Full of the Spirit
Five spiritual gifts of African American Catholics
By C. Vanessa White
I’m gonna move when the Spirit say move
I’m gonna move when the Spirit say move
When the Spirit say move
I’m gonna move, O Lord
I’m gonna move when the Spirit say move.
-African American spiritual
Black people are a Spirit-filled people. This religious nature of black people has been, as theologian Gayraud Wilmore has written, “an essential thread in the fabric of black culture.” It transcends regional differences and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is our sense of this Spirit that has helped us to survive centuries of oppression, alienation, floggings, lynchings, discrimination, murder, and human devaluation.
To understand us, one must understand our spirituality, which has African roots. The ways of searching for God and experiencing God’s presence in our lives is not done within a vacuum but in a cultural context.
Black spirituality, the late Sister Thea Bowman said, is a response to and a reflection on black life and culture. It is rooted in our African heritage and is colored by our Middle Passage from Africa to America, slavery, our Caribbean and Latin experience, segregation, integration, and our ongoing struggle for liberation.
But how exactly is black spirituality defined and expressed? Here are five key characteristics:
1. God on our mind
God is the lens through which we experience all things. Our view of God orchestrates, governs, empowers, transforms, and infuses us with a soul that is the basis and the power of our life. In Western culture the theological question has been, “Is there a God?” For black people the question is rather, “How is god present in the midst of my suffering and my joy?”
When we get up in the morning, we say, “Thank you, Jesus.” Our grandmothers and grandfathers, our aunts and uncles, our ancestors testified to the power of God in their lives. Our sense of God is the basis and power of our lives.
Our God is both immanent and transcendent. God dwells within us and is beyond us. Such phrases as “God don’t ever change” and “There will always be a God” speak of our concept of God. As the director of a graduate theological program for African American Catholics studying for lay ministry in the church, I have often been struck by how my students speak of being called by God, using God language in their everyday communication. They speak of that sense of God as always present. For black people, our sense of God is as natural to us as breathing.
2. People of the Book
Black spirituality is based on sacred scripture. As the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on evangelization in the black community, What We Have Seen and Heard, states regarding our relationship with the Bible, “The Bible story is our story; the Bible promise is our hope.”
I come from an ecumenical family. Within my extended family I am blessed to have members from a variety of faith traditions-Methodist, Catholic, Apostolic, A.M.E. Zion, and Lutheran. While our faith traditions are very different, the one characteristic we have in common, aside from our belief in Jesus Christ, is a love and knowledge of scripture. As a child, our family would begin our meals with grace that included a Bible verse. In our family gatherings, we testify to the power of God’s Word in our lives. The Bible is not foreign to us. The Bible story is our story. Our spirituals are biblically based and rooted.
Our ancestors, who were forcibly brought here, connected with the story of Exodus. Even when the slave masters tried to convince our ancestors that God condoned their enslavement because “the Bible says so,” they knew that the God of Jesus Christ did not call us to be slaves and that the master had the wrong interpretation of scripture.
Jesus said the truth would set us free. The Bible promise is our promise. It is an instrument of our own spiritual empowerment.
3. Joy, wholeness, and contemplation
Joy is a hallmark of black spirituality. We celebrate in the midst of suffering. Our joy does not negate suffering but is focused on the hope of Jesus Christ. Our joy is expressed in our movement, our dance, our song, in color and sensation, in thanksgiving and exultation.
Black spirituality is holistic. Feelings are not separate from the intellect, the heart is not separate from the soul. Black people use their bodies to express their love of God. There is no separation of the sacred and the secular. Divisions between intellect and emotion, spirit and body, action and contemplation, individual and community, sacred and secular are foreign to us.
Black people are a contemplative people. We experience God at all times, in many ways. Prayer is both spontaneous and pervasive in our community, and every place is a place of prayer. This sense of God’s presence taught us that no one can run from God, nor can anyone hide from God.
4. All are welcome
In West African tradition, the I is defined as we. Our individual identity is to be found in the context of the community. This communal aspect of our spirituality is quite evident in our churches and at our liturgies. One cannot enter an authentically black church and not feel welcome.
Several years ago, I was responsible for organizing alternative spring break experiences for college students. These experiences were to introduce the students to different cultures and give them the opportunity to reflect on social structures within the United States. Part of this experience included taking the youth (who were primarily white) to an African American Catholic church for Sunday Mass.
Time and time again, the students were struck by the sense of hospitality and community, which for many was quite unlike what they experienced in their home parishes. Many said that if the experience were reversed, they would question whether the folks from St. Benedict the African Parish would be welcome in their home church. This is the gift of black folk. All are welcome in my Father’s house.
At the same time, it must be recognized that the black community is multifaceted, not monolithic. As Thea Bowman said, “Ministers who wish to know how to interpret, relate, and impact the spirituality of black people must endeavor to learn the reality of a particular group of black people their ministry affects.”
5. Called to do justice
Our community- and person-focused spirituality affects how we treat one another. The quality of a person’s life is important. Jesus’ message is one of establishing right relationships-in other words, the reign of God. As Christians, we are called to prophetic action on behalf of justice. We cannot remain quiet when we experience injustice.
In response to a spirituality that is justice-focused and liberating, black Catholics are realizing that they can no longer remain silent or inactive when faced with injustice and are working with other black Catholics in the hopes of liberating their communities.
Theologian Sister Jamie Phelps, O.P. argues that the absolute criterion of the authenticity of black spirituality is the following: “Do the actions of the community lead to right relationships? Does the person act right and call others to be right? Does the person and the community struggle for the liberation of oppressed persons, races, and nations?” A person and a community imbued with the life force at the center of black spirituality-with the Spirit of God-is willing to struggle for this liberation from sin and its effects.
As we enter this new millennium, black Catholics are being called to be attentive to the Spirit that is urging them to move. It is our spirituality, embodied within the person of African descent, that is moving the community to fight for freedom and live in God’s ways. Amen, praise God, thank you, Jesus!?
C. VANESSA WHITE, Assistant Professor of Spirituality and the Director of the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
This article appeared in “Authentically Black, Truly Catholic,” the August 2002 special issue of U.S. Catholic magazine on African American Catholics (pages 40-41). Reprinted from U.S. Catholic is published by the Claretians. For subscriptions, call 1-800-328-6515 or visituscatholic.org.