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St. Brigid Gets a Taste of That Old-Time Religion : Elements of Black Culture Fused Into Catholic Doctrine at South-Central L.A. Church

Times Staff Writer

This is the gospel of a universal church and the ongoing struggle with its identity. This is the good news of change that came, change still coming. Color it black, culture it African. Hear its sound and name it joy!

“PRAISE HIM” . . . the sound of drums.

“PRAISE HIM” . . . a thundering piano.

“PRAISE HIM” . . . a thousand voices sang.

“PRAISE HIM HE IS WORTHY TO BE PRAISED.”

A spirit-filled gospel choir swayed under a crucifix Easter Sunday morning and sang the praises of the risen Lord. The priests in their white vestments strode rhythmically through the packed church toward the altar, surrounded by the myriad hues of a rainbow race.

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This is St. Brigid Catholic Church in South-Central Los Angeles, and it is like no other Catholic church in the city. Catholic doctrine remains the same, but the church’s liturgy has been imbued with black cultural sensibilities. St. Brigid, say its pastors and parishioners, is a thriving example of the black Catholic movement in America.

“I became a Catholic when I was 12,” said Marvalyne Taylor, who joined the church in 1981 and sings in the choir. She’s the tall one with the light, creamy complexion, blondish streaks in her stylishly short hair and a finger that rockets toward heaven when the spirit hits her in mid-song.

Falling Asleep in Church

She “really didn’t understand” what was going on in church when she was a child, said the 36-year-old eligibility worker for the county’s Department of Social Services. “It was boring to me. I fell asleep in church. I just eventually strayed away. I was away from church 10, 15 years. I was even contemplating changing religions.”

After years of searching for the right church, “a co-worker of mine, she was Catholic, says, ‘Girl, go down to St. Brigid. You’ve never been to a Catholic church like that in your life.’ I came, and she was right. I had never seen anything like this. And I just kept coming back. Here, at this church, you worship in a way where you can bring in your cultural background. You could relate.”

At St. Brigid, the Mass resounds with the music the world associates with the black Baptist church. Applause follows the choir’s hymns of jubilation and solemn songs of redemption. At St. Brigid, even the priest’s sermon is followed by applause.

“The reputation of St. Brigid is growing throughout the country and even the world,” said its associate pastor, Father Eli Bauwens, a young Josephite priest with a ready smile, a firm voice and a soft delivery. “We have foreign visitors here often. And when people come to Los Angeles, the word has gotten out that if you are interested in a black Catholic experience, the parish to come to is St. Brigid.”

There are 1.2 million black Catholics in the United States, according to the National Office of Black Catholics, founded in 1970 and located in Washington. There are 55,000 black Catholics in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

Coming of the Josephites

St. Brigid, at 52nd Street and Western Avenue, was not always a robust center of Catholicism. Its rebirth began in 1979 with the coming of the Josephites (St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart), a Catholic order devoted to the service of blacks since the emancipation of the slaves. With the approval of the Catholic Archdiocese, they came at the urging of a group of black parishioners familiar with the Josephites’ work in the South.

They found a moribund parish when they arrived, a disservice to St. Brigid herself--a medieval nun unusual for her activist-missionary style in an epoch of cloistered sisters. Attendance at the church had dropped to “less than 200,” said the Rev. William Norvell Jr., St. Brigid’s first Josephite pastor. The community had changed from a predominantly Irish one to black. But the church had not changed to meet its new parishioners’ spiritual and cultural needs.

“The church was hardly open,” Norvell said. When it was, three-quarters of the pews were roped off. In the nearly vacant sanctuary that could hold 1,000, prayers from the altar fell on hard wood and cold marble.

With Norvell as pastor, St. Brigid became a revitalized parish and a model of Christian community service. Church membership has reached 5,772, said its current pastor, the Rev. Paul Banet. On Sundays, at least 3,000 people attend the church’s three Masses: a traditional Catholic Mass at 7:30 a.m., followed by a Mass in Spanish at 9 and the popular Gospel Mass at 10:30.

The church has 31 outreach ministries and programs, among them a preschool program and day-care center, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, a high school program for teen-agers thrown out of the public school system, and a health information and food program for women and children. Most who attend the programs are residents of the area, but not church members or Catholics. During the summer months, the church sponsors a gang prevention program for children in the early elementary school grades.

Winner of Conference Award

For its commitment to the community, the church won the 1987 Prophetic Witness Award from the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The award is given to individuals or institutions that best exemplify King’s commitment to nonviolent change through social and political advocacy and community service.

“Their outreach programs and interpretation of the gospel speaks to the liberation of the oppressed,” said Mark Ridley-Thomas, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the conference.

If Banet--a portly, handsome former infantryman, whose witness to war as a German prisoner for six months during World War II led him to become a priest--had his way, the church would be doing even more. “Well, the archdiocese has agreed to two of three things I asked for recently,” the 65-year-old priest said dryly: bleachers for the choir and new lights for the church. What he’d really like, Banet said, is permission to expand the church auditorium for larger community meetings and more outreach programs. And he hopes that the archdiocese will agree to his proposal to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and buy abandoned housing in the South-Central area for $1, renovate the property and then use it to house the poor and provide facilities for the church’s programs.

All of the programs he envisions, and the ones that exist at St. Brigid, do not rely on any one pastor, Banet said. A pastor usually remains in a parish for eight years. But Norvell, St. Brigid’s first and only black pastor, was called back by his order to become consultor general, a top administrative post, for the Baltimore-based Josephites. Norvell is also president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in Washington. Banet came to St. Brigid in 1983 and could stay until 1991.

But the church, its pastors said, believes in building leadership from within.

In the past, the role of the laity was to “pray, pay and obey,” said Bauwens, the associate pastor. But “both Father Paul and I have an openness to what is new, unconventional. We do things that other pastors wouldn’t touch. We have laymen and women preaching on Sunday. We even turn over much of the leadership and a lot of the administrative details to people in the parish. Father Paul let all the laypeople do the homilies during Lent during the daily Masses. From our tradition it has been stated that only those ordained are to preach at Mass. But we do it because I feel we are coming from a disadvantage. There are far too few black clergy in the Catholic Church. And as much as I enjoy working here, I feel a certain awkwardness about the fact that the Catholic Church sends white priests into a black parish.”

In 1986, there were 57,183 Catholic priests in the United States, 300 of them black, according to the Washington-based National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, an organization of black clergy and permanent deacons pledged to mutual support in their ministries and the development of educational programs to counter the effects of institutionalized racism within the church and society.

Added Bauwens: “St. Brigid would never have been resurrected without Father Norvell. It took the fact that he was black, as well as really competent and gifted, to bring people to the awareness that the Catholic Church is not just a white church. This is a universal church . . . not restricted to any one people, place, time, nation. It needs to come out from this European domination.”

The Issue of Racism

Just as racism has been a fact of American life, it has been a reality in the American Catholic Church, said the nation’s black Catholic bishops in “What We Have Seen and Heard,” a 1984 pastoral letter on evangelization.

“I remember Good Friday services in Louisiana where you would go up to the cross to worship and the black kids would have to kiss a cross with a black God and the white kids could only kiss the cross with the white God,” said Jean Lawrence, former director of the South-Central Catholic Center and the woman who spearheaded efforts to bring the Josephites to St. Brigid. “I have had a lifetime relationship with the Josephites,” she said of the order that is especially strong in her native Louisiana.

Lawrence has been working with the L.A. archdiocese for two years, trying to develop a pastoral plan for black Catholics. Among the things requested and received are a vicar to black Catholics, Father Fisher Robinson, and a black bishop, Carl Fisher. Fisher was installed as California’s first black bishop in February, making him the 11th in the nation.

Lawrence would like to see the archdiocese expand the roles of blacks at all levels. “Right here in L.A., when a position opens in a parish, even if it’s just a parish secretary, and even if the parish is all black, a white person will be brought in to take the job.”

Robinson, vicar to blacks in the archdiocese and speaking for Archbishop Roger Mahony, said the archdiocese is aware that it needs to “improve that representation. It takes a little time, but attempts are being made to advertise (job) openings” where blacks would have a greater opportunity to see them.

A little more that 2% of all Catholics in the United States are black. As they struggle to establish a firm voice in the church, they must also deal with the fundamental question of all who seek an illumination of Christian faith: What does the Bible mean?

What the Bible Says

St. Brigid parishioners--some of them disaffected Catholics who have returned to the fold or Protestants attracted anew--say the priests there explain the Scriptures in a way that makes the Bible clear to them for the first time.

“I was born and raised a Baptist,” said Brenda Banks, a 38-year-old meter reader for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. There was a lot of spirit in the Baptist Church, “but what were they saying? In a nutshell, they wiped (the sweat away), and they walked and they preached,” she said, referring to the flamboyant, emotional style that characterizes many black Baptist churches. “But out of the whole sermon all I would remember is ‘Amen’ and ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ ”

At St. Brigid, “they present the Bible in a way that’s clearly understood,” said Banks, who was baptized there last Easter Sunday eve along with 12 new members of the church. “They don’t go 50 blocks out of the way to say one thing. It’s down to earth.”

While St. Brigid may be unique in Los Angeles, change there came relatively late. For almost a decade before the Josephites took responsibility for the South-Central parish, African-American culture has been transforming the spirit of the Catholic Church throughout the United States.

Black Catholics took to heart the words of Pope John Paul VI in 1969: “You must now give your gifts of blackness to the whole Church.”

Those gifts, however, were more than music and a joyous style of worship. The history of blacks in America is a continuum that parallels the meaning of Christ’s life, said the nation’s black Catholic bishops in their 1984 pastoral letter: "(Christ’s) birth, death, the suffering and the sorrow, the burial and the Resurrection tell how the story will end for all who are faithful no matter what the present tragedy is.”

Said Bishop Wilton Gregory, one of the country’s 11 black Catholic bishops and chairman of the black liturgy subcommittee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Looking at our Afro-American experience--a people who were taken from their homeland, faced the terrible middle passage, were forced into slavery, suffered the terrible effects of segregation and yet, at root, are a hopeful, believing, sensitive people--we are a sign to the whole community that even the difficult, painful past does not negate the human spirit. We have a lot to say about what it means to be a believer. And an Afro-American person imbued with the love of God and open to reaching out to those, some of whom may have been our oppressor, is a tremendous witness to the Christian community.”

Emotional Expression

Said Bauwens: “I want a religion that can satisfy me intellectually and emotionally. Don’t make the inference that the white is the intellect and the black is the emotion. But out of the African tradition you find the emotional expression that was not found in the European tradition. It’s cultural.”

Bauwens said he grew up in Moline, Ill., “a small town, almost completely white.” It was his work at a Catholic inner-city school near Chicago’s ghetto housing project, Cabrini Green, that brought him into contact with black Catholics.

Dissatisfied with his secular life, Bauwens joined the Josephites and was “overwhelmed by the strength, vitality and faith experience of black Catholics.”

Nonetheless, he questions if it’s “ever possible (for an outsider) to know what black culture and experience is and to appreciate it.”

But he knows he does not want to leave St. Brigid, which has fed his faith. And, for an unfortunate reason, he may not have to.

Ordinarily, an associate pastor leaves a parish after four years. Bauwens has already served at St. Brigid for five years--off and on. But the 32-year-old priest is ill. He has leukemia. The prognosis is not good.

Seated in the cry room of the sanctuary, a space set aside for wailing children during Mass, the priest spoke in a soft, steady voice: “Some people would say to receive news of a very serious illness would devastate them. I’ve got to admit I’m unhappy, but not so much for myself. I am totally unafraid of dying. I really have that faith, conviction that life makes no sense without the afterlife. There is a beautiful passage in one of Paul’s letters where he says, when he is in prison: ‘I don’t know what I prefer, to die or to live. Because if I live, it means more time to serve the Lord. If I die, I go to be with the Lord.’ ”


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