By Isabel Pulgarin
Faith and justice have been common themes of the last year, with people needing comfort after losing loved ones, and others fighting for causes like Black Lives Matter. With a lot of loss, hate, and negativity in the world, many have found faith to be scarce within and around themselves. That’s why Black Catholic theologians from different colleges throughout the country have worked to bring support, faith, and love to people during these times.
One of these theologians is Dr. Kathleen Dorsey Bellow, who has devoted her life to her church and her ministry. This journey began in 1989, when Bellow first became frustrated with the Catholic church.
This frustration surfaced when she realized that clergy members and churchgoers were unaware of the history of the Catholic church’s sins toward Black Catholics, causing a disconnect between Black Catholics and leaders of the church. By channeling this frustration, she was able to educate herself and others on how to lead in Black communities.
Another church leader educating others is church historian Alberto Melloni. According to the Associated Press, Melloni believes that the Catholic Church has a history of ignorance, racism, and “political and ideological partisanship” which they attempt to cover up. This is something Bellow discusses in her article, “Black Catholic women: voice embodied.”
In the article, Bellow describes the life of Black women who balance so much on their faith and agrees with Melloni, adding that the Catholic Press rarely considers the perspectives of Black Catholic women.
“I am not altogether convinced that the Catholic press is interested in the perspectives of Black Catholic women except as a last resource in situations of racial crisis when dominant culture wisdom fails to satisfy,” she wrote.
As an example, Bellow cites the summer of 2020, with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which caused a public outcry for justice. According to Bellow’s article, in response, Black Catholic women, men, and children came together to protest on the streets and in the form of spoken word, music, and the arts.
In addition, during the pandemic, COVID-19 and policy brutality haven taken the lives of Black men, women, and children at disproportionate rates. According to Bellow, these rates are attributed to overcrowded housing, unhealthy working conditions in African American communities, and racist policing.
Unfortunately, the experiences of racism in the Black Catholic community are well known. Dr. Bryan N. Massingale, a Black Catholic theologian, discusses white privilege in his National Catholic Reporter article, “The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it.”
Massingale wrote that black essential workers are “sacrificed for the comfort of those who can isolate and work from home, who are disproportionately white.”
Bellow discusses white privilege within the church as well, noting that despite the hard work of Black Catholic women, resources like affordable healthcare, comprehensive and attainable education, and paycheck protection are reserved for those with more money, who are usually white people.
To combat racism within the church, Bellow believes all Catholics need to know Catholicism’s origin. She says the religion was molded to work for Europeans and European-Americans, rather than being inclusive of different races and ethnicities.
Bellow believes once a person learns that “the church was involved in the slave trade and how the religious congregations owned slaves... it shakes [their] faith when [they] learn the history of the church and how we have had black priests, black sisters who have been rejected by the official church.”
Still, she finds hope within the “many faithful black Catholics who have persevered” and the female “faithful believers with stubborn roots” who commit to service both inside and outside the church’s walks.
Bellow believes being Black and Catholic takes strength. This strength is needed to fight against white supremacy and anti-blackness in the church.
“You end up fighting to stay Catholic,” she said.
Despite her life-long fight for equality in the church, Bellow’s religious life has brought her full circle in her professional life. She now teaches lay people, who are non-clergy leaders who embody the teachings of the church, and clergy members how to lead black communities competently at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University. Her main message is that faith can take anyone a long way.
"I think we're called to really understand what it is that God wants each one of us to do and we have to do it out of our faith," said Bellow.