Year for Priests: A reflection on black spirituality

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

As a result of the current Synod of Bishops for Africa in Rome, there is a renewed interest in the African church.  While many Americans feel, at best, a distant connection to this culture, I have spent several years immersed in the African-American community and believe much can be learned from their expression of faith and spirituality.

Prior to my association with the Basilians, I taught in a high school that was predominantly black (comprised of slave descendants, Africans, Haitians and some South Americans).  Eventually, I also found myself worshiping in this community and sought to learn about its spirituality.  As an extrovert who often felt out of sync with the more subdued liturgies to which I was accustomed, I embarked on a quest to find an expression of faith that would fulfill and challenge me.  I found all that I was looking for and more in the black Catholic Church.

In the U.S. bishops’ document, What We Have Seen and Heard, black spirituality is defined as joyful, holistic, communal and contemplative — each one representing a “pillar” of this expression.  Each is combined with a rich expression of song, a deep-rooted love for the Word of God, and a sense of urgency to evangelize.  Underneath all of this lies a deep sense of the paschal mystery.  I found that black spirituality is seemingly synonymous with suffering and the ability to overcome it.

One of my spiritual guides taught me that black spirituality is an expression more than a thought.  It is a song before a letter.  It is a movement before a stillness.  Black spirituality, as I understand it thus far, is neither accepting nor rejecting — it is simply being.

Of course, I do not believe these traits are exclusive to one spirituality or another, but I do believe uniqueness is often created by emphasis.  People are longing to hear a joyful noise again, to express their thankfulness to their Creator with their whole being. They long for a community which accepts — rather than judges — them where they are, and they long to find an authentic understanding and meaning to our suffering.  While I am not naive enough to believe these ideals can always be found in any one place, I do believe that the expression of faith found in the black Catholic Church fills many of the voids we desperately long to have filled.

In the end, I believe our greatest contributions come from neither black nor white, but from the gray — our ability to share and accept these gifts from each other.  During my experience in African-American communities, I met many who were skeptical of me because of the harm they experienced from people imposing one expression of faith on another.  As a result, gifts are kept hidden and conversations remain mute.  People are afraid of losing all that they have gained or what new ideas may be found, but I see so much hope and joy in the area between African and European.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

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