Congress participants bring back messages to share

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

Thirty-one members from the Diocese of Austin who attended the 12th gathering of the National Black Catholic Congress (NBCC) now begin the challenging work of sharing what they learned.
Each person was asked to write a summary of their experience as part of the scholarship support from the diocesan Office of Black Catholics via a grant from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Black and Indian Fund. They will use their reflections as a springboard to evangelize in their parishes, said Johnnie Dorsey, who has served as director of the diocesan Office of Black Catholics since it was established by Bishop Emeritus John McCarthy in 1987. Dorsey and his wife Dean, are parishioners at Holy Cross Parish in Austin.
Parishioners from Holy Cross, Sacred Heart and St. Louis parishes in Austin and St. Joseph Parish in Killeen were among those who attended the Congress and submitted their reflections.
“Discipleship is about getting the message out,” Dorsey said. “What we learned has to be ongoing so we can take the message to various parishes.”
The NBCC was started in 1889 by journalist Daniel Rudd in Washington and was held each year until 1894. The next NBCC was not held until 1987 and has been held every five years since its reinstitution. The Diocese of Austin has been represented at every NBCC since 1987. This year’s theme was “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Act Justly, Love Goodness and Walk Humbly with Your God.”
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, was the keynote speaker. Dorsey noted that Turkson described the Holy Spirit as a force for the “reintegration and re-enfranchisement of all God’s children in a mission of inclusion –– leaving no one on the periphery.”
Dorsey said racism was a recurring theme in many of the workshops. He said it was encouraging to be reminded that one can be “authentically black and authentically Catholic.”    
Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, who has written extensively on the racial divide in the U.S. and the church, told attendees to “listen, learn, think, pray and act.”
Dorsey said, “He really focused on the action part. We cannot just do the first four. We need to go out and do something.”
That “something” is social justice, which can make people of all colors uncomfortable.
“People need to get out of their comfort zone,” Dorsey said, noting that it often requires white people to confront the privilege they have that others don’t have. “There are major divisions. We need proximity so we can begin healing. We understand that’s challenging, but we need to do it.”
In the workshops he attended, Dorsey shared information on the diocesan Courageous Conversations on Race, which meets monthly and has attendees from various parishes and other faith traditions.
Lena Brown-Owens, a parishioner at Holy Cross Parish, is the diocesan representative on the national team that is developing the NBCC Pastoral Plan. 
“We worked on the preamble to the (NBCC) Pastoral Plan,” she said. “We are specifically targeting young adults with this plan.
Dorsey said once the Pastoral Plan is released, the Office of Black Catholics will host a day of reflection to discuss it.
For Bernadette Cay, a parishioner of Holy Cross, the conference “offered hope amidst a time of such unrest.” It also has spurred her to become an active participant in social ministry at a time she had decided to “rest from my labors.”
Cay was inspired by the session titled “Love, Mercy and Do Justice: Confronting Mass Incarceration, Racial Bias and Poverty” by Bryan Stevenson, who offered four solutions to the question, “How are we going to change the world?”
The solutions he gave were to get closer to the people who are suffering; change the narrative about race in this country –– that of fear and anger; stay hopeful –– hopelessness is the enemy of faith; and be willing to do things that are uncomfortable.
Brent Brown of Austin reflected that it was “refreshing” to hear Bishop Braxton state that “Racism is a sin: A sin that divides the human family blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.”
Camille Canady attended a workshop titled “Understanding Mental Health” by Dr. Crystal Taylor-Dietz, who focused on the stigma surrounding mental health in the black community.
“We need to recognize the common mental health issues in our community,” Canady wrote. “Recognizing the presence and severity of mental health problems is important to our spiritual community and should be addressed.”
Dean Dorsey was especially touched by the dramatization of the life of Father Augustus Tolton, who was born a slave in 1854 and became the first acknowledged black priest in the U.S. No seminary in this country would accept him, so he studied at the Pontifical University in Rome, where he was ordained in 1886. He returned to serve in Chicago. In 2010, the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago established Father Tolton’s cause for sainthood.
She also attended “Domestic Violence and How Faith Based Communities Can Help” by Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodly and learned about the Catholic brochure on the issue titled “When I Cry for Help.”
“A person needing help could be ... in the pew right next to you,” she wrote. Margaret A. Myers of St. Joseph Parish in Killeen attended “Building Bridges and Relationships Through Inspired Servant Leadership” by Father Maurice Emelu, who said that there are three kinds of people: the clueless, the server and the gifter.
“I was particularly drawn to his description of ‘the server,’ as those who are always available,” she wrote. “They emerge in Christ doing ordinary things extraordinarily and that they have a self-awareness, which begins in leadership.”
The next gathering of the Courageous Conversations on Race is Sept.25 at 6:30 p.m. at Holy Cross Parish in Austin. For more information about Black Catholics in the Austin Diocese, contact Johnnie Dorsey at (512) 949-2449.