Monday, June 6, 2016

A Mission for Justice

In a time of civil unrest and racial tensions it is most refreshing to read a book which documents the triumph of faith over hatred and prejudice. Mary A. Ward's A Mission for Justice tells of the first African-American Catholic parish in Newark, New Jersey, called Queen of Angels. Throughout the 1920's and 30's African-American families were leaving the Deep South and migrating north in search of jobs in the cities. Many found themselves living in poverty in slums and without the community networks they had originally had. Many Christian sects stepped in to fill the gap, especially the Baptists and the African Methodist Episcopal church, which gave economic as well as moral and spiritual support to the black community. However, African-American Catholics had no place to worship, unless they became Protestant, which they chose not to do. There were Catholic churches but they were in different neighborhoods and often  blacks were marginalized in parish life. A small group of intrepid African-American women used their scant resources and boundless trust in God to plant the seeds of a Catholic parish in the inner city. They began by meeting in each others' homes and renting store fronts, where they began thrift shops, sodalities, catechism classes, and nursery schools. The ladies who did such work shine forth as truly great members of the Catholic Church in America, and I am grateful to Dr. Ward for keeping their memory alive. They insisted upon their children being respectful and well-behaved. A nun named Sr. Peter Claver helped them as did a series of priests who embraced the sacrifices that a poor parish entailed. Sadly, over the decades, Queen of Angels was often overlooked by the local diocese.

The parish thrived in the forties and fifties, providing a vibrant social life for the local black community as well as actively caring for the poor, all of which surrounded the powerhouse of prayer, devotions and the sacraments which was Queen of Angels. In the sixties, church members participated in the Civil Rights movement; in fact all the African-American churches helped to organize rallies, marches and protests. It is heartbreaking to read how in the seventies the neighborhood sank into misery as crime became more and more of a problem; parish membership declined although the beautiful church of Queen of Angels stayed open for a few more decades. It is now closed.

For an inside look at contemporary African-American history, I highly recommend A Mission for Justice. Dr. Ward's meticulously researched and documented work is a fascinating read which challenges the smug assumptions of both the left and the right.


1 comment:

julygirl said...

Wow! Interesting to know about this and the book chronicling it as well. Thanks