‘What I learned from the Congress is that we must have a vision’

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Five Nashville Catholics were able to attend this year’s National Black Catholic Congress, partaking in Eucharistic liturgies and breakout sessions as they discussed the experiences of Black Catholics in the United States. 

Marking the 13th meeting since it first began in 1889, the Congress gathered from July 20-23 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, outside of Washington D.C. The congress, which brought together Catholics from across the country, including Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory and 3,000 attendees from 83 dioceses, was the first meeting of the congress since July 2017 in Orlando. 

Unlike previous iterations of the event which required attendees to be recommended by their diocese to attend, registration was open to the general public, and five local Catholics took advantage of the opportunity, including Father Francis Appreh, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Nashville, as well as Jaine Couch, Frances Henderson, Deacon Harry Guess, and his wife Cheryl Guess. 

Upon returning from the conference, Cheryl Guess, at the request of Father Appreh, delivered a reflection to the St. Vincent de Paul Church community during Sunday Masses in August. 

“I have attended the Black Sisters Conferences, the God’s Woman Conferences, San Diego Catechetical Weekends, the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, weekend retreats, and days of reflection. But none of those prepared me for what I would experience and how I would experience God during the Black Catholic Congress,” she told parishioners. “What I learned from the Congress is that we must have a vision; a vision to thrive that includes each of us individually, as Catholics, and all of us here as members of St. Vincent De Paul Church.”

Cheryl Guess has worked in Catholic education for her entire career. She worked at San Diego’s St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School for much of her career before retiring and moving with her husband to Nashville, where she happily joined St. Vincent de Paul Church. She now teaches religious education for St. Vincent’s sacramental preparation for first Communion and sacrament of reconciliation classes. 

This year marked Guess’s first time to attend the Black Catholic Congress, which she said she was interested in due to the topics of the event’s panels. The multi-day event consisted of half-day sessions on various topics, a morning Eucharistic service, and daily opportunities to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.” 

“I wasn’t able to attend all of the conferences but the ones that I think most about include a session that dealt with being Black and Catholic, and it was led by Marcia Lane McGee and Shannon Schmidt, who co-authored the book ‘Fat Luther, Slim Pickens,’” Guess explained. “There was also a session on the African ancestry identifying experience, which had to do with the ability and difficulty of tracking background and ancestry. They did a presentation on tracing your Mitochondrial DNA and tracking lineage. 

“There was also an interesting panel on the Catholic Church in their role in historically Black colleges and universities, whether or not many of them have growing centers for female and Black students,” she continued. “And there was one I really liked about the experience of being a ‘fat Catholic,’ meaning you want to build yourself up and overflow so others know what Catholicism is all about.” 

These, however, were not her biggest takeaways. 

“What was most striking to me was the number of Black ordained ministers in the Church, and this isn’t all the ones in the United States. Being there came with the feeling that I wasn’t a minority. It’s difficult to explain. If you’re a member of the majority people you go through life as though it’s just life,” Guess said. “But when you’re a minority, you always know that when you walk down the street or go into church. But going to that congress, where everyone is smiling and if you bump into someone it’s no big deal, it’s like everyone is part of a big family together for a big reunion, but with Mass and the Eucharist, and discussions on Black saints. 

“It makes for an experience with nothing needed to be explained to me,” she added. “I understood the cultural nuances, and I left feeling very loved and part of a church that is bigger than just my parish and diocese.”  

Guess also noted that the experience of attending the conference offered a feeling of verification that “we’re on the right track,” saying she felt great joy and emotion in being deeply connected to such a large group and being able to partake in the Eucharist with a group she felt uniquely connected to. She said events like this show that Catholicism recognizes that there is a home for everyone in the Church, and that God made us all in His image. 

“My hope going forward is that when the next conference comes up in a few years more people from our diocese will go,” she said. “When we went, the five of us were the only members of the diocese there to represent Nashville, and we felt like we were kind of alone to represent our diocese.” 

For more information about the National Black Catholic Congress, visit nbccongress.org/

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