In 1999, when Father Gregory Chisholm became the first African American priest to take the helm of the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church -- a predominantly black Roman Catholic church in South-Central Los Angeles -- his installation was a point of tremendous pride for the region’s black Catholics.
“All my life, I’ve never had a priest that was a black man,” said Sharon Johnson, an African American church leader and lifelong Catholic for almost 39 years.
“My granddaughter calls him Jesus,” said Sheila Bell-Briggs, an African American parishioner at Holy Name for 15 years.
Now, however, Chisholm is leaving -- assuming a leadership position in Boston with his Jesuit order.
At the same time, Holy Name parish, like much of South Los Angeles, has become increasingly Latino. Latinos now make up 20% of the parish, and the surrounding neighborhood has a Latino majority.
As a result, Chisholm’s departure has set off a struggle over identity -- one that mirrors tensions across the archdiocese.
Is this a black church or a Latino one? Can it be both?
Black parishioners are hoping for another African American priest to keep their cultural traditions alive.
Many Latino parishioners, by contrast, feel Chisholm, who is not fluent in Spanish, has neglected their needs. They view his departure as an opportunity for change.
Each group attends different Masses, rarely interacting with one another.
African Americans attend an English Mass celebrated by Chisholm. Latinos attend a Spanish Mass with Spanish-speaking priests from different parishes.
“It’s two separate churches,” said Silvino Arciga, chairman of the church’s Latino prayer group. Arciga said Chisholm has never attended any of the Hispanic prayer group meetings and seems to favor African American parishioners over Latinos.
“We would like a priest to join the two communities,” he said.
Tensions between Chisholm and Latino parishioners began early.
Soon after he assumed the post at Holy Name, a group of Latino parishioners circulated a petition for a Spanish-speaking priest in addition to Chisholm.
Chisholm now says it was one of three moments in his life when he felt discriminated against.
The Latino parishioners had an impression that “the presence of an African American priest implies that that person is not for the Latino people,” he said.
“This group of people decided that whatever their needs were, they could not talk to me. They did not want to deal with me,” he said.
Despite the incident, Chisholm said he has worked hard to make Latino parishioners feel welcome and took a Spanish class to better communicate with them. He includes Latino parishioners at every decision-making level within the parish, he said.
But Julio Mejia, a parishioner for more than 10 years, said Latino parishioners still feel unwelcome at the church. The church offers only one Spanish Mass a week while there are three in English, he said.
There has not been a permanent Spanish-speaking pastor since the last one left in November, he added.
Ideally, Arciga said, Latino parishioners want a Spanish-speaking priest who can strengthen their community and attract more Latinos to the church.
Tensions between black and Latino Catholics periodically flare in the huge and complex Los Angeles Archdiocese.
The archdiocese includes members of 102 ethnic groups and offers Mass in 38 languages, said spokeswoman Carolina Guevara.
Latinos make up 70% of all Catholics in the archdiocese and their numbers continue to grow, she added.
By contrast, African Americans have long been a minority within the Catholic Church and have often felt neglected by it.
“It’s a little more difficult for the African American community. They have had to struggle mightily to maintain their own identity and find their place in the church in a way that befits their culture,” said Father Anthony McGuire, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
Those feelings have increased in Los Angeles as a result of the church’s response to the tremendous influx of Latino immigrants.
For the last 20 years, English-speaking priests could not be ordained in the Los Angeles Archdiocese unless they were proficient in Spanish, said Guevara.
Some black Catholics object that the church makes no similar accommodations for them.
“They make sure white priests go and learn Spanish fluently, but they don’t make sure white priests go and learn African American culture fluently,” Johnson said.
“I don’t know if Latinos were asked to sit at the back of the church, I know African Americans were. I don’t know if the church ever had Latino slaves. They certainly had African American slaves. I don’t know if racism against Latinos exists in the priesthood, but every black priest I’ve talked to has been called ‘nigger,’ ” Johnson added.
Johnson said complaints by Latino parishioners are not fair.
Efforts by the African American community and Chisholm are often rebuffed, she said.
When Chisholm organized English classes at the church or held open forums to discuss problems, few Latino parishioners showed up, Johnson said.
When Latino parishioners do come, said Johnson, they do not express their concerns.
Some African American parishioners feel that the language barrier separates the two groups and that Latino parishioners simply need to learn English, said Johnson.
“If I move to France, I have to speak French,” she said.
Few Black Priests
For some black Catholics, finding an African American priest to replace Chisholm has become a test of commitment to the black community, said Fern Paillet, a longtime African American parishioner at Holy Name.
Passing that test might be difficult. According to data from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are more than 1,000 predominantly black parishes across the country, but only several hundred black priests.
There are 4,000 parishes with Latino ministries and 2,900 Latino priests.
“The challenge is how to respect, honor and love the alternative ways of worshiping and being a community ... and not letting it become two separate congregations meeting in the same building,” said Father John Coleman, a sociology professor at Loyola Marymount University.
Chisholm said the first steps toward reconciliation must be taken by parishioners. All he can do is be a guide, he said.
“We’ll never be one church because ‘Father’ makes it one church,” he said. On that point, at least, Holy Name parishioners say they agree.
“Jesus Christ came to unify, not divide. We are all followers of Jesus,” said Arciga.
“What I hope to see,” said Bell-Briggs, “is that Holy Name is not Hispanic and not African American, but just one Catholic church.”