Black Catholic Voices
Black Catholic Voices series: Msgr. East on his roots of faith, combating racism, and what gives him hope
Dec 9, 2020
(On Nov. 2, 2020, Msgr. Raymond East, the pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington, D.C., and a nationally known evangelist, was interviewed for the Catholic Standard’s Black Catholic Voices series by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor. Msgr. East was interviewed at St. Teresa of Avila Church on All Souls Day, right after he had returned from presiding at a Funeral Mass and burial for a parishioner who had died of COVID-19.)
How would summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?
Msgr. Raymond East – “Faith is a journey and my faith journey starts with my grandparents. Both my grandfathers died when I was young before I met them. I was raised by two grandmothers who were both widows during the Depression, and the neat story is on mom’s side it was a grandmother who raised these children and went to Newark, New Jersey from St Louis where my mom was born and raised and converted to Catholicism in Newark, and so we came up on that side. That’s the Catholic side of the family. And mom raised her children, and she met dad who was Baptist.
“Now, on the other side of the family, my grandfather and grandmother were Baptist missionaries to South Africa, and the neat thing about that was that we had that presence of mission and evangelization and the idea of Africa so woven into our experience growing up. So, that’s what we were raised on.
“My Aunt Gladys, their daughter, my aunt, she served all the time we were growing up. She was in the missions in Liberia. Dad grew up in the missions in South Africa, and Aunt Gladys went on to server in the missions in Liberia. So for that whole time, it was like receiving these epistles of St. Paul telling about the missions, from this place to this place, this church to that church, and it really helped our faith. It helped us grow, to see the struggles with evil and good, the miracles of healing that would take place, the challenges of working with a school with very, very poor communities, and just the sacrifice of giving your life to Christ and not counting the cost. That was a great inspiration for me to become a priest. So even when we were growing up, young, I always thought of becoming a priest. And of course, with my brothers and sisters, I am the oldest of eight, and with eight of us, we all kind of grew up in church and serving in church, so that was a real blessing for us.”
Msgr. Raymond East (Archdiocese of Washington photo)
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped your life?
Msgr. Raymond East – “The witness of other black Catholics in my life has been absolutely formative. I could start with my experience here in Washington, D.C., (with) Jackie Wilson, who was the director of the Office of Black Catholics for many years. Jackie was a great model of faith, and what I loved about Jackie’s witness is that she was not afraid or ashamed to tell the story about the struggle of Black Catholics. She was a school teacher by profession, and then when she went to the Office of Black Catholics and worked with Cardinal Hickey and with his successors to really tell the old, old story of Black Catholics in Washington, the archdiocese, which goes back all the way, almost 400 years, back to the Ark and the Dove (the ships that brought the first English colonists to Maryland in 1634), to Matthias de Sousa, who was from Cape Verde, who was one of the first councilmen in old St. Mary’s City, right at the founding of Catholic Maryland.
“And, of course, the later story of those many enslaved Africans who came over and formed the heart of the Church, plus the muscles, the brawn of the Church, in Southern Maryland and in Baltimore. So that whole story, to learn about Mother Lange with the Oblate Sisters of Providence, to know about the great pioneers that were here, to see Mother Katharine Drexel and her work here at the turn of the century, and as she founded what became the Black and Indian Missions Office, and then as she founded her Blessed Sacrament Sisters, who also served here in the diocese. We had so many great models of faith, and they’ve been a towering witness and an encouragement to my own faith and growth.”
Are there instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Msgr. Raymond East – “Racism, it’s a term that we’ve struggled to find meaning (for), but basically it’s centered with the feeling that one group is superior over another group because of these qualities that we call race, we attribute to race. Actually, there’s one human race. And yet there are characteristics of different groups – ethnic groups, cultural groups, and this whole thing of skin pigmentation – that’s really caused a society to see themselves as either better than another or having been made subservient because of the attributes of that community.
“Racism in the United States is very similar to racism in other places around the world, but in our culture, it manifested itself here in the states. First, with the superiority of people from Europe who encountered Indigenous peoples of the Americas and called them, whether it was in Portuguese or Spanish or English or French or Dutch, they called them savages. Just this innate superiority, of one culture over another. Of course, there are a lot of things about civilization, who had writing and everything, but we’re all human beings. One group of human beings is not better than a group of human beings. We’re all equal, created equal in the sight of God, with many different gifts.
“The other experience when after the conquest and encounter with Indigenous peoples, first nations here in the United States, that next group that came were enslaved Africans, who came very shortly after first contact with Europeans. So if we say, for example, 1492 as being the encounter of Columbus and landing off the coast of the Bahamas and then throughout the Caribbean and then writing of his exploits and going back. Well, it was very shortly after that, that within a 100 years, peoples from Africa were coming to the Western world, to the Americas in great numbers, and that’s the legacy of racism that we have.
“So Indigenous peoples, first nations, peoples of African ancestry, and then many different people who immigrated to the United States all had this encounter, this clash, with who was civilized and who was uncivilized, who was a ‘savage’ and who wasn’t really human. So that even in our country we codified that, so that all men and women are not created equal, and with the Dred Scott decision (in 1857), peoples of African ancestry were deemed to be three-fifths of a human being, and still it took amendments to our Constitution just to see the dignity of people who were here already before the encounter.
“So, how does that affect me? It’s a subtle thing. It’s going into a parish, when I first came to Washington about 45 years ago and wondering why during the greeting of peace nobody was shaking hands with me or saying hello or would even speak to me. I just kind of didn’t get it. I wasn’t use to anything like that, and then it kind of persisted. So I said, ‘Well, maybe that’s just that parish,’ but I went and saw trends and struggles here in our Washington Archdiocese manifest itself in what I saw as I came from neighborhood to neighborhood.
“Every neighborhood had its history of who built the houses that were there, and then who came that lived in the house, who built the church. For example, this church in 1879 was built with the help of bricklayers who were African American, but the African Americans at first were welcomed, and then there came a time when they were not welcomed and had to worship downstairs in the basement of St. Teresa of Avila, had to sit in the back and were not able to receive Holy Communion until everybody else had received Holy Communion. That’s if they were allowed to come up and worship on this level, in the sanctuary. Usually the Mass was down below. And then, as you see those old pictures of our parish, Black parishioners were never allowed to join the Sodality, the Holy Name Society, or any of the church organizations.
“Coming a few generations after that you could still feel the effects, the tensions, mostly in the kind of experience that people have had, where you would have groups, one group would move out of a church and another group would come in. In this parish, it became African American after the riots (in 1968) or solidly African American (then). Or the fact that Our Lady of Perpetual Help came from here because Father Schneeweiss took a group of disaffected parishioners who couldn’t join anything, couldn’t really be first citizens in the parish, and took them up to some land that was given by Dr. Morris, and they became Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, a Black Catholic parish.
“That experience, I had not really experienced that growing up in California. Here it affected me in Washington. Also, being like the only Black seminarian, in a seminary of 100 or 150, it was an interesting experience growing up, but learning the history, mostly.”
Msgr. East speaks during a prayerful protest near the White House on June 8, 2020, following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man whose neck was pinned to the ground by police for more than eight minutes before he was taken to the hospital. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since this spring in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police?
Msgr. Raymond East – “This year 2020 has been marked by an unusual sensitivity of the whole country and now the whole world to conflict and interactions that have been between the police and communities, and they’ve been put out in such a light that people are finally finding a voice to speak about them, to bring them up. Things like that have happened for generations, and going back to maybe the history of policing in the United States, where we had the forces, which would be vigilante groups or posses or groups would be deputized to catch slaves, and that was the origin of policing, catching runaway slaves and keeping Native American peoples in their place away from the rest of society.
“D.C. is a wonderful place with a lot of history, and with that situation we have seen these struggles, these incidents, that have happened with our police forces who are called to serve and protect, who are really laying down their lives every day on the job, but there are incidents where very tragic things happen in those encounters, and they’ve happened here in this neighborhood. We’ve seen people coming now to try to find a voice, (asking) how can we work together in communities, especially when the police are from different communities than the people that they serve. It's a work in progress.
“Black Lives Matter was around before the problems in 2020, but I had a chance to go to a couple of our Catholic institutions, to Marymount over in Virginia, and speak with students on the Black Lives Matter movement in 2019, and I also went to Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, and I had a chance to speak with students there, and we had really good discussions.
“But when this came and then the deaths, it put Black Lives Matter into a whole different focus. What has been so instructive, and I think even helpful in our times, is that we’ve seen people of goodwill come together to really try to make progress, in terms of policing and community policing, and how law enforcement communities can come together and to look at the system, a system that would protect officers that are behaving badly, and instead to challenge those systems and look for, not only accountability, but also to look for ways of healing in communities.
“Also, there’s the issue of, how do you remedy situations where their lives that have been lost and what can you do to make amends for those? That’s the stuff of Black Lives Matter. And the fact that, often institutions going into denial when there’s a loss of life, and they’re trying to look for accountability. It’s been really a struggle to look at that, not only here, but all over the country.
“I think, with the witness that we had this past summer, this spring and summer, with the Black Lives Matter march and Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., it’s really been a powerful lesson of what can happens when the Church enters that discussion as a facilitator and also an agent in reconciliation to see what can be done. So, we’re looking forward to the road ahead and looking with a great deal of hope, knowing that in the Gospel, there is a path toward reconciliation, and that’s the path we’re trying to walk.”
How has your parish, which is predominantly African American, been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Msgr. Raymond East – “COVID-19 has really hit St. Teresa of Avila Parish, and our parish is in Southeast Washington. We have been struggling in our neighborhood with health disparities for a long time: high rates of diabetes, of hypertension, of cancer, many different kinds of cancer, obesity, asthma, other respiratory diseases, heart disease, and with this cluster of symptoms, it seems that COVID-19 attaches itself to organs that are weak and really can cause great trauma with that.
“So, in the neighborhood, we’ve had a lot of incidences of COVID. I’ve done maybe, well some significant members of our community have been lost to COVID. It’s been very, very sad, especially since we can’t come together as a parish and mourn the loss. The numbers (allowed to attend Mass during the pandemic) have been limited, so we have to record the funerals. We had one today, where a young man, 61 years old, died of the virus, and there was his wife, there was his daughter, grieving, and many from the Nigerian community were present, but they had to be present by Zoom or Facebook to participate. It’s hard when you can’t be there and come together as a community for healing. But I’d say we’ve had maybe one out of every four funerals has been somebody who has died of COVID-19, and we’re really praying for the cure.
“My own family, five cousins, have gotten COVID – one died and one still in the hospital. It’s the challenge of our times.”
People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this?
Msgr. Raymond East – “In dealing with COVID and with the whole thing of the coronavirus, or any health pandemic, the Church has a long history. The Church was there during the Black Plague in Europe. The Church’s experience, and many of our saints have showed the story of heroism when they went into situations of pandemics and epidemics and put their own lives at risk. The Church has always reached out to be heroic in its healing gesture, to reach out in healing. I think this situation is no different, that the Church has really wanted to be an agent of healing and of restoration.
“So, what I find that what we’re trying to do is to gather the healers, to pray for people that are on the front line, to recognize that in our communities, especially in a parish like ours, there are many people who are first responders, or especially sanitation workers, who work in the hospital as staff, doing those jobs that put them in contact with a people that are sick.
“As a faith community, we go into those situations with a sense of self-sacrifice, but also trying to keep the whole community safe, trying to work for the restoration and the healing of the whole. I think that’s the unique Catholic viewpoint. Or as a long time ago, as Cardinal (Hickey) was repeated to say, ‘We don’t help people because they are Catholic, or whether they are Catholic or not, we help people because we’re Catholic,’ and so I think that’s the approach.”
Cardinal Gregory has noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism, and what do you think individual Catholics should do?
Msgr. Raymond East – “In terms of combating and confronting racism and looking at as a real challenge, the Washington Archdiocese has a unique history. Back in 1889, the National Black Catholic Congress convened right here at St. Augustine Church, old St. Augustine. The preacher that they had was one of the only Black Catholic priests, was actually the first Black Catholic priest to be recognized as Black Catholic, Father Augustus Tolton. And he was the preacher. They brought him from Chicago to preach for that historic gathering, gathered by 100 black men who came together from cities from all over the United States to address that situation of racism and its three effects: racism in the Church, racism in society and, the fact that the Church could provide the best solution, (that) through education, through Catholic schools, that the Church could really be a positive force in eradicating racism by the witness of the Gospel.
“We have that long history here in the Archdiocese of Washington of confronting racism. In recent times since, it’s been really taken on as a challenge by groups and organizations. For example, in 1968 the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus started. At the same time, the National Black Catholic Sisters Conference started. Some of those pioneer founders were priests and sisters, from this diocese and from those groups. I was involved in the mid-70s, when I became a seminarian for the archdiocese, and joined the Black Catholic Seminarians Association and then groups like that. Later the Black Catholic Deacons organization (for) deacons and wives formed.
“So the brothers, sisters, priests, religious and bishops and the laity coming together have been a strong force as we continue to take up the struggle against racism, through the Black Catholic Congress, which started right here in Washington, D.C. back in 1880s, went through the 1890s and then restarted again here in Washington, D.C. at Catholic University, as 100 years later they restarted, and we’ve been having Black Catholic Congress (gatherings) ever since. It’s a conscious movement that helps us to understand that we can come together as God’s family and that we can put the broken parts of the family back together again, that we can come together as the people of God in a real Pentecost community, which is what it is, to be Catholic, to be Church, that on the day of Pentecost where people from all the nations gathered, and that the same Holy Spirit filled them and sent them forth to proclaim the Good News.
“That’s the experience, and I think the treasure that we have right here in Washington, as we’ve uniquely taken on that challenge of confronting racism and bringing healing and reconciliation to the Church, to the world.”
Msgr. East preaches at a 2015 Mass for fathers and sons at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)
How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?
Msgr. Raymond East – “Where does our hope come? From whence does my hope come? My hope is founded on Jesus Christ, who came as one of us, the Son of the Father, who took flesh so that we might have salvation, who sent us the Holy Spirit, that this power of the Holy Trinity (is) working in and through this unique creation that we call humankind. That tradition, handed on from generation to generation, I received it from my family, and then we’ve been passing it on and living it. That’s what gives me encouragement. That’s what gives me faith and hope and strength, and to be surrounded by, not only a cloud of witnesses, people that we don’t see, can’t see, but then to be surrounded by a faith community, a loving faith community, that works together. That’s what gives me hope.
“So, for example, when my friend, Father Cornelius, organized a group with the archdiocese that we might go down, peoples of faith coming together, from the Catholic community to work with Black Lives Matter, to say, yes, it’s true, we have to say, we have to be affirmative about saying, yes, all lives matter, but specifically with the history that we have in our own diocese, going from slavery to freedom, going from oppression to racism to communities that learn to love and work with each other as one body of Christ, with our people, we had to make a stand, to come together and say Black lives matter. To see people that I have worked with and have worshipped with and organized with for now 40 years, 45 years, to see people coming together in one great movement of faith, that’s what gives me faith. To see that we could gather again and again and take up these works of faith, that’s what gives me encouragement.
Missionaries of Charity pray at a Sept. 6, 2020 Mass at St. Teresa of Avila Church celebrated by then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
“Also, at St. Teresa of Avila we’re blessed by having St. Teresa of Calcutta, having been an active, and I think she’s still (an) active part of the parish. She came to our parish in the ‘70s, planted her second contemplative convent right here at the parish, so right next door to the church is the community of contemplative Missionaries of Charity, and they have been a tremendous asset. They’re contemplatives in action, because they go out on the street and witness on their active days, and they invite people from the community to come in and to (participate in) contemplative prayer. And besides all that, they encourage the whole parish, and we’re together in formation. So we have the charism of the Missionaries of Charity here in the parish of St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Teresa of Calcutta.
“By the way, if anybody didn’t know, Mother Teresa got the name (from) St. Teresa of Avila, because Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the name was already taken by another sister when she joined the Sisters of Loreto, but she knew that Thérèse of the Child Jesus was the patron of missionaries. And so she spells her name Teresa, like Teresa of Avila, and has the charism of the Little Flower, that missionary charism. That’s really been a big point of formation in my own life, in the life of our parish and of our communities.”
Msgr. Raymond East, at left, applauds then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory at the beginning of a Sept. 6, 2020 Mass at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Washington. Cardinal Gregory was elevated to the College of Cardinals on Nov. 28 by Pope Francis. In the photo below, then-Archbishop Gregory celebrates the Mass at St. Teresa of Avila, joined by Msgr. East, the pastor. (CS photos/Andrew Biraj)
What is your reaction to Pope Francis on Oct. 25 naming Cardinal Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals from around the world, and him becoming the first African American cardinal?
Msgr. Raymond East – “It was so exciting to hear of that announcement. It kind of caught me by surprise. They said, ‘Did you hear that the Holy Father has elevated Archbishop Gregory to the rank of cardinal, to be a cardinal in the Church?’ And I didn’t believe them. I thought they were pulling my leg, but then somebody else said it again, and they said, ‘No, it happened. It’s true.
“Well, I was ecstatic, and the parishioners started calling, blowing up my cellphone, people were texting. So by the time we got to Mass, people knew, and it was just a beautiful celebration. It means so much to us here in Washington, D.C., because we have that long view as part of Baltimore diocese originally, the first English-speaking diocese in the New World, in the United States, and for 400 years of encounter and a long history here, in the Washington Archdiocese.
“Ever since Black Catholics have come to the United States, both enslaved and free, we’ve never had a cardinal, in all this time, and it’s a tremendous sign of hope. It’s a tremendous recognition by the universal Church that we’ve come, not only of age, we’ve been of age. We’ve been here generations and generations, but that the gifts of the Black Catholic community, which is both African Americans who have been here for a long time, newly-arrived African immigrants, people from the Caribbean, Afro-Latinos, people from Haiti and from all the islands, the whole African diaspora, that this is a great sign of encouragement for all of us.
“We’re not only encouraged, but we’re so proud. We’re thankful that it was our own Archbishop Gregory, who is one of the most gifted Church leaders in the whole country. He’s been a great light to us, and we’re so blessed to have him here in this diocese, and to have him in this very special place, in our nation’s capital, to be the first African American Catholic cardinal, it’s tremendously exciting.”