Brother Tyrone Davis, a member of the Congregation of Christian Brothers and Executive Director of the Office of Black Ministry, has seen cultural shifts in New York’s Black Catholic community in the decades he has held his post. But through it all, the Office of Black Ministry (OBM) mission remains aligned with that of Catholic Charities New York: “Providing Help. Creating Hope.”
“Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked and do not turn your back on your own. That’s it! That’s Catholic Charities…that’s Office of Black Ministry…that’s the ministry of our church–past, present and future,” Brother Tyrone said.
HOW IS THE BLACK COMMUNITY DOING NOW?
“It is as challenged as any other community, particularly the immigrant community,” said Brother Tyrone. “Some of us in the Black community were born in the United States. But many of us, including people from West Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, were not. We have to own the issue of immigration, from refugee status to expiring visas. It’s an African issue. It’s an Asian issue. It’s an Hispanic issue. At the Office of Black Ministry, we are demonstrating a sense of hospitality, which has always been a part of our ministry.”
Like Catholic Charities New York, the OBM helps people regardless of creed. And the office stands “against violence, racism and all forms of injustice.” “Catholic Charities has been our ministerial partner for over 100 years,” Brother Tyrone said. ‘It’s very important to our communities and will continue to be in the days and years ahead as we work together to address the challenges facing us all.”
SERVING THE COMMUNITY
Brother Tyrone said the immigration issue is anxiety-ridden, especially for younger people. “It is very, very challenging, especially if you were brought here as a child at an early age, or if your parents’ or your own visa is expiring,” he added.
“In the past and even today, Black people could fall between the cracks in Catholicism,” said Brother Tyrone. “St. Mark the Evangelist Church was founded as the Black church in 1907, because African-Americans were not welcome at any other Catholic church in Harlem,” he noted, “But now, the Black community in the Church is more diverse, and that makes the experience richer for all Catholics.” His office receives calls and email nationwide from people from all walks of life. They ask for information, advice and referrals. Brother Tyrone notes that the OBM reflects, for the Black community, a national resource reflecting New York’s reputation as “The National Diocese.”
A SCHOLARSHIP WITH ROOTS IN SERVICE
The OBM and Brother Tyrone’s colleague, Leah Dixon, associate director and service adviser, administers the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund to graduates of public, private and parochial high schools in the Archdiocese of New York. Venerable Pierre Toussaint was born a Haitian slave in 1766 who came to New York, was a successful entrepreneur, and died a freeman in New York City in 1853. He was instrumental in raising funds for the first orphanage in New York and started the city’s first school for Black children. He also helped to provide funds for the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a religious community of black nuns founded in Baltimore and played a vital role in providing resources to erect Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Lower Manhattan.
“Many people view him as the father of Catholic Charities in New York,” Brother Tyrone said.
Scholars, who reflect the diversity of the City, are chosen based on excellence; involvement in church community; and service to others. Dixon said they don’t just get financial help but make an ongoing commitment to participate in service projects that help many Catholic Charities New York agencies, from Guild for the Blind to the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Center. A group also volunteers every year at St. Mark the Evangelist Church—still a primarily Black church, even 113 years after its birth–to prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner to the greater Harlem community.
“The Scholars have made cookbooks in Spanish and English to hand out at food pantries, sensory blocks for children with autism and fleece blankets and adult coloring books to donate to Catholic Charities, which we call our service partner,” she said.
“They give a lot of themselves to help others in need,” Dixon added. “And they come back with groups of college friends to do more service.”
“We expect our Scholars to become people of faith and service,” Brother Tyrone added. “That service will be an indispensable part of who they are and how they express themselves at church.”
FABRIC WOVEN OF MANY THREADS
The Annual Archdiocesan Black History Month Mass is held on the first Sunday of every February at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, was the principal celebrant on February 2, and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, was a concelebrant. This year, the choir numbered nearly 100 from parishes throughout the Diocese.
To demonstrate the diversity of Black heritage in the Catholic community, songs and prayer petitions were in languages including French, Creole, Gurune, Tigrinya, Garifuna, Igbo and English.
The 2020 Mass honored Black Catholic women—“they are our mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, wives, sisters and friends.” Ten women received Bakhita Woman of Faith and Service Awards named for Saint Josephine Bakhita, a former slave whom Brother Tyrone calls “Mama Josephine Bakhita.” The honorees, who reflect a diversity of ministries and occupations in the Church, were: Tiffani L. Blake; Sister Andrea Dixon; Sister Dorothy Hall; Carla A. Harris; Laurie Hyacinthe, DMD; Channon Lucas; Alberta Osei; Deena A. Sellers; Selam Seyoum; and Vivian Taylor.
The Mass also celebrated the importance of Catholic women’s groups, such as the Altar-Rosary Society, Pan Afro Catholic Women and Catholic Women of Harlem.
Mark your calendar for next year’s Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday, February 7, 2021.