Black Catholics bear witness to a gentrified Oakland
San Pablo Avenue runs through four cities in San Francisco’s East Bay. As it courses through Oakland, pockets of urban struggle are revealed: prostitution, drug dealing, derelict buildings and broken-down cars rusting along its curbsides. But it also shows signs of change: the skeletons of condominium towers beginning to rise, dozens of new restaurants and bars, and gutted streets around downtown making way for tech companies being lured across the bay from San Francisco by the possibility of cheaper rents.
At the intersection of San Pablo and Alcatraz Avenues, drivers and pedestrians regularly slow down in front of St. Columba Catholic Church to examine a monument to Oakland’s continued grappling with violence and crime. White wooden crosses dot the church’s lawn; a sign reads, “These crosses represent those killed by homicide in Oakland this year.” Each cross is marked with the victim’s name, age and date of death.
In 2004, the Rev. Jayson Landeza, then the pastor at St. Columba, devised this symbolic response to Oakland’s high murder rate. Homicide surged along with gang violence and drug dealing in the 1980s and ’90s. Despite the increasing gentrification of the community, that violence continues to afflict Oakland. With a population of less than half a million people, Oakland has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the United States. Father Landeza saw St. Columba’s busy location as an opportunity to make a statement about the homicides, which touched many members of his congregation.
An average of more than 100 crosses crowd the patch of lawn by the end of each year, and on Dec. 31 they are removed during an interfaith ceremony. The ritual begins all over again each January with the news of the first shooting death.
A Changing Community
Like the city around it, St. Columba has survived through waves of demographic changes. Founded in 1898, the church originally served the working-class Irish families who lived in West and North Oakland. After the 1906 earthquake, the neighborhood became increasingly populated by Italians, but by the 1960s, the black diaspora had brought many African-Americans to the Bay Area. St. Columba had a gospel choir by the 1970s, and in the ’80s it began celebrating Black Catholic History Month and Kwanzaa alongside the regular events in the liturgical calendar. The Jesus hanging above its altar is black; the saints depicted on its walls are black; and its statues of Mary and Joseph have been repainted by the Ghanaian artist Anthony Komla to reflect the faces of the congregation. According to St. Columba’s current pastor, the Rev. Aidan McAleenan, this is part of an effort to “make the church look like the people.”
African-Americans have long been a minority in the U.S. Catholic Church. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 3 percent of American Catholics—about two million people—identify as non-Hispanic black. But black Catholicism is a significant part of American Catholic history. As the black Catholic historian and Benedictine monk Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., put it, “the Catholic Church in America has never been a white European church.”
Father McAleenan, an immigrant priest from Northern Ireland, arrived as St. Columba’s new pastor in 2009. He was intimately familiar with death. Father McAleenan had worked with the first AIDS hospice run by Catholic Charities in San Francisco in the late 1980s, and growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, he had also witnessed violence firsthand. But as he arrived, the neighborhood around St. Columba was starting to change yet again. Although it has long been known by locals as the Golden Gate neighborhood, around 2012, real estate agents rebranded it as “NOBE,” or North Oakland/Berkeley/Emeryville, in an effort to polish its rough reputation. Many longtime residents were displaced as developers bought out and razed houses to build condominiums, biotech campuses and shopping malls. In 1980 black residents made up 46 percent of Oakland’s population; in 2016 they make up less than 30 percent.
The streets around St. Columba today sport shiny new condo buildings, a knitting supply shop and a vegan cupcake shop. But Oakland’s superficial, hipster-friendly changes have not stemmed the crime that has plagued the city for decades. A parishioner says that recently someone saw a girl being dragged down the street. When the police were called, they discovered three more girls in the house she had been dragged into, victims of human trafficking. But Oakland’s new residents, mostly young, white and affluent, have for the most part taken to the website Next Door, a neighborhood social network, to complain about crime rather than organize with the community to end it. They have also tended to follow their millennial peers in a generational drift away from religion.
An Uplifting Spirit
Were Oakland’s new residents to step inside St. Columba on a Sunday morning, they would discover that its Mass is not like Mass at other Catholic churches. As the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a scholar of black Catholicism, told Crux this year, black Catholics were reassured after the Second Vatican Council that they could find forms of worship that maintained their cultural identity. According to Father Massingale, however, most parishes have not incorporated African-American traditions like clapping and praise dancing. Gospel music has even been forbidden in certain places, a reflection of the “normative whiteness” at the heart of the U.S. church.
St. Columba embraces those traditions. Mass begins at 10:30 a.m. with an exuberant gospel hymn, including clapping and swaying in the choir and the congregation. Parishioners are vocal, adding “amen” and applause throughout the readings. The homilies, delivered by Father McAleenan and the assistant priest, Kwame Assenyoh, S.V.D., often rely on a dialogic approach, asking parishioners to respond to questions or gathering them into small groups to talk. Passing the peace takes 10 to 15 minutes as parishioners circulate to deliver hugs and catch up on news (the bulletin tells newcomers that parishioners are “Roamin’ Catholics”). It is a long service—rarely under two hours—but it does not feel long. Margaret Roncalli, the director of faith formation, says that entering Mass at St. Columba means moving in kairos, or God’s time. The emphasis throughout the prayers of the faithful, the homilies and the announcements is on social justice, love and service.
St. Columba plays a part in the community in more than liturgical ways. A long list of social justice and restorative justice ministries are listed in the church bulletin and often mentioned in the announcements. Members of St. Columba regularly lobby the mayor’s office about incarceration, gun violence and housing issues. But it remains a relatively small, poor church in a transitioning neighborhood.
The week of June 13 offered a snapshot of the struggles the parish faces from week to week. Father McAleenan presided over a vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of a balcony collapse in nearby Berkeley that killed five visiting Irish students. The shooting of 49 people in Orlando, Fla., on June 12 deeply affected some of St. Columba’s L.G.B.T. parishioners, so the church was offered as a place to pray for an evening. Six funerals were hosted at the parish on top of these events, and it was also announced that Father Assenyoh had been reassigned to a suburban parish. Father McAleenan told the congregation that he had never faced a week like this in all his years of ministry.
The following week, about 20 parishioners crowded into the rectory’s dining room after Wednesday morning Mass to share coffee, pass around plates of pastries and talk about the parish and their relationships with it. “Most people don’t come here for anything other than love and fellowship,” an African-American woman said. A white man added: “The African-American spirit drives this church. An uplifting spirit is so important. Solemnity in prayer is great, but that’s not all there is.” One woman was brought there by a friend; another’s daughter had sung in Catholic gospel choirs in Louisiana and wanted to sing in one again.
“I was looking for a place to feel comfortable,” an African-American woman said. “I came one Sunday and stayed. A lot of people do that.” The black diaspora out of Oakland and into the suburbs means that some parishioners drive over an hour for Mass, seeking something other parishes could not provide. Father McAleenan said that the parish includes people from 100 ZIP codes.
Word of mouth, community ties and the internet have all helped people to find their way to the church. But most of the parishioners agreed that its reputation and social justice leanings were part of what had drawn them there. A Lutheran woman who works at St. Martin de Porres, the school jointly supported by St. Columba and several other parishes, said that 30 St. Columba parishioners had recently attended her husband’s funeral at a Lutheran church. “I love it here because there’s so much openness,” she said. “It’s not formal. There are discussions. I was at my own church recently and felt it wasn’t as expressive.”
Father Assenyoh, who is originally from Ghana, said that part of what draws him to St. Columba is that “the church respects the priesthood of the people. People don’t attend Mass, they celebrate. The priest is the presider; everybody is a celebrant.” Using African-American spirituality is about recognizing it as “one of the marginalized spiritualities. It’s not about excluding. It’s about recognizing the different faces of spirituality. It attracts people who like that.” When it comes to faith, he said, “people should not be afraid.” Father McAleenan added that St. Columba is about “listening to the heart and mind of the church and reflecting that back,” which includes an “organic liturgy.”
Ms. Roncalli said that the African-American liturgy is about the “whole community claiming the tradition and the articulation of it.” Oakland, she added, still identifies as a black city, and the diocese needs to represent that face. Out of suffering, African-Americans “built a spirituality that’s the salvation of the church.” Even as the neighborhood around it changes, “St. Columba needs to continue to be an African-American parish.” As part of the church’s renovation two years ago, the Gospel book was enthroned in a cubby in the wall with a spotlight. This is especially significant in a black church because of the emphasis on the word, both in the lecturing and the preaching. That word plays out both within the church and without.
In an interview in 1999 with Catholic News Service, Father Cyprian Davis said: “There is more to being black and Catholic than having nice music. We’re an integral part of the church, and we’re not negligible.” St. Columba’s presence in a changing Oakland is a reminder of that and also of the sensus fidelium—the “sense of the faithful.” Every year, the parish chooses a phrase as its annual theme. This year, that phrase is “We See You.” St. Columba sees Oakland for what it is right now: blight and beauty, tradition and change.
Outside the church, pedestrians and cars continue to slow to see those crosses, reminders of lives lost. But right now, at the beginning of summer, after California’s first rainy winter in years, those crosses are surrounded by flowers and surging signs of life.
It may be worth considering that the Catholic Church in the United States has a long and proud history of establising ethnic parishes and ministering to communities within their culture (and language) — Irish parishes, Italian parishes, Polish parishes, etc. It may also be worth considering that parishes without significant numbers of black Catholics (the majority of American parishes) are already effectively devoted week in and week out to white Catholics.