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Victoria Betsill and Thomas Reiter: Black Catholics’ faith inspires in challenging times

What do novelist Toni Morrison, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, basketball coach John Thompson, gymnast Simone Biles and acclaimed Pittsburgh jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams all have in common?

If you guessed they’re black, you’ve got it half right.

The correct answer is that they, together with approximately 3 million other Americans, are black Roman Catholics. Rich in history and blessed with uncommon faith, this community of black Catholics has much to offer the church in these challenging times.

Black Catholics are a diverse group encompassing African-Americans, Caribbean-Americans and recent immigrants from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and Central America as well as South America. They actually outnumber better-known black religious denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

The army surgeon general and highest-ranking female graduate of West Point, Nadja West, is a black Catholic. The recently appointed archbishop of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese, Wilton Gregory, is black. A number of black Americans are on the journey to potential canonization, including Venerable Augustus Tolton and Sister Thea Bowman (namesake of the Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg). But, the famous, the prominent and the “some day” saints do not fully capture the day-to-day black Catholic experience.

Black Catholics have lived in our country since at least the 1600s. For many years thereafter, they adhered to their faith, with little ecclesial support or pastoral care. Some religious orders even owned slaves.

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