BIRMINGHAM, Ala. | It wasn't a towering basilica. The windows were simple. The sanctuary had a simple altar of white brick, a few wooden candlesticks. The people, though, were undoubtedly Christ for us, and in a way you won't find in a mega parish or tourist church.
As we rolled in to Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, one of Birmingham's historic African American parishes, many of the neighboring homes were abandoned. James Watts, the diocesan director of Black Catholic Ministries, told us the area was an industrial area surrounded by railroad tracks. The area had gotten much smaller over the years due to suburban exodus, but Sacred Heart was still a warm and vibrant community.
"The African American community represents a unique spirituality and a liturgical style, and to lose it would be to lose a great part of the patrimony of the Catholic Church," Fr. Richard Donohoe, pastor of Sacred Heart and Our Lady Queen of the Universe parishes, told us after a most uplifting celebration. "I am absolutely dedicated to the preservation of this heritage because it represents a unique aspect of the great diversity of the Catholic Church."
Fr. Richard, who began his ministry at the two parishes a year ago, after completing his Doctorate of Sacred Theology in Rome, noted two distinct characteristics of the African American Catholic worship experience. First, the importance of active participation, namely in music and prayer - especially extemporaneous prayer.
"The other part is the African American community comes from great, great adversity and we are in the center of that here in Birmingham," he said. "This is where the Freedom Walk occurred. My other parish, they dismantled a bomb that was to go off during services."
Fr. Richard said humanity can never forget that the African American community had to deal with Jim Crow laws and their history of being brought to this country in shackles and how that shapes who they are. Yet, from that past has flowered a great sense of joy.
We felt that after Mass, when parishioners treated us like family at their monthly fellowship breakfast, and again at Our Lady of Fatima, another historic African American parish.
Celebrating 110 years, the community had a most joyous celebration, with their large gospel-style choir. One thing that was evident in both parishes was that no one is a stranger. Guests were acknowledged, welcomed and treated like family. The spirit of hospitality was one that likely will remain with us, and God willing, shape how we build community in the coming years.
Lord, let this little light shine! Amen.