BLACK Catholics are slowly making their voices heard in the Church in Britain. This, despite the facts that most Catholics do not meet them in their daily lives or at their Eucharists; that many know nothing of how they come here or why they ought to stay; that many see them as a "problem" which will not go away.
However, the situation among young black Catholics is far more difficult. They are leaving the Church in great numbers. Some join the fast-growing black house churches. Most join nothing at all.
I spoke to Fr Clyde Harvey about the issue. Clyde is from Trinidad and came over to England, at the invitation of the Westminster diocese, just after the Brixton riots in 1981. He was shocked by what he saw then:
"In the Caribbean, we were taught, and so believed, that the British system was the fairest of them all — just and evenhanded. When I saw the way young blacks were mistreated by the police and the abuses in housing and education, I realised I had to do some rethinking."
The plight of black Catholics here is now a subject very important to Clyde. First, some background: "Most of the black Catholics in England came from the West Indian islands which had a French or Spanish colonial experience before the British came along. Whether St Lucia
–-renadai—these islands had a strong Catholic identity in which people felt very much at home. They came to England genuinely expecting hospitality from brother and sister Catholics.
"Instead, they found indifference, if not open hostility. I have heard many stories of black people, in the 50s, walking into a pew and all the whites already there, immediately walking out. Such overt racism, once a daily experience for blacks, even in the Church communities, is now rarer. It lingers on in small things though. For example, I find white people seldom sit next to blacks, even on the most crowded trains.
"Anyway, older Catholics, born in the islands, valued the faith highly enough to remain within the Church even in the face of racial animosity. Their children, born in Britain and ignorant of the traditions of the islands, place no such value on the Catholic faith."
I wondered why the parents have found it so difficult to hand on their beliefs.
"Sadly, the faith is often seen as part of the system which their children identify as hostile. In seeking to be accepted fully as English, the Catholic Church finds itself being identified as part of that wider English system which most young blacks see as inherently racist, uncaring and oppressive.
"Some hope is desperately needed, Yet black youth are caught in no man's land. Most parishes which seek to reach the black community, gear their programmes to adults. Most youth programmes and events are geared to white youth.
"The Church, on the whole, has yet to acknowledge that black youth in Britain have an identity all their own — one that is neither white nor Caribbean but that of a new creation of the 70s and 80s — young, black, British."
Meanwhile, young blacks continue to leave the Church.
This is a anxiety for Clyde.— "If these youth were leaving to join Churches which spoke to their needs, it would not be so bad. However, it often seems that those who leave, simply join that mass of black youth alienated, unemployed, directionless. Instead of going among their peers as heralds of the Gospel, they become more of those who need to be evangelised."
There is clearly a need for more black priests, simply to ensure that black people can see that it is their Church too. A black bishop, expelled from Malawi and currently in Birmingham, could be given a more visible role.
Yet, as ever, change from below, is also vital. If our parishes were the Christian communities we proclaim them to be at every Eucharist, the current difficulties could never have become so profound.
I leave the last word to Fr Clyde Harvey: "As young white Catholics experience the new birth that is slowly coming to the Church of England, they should seek to walk the Gospel road with people of other races.
"Only then will they really experience the Church, not a cosy club, but as an authentic sign of the kingdom — that new humanity where there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek but all are one in Jesus Christ."