'Racial Sobriety' And the Church

By David Crumm
Detroit Free Press
Saturday, July 28, 2007

DETROIT -- One of Detroit's most gifted racial healers has packed his bags for his move to Washington. The Rev. Clarence Williams is moving to the District to expand his training program that promotes what he calls "racial sobriety" into Catholic dioceses nationwide.

Before leaving the Motor City to start his job at the national headquarters of Catholic Charities USA, Williams made one last pilgrimage to the sacred spot where, 38 years ago, he experienced his own epiphany in racial awareness.

"It's almost impossible now for people to appreciate how important Detroit was in the 1960s in waking up our consciousness as a black community. But Detroit was an epicenter in that movement," Williams said as he peered up into the dome at St. Cecilia's Catholic Church on Detroit's west side, at the painting of an African Jesus.

Pointing up at Devon Cunningham's solemn image of a black Jesus, Williams said: "This was mind-blowing and extremely controversial. I was a college student in Indiana when this painting appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine, and a lot of the good Negro people I knew at that time thought people in Detroit had lost their minds! Christ couldn't be black like this.

"And do you know what else is important about this painting? It was commissioned by a Lebanese American priest, Father Ray Ellis, who was the pastor here and who understood bigotry himself," Williams said. "To this day, I believe that we will never heal our communities until everyone works together on racism, whether we're black, white or whatever our cultural background happens to be."

For Catholics especially, Detroit was a center of racial activism that echoed across the worldwide church. After the Detroit riot 40 years ago this month and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, several nationwide groups of black Catholics were founded in Detroit.

"Detroit was the birthplace of what we call the Black Catholic Movement, and we'll celebrate that 40th anniversary in 2008," Williams said.

The revolutionary insight that fueled these new Catholic groups was that Christianity was more than just a European faith to which people from other racial backgrounds could aspire, if they modeled themselves after Europeans.

"This was so hard for people to understand," Williams said. "As a student, I was the only Negro in my entire seminary, and, at that time, my goal was to prove to white people that I was a credit to my race.

"Then, when I heard that priests in Detroit were calling themselves 'black' like Malcolm X and that Father Ellis had commissioned this painting, my first reaction was that these crazy priests in Detroit were spoiling it all for us," Williams said.

Nearly four decades later, Williams is deeply thankful for those who inspired him to become a historian, teacher, author and documentary filmmaker. One of his projects, a series of films about the African roots of Christianity called "Search for a Black Christian Heritage," is distributed worldwide by the Vatican.

As he prepares to leave Detroit, Williams said there's one central lesson of the 1960s that he hopes people never forget.

"The reason that I wanted to do this last interview in Detroit at St. Cecilia's was as a reminder of the importance of faith in all of this," he said. "We can work on racial equality through a lot of different disciplines: politically, educationally, socially. But we can't afford to lose the moral force of faith.

"That's where this movement started," Williams said. "Now, there are a lot of people working on these issues, but if we ever lose sight of the power of faith to unite communities, then all the years of work will start to fade."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company