By Chris Elias
February is Black History Month, a month-long celebration where we recognize the significant contributions of African-Americans to American history, as well as the historical legacies of the African diaspora. For many African Americans, much of that rich history is centered in churches and so, the Church is a fitting place to celebrate.
Organized by the Catholics of African Descent in the Diocese of San Jose, the first diocesan Black History Month Mass was celebrated by Bishop Oscar Cantú at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Joseph on Saturday, February 15th, 2020.
Faith and Fellowship were the inspiration behind the first diocesan observance of this Black History Month Mass, which drew people from various parishes throughout Santa Clara County.
We remembered and celebrated the powerful work of God in and through the lives of influential African Americans. From enslaved Christians to abolitionists, through the Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement, it was the leadership of church figures that powerfully lifted society. We paid homage to African American pioneers and trailblazers who shaped the Valley and the U.S.
During his Homily, Bishop Cantú reminded us that “when we celebrate black history, it is about celebrating those great leaders on whose shoulders we stand.” Bishop Cantú weaved into his sermon his reflections on both the achievements and challenges of the African-American community and people of African ancestry in general. The lesson from those experiences, he said, “with a warm and open heart, we can pursue unity, love, and understanding together.”
The pre-liturgy activities featured short performances and brief speeches by the youth and young adults with the underlying message that we can lift each other up every day. “It brings the community together, it helps us to reconnect with our history,” said Felton Owen, one of the program organizers.
The Mass was followed by a special reception attended by Bishop Cantú and members of the Diocesan leadership. With Devin Fehely, an anchor with the KPIX –TV serving as the Master of Ceremonies, the crowd was well-entertained and inspired. The reception also featured keynote remarks by Dr. Teresia Hinga, Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Dr. Hinga reflected on celebrating the gifts of Catholics of African descent in the Diocese of San Jose as one of building resilient hope and a beloved rainbow community. “We can celebrate together, we can worship together and we can become friends in this area to let others know we are here, but we can be here together…our church has been based on bringing the African American community together to be as one,” she said.
Fr. James Okafor, a key leader of the organizing group said he is confident the celebration will take place again next year. “I was overjoyed today. It was a wonderful celebration. Everyone enjoyed themselves, a lot of people learned things about history that they thought they knew and learned some new nuggets today.” According to Aileen Casanave, one of the organizers of the event, “The church is the longest-standing institution in the black community and has played a pivotal role in the pursuit of freedom before, during, and after slavery.” Gheb Gehal of the Eriterean Catholic Community added, “The church and its leadership, then and now, continue to represent the soul of the African American community.”
Bishop Cantú’s closing remarks were very powerful: “Our diversity is not a source of weakness; it is a source of strength, and it is a source of our success,” So, he asked us to draw upon this strength 365 days a year— not just during Black History Month—in order to fully harness the fullest potential of our diverse but growing inclusive community.
Photography: Melissa Nyuiadzi and Mawuko Nyuiadzi