African-American Catholics concerned about youths leaving church

by Michelle Gahee

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — In many Catholic parishes across the country, the number of active African-American participants is dropping.p. This is particularly true among African-American teens and young adults who many say are leaving for other Christian denominations they find more relevant to their lives.p. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the number of African-American Catholics hovers at approximately 25,000. But current trends indicate that this number will fall as young African-Americans leave the church.p. There are no exact figures on young blacks leaving the church “because studies done on young people leaving the church have not included a lot of black people,” said Sister Eva Lumas, a Sister of Social Service who teaches at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley.p. For many older African-Americans raised in the Catholic Church, there was little contact with religions other than their own, according to Sister Lumas. She noted that because of segregation her whole world as a child revolved around her parish and she never set foot in a Protestant church.p. But that has changed, as young people today are constantly exposed through media to many voices and images outside the church, and are aware they have choices in how and when to worship.p. “This generation really hungers for a church that gives them principles to live by and a community to help them live these principles,” Sister Lumas said in an interview with The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.p. “Many of our churches are not responding,” she said. “They are very poor in the use of pastoral counseling and youth and young adult ministries, while Protestant churches have made excellent use of these areas and are facilitating growth in ways the Catholic Church has not instilled effectively.”p. Chandra Johnson , director of African-American student ministry at the University of Notre Dame , notes that some other Christian religions are doing a much better job than the Catholic Church at incorporating culturally relevant messages and images into their services.p. “I believe black Catholics have to re-envision their faith and see themselves in the very making of who the church is,” Johnson told The Tidings.p. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better,” she added, “unless (the church) incorporates different catechesis that brings black people into the grandeur of the church.”p. Sixteen-year-old Sherena Young doesn’t go to church just because her parents want her to or to see friends. She attends regularly because she loves what she gets from her church.p. Young, who just finished her junior year at Immaculate Heart High School and attends Holy Name of Jesus Church in Los Angeles, said she wasn’t always an avid churchgoer until the parish’s youth programs caught her interest.p. “My spirituality has grown because of the youth ministry,” she said. “I feel closer to God and feel welcomed in church.”p. Holy Name of Jesus Church is one of the few historically African-American Catholic parishes in Los Angeles with an African-American pastor, Jesuit Father Gregory Chisholm. The parish incorporates African-American culture and history into the liturgies and maintains a large and active membership.p. Sharon Johnson, coordinator of the church’s youth ministry program, said that “a lot of the ritual of Catholicism is African, borrowed from the first culture and it is evident in Catholic Mass.” She strives to bring these roots alive to the young people in her program.p. “Teens and young adults are searching, trying to figure out who they are,” she said. “If they are feeling that what’s important to them deep down is not getting addressed, they are going to leave. The old African adage that ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is true.”p. Sixteen-year-old Johnny Nwagwu, who is active in the Holy Name of Jesus youth ministry, said he appreciates the fact that “all the priests in my church are black so I don’t have to go far for role models and cultural relevance.”p. Nwagwu, who will be a senior next year at Loyola High School, noted that having someone in a position of power in the church who “looks like you” helps young people to relate and creates a connection that isn’t there in other churches.p. “When our priest talks, you want to listen,” he said. “When I go to college, I will look for a church that welcomes me and involves my culture. Culture and religion have to be almost one. When culture is involved, it makes you feel close to God.”

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