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Black D.C. priest plans separate catholic church

By Majorie Hyer,

(This story originally appeared in The Washington Post on June 20, 1989)

A prominent black Roman Catholic priest, in defiance of Cardinal James A. Hickey of Washington, announced plans yesterday to start an independent “African-American Catholic Congregation.”

The Rev. George A. Stallings Jr., archdiocesan director of evangelism for the past year, said he and “several hundred black Catholics” will launch the new congregation next month because the established church has failed to “meet the spiritual and cultural needs of African-American Catholics . . . .

“We must now take our destiny in our own hands and create forms of worship and parish life attuned to African Americans.”

Although Stallings noted in a statement that he was sending Hickey “detailed plans” for the new congregation, members of Hickey’s staff said yesterday no such word has reached the cardinal, who is out of town until Thursday.

Stallings has “no authority, no authorization to start this congregation,” said the Rev. Kevin Hart, who, as archdiocesan secretary for parish life and worship, is Stallings’s boss. Hart said he could not say what action the archdiocese would take.

But in general terms, if a priest conducts a service that deviates “in liturgy or doctrine” from church norms, he is considered to be in a state of schism from the church, Hart said.

Stallings readily acknowledged that his new church, scheduled to begin July 2 at the Howard University Law School, “does not have the approval, approbation or blessing” of Hickey.

He said the venture “is not a break at all” with traditional Catholicism, but an effort to develop “an African-American Catholic rite . . . with our own clergy” and the right to “determine our own parish life and ministry.”

Development of a more meaningful ministry with blacks is one of the most urgent and sensitive concerns of American Catholic leaders, locally and nationally. At their semiannual meeting at Seton Hall University last weekend, the American hierarchy voted unanimously to implement a “Pastoral Plan for Black Catholics” developed by the 13 black bishops in this country.

Stallings, 41, a convert to Catholicism, attracted national attention as pastor of St. Teresa of Avila parish in Southeast Washington by melding the gospel music and preaching and worship styles familiar to blacks with the traditional mass. According to the priest, in his 12 years at St. Teresa’s, membership increased from 200 to 2,000.

An archdiocesan spokeswoman put the number of black Catholics in the District of Columbia at about 50,000.

That compares with published figures listing about 96,000 Catholics of all races in the city, out of about 310,000 adherents of all religions, including about 49,000 Episcopalians, 47,000 Baptists, 39,000 members of AME Zion churches, 21,000 United Methodists and 9,000 Presbyterians.

Stallings said his ministry “has never been appreciated . . . never has been blessed by the entire church.” Such a worship style is seen by church authorities as “experimental,” he said, rather than as “the norm for persons of African American descent . . . .

“We always have to get the approval of a white male hierarchy . . . to enable them to control to a certain degree.

“What we are talking about is an African-American movement . . . governed by blacks, expressly for blacks.”

A year ago Stallings sought and received Hickey’s permission to leave St. Teresa’s for study in Rome, but when he changed his mind about the graduate study, he was given the evangelism post.

He has been in conversation with Hickey about starting an African-American congregation for several months. When he was unable to reach a satisfactory agreement in his most recent talk, June 6, “I just said I have to do what the Lord is calling me to do . . . packed up my computer and personal belongings and left as of that date,” he said. Stallings moved out of the St. Augustine rectory into a house he bought four years ago in Anacostia.

Hart said Stallings is still on the payroll, although he has not shown up for work.

Priests at two Catholic parishes in predominantly black areas of the city said their churches have incorporated gospel choirs into at least one of the Sunday masses. They said that they believed most of the city’s other Catholic churches with large numbers of black congregants did so as well.

Stallings predicted that “over half” the St. Teresa’s congregation would be on hand for his July 2 service, along with many other black Catholics. “I am convinced that we will see such an outpouring . . . you won’t be able to get on the campus.”

Black Catholics are loyal to their church, he said. “The only way we are going to leave the Catholic Church is if we are kicked out.”

Then he added: “The ball is in {Hickey’s} court.”

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