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Opinion: Black Catholic faces in high places

In the wake of a right-wing terrorist attack on the capitol, Nate Tinner-Williams critiques Black Catholic voices willing to justify and defend extremism.

It’s not just the White people.

Much ink has been spilled following the terrorist attack perpetrated by Trump supporters Wednesday at the capitol building, and that is very much a good thing. The people were warned all summer that this was going to happen, aided in various ways by the ultra-conservative (and White) wing of the Catholic Church, but the calls were not heeded. That simply is what it is.

But I myself am compelled to see another angle, one not independent of the White superstructure that guides America’s politics and pews, but that is also its own problem within the problem. In much the same way that violent White insurrection and racism are not at all new or alien to the American story, neither is the tale of Black faces employed to assist it.

I’m sure many of you know of Candace Owens, Larry Elder, Diamond and Silk, and the HodgeTwins, but have you heard of Christopher Major, Vickie Figueroa, and David L. Gray?

Major is the new director of Black Catholic ministry for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, replacing the late (and great) Fr Kenneth Westray.

Figueroa is the director of Black Catholic ministry in Detroit, the one-time seat of notable local liturgist Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow.

Gray is the newest radio host at Guadalupe Radio Network, functionally replacing Gloria Purvis.

Major, who is soon to be ordained a deacon, publicly commented in support of Biden being excommunicated—anonymously, of course, on a Facebook account more or less representing the archdiocese.

To be honest, had it come from Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone himself, I wouldn’t have blinked. But from the man supposed to represent SF’s Black Catholics specifically? I was horrified, but then again—Cordileone appointed him.

I wrote the archbishop concerning this, and as of 3 days ago, his secretary will be getting back with me “soon”. But since there was an anti-Biden terrorist attack on Wednesday, I figured it’s time to speak.

I would later discover that Major has also been promoting to his Black constituents one of the websites run by David L. Gray, another Black Catholic with extreme views who has been rewarded for it by like-minded White leaders.

A few days ago, Figueroa responded to my BCM story on David by praising “diversity within our Black family”, calling him “an interesting listen” and someone who “shows you can be theologically heady and respect the culture too.”

She also argued he’s merely “traditional theologically”—which is what she “like[s] about him”.

I then reiterated that he claims anyone who says “Black Lives Matter” is excommunicated, that he endorses Fr James Altman, and that he supports the #StopTheSteal movement (which of course would spawn Wednesday's violence and deaths).

Her response: he’s “provocative”, “different”, and “doesn’t back down”.

She later drew an equivalence between David and I (as people who post “difficult” things), and implied I should avoid “shutting down ideas”. (Which, of course, the bishops have rightly done to Altman, Altier, Voris, Rothrock, and others over the past year for statements nearly identical to Gray’s—who hosted Altman on his podcast twice last year and supported him openly.)

I asked her archdiocese for their thoughts as well, but they merely noted that she doesn’t speak for them or her archbishop—apparently even when commenting in a group representing her ministry—and that they train their employees to “build engaging communities without stating their personal opinions.”

One wonders how engaging a community can truly be if problematic figures can so easily attain and retain leadership positions.

Cary Dabney, Black Catholic ministry director for the Cleveland diocese, also commented on the story, admitting that he and David are worlds apart—but still positing that David is “a good guy” and “just has a very unique theological perspective on race and the Church”.

Unique, yes—in that it is openly racist and schismatic.

Thus, I am (somewhat) perplexed that the very leaders of Black Catholic ministry in several major cities can hardly fix their lips to say that extremist Far-Right rhetoric and grandstanding is sinful. Moreover, who knows how many more there are than these three? (In fact: let me know.)

If we can speak out when White leaders encourage sin among their thousands of followers, why not Black Catholics? I am a conservative myself (in that I affirm the entire Catechism), but extremism is a different matter entirely—regardless of one’s color.

So, while I am of course not pleased with the way many White Catholics dishonor Christ by justifying, enabling, and often applauding sin, I am likewise ashamed of Black Catholics who do the same—especially when from positions of power given them by White leaders.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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