Austin hosts conference for Black Catholic men
By Imani K. Evans
There are about 3 million black Catholics in the U.S., according to the National Black Catholics Conference. Black Catholic bishops frequently argue that with Catholicism thus having a relatively large footprint in black communities, black Catholics should be striving at every turn to shape the larger culture of Catholicism and devise novel uses of Catholic teaching in their own lives.
The annual National Black Catholic Men’s Conference is a product of these aspirations. The event, which took place this year in Austin Oct. 24-27, is a rare opportunity for black Catholic men to start fresh conversations about the issues that deeply concern them and their communities, while renewing their commitment to the church as a vehicle for effective action to address those issues.
Bishop Joe Vásquez began the conference by extending an appreciative welcome to the attendees and indicating the importance of the issues that were on the conference agenda. Johnnie Dorsey, the director of the diocesan Office of Black Catholics, was also thankful to gather with men from across the U.S.
“It’s good for black Catholic men, from a national perspective, to be able to come together and talk about issues that affect them as black Catholic men — and also as men period,” Dorsey said. He is a parishioner of Holy Cross Parish in East Austin, which frequently serves as a hub for the black Catholic community in Austin, and was chosen for the conference’s Saturday night Mass.
For the men who participated, the conference provided a chance for them to air their feelings about a range of complex and sensitive issues — racism, health disparities between blacks and whites, relationships with the opposite sex, HIV/AIDS — in a safe and supportive environment. At the same time, workshops focused on approaching these issues through a rigorously Catholic framework. Several of the men also attended health screenings that were offered by members of the Austin-Travis Country Health and Human Services Department.
“African Americans are an integral part of the church here in the United States, and for that reason there should be more inclusion in the various aspects of the church, especially in many of the diocesan types of ministries that happen,” Dorsey said. “You really need to have these types of meetings in terms of our identifying what actions we need to focus on so that we can make the larger Catholic Church aware of the gifts that we as African Americans and Africans bring to the Catholic Church.”
Dorsey credited the conference for raising awareness about the havoc that HIV/AIDS continues to wreak in black communities at a time when the issue has largely receded from public view. Despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans are 50 percent of all of those living with HIV, and 48 percent of those newly diagnosed with the disease. Nationally, black women represent 67 percent of all new HIV infections among women.
“We feel that the challenge for us in our communities is to begin getting the word out more about the need to prevent HIV, by people adopting healthy behaviors especially,” Dorsey said.
Leon Roberts, also of the Diocese of Austin, believes that the conference succeeded in overcoming the boundaries — spiritual and geographic — that typically make it hard for black Catholic men to find one another.
“It was a very successful conference, and it delivered some dynamite information about our health issues, our economical issues, and our spiritual issues,” Roberts said. “We charged ourselves to really pick up our men’s ministries within our church, and to keep kindling the fires that we received from the conference in regards to our actions and work within the church, and to step up to the plate more, and to get more involved with our congregations, our youth and our laypersons,” said Roberts.
One of the biggest hits of the conference was a Saturday morning talk given by Andrew Lyke, director of the Office for Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Lyke has become highly sought after as a speaker on marriage and family issues for church, community and business audiences. He is an energetic advocate of Christian marriage and called attention to the low marriage rate of African Americans.
“To receive the gift of womanhood, men need to be open,” exhorted Lyke to an enthusiastic audience of mostly men. “A man has to make room in his life for his woman; a man has to expand himself so that there’s room for her unique issues.”
Lyke himself has been married since 1975. For decades he and his wife, Terri, have devoted themselves to marriage preparation and education, serving thousands of couples through their programs. The Lykes co-founded Arusi Network, Inc., a nonprofit that promotes the benefits of marriage to African Americans.
“Our naiveté is purposeful early on, because if we saw what was in store that would frighten us. That’s why you give birth to babies and not teenagers,” Lyke said. “If we can encourage couples to trust that basic instinct — seeing that you’re this wonderful and right person, that you’re God’s gift to me … we need to believe that, even though once we’re on the other side of marriage we seem to forget it or have evidence that we made the wrong choice.”
“It’s not about ‘falling in love,’” Lyke said during his talk. “That’s for the neophytes and the novices. I’m talking about some mack daddy love that comes from skillful intentionality. It’s about making it happen by doing the work of climbing into love.”
Father Roy Lee of the Archdiocese of Atlanta said the warm reception given to Lyke and other presenters by the conference attendees proves that even the most time-worn Christian precepts about marriage and family can be injected with new life by a speaker who clearly understands his audience.
“We need this kind of conference to bring together the experts as well as the lay people for support, and to be able to articulate clearly and succinctly the journey of black men in this country,” Father Lee said. “The other wonderful added piece is that we’ve got to go back to our various places, our churches, our communities, and we must continue the work of true liberation, and that is of service.”
For more information about Black Catholics in the Diocese of Austin, contact Johnnie Dorsey at (512) 949-2449 or firstname.lastname@example.org.