Priest Founds Separatist Black Congregation

Times Religion Writer

Defying orders from his cardinal and the wishes of the nation’s 13 black Roman Catholic bishops, a Washington priest on Sunday formed an independent black congregation.

Father George A. Stallings Jr., risking suspension and possible excommunication, led an upbeat gospel Mass that drew a crowd of several thousand worshipers who overflowed the auditorium and several classrooms at Howard University Law School in northwest Washington.

The maverick priest announced he was forming the Imani Temple African American Catholic Congregation because the Roman Catholic Church “has failed to meet the spiritual and cultural demands of its black parishioners.”


‘We Can’t Wait’

“We can’t wait any longer,” Stallings, 41, shouted during the nearly four-hour service, which several observers said attracted up to 4,000 people.

The Mass, widely announced and featured in the Washington media, combined traditional readings from the Bible with passages from the writings of the late black theologian Howard Thurman, who taught at Howard University. A minister from Louis Farrakhan’s separatist black Nation of Islam organization also participated in the service, but no Catholic priest from Washington other than Stallings took part in the liturgy.

Cardinal James A. Hickey, archbishop of Washington, said in a statement Sunday afternoon that by going ahead with the Mass, Stallings “has seriously weakened his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, a family of faith that spans the world. Separating from the church is no solution to problems within the church. Imani Temple is a step backwards.”

Hickey had previously barred Stallings from celebrating Mass in any Washington parish and warned him that he would be banned from speaking in Roman Catholic churches nationwide if he went ahead with his breakaway congregation.

Stallings, an eloquent and charismatic speaker, had gained national attention for his work in amalgamating the worship style of black Protestantism with the Catholic Mass during his 12 years as pastor of St. Teresa of Avila parish in southeast Washington.

Will Pender, a black Catholic who attended Stallings’ Mass on Sunday, said: “A large percent of those who came were . . . curious to see what the services would be like. But there was nothing that different about the liturgy.”

Used in Zaire

The colorful service was based on a Roman Catholic rite currently used experimentally in Zaire. It includes “a calling on deceased ancestors to take part in the celebration,” Pender explained in a telephone interview.

Auxiliary Bishop Carl Fisher of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who is convener of the nation’s black Roman Catholic bishops, said in an interview on Friday that the 13 bishops unanimously regarded Stallings’ decision to break away as “absolutely deplorable.”

Fisher said Stallings’ actions “come at the worst possible time in the history of the American Roman Catholic Church” because, in Fisher’s opinion, black Catholics have made “great gains” within the last two years, including “recognition of the need of the people to bring their own cultural gifts to the enhancement of worship.”

The founding of Imani Temple (Imani means “faith” in Swahili) also drew immediate reaction Sunday from Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard of Baltimore, who voiced “profound regret.”

‘Regressive, Tragic’

“I believe I speak for most African-American Catholics,” Ricard said in a statement issued in Washington. The action is “regressive as well as tragic,” he said, noting there was already " . . . rich use of gospel music and many symbols of the African-American community” in many predominantly black parishes throughout the country.

But Beverly Carroll, executive director of the Office of Black Catholics in Washington, said many of the nation’s nearly 2 million black Catholics would support Stallings’ contention that “racism and the inability to be fully enculturated” are troubling issues.

However, what Stallings is doing, she added in an interview, “is going to make our people work even harder to make changes within the church rather than breaking away.”

worshipers after forming independent black congregation against wishes of Roman Catholic Church.