Lee Lindsey stands outside the small white church on the corner of Marshall and West 17th in Little Rock, squinting into the early morning sun. Behind him stands St. Bartholomew Church, built in 1909 — the parish he has attended all 75 years of his life.
“Other than God and my family, St. Bartholomew is my priority.”
Across the street from him is an empty lot, the foundation where several buildings used by St. Bartholomew School once sat until the high school was closed in 1964, followed by the elementary school in 1974.
“As far as being Black, we make up less than 12% of the population … you’re a minority in the state and then being a Catholic makes you a small part of the minority … so sometimes it’s difficult … especially with the closing of our schools, which was a big draw at one time in the Black community,” Lindsey said. “During the integration crisis in ‘56 and ‘57 when they closed the public schools down, St. Bartholomew had a big influx of students from all across the city, because that was their only place to go. It really served the community in that aspect.”
Lindsey was the first Black graduate from Catholic High School in Little Rock in 1966 as parochial schools integrated.
“As a result of closing (St. Bartholomew School down), the draw for Blacks in that community and as a whole went down, and that was the big outreach to us — the schools in Little Rock,” Lindsey said. “I think that has really caused a problem in recruiting. I think it’s because a majority of young people have a tendency to stray away from the Church. … I really think that Catholicism needs to reach out to young people in the community and get them involved in church.”
Sheena Jones, a parishioner at St. Augustine Church in North Little Rock, wants to see the Church more involved in her community, too.
“(Parishioners at St. Augustine) have tried to go out after church; we’ll go knock on doors and hand out gift cards and things to the community,” Jones said. “But there’s not a lot of youth over there, and there’s not a lot of people that still live in that community.”
Jones sent her own son to a parochial school for three years before withdrawing him.
“This is his first year back in public school. … He was the only Black kid in his class (in parochial school), he and one other little girl,” Jones said. “If it was more welcoming, maybe with outreach into the community and people coming to that congregation and the kids knowing about that school … It was a good school, it was just him not being around anybody like himself.”
Michaela Howard, a parishioner of St. Peter Church in Pine Bluff, is also active in her church community. Howard is president of the parish pastoral council, a lector, a member of the choir, a Eucharistic minister and one of the liturgical dancers. Howard, like Jones, has concerns about the youth and younger families.
“The years where I grew up, we had a large amount of families in our church, and there were a lot of children in our church as opposed to right now,” Howard said. “And the pandemic also had something to do with it, but we don’t have as many families with small children being raised in the Church anymore because either they have gone to another denomination or they have just stopped going to church altogether.”
Jones is worried as a young Black Catholic about whether or not she will be able to find a Catholic spouse among the dwindling number of young Black Catholics.
“From a female perspective, just growing up, you’re taught that when you get married, you’ll go where your husband goes. And there are no young adult Catholic men at my church for me to even consider marrying,” Jones said. “If you want to get married and go off with your family, you’ll end up going to another church because he’s more than likely going to be Baptist or another religion.”
Black Catholics across the state have taken it upon themselves to weave culture into their Catholic faith and to create organizations to raise awareness of the Black Catholic community, such as the Diocesan Council for Black Catholics.
“One of the things that we have done is the incorporation of old spiritual music, and it’s made it easier for outsiders to come and share,” Lindsey said.
“As far back as I can remember, the culture has been woven into the community at St. Peter’s,” Howard said. “We have a gospel choir … the art in our church is representative of the congregation as a whole.”
Jones says if music is not as vibrant at smaller Black Catholic churches, it can be hard to “feel fed.”
“When you go to church on Sunday, it’s not all about singing or anything like that, but sometimes that just helps you get through the week, through something you’re going through, and you’re just not able to get that all the time at a Black Catholic church.”
Father Warren Harvey, the first Black priest ordained in the Diocese of Little Rock and the bishop’s liaison to the Diocesan Council for Black Catholics, said one of the biggest challenges facing the Black Catholic community is retention and, in turn, outreach.
“Keeping our Black Catholics in the Church, especially our young people … They didn’t leave the Church, they just quit going, quit being active,” Father Harvey said. “You reach out to them at times when they’re vulnerable, especially in sickness and death, you can reach out and show that you care. Show them compassion. … As Catholics, what is it that we’re missing out on that we can’t have church overflowing on Sunday?”
As Black Catholics across the state hope to find a more vibrant and welcoming home in the Church, Howard said Black Catholics have to be willing to “be the catalyst to make the change.”
“The way I feel about my church, it has always been a constant rock in my life,” Howard said. “I believe in giving back to my church. However, I know everyone doesn’t feel the same way I do. You have a lot of people that leave because they're not seeing the things that they want to see in the Church. Be the catalyst; be the one to say, ‘Hey, we're not doing this. Why don't we start doing this?’
“If you look and take some things into consideration, what has your Church been for you? What has it done for you? And if you can say good things about it, then be that for someone else in the Church when the time comes.
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