s an awesome sense of being part of something bigger than myself,” he said.

“Despite problems, the practices speak to me and touch me in a special way. There is power in the ancient traditions and in the sense of love and care I experience.”

Why would a black man stay in the Catholic Church? he asked rhetorically.

• Aware that many organizations fall short of their mission statements, he appreciates that Catholics call for Christians to address racism and sexism.

• He appreciates that when the Pope or church leaders speak, people listen: “If the momentum goes in the right direction, it can be awesome.”

• The Catholic Church has had a positive influence on lives of U.S. black people through its churches, schools and universities.

• Beyond worship, the universal sense of the church means if people suffer in El Salvador, people elsewhere know their of pain and pray for them.

• The Catholic Church has divisions, but people do not break off over every disagreement or doctrine. So it includes people with many opinions on issues, sitting next to each other rather than going off to start new churches.

Bob attends St. Ann’s Catholic Church, one of the most diverse parishes in the diocese with Africans, African-Americans, El Salvadorans, Native Americans and Euro-Americans.

In his research, he found other overlooked information: “Few know there have been 700 black saints, that there were black Popes from Africa, that Africans were Catholic before slavery or that there were black Catholics in the United States before the Irish and Italian immigrations,” he said.

Now he seeks to educate young people, sharing information and experiences that escaped their awareness. His calling is to read, learn and be with people to share the information and stories.

For information, call 323-4108.