This is the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans,the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States. It commemorates the many who died unnamed, unmarked, shuffled out of a history that brutalized them both in life and in death. They are memorialized in the grim collection of rusty iron shackles and chains and crosses salvaged from many ravished grave sites. In the process of erecting modern monuments to progress, bulldozers unearthed the skulls and bones of slaves wherever they had been buried, often hastily, anonymously.But it is what goes on inside St. Augustine’s in Treme, a church that still bears the scars of the more recent brutality of Katrina, that really gives voice to those who have been silenced and erased. Those who worship there now offer a welcome that is warm and faith-filled to strangers like ourselves, drawn to this special spot by the history that speaks from its walls, its pews and most of all, its parishioners.
St. Augustine Catholic Church is a short walk from our hotel in the French Quarter, a walk that traverses time as much as distance. On the Feast of Corpus Christi, against the cacophony of talk shows filled with the chatter of shameless warmongers, we were dipped in the healing waters of the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Church. Fr. Quentin Moody’s homily about the challenges of sin and death that pave the road to heaven is the kind of homily familiar to most Catholics. But nothing prepared us for his seamless transition from words spoken quietly from the pulpit to his glorious rendition of “I found the answer; I learned to pray.” Then, and in the other instrumental solos, as well as in the singing of the choir and the congregation that followed, one could almost imagine those whom history has forgotten climbing the musical stave like a stairway to heaven. The music just poured out, more like prayer than performance.We, who had come from faraway Hawaii discovered others, from a dozen countries perhaps, who had also made the pilgrimage to St. Augustine Church a “must do” during their visit to this storied city. And being asked to take up the offering of bread and wine seemed like a very special privilege on top of what was already a richly rewarding experience.
We learned during the exchange of the peace sign that the family in the pew in front of us had driven to New Orleans from Austin, Texas and did not want to leave without attending this service. The mother of the two small boys said to me, “This is the first time my sons have not found Mass boring.” But the challenge facing the Catholic church is about more than not being boring. The church has to become more relevant. More attentive. More tuned to lay Catholics and their real life struggles and where they are on the social issues of our time. Nuns and lay Catholics are leading the way. But how long must we wait before the bishops follow?
A couple of days earlier we had watched the New Orleans Pride Parade as it made its way down Bourbon Street. The feast of the body of Christ, coming right after that event is a reminder that the Catholic church needs to live the promise that the “body” is all-inclusive. Several churches, corporations and public institutions lent their support to the parade. But the Catholic church was not visible anywhere. Especially with the 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire and the indifference of most churches to the horrific suffering of the LGBT community still burned in people’s minds, both lay Catholics and our institutional leaders need to get beyond dispensing platitudes for television to demonstrating public solidarity. If, as Fr. Quentin said in his homily, Jesus picks us all up and gives us new life, what justifies the on-going exclusion of LGBT Catholics from full communion in the church? What justifies the continuing refusal to recognize women as full equals in the church?
The Catholic tradition of social justice invites us to act now rather than wait to create monuments of atonement in the future for what we fail to do now. We are being called to correct injustice in the present. We can find the answers. We can learn to pray.