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Review: 'Fat Luther, Slim Pickin's' a must-read on Black Catholic culture, resilience, and faith

A new book from Ave Maria Press highlights the experiences of Black Catholics from the perspectives of two Black Catholics in the heart of the Midwest.

Marcia Lane-McGee (left) and Shannon Wimp Schmidt, authors of "Fat Luther, Slim Pickin's". (The Seminary Co-op)

Marcia Lane-McGee and Shannon Wimp Schmidt are two different women, but they have some very important things in common. They both host the podcast “Plaid Skirts and Basic Black”, for one. But that isn’t all. They are both Black women, both Catholic, and they also both authored the groundbreaking new book “Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s”, published by Ave Maria Press in March.

It was recently featured in Essence Magazine’s “New Books We Can’t Wait To Read” list, and to say that my soul needed to read this book is an understatement.

The two authors had a mission: to deliver an important and timely message to the Church and to America at large about Black culture, through the eyes of two devout Catholics. They succeed in educating without coming across as overly academic or preachy. Rather, the tone of the book was fun and enlightening. I felt like I was having a therapy session with two close friends about my experience as a Black Catholic.

I wish I had been blessed with this book when I converted to Catholicism in 2019. At the time of my conversion, not many Black Catholics had a platform to speak about their experiences. As a result, the feeling of isolation began to quickly set in. Those feelings were intensified not only by the loneliness of quarantining during the pandemic, but also by the voices of many online Catholics (and their organizations) who seemed eager to escalate anti-Black sentiments.

The murder of George Floyd, however, followed by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, brought on an initiative of Black Catholics receiving an opportunity to share their unique voices with the Church.

Shannon and Marcia’s voices are indeed unique. They are fun, stylish, and glamorous—yet superbly educational. Together, they answer the question that we as Black Catholics are asked all too often: “Why be Black and Catholic and not just Catholic?”

To be a Black Catholic is in one way about our race, but it’s also largely about our culture. It’s about our life experiences. “Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s” explores our culture through the liturgical calendar, including feast days, apparitions, encyclicals, holy days of obligation, and the lives of the saints. Each chapter is written from the different perspectives of both authors as they reflect on meaningful personal stories that were sometimes heartbreaking to read, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Though their life experiences growing up were different, they both meet together at the foot of the cross of Jesus and at the heart of the Catholic faith.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about the book was the explanation of and education on what Black culture actually is. Especially in the Church, Black culture tends to be misconstrued as gang-bangers and thugs and single baby mamas. Black people are often mischaracterized especially by prominent Catholic voices in the Church, who plant the misleading seeds of caricature to the laity in droves. The book, on the other hand, highlights what Black culture is at its core, and its beauty.

It talks about our food, our jokes, our movies, and—most importantly—our history as a community. It also addresses the cultural divide in Catholicism and reminds the reader that all cultural expressions of Catholicism are beautiful, including the Black Catholicism.

At one point, Shannon shares about reading an article that expressed resonation with a traditional European expression of the Mass. She is quickly disappointed when she finds that the author of the article fails to realize that other cultures have their own particular ways of celebrating the Mass, and in a way that is just as beautiful. The article referred to Africans and Asians as uncivilized and claimed that the European expression of the Mass is “superior”.

As she reads on to the comments section of the article, she discovers that an official from her own diocese not only agreed with the article but also liked a comment disparaging a culturally Black hymn out of ignorance. Shannon then asks the reader:

“How could I celebrate being Catholic when the institutional Church seemed so untrustworthy? How could I lean on God when I was afraid that if I were to lean on God’s people, they would let me fall? When the body of Christ wounds me, how am I supposed to see Christ present in their midst as I celebrate the Paschal Mystery?”

I imagine this has been the experience of almost every Black Catholic in America. This is how we feel when our bishops tell their congregations not to worry about racism, or slander Black Lives Matter protestors as violent criminals. This is how we feel when Catholic organizations turn a blind eye to systemic racism and tell their audience that it doesn’t exist.

This is why Shannon and Marcia’s book needs to be read especially by Catholics who need help understanding our culture. The book was made for such a time as this.

It brings forth a much-needed proposal to the American Church: prioritize diversity and emphasize the universal nature of the Church to bring about healing and justice in the US. Realize that the Black Catholic perspective is not only necessary, but also a gift to the Church—as Pope St John Paul II once said. Create room at the table for every people the way Christ intended. In this way, the Church’s wounds will heal, and so will its witness to the world.

I recommend this book to everyone, but it will be especially beneficial for converts to the Church (particularly Black converts), young Catholics in general who enjoy reading authors who are up with the times, and White people who want to better understand Black culture and how it relates to Catholicism.

For Catholics, the book reminds us to do better in our thoughts and actions in the realm of social justice and corporeal work of mercy, stating:

“Just as we do spiritual ‘curl care’ to nourish the graces of our baptism, we must also help others nurture and care for themselves as a body, mind, and spirit. Unity in diversity means that every person is valued for their inherent dignity and that their spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being is prioritized as part of the common good.”

If you are ready to allow two good friends to pull up a chair for you at their table and take you on their journeys of weeping and joy, then this book is for you. Not only is it encouraging to Black Catholics, reminding us that our sufferings from day to day in the Church are not in vain, but it also gives a prophetic message that the American Church can come together and heal.

“Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s” refreshes the spirit with brand new hope in an authentically Catholic way, and will make you laugh and cry while doing so.

Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s
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$17.95 (paperback), $13.49 (ebook)

Briana Jansky is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and host of the Geeks For Jesus podcast.

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