03 October 2013

For Old Times' Sake

So, for those of you not keeping track, I graduated from The George Washington University in May with a bachelors degree in History. Shortly after, I left Washington, D.C. and have been living at home in California for the last few months.

For those of you who are keeping track, you'll notice that I never completed my goal of visiting every Catholic church in Washington. It's not that I didn't want to, or didn't have any interest in the parishes that remained on my list, but I simply didn't have the time and energy left during my senior year. I was working, participating in student organizations, writing my thesis, passing my classes, and planning my post-grad life. Getting up on Sundays, trekking out to churches across the city and then writing about them just wasn't in the cards.

And though I didn't do what I set out to do, I wouldn't have traded this experience for the world. It started off one day when I was sitting in my dorm room freshman year, looking up Washington D.C.'s churches, when an idea popped into my head. "What if I visited every church in the District and then blogged about it?" And so it began. The powerful thing for me, an 18-year-old kid just coming out of high school, was that it was one of the first large-scale endeavors that I conceived and executed entirely on my own. Watching the process change from "What if..." to "Wow, I'm actually doing this!" was really powerful and has inspired just about everything I've done since.

I learned a lot about Catholicism and a lot about Washington. Before this project, I had never heard of a black Catholic parish. By the end, I had been to half a dozen and had written a research paper on the formation of black Catholic parishes in Washington in the 1920s. I saw a lot of neighborhoods I never would have seen and met a bunch of interesting people. And of course, I made some great friendships with the people I would go to church with: Dan, Loreto, Kate and plenty more.

And so, when I returned to Washington earlier this month, I figured I should give Capitol Catholic its due - one last visit to one of my favorite parishes with one of my favorite churchgoing buddies, Dan. Luckily, Dan lives two blocks from St. Augustine's, one of the first parishes I wrote about and one that I've been back to at least one time since. It's the city's first black Catholic parish, and at 12:30 every Sunday, it holds an outstanding Mass backed by its excellent Gospel choir.

The choir was in fine form this morning, as was Father Pat, who gave a stirring sermon. Father Pat is one of the best homilists I've ever seen. His homilies are both complex, profound, light, and relatable. Whereas most homilists will try to return to one single message, Pat riffs between six or seven, and manages to tie them altogether into a coherent whole. This time he was full of great lines and comparisons, my favorite being his description of God's love for mankind as being similar to a Marvin Gaye song: "I want you, and I want you to want me too."

The most remarkable thing about the Mass, for me, wasn't the great sermon or the always-spot-on choir, but the people in attendance. Washington has always maintained some form of racial segregation in its Catholic parishes. Before and after the Civil War, African-Americans were forced to sit in the rear balconies of white parishes. St. Augustine's was part of a movement on the part of black Catholics to create their own parishes, a movement which would eventually result in a system of dual, overlapping parishes for whites and blacks in the city of Washington.

Which is why it was so interesting to me to see so many white faces in the crowd that day at St. Augustine. Washington is changing. You don't have to be a genius to see the effects that gentrification is having on the city. Neighborhoods are undergoing drastic re-inventions as largely young, white, middle-class people move into areas previously occupied by working-class minorities. St. Augustine's neighborhood, the traditionally African-American U St., is no exception. And so, in the "Mother Church of Black Catholics," there's a growing population of Caucasians. And it's beautiful.

Whether the biracial worship that I saw that Sunday will continue for years into the future is hard to say. But after going to parishes throughout the city which were mostly ethnically homogenous, it was wonderful to see people crossing the line and worshipping with folks with a Catholic tradition other than their own. And maybe in a society where race continues to divide people, perhaps small pockets of shared worship can give way to a recognition of common humanity. Whether it's a sign of progress or not, it was very refreshing to see.

And so, with that, it's time to retire the Capitol Catholic blog. It was a fun ride, but all things come to an end. Thanks for reading, and God bless.

-Michael








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