Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Embracing community and conversion at “the Rock”

“Welcome to the Rock Church – where our celebration is long and loud!”  An usher greeted me with these words, a bright smile, and a hug the first time I attended Sunday Mass at St Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church in St Louis.  I had heard wonderful things about the Rock Church from past Dominican novices who made it their parish home during their canonical years.  My mind was made up to join the Rock after my first experience of vibrant worship and welcoming community there. 
                Mass at the Rock is, indeed, “long and loud” and is celebrated in the African American tradition. A gospel choir leading the singing of hymns and spirituals, the procession at the beginning of Mass led by a woman dressed in kente cloth bearing a cowrie shell-adorned bowl of incense, the use of ‘call and response’ with the congregation during the homily, African drumming, and the joyful communal shout of “harambee” to celebrate good news or special events are all practices that reflect the Rock’s enculturated worship. 
                The physical worship space reflects this commitment, too.  A side altar bears the image of Afro-Peruvian St Martin de Porres, and there is another corner of the church that honors significant African American Catholics like Thea Bowman, FSPA.  And then there are the images of Jesus.  In the small chapel where daily Mass is celebrated, an image of Jesus Christ Liberator hangs on the wall.  The paper worship aide I was handed by the usher included an image of black Jesus alongside the song lyrics.  
"Jesus Christ Liberator" icon by Robert Lentz, OFM

The Jesus of Vacation Bible School flannel-boards certainly looked more like my European-American self than like a Middle-eastern Semite.  And despite the ministerial and theological education I’ve received since those Vacation Bible School days, those images are still operative for me and I know I am called to deeper conversion.  This is in part why I chosen a faith community where my assumptions will be interrupted, where I am exposed to new images of Jesus and the saints, and where the style of worship is so different from my childhood church experiences.  As a novice with a congregation committed to becoming anti-racist, I share in the Sinsinawa Dominican challenge to address the structural evil of racism at every level, including within myself.  Aware of my own complicity and white privilege, accepting the invitation to join a faith community where I am surrounded by so many African-American brothers and sisters seems like one place to start. 
The importance of such a conversion is not abstract or theoretical, but feels deeply urgent and immediate.  The day I moved to St Louis as a newly-minted canonical novice in August, my adult hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia was filled with tiki-torch-bearing white supremacists repeating racist and anti-Semitic chants.  A state of emergency was declared, and the violence that ensued during and after the “Unite the Right” rally there led to one death and dozens of injuries.  I watched with disbelief and deep sadness as my Facebook feed filled with posts of friends who were counter-protesting.  As I prayed for and reached out to loved ones in Charlottesville during my first days at the CDN, questions of how to live out a commitment to racial justice as a truth-seeking, justice-loving, active-contemplative Dominican-sister-in-training became personal and pressing.  
 Moreover, three years after the popular uprising for racial justice in nearby Ferguson, MO, and six weeks after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, it is impossible to deny the wounds of racial injustice in greater St Louis.  One Friday night as I was praying compline here at the novitiate house in the Central West End, there were protestors passing by outside, bearing handmade signs proclaiming, “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter.”  Dominican Praise book in hand, before the Blessed Sacrament, the line between the street and the sanctuary dissolved as their indignant calls for justice blended with my own voice chanting psalms of lament. 
Those questions continue to feel important as I move through my canonical year – “apart” from the world with the novitiate’s emphasis on prayer and yet deeply connected to all – especially through ministry.  Once a week, I minister at Marian Middle School, where the majority of the students are African American.  A few weeks ago the school social worker came in to give the standard “just say no to drugs” presentation.  During the classroom discussion after she spoke, one sixth grader piped up: “People think that we are more likely to use drugs just cause of our race.”  It is sad and striking that my eleven-year-old students are already aware of and able to articulate the reality of racial profiling – a reality I was completely clueless of as a white eleven-year-old.  
Another Marian Middle School ministry experience highlighted again the significance of reading and responding to “the signs of the times” in terms of racial justice and images of God.  Recently, I taught the fifth and sixth grade classes about St Mary Magdalen.  My PowerPoint slide show included several images, including an image of an African Jesus and Mary Magdalen.  One of my more outspoken sixth graders looked at the image on the screen, nodded and said emphatically, “Mm hmm!  Thank you, Sister!”         
source: Vie de Jesus Mafa
Reflecting on these encounters with my students leads me to a greater desire for solidarity with my African-American brothers and sisters and greater awareness of the need to repent of our nation’s “original sin” of racism. The Sunday after the Stockley verdict came down, our pastor Fr Rick opened space after the homily for parishioners to share what was in our hearts.  One Rock parishioner stood and spoke firmly:  “We are here.  We are here.  This is our home.  We are not leaving.  And we know God is with us.”  Her words were met with nods, murmurs of assent and a few shouts of “Amen!” 
                Her message was a powerful preaching to me since I, as a white person, have never felt the need to assert that my life matters, that I have a right to exist as an equal member of civil society, and that God stands by me in that struggle.  Her bold assertion of identity – which was enthusiastically affirmed and echoed around the sanctuary – has remained with me in the weeks since.
Yet, of course, worship is not only about intellect, but about our whole being.  Church participation is not a cultural or sociological exercise, but an encounter with the Living God.  Ultimately, our faith congregation should draw us closer to Christ, our Source and All in All.  We go to church to find and be found by God, together in the sacraments, the gathered assembly, the shared experience of prayer.  We go to church to celebrate the mystery of faith: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And so I worship at the Rock because I experience an incarnated sense of the Resurrection there.  I hear echoes of Resurrection in the worship that has gone on for 150 years, in the face of systemic injustice.  I catch glimpses of Resurrection in that community which has gathered faithfully to pray, to sing, to claim victory in Jesus and their collective identity as God’s beloved.  They have gathered to proclaim, “Jesus is King!”, rejoicing in an authority that is infinitely higher and truer than the forces of empire.  They have gathered to offer a beacon of light to the neighborhood and the city.  This joyful lived witness, this articulation hope feels like glorious insurgency, an eschatological proclamation, gospel resistance.  This is Resurrection in real time. 
I find myself humming or singing, “Glory, hallelujah, Jesus lifted me!” – a common closing song at Mass at the Rock – often now.   I am grateful to be internalizing this song of praise which feels like it encapsulates the joyful Easter spirituality of my new parish home. I trust my participation in this community is part of a deepening conversion in Christ to a richer vision of Beloved Community, one where no one is excluded and each member of the human family is cherished.  
Sanctuary at the Rock Church (photo: Rhonda Miska)


  1. "They have gathered to proclaim, “Jesus is King!”, rejoicing in an authority that is infinitely higher and truer than the forces of empire." YES!! Beautiful reflection. True liberation has been found in Jesus, in the mystery of faith. It is a liberation we need to be reminded of so often. He is a King who liberates and yet also lays a gentle yoke upon us: love one another. My Black Catholic parish has given me a similar welcome and a similar challenge. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Sister Rhonda, for sharing your experience at the Rock with us in such a well written essay. I enjoyed going to a Black church where ALL the women were addressed as "Sister", not just me.

  3. Dear Sr. Elaine,
    Thank you for your inspiring words. You have given me a lot to meditate on and put into practice.