Blacks and Catholicism: It's not an oxymoron

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Pictured is Laverta Straham, 22, (right) a novice with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara on Sunday, September 27, 2015 on the Parkway. (Jenice Armstrong/Daily News)

I was sharing with someone about Pope Francis the other day when a friend interjected, "You're Catholic?"

He was surprised.

Most people don't expect African Americans to be Catholic, but it's not an oxymoron.

Roughly 20,000 of us in the Philadelphia Archdiocese are black. That's down from the estimated 40,000 local black Catholics who were around in the 1960s. Worldwide, black Catholics represent 25 percent of the estimated one billion Roman Catholics, according to the National Black Catholic Congress.

We're here and we represent - despite our rather complicated history with the church. My own family's association with Catholicism began when my dad was a kid growing up in Jim Crow North Carolina.

At the time, blacks weren't permitted to eat at Woolworth's lunch counters; they had to sit in the back of buses; and they weren't allowed to attend most schools. But the Catholic priests allowed my father and his friends to play basketball on a court on church property instead of shooing them away.

Back then, Christ the King's was the only basketball court they had, and black kids from all over High Point used to flock there to play on its dirt surface. That small kindness my dad experienced on those church grounds touched him.

Early in their marriage, my dad and mom converted to Catholicism. On teachers' salaries, they somehow managed to send all five of their kids to Catholic schools from first through 12th grades, and never wavered from the faith. The church, with all of its issues, was the center of their lives - all the way to the end.

On Sunday, standing on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with tens of thousands of faithful from all over the world, I couldn't help but notice the racial makeup of the crowd.

Not surprisingly, it was primarily white, but I noticed lots of Hispanics and people of Asian descent. I also spotted Africans - the fastest growing Catholic population - as well as African Americans along the Parkway.

Philadelphia residents Olga Quesada, who attends St. Timothy in the Northeast, and Sharon Goldman, of St. Cyprian in Cobbs Creek, were happily leaning across a railing in one of the ticketed areas waiting to see Francis. Quesada described herself as a "cradle Catholic," what we call members who are born into the faith.

The person who most struck me, though, was a novice nun named Laverta Straham, 22. Originally from Arkansas, she is on the way to becoming a full-fledged sister with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara. She was dressed in a long gray skirt that nearly touched the ground and a white, short-sleeve blouse. She had her locs pulled back in a ponytail. I know it was rude of me, but I stared. It's not often you see an African American nun - much less one so young.

At the peak around 1965, only about 1,000 African Americans were sisters, said Shannon Williams, author of a coming book to be called Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America After World War I. Williams, a professor at the University of Tennessee, estimates that today, there are only about 300 black religious sisters in the United States.

I personally don't know of any African American nuns. Nor can I recall the last time I saw one.

"Growing up, I didn't see a lot of black Catholics," Straham told me. "I've only met two African American sisters before I entered our order."

Nadia St. Hilaire, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is Haitian and one of that rare breed of Catholics who not only go to Mass every Sunday, but also often attend daily services.

"I was born into it," she said as she and her friends waited for Francis' arrival.

Joe Whitehead, a lawyer who lives in East Falls, told me he converted two years ago. He's African American, and his wife is white. His family attends St. Bridget in East Falls.

"I converted because I really felt good there," Whitehead told me. "I felt like I belonged."

That's what keeps him coming back.

That's what keeps all of us black Catholics coming back.

Armstrj@phillynews.com

215-854-2223

@JeniceArmstrong