The music of the Black Catholic Church is a rich tapestry of joy, suffering and hope.
Lead me, guide me, along the way. For if you lead me, I cannot stray.
Lord, let me walk each day with thee. Lead me, oh Lord, lead me.
With its echoes of Psalm 23, the hymn “Lead Me, Guide Me” reflects a God-haunted consciousness and confidence at the heart of African-American spirituality.
The hymn, written in 1953 by Doris M. Akers—known as “Miss Gospel Music” during her lifetime—would become a beloved classic in the gospel tradition. Elvis Presley’s 1971 recording of the song would introduce it to a much wider, and whiter, American audience. Like the hymn for which it is named, Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal, first published in 1987, is a testimony to the depth and breadth of Black Catholic spirituality rising from the slave songs and spirituals to the birth of gospel music in the 20th century and the liturgical music of pioneering composers like Richard Allen, James Weldon Johnson, Thomas Dorsey, Grayson Brown, Leon Roberts, Clara Mae Ward and Father Clarence Joseph Rivers.
That Ms. Akers and a great many of the composers included in Lead Me, Guide Me were not themselves Catholic suggests a spiritual wisdom that Black Catholics have understood better than most. The catholicity to which the church aspires—a universality rooted in God’s presence in the whole of creation—extends far beyond the visible bounds of Roman Catholicism. Indeed, the ecumenical content and spirit of the hymnal is one of its most remarkable achievements. The hymnal celebrates the faith journey of a people—of diverse peoples of African descent—whose presence in the church has not always been welcomed.
Whenever my family found itself looking for a new church to call home, I always checked to see whether Lead Me, Guide Me was the hymnal of choice. If not, we would keep looking.
As a white cradle Catholic growing up in the south, and as a teenager who spent many Sunday mornings playing piano at Mass, I knew nothing about the song or most of the music contained in the hymnal’s pages until years later when I moved to Denver, joined a predominantly Black Catholic church and began playing the piano for its youth choir. In subsequent moves to Indiana and Ohio, before returning to Denver, whenever my family found itself looking for a new church to call home, I always checked to see whether Lead Me, Guide Me was the hymnal of choice. If not, we would keep looking. Other hymnals have excellent liturgical music; but the history and spirituality expressed in this particular body of music have become a second home for me, a spiritual home away from home. Without it, something in me begins to wither on the vine.
Singing the Soul of the Community
Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A., in her preface to the 1987 edition of Lead Me, Guide Me, gives voice to the God-haunted pathos of African-American faith and spirituality. “Black sacred song,” she writes, “celebrates our God, His goodness, His promise, our faith and hope, our journey toward the promise.” The dynamism in these words conveys the same energy that pulses in the Exodus narrative of the Hebrew people, journeying from slavery through the desert, flanked by enemies on every side. It is the consolation of walking with Jesus and of Jesus walking with us as we try to love a little better today than we did yesterday. It is the conviction that God’s goodness and God’s promises still resound in the yearnings of the people for freedom and in the cry of the prophets, past and present, “Let my people go!”
“Black sacred song,” Sister Thea writes, “carries melodies and tonalities, rhythms and harmonies; metaphors, symbols and stories of faith that speak to our hearts; words, phrases and images that touch and move us.” In hymns like “Lead Me, Guide Me,” for example, the first-person pronoun, the “I” and the “me,” she notes, is communal. “The individual sings the soul of the community.” Black sacred song “is designed to move. It moves because depth of feeling gives it ‘spiritual power.’” It is, in a very real sense,“the song of the people.”
Black sacred song is designed to move. It moves because depth of feeling gives it spiritual power. It is, in a very real sense, ‘the song of the people.’
“African people are diunital people,” observes Sister Thea, “seeking richness of meaning in apparent contradiction. They are comfortable with bringing together realities which may appear contradictory or in opposition: for example, body/spirit, sacred/secular, individual/community. They reach toward unification or synthesis of opposites. God is like father and mother. God is like fire and balm.” And again, “African Americans for 400 years have used symbol and song to express a faith and yearning too high, too low, too wide, too deep for words, too passionate to be confined by concepts.”
This heightened sensitivity for the ineffable—at once mystical and prophetic, contemplative and mystagogical—is the very heart of a spiritual tradition tested by fire. To borrow from the Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton, the call-and-response rhythm of Black Catholic worship mediates “a communion with one another in God” that is “beyond words, it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.”
A Tapestry of Uncommon Courage and Faithfulness
Picture in your mind’s eye a vast quilt: a mosaic patchwork of images, portraits and tales of tragedy and heroism; a living record of a people journeying through history. Like the cloak of the young Joseph in the Hebrew Bible, the quilt of Black Catholic experience in the United States is woven of many colors, cultures, nations of origin and worship styles—a history irreducible to any single figure or univocal storyline.
Woven there, we find names of renown and courageous spiritual vision: women like the Venerable Henriette Delille, S.S.F., Servants of God Mother Mary Lange, O.S.P., and Sister Thea; men like lay Catholic journalist Daniel Rudd, the Rev. Augustus Tolton and Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. And in our time, people like Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, theologians like the Rev. Bryan Massingale and M. Shawn Copeland, and the electrifying Amanda Gorman, a young Black Catholic and the first person ever to be named National Youth Poet Laureate. And, of course, there are numberless more hidden witnesses to faith woven into the Black Catholic tapestry, names and stories scarcely known or likely to ever be lifted up publicly by the church.
The quilt of Black Catholic experience in the United States is a history irreducible to any single figure or univocal storyline.
In the tapestry of my own Catholic imagination, you’ll find Joyce Coleman, a parishioner of St. Agnes Catholic Church (now Church of the Resurrection) in Cincinnati. Her story offers a remarkable glimpse of the Black Catholic experience in the United States—a story both joyful and traumatic, a fabric both unified and torn:
My parents had me baptized Catholic as an infant in Selma, Ala. My father was tragically killed in 1944, leaving my mother with my infant brother and myself.
From the time that I was a small child, I was taught that I am loved with an everlasting love. As a matter of fact, I was brainwashed with love in Catholic schools. The Sisters of St. Joseph taught me that nobody is better than I am. God sees all of us and loves all of us. There is no need to ever be ashamed of who you are, because God does not make mistakes.
Jim Crowe (sic.) had no conscious effect on me in Selma, although he lived all over the place. He would spread his wings and he was mean. There were Colored water fountains, bathrooms, entrances, and schools. Consequently, my mother taught me to take care of everything I needed before leaving home. I was conditioned to avoid humiliating circumstances and to this day, I seldom use public facilities. I built defenses to protect myself....
In the South, I knew my place, so to speak. The facilities and “whatnot” were separate, but it wasn’t until I got to Indiana [to attend Catholic high school] that I realized that I lived in a separate society. I was in for the shock of my life.
There were only 4 or 5 black children in my freshman class and Father Muldane, the parish priest, treated us like we were dumb… ignorant. I was crushed!
Coming up, my family didn’t have the finances for extra activities, so I read. Reading was my escape. I loved Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe so much that I could quote the verses and soliloquies.
Joyce Coleman: Father Muldane was “Jim Crowe” (sic) to me. He told me that I was ignorant and called me a n-----. It didn’t mean anything to him that I had graduated first in my class in Selma.
I can still hear Father Muldane telling me, “Negroes don’t understand Shakespeare.” I couldn’t believe him! Well, I did understand Shakespeare, Poe, Dickinson and anybody else. I thought, “Do I have to put up with this?”
Father Muldane was “Jim Crowe” (sic) to me. He told me that I was ignorant and called me a n-----. It didn’t mean anything to him that I had graduated first in my class in Selma. Consequently, I put in 150 percent effort to excel in school … I got on his last nerve. He wouldn’t call on me, and when I earned good grades he accused me of cheating. He gave me a “D” in English. I stayed after class to speak with him. When I told him, “God don’t like ugly and He’s gonna get you,” he gave me a detention....
See, the education that I received in elementary school was more than book learning. I knew that I was a child of God and it was difficult for Father Muldane or anybody else to break my spirit....
Yes, there have been times in my life when I wanted to give up, just quit. [But] through it all, I have learned to trust in Jesus....
My life has purpose, and I know that the Lord will get me through.
I have never ceased to wonder at Joyce Coleman’s story. Whence comes the inner strength and spirit that empowered her as an adolescent to look square in the eyes of Father Muldane, an authority figure in her Catholic world, and tell him that “God don’t like ugly”?
Her strength, as the text intimates, came in part from her mother’s care and hard-earned wisdom about navigating the world in a Black female body; and from her tutelage under the Sisters of St. Joseph, who taught her “more than book learning” and helped to form in her a sense of self-worth that would “inoculate” her from the virulent racism she would later encounter in the North, not least from priests and nuns. The same Catholic Church; two starkly contrasting realities.
How does one “put up with” the inner contradictions that dwell side by side in one’s own faith community, much less find the spirit and strength to do so as a child?
Whence comes the inner strength and spirit that empowered her to look square in the eyes of Father Muldane and tell him that “God don’t like ugly”?
A Wisdom Forged by Fire
In Faith and Violence, a collection that includes several of his most prophetic essays on race during the 1960s, Thomas Merton writes about the spiritual wisdom that arises from suffering and social conflict, like the kind of suffering Jesus endured as he set his face toward Jerusalem. Merton’s words remind me of Joyce Coleman, and of countless Black Catholics who endured—indeed, endure—similarly painful experiences in their journey of faith:
The way of wisdom is no dream, no temptation and no evasion, for it is on the contrary a return to reality in its very root.... It does not withdraw from the fire. It is in the very heart of the fire, yet remains cool, because it has the gentleness and humility that come from self-abandonment, and hence does not seek to assert the illusion of the exterior self.
The young Joyce Coleman was able to “stay cool” and remain “in the heart of the fire” not because she chose simply to suck it up and take it, or still less because she avoided all confrontation; to the contrary, her strength and spirit of resistance came, wading in the deep waters of Black Catholic spirituality, from the fiercely internalized knowledge that she is a child of God, that her “life has purpose” and that “the Lord will get me through.”
The young Joyce Coleman was able to ‘stay cool’ and remain ‘in the heart of the fire’ because her strength came from the fiercely internalized knowledge that she is a child of God.
Chief among Merton’s models for the way of wisdom were Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. Were Merton to have known Joyce Coleman and the many other Black Catholics I have been blessed to know, I have no doubt he would have added them to his list of wise ones in the faith. The “gentleness and humility” that mark the spiritual wisdom of such persons comes not from passivity, self-humiliation or flight before the evils of the world; it comes from seizing and living from the deepest truth of our being—the law of love, the felt knowledge of being loved immeasurably as a child of God. To be “brainwashed with love” is to be formed in the power of a truth-force—what Gandhi called satyagraha—that no priest, politician or authority of the state can ever take away. To live with wisdom, says Merton, is to journey with Christ “not solving the contradiction, but remaining in the midst of it, in peace, knowing that it is fully solved, but that the solution is secret...until it is revealed. The wise heart lives in Christ.” Because Jesus walks beside us in “our journey toward the promise,” we can and we shall overcome every obstacle. Our God can make a way out of no way.
The witness of Black Catholics in the United States spreads out like a miraculous quilt, one still being woven today. It pulses in flesh and blood with a diunital spirituality that is able to embrace both the prophetic lament of a young Joyce Coleman—How long, O Lord, must we put up with this?—and the priestly joy of being embraced from within the community and the whole of creation, by love. I am loved with an everlasting love; and I know, too, that God sees all of us and loves all of us. Joyce Coleman sings the soul of a community whose faith has been tested by fire across generations, centuries, in this country. To sing such a faith is, for this white Catholic, to be filled with wonder and gratitude—beyond words, beyond speech, beyond concept.
Lord, let me walk each day with thee. Lead me, oh Lord, lead me.
This essay is adapted from The Fifteenth Annual Thomas Merton Black History Month Lecture, sponsored by The Merton Center at Bellarmine University, delivered virtually on Feb. 21, 2021.
Correction, March 19, 09:02 a.m.: An error during editing resulted in the incomplete naming of Ms. Coleman's parish. She attended "St. Agnes Catholic Church" and not "Agnes Catholic Church" as first appeared in the article. America regrets the error.
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