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Black Catholics open national conference

African drummers stirred participants to dance in the aisles; a gospel choir sang spirituals with hand clapping and hallelujahs; and members of the crowd echoed speakers on the dais with "amens" and "praise Gods."

The 10th National Black Catholic Congress opened Thursday in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center with Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago officially convening the event and announcing that the conference had become the "primordial assembly of our community."

About 2,500 Catholics from across the country are taking part in the conference, to run through Sunday morning.

The assemblies began in 1889 in Washington, D.C., making black Catholics the first in the country to hold a national conference of lay people.

But after annual assemblies in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore through 1894, the congress disappeared until 1987, when it was revived again in Washington, D.C.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Diocese of Buffalo joined Perry and Bishop John H. Ricard of the Diocese of Pensacola in Florida in welcoming participants.

Ricard reminded people of the role Western New York played in aiding African-Americans during slavery, as well as in later civil rights struggles.

"Here in Buffalo was the terminus of the Underground Railroad. Here in Buffalo, the Niagara Movement began, which gave birth to the NAACP," he said. "You can find in this place the spirit of Harriet Tubman and the spirit of W.E.B. DuBois."

The gathering will focus on the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church -- baptism, reconciliation, Communion, confirmation, holy matrimony, holy orders and anointing of the sick.

The Rev. Raymond Harris, a black priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, recalled how his grandparents were required to sit in the back of Catholic churches and receive Communion only after the white Catholics had finished. But they endured in the faith because of the sacraments, he said.

By receiving the sacraments, Catholics can address eight principles spelled out at the ninth congress held five years ago in Chicago, Harris said.

At that time, attendees agreed that black Catholics should make a priority of spirituality, parish life, youth and young adults, Catholic education, social justice, confronting racism, and African issues and the spread of HIV and AIDS.

In most American dioceses, black Catholics are a double minority -- vastly underrepresented in Catholic churches and just a tiny portion of an African-American community that gravitates in much larger numbers to Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and other Protestant denominations.

Several assembly participants said they simply looked forward to worship and fellowship with such a large group of black Catholics.

"It strengthens you. It's a feeling I can't exactly explain but I get chills thinking about it," said Timothy Cox of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who traveled with his wife, Virginia, and a group of about 70 Catholics from the Archdiocese of Miami.

The 1987 congress changed Brenda Easley Webb's life. Empowered and angered by what she had learned at the conference, she left her job with the Erie County library system and went to work with the Buffalo diocese as the head of its Office of Black Ministry, a post she still holds today.

"We came back on fire," she said of the attendees of that 1987 assembly. "We . . . came back to show ourselves, that it's OK to be black and Catholic."


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