Erika RasmussenFebruary 24, 2021
In this 2012 file photo, choir members sing during the annual Black History Month Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The Mass, sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York’s Office of Black Ministry, also was celebrated in observance of the National Day of Prayer for the African American and African Family. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

After growing up Baptist, Nate Tinner-Williams became a Roman Catholic in December 2019. Now, after a move to New Orleans, he is planning to enter into formation with the Josephites, an order of brothers and priests who have ministered specifically to the African-American community since 1893. In the meantime, he has devoted himself to developing Black Catholic Messenger, an online publication he co-founded in October 2020.

I spoke with Mr. Tinner Williams about his faith, the Black Catholic Church in the United States and the hope of reviving a proposal for a uniquely African-American way of celebrating the Mass, in light of Pope Francis’ recent calls to inculturate the liturgy. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

I found out about Black Catholicism, started to attend a Black Catholic church. It was kind of a wrap from there.

I would love to hear about your path in Catholicism. What has been your journey of faith?

Having gone my whole life as a Protestant, I became increasingly anti-Catholic. I grew up in churches that didn’t talk a whole lot about academic theology, so all I really knew about Catholics was that they had statues—which was bad. I actually got into theology as an academic discipline, and I learned about the history of the church.

Nate Tinner-Williams with his parish priest
Nate Tinner-Williams with the priest who confirmed him, the Rev. Ken Westray, at St. Vincent de Paul in San Francisco

I was kind of fed up with Protestantism because most of the institutional church, Catholic and otherwise, can be challenging when you see how it really works from the inside. Eventually, I decided to try out something else. I had never really asked questions about the ancient churches like Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I never asked the people who are actually participating in them, like a Catholic or a priest. I finally started asking those questions to an Eastern Orthodox priest, and he answered them well. I started to think, you know, maybe there is more to Christianity than Protestantism. I was on the verge of becoming Orthodox, then I decided to investigate Catholicism. I found out about Black Catholicism, started to attend a Black Catholic church. It was kind of a wrap from there.

What did you discover in that Black Catholic community, and how did that draw you into Catholicism?

In 2019, I found a book by Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. called the History of Black Catholics in the United States. I quickly figured out that I had missed out on this whole chunk of history, which actually dates back to 1528 when the first African Catholic slaves entered into the lands that would become the United States. (My man, Esteban!)

As I learned more about that history, I was like, “What’s going on today in the 21st century?” and I discovered that there are three million Black Catholics in the United States and that not all Catholic churches sing this old European music and are full of white people. There was a parish in San Francisco—multiple, actually—that sang the same music I grew up on in my Black Baptist church. That blew my mind.

My mom was adopted as an infant. She never really knew her parents; that whole part of her family was Catholic, but she didn’t know about it. When I decided I was going to become Catholic, I reached out to one of her long-lost cousins. She was like: “Your grandparents were Catholic, your great-grandparents were Catholic.” This is all while I’m discovering that Black Catholics have parishes and they sing gospel music and their homilies sound like a sermon in a Black Baptist church often. Learning that there were shared traditions was groundbreaking to me. Theologically, I was like, “I can become Catholic.” But when I realized I could, culturally, also become Catholic without losing anything—Wow. That was what sealed the deal.

There was a parish in San Francisco—multiple, actually—that sang the same music I grew up on in my Black Baptist church. That blew my mind.

That connects well to the conversation you’ve been participating in about an African-American rite. On the first Sunday of Advent, Pope Francis said that the Zaire rite offers a model for liturgical inculturation that other cultures can learn from. Should there be a uniquely African-American rite?

I think there should be because of what I just mentioned about those shared cultural traditions within the Black community, that shared experience as African-Americans of being this people removed from their own land. We are one of the few groups in America that are not immigrants, but we’re also not from the British roots of the United States. We live in this diaspora community that doesn’t even know where it is from, specifically. We have that as our unifying factor. And that justifies a space within the Catholic liturgical system, which I think would be beneficial in a lot of ways—bringing people back to the church.

What do you hope people understand about the idea of an African-American rite?

That it has nothing to do with segregation. Recognizing and even creating Black institutions, in America especially, is not segregation. Segregation was when white people were excluding Black people. Black people creating things for themselves is not segregation.

How do you understand the role and power of inculturation in the Catholic Church? What is the significance of cultural rites?

It shows that the church is truly Catholic, in the sense of being universal, which is evident throughout history. The diversity of the church is expressed when it says, “We recognize your culture and your culture in fact should be a part of your Catholicism, right down to the way you sing your songs, preach your homilies and overall celebrate and worship Jesus.” There are precedents for it because, as Catholics should know, there are 23 Eastern Catholic churches that do exactly that and that have done so for centuries or even millennia. For that process to continue to occur—there’s nothing “un-Catholic” about that.

It seems that the church, especially in America, is still trying to figure out where they’re going to let Black Catholics fit in.

Why is an African-American rite so important?

We are in some ways a nation within a nation. We’re not completely at home, in my opinion, within America; we were more or less excluded from it for over 500 years, now. So we’re still in that process of trying to figure out: Where do we fit in? And it seems that the church, especially in America, is still trying to figure out where they’re going to let us fit in.

Tell me about the history of the discourse on establishing an African-American rite. How long has this conversation been happening?

I would say it goes back to the Plenary Councils of Baltimore, back in the mid-1800s. They discussed a Black vicariate, where Black people would have their own bishop to handle their concerns. Ultimately, we did not get a vicariate. We kind of were stuck in the mud for 150 years after those councils.

In the late 1960s, Black Catholics started to experiment more with the liturgy. This was also during the Black Power movement when African-Americans were beginning to say the things about us that make us unique are important and that we should champion them. Black Catholics started to create their own gospel music and their own gospel renditions of Catholic music. You had a whole thing that we now call the gospel Mass, where most of our Catholic parishes sound and look like a Black Baptist or Protestant church.

By the 1990s you had discussion happening about a rite. The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus—which was started in 1968 and helped to spark what is called the Black Catholic movement—opened an African-American Catholic Rite Committee, A.A.C.R.C. The whole point of it was to study whether or not a rite was needed and desired within the Black Catholic community. (There’s a book that covers that, Let It Shine, by Mary McGann, R.S.C.J.)

The national survey ended up showing in one way or another that Black Catholics didn’t actually want an independent rite. This was between 1993 and 1995. There’s debate about whether or not the respondents really understood; that maybe they thought an independent rite would mean they’re not part of the Catholic Church anymore. But in the end, A.A.C.R.C. was disbanded. To my knowledge, there has not been any sustained conversation about an African-American rite since then.

We were one of the few groups to really have that conversation notably, like in a way that was written about in books. The New York Times covered it; The Washington Post. And so the fact that the pope now is speaking about it, and we haven’t for so long, is very significant.

The statistics say that only a quarter of Black Catholics worship in predominantly Black parishes

How did you come to feel so passionately about this idea of a rite?

During the 1970s, there was the great exodus out of the Catholic Church by Black people. Black people didn’t feel wanted in the church, it was only just after desegregation started and that was a process that had to happen in the Catholic Church as well, because their churches and schools had been “racistly” separated. So a lot of people left the church.

Nate Tinner-Williams with his confirmation group
Nate Tinner-Williams with his Confirmation group and friends

A lot of people are still leaving the church: Black schools and Black churches are closing. It would be a powerful witness to Black people for them to have an African-American rite. It would show they do have a home in the church.

The statistics say that only a quarter of Black Catholics worship in predominantly Black parishes. (Editor's note: A new Pew survey reveals this statistic has lowered from 25% to 17%.) I think if we had a rite, it would be an impetus for an increase in [Black] parishes, which I think would mean an increase in the portion of Black Catholics that worship in them.

What do you envision for an African-American rite? What might be included in this rite?

Well, it would certainly have a hell of a lot of gospel music. It might even involve changing some of the propers of the Mass, like the “Hallelujah” and the Kyrie, changing those to a gospel song themselves (which many Black parishes do now). It will probably involve some dancing. The Zaire rite itself switches the sign of peace and moves it earlier in the Mass, to before the consecration of the gifts.

I’ve been in some Black parishes here in the U.S. that adopt some of those changes in the Mass, so they’re doing a kind of fusion between the gospel Mass and Zaire use. I imagine those changes might be integrated into an African-American rite. Beyond that, I don’t know that I have any particular theories about what a Black Catholic rite would like, but I do know the music would be different, for sure, and the vestments would be particularly Afro-centric—which again, many Black Catholic priests use now, but in an unofficial capacity, I guess.

The Black Catholic rite would personally mean a new chapter, a new era for Black Catholics in America, especially from a clerical perspective. Priests would have to learn about how to celebrate that rite

What would the African-American rite mean to you specifically in your experience as such a new Black Catholic convert?

I got in right on time, I’m planning to study to become a priest. [Editor’s note: After the interview, Mr. Tinner Williams informed America that he has now been accepted to enter formation with the Josephites and begin his training for the priesthood.]

The Black Catholic rite would personally mean a new chapter, a new era for Black Catholics in America, especially from a clerical perspective. Priests would have to learn about how to celebrate that rite. It would become part of the education of becoming a Black Catholic priest, who is going to work with Black Catholic people and Black Catholic parishes; it would change a lot of things for me. We will probably have seminaries dedicated to priests who are going to serve in those parishes. That’s one thing Black Catholics have never had really: a seminary of their own.

It would open the floodgates to all those kinds of institutions and structures within the church that we’ve kind of been asking for—or needed—for 200 years. The church has kind of just slammed the door in our face, especially the church in the U.S, so having a rite would fling some of those doors open.

Correction: Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. authored The History of Black Catholics in the United States, not Sabrina Davis, as previously stated. A previous version also noted that Mr. Tinner-Williams was accepted into the "seminary" of the Josephites, which is more accurately called "formation." 

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