MORAGA -- The black Catholic voice of the Rev. Edward Branch rang loud and clear at Tuesday's Jan Term Speaker Series lecture celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, 150 years of emancipation, and the 150th anniversary of Saint Mary's College.
And, while still grounded in history, the definition of the "black church" is expanding far beyond a thinly sliced definition as "black Baptists" to broader definitions, including not only theology but also literature, architecture and music, Branch said.
"In the stream of tradition, these black voices enrich our interpretation of 'being church,'" said Branch, who came to Moraga from the Atlanta University Center, where he is the Catholic chaplain for an organization governing a consortium of historically black colleges. He aimed to answer megalithic questions pertaining to African American expectations of the Catholic Church, both historically and in the future. He said the prophetic voice of Dr. King, proclaiming the "bend of justice towards emancipation," had led Branch's 22 years of research and spiritual practices.
Suggesting that when a lion tells a story, the deer (in the story) is always content to have been dinner, he promised to turn the tables and speak on the deer's behalf.
Defining the black church and African American's experience of it, Branch said, "Black is a culture, it is not a color. There is an expectation of struggle; of a society more full of foe than friend."
Tradition was the bedrock of Branch's position -- a point emphasized repeatedly as he steered the audience through Ethiopian origins for Christianity and the first Black Catholic Congresses.
Declaring the BCC delegates "ahead of their time," he said their work contributed to "the emancipation of the institutional church."
Today, in a post-civil rights era where multicultural church homes mean a wide range of African-origin ethnicities and gender categories meet the challenge to define the Black Catholic Voice, Branch said historical issues remain critical.
"The chronic presence of racism, the black struggle and white privilege," he proposed, are good reason for the work of the BCC to continue.
His "call to arms" included mandates for the Black church, laypeople, global communities and specifically, for students, faculty and staff of color at SMC.
For the Black church and global communities, Branch advised to know the past and learn from it' to improve the leadership and faith focus of our schools; cultivate the gifts of women more aggressively; and to work with purpose to eradicate racial concerns.
He exhorted Black Catholic students, faculty and staff to take responsibility for their communities. Business majors, he said, should manage parishes in poor communities; education majors should create scholarships and teach in Catholic schools; and so on.
"I'm going from preaching to meddling," Branch joked, before closing his lecture with an invocation to "liberate people to tell the 'deer' side."
Questions from the audience prompted Branch to speak with fiery passion about fiscal responsibilities and inclusive conversations.
"If we want these technological advances (specifically citing digital records of the African American experience in the church), we have to bring on serious financial consultants who get us the resources to help us produce these things. We have to take the initiative."
About the importance of lay organizations and their interface with the leadership of religious institutions, Branch said models to replicate could be found in East Africa. There, a convocation of priests, sisters and lay people resulted in an interactive dialogue absent of authority issues.
"The bottom line is, that's where Christianity began. The Protestant experience is rooted in our American experience. The reflection on the sufferings have had us interpret the scriptures and the will of God in light of those experiences. "Beginning with the conversion of the Ethiopians -- before (Saint) Paul -- we were there first," Branch added. "We grabbed onto the church's reflection and used the revelation."