Woven in the collective memory of this nation is the tragic terror African Americans have long endured. One hundred and sixty years ago, more than four million blacks were slaves in America. One hundred and twenty years ago, more than a thousand blacks were lynched, hanged from a tree for daring to vote or speak to racial injustice. Fifty-five years ago, black leaders were assassinated in cold blood with their killers never facing justice, as witnesses did not dare speak the truth for fear of retribution. To be a just man, it would seem fitting that truthfully remembering history means not just celebrating the light, but also not forgetting the darkness.
In a beautiful celebration of Black History Month, more than 700 faithful gathered in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Harrisburg where Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrated Holy Mass on Feb. 9. The Mass, organized by the Diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries and the Black Catholic Apostolate, featured sung prayer by the Diocesan Gospel Choir as well as visiting musicians from Lancaster’s Swahili choir, which offered deeply moving renditions of African spirituals from Kenya and The Congo, along with French hymns of praise.
The homilist was Father Anthony Eseke, an assistant professor of communications at Messiah College in Grantham and parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Mechanicsburg. Father Eseke is a native of Nigeria, where he attended St. Peter and Paul Seminary and then earned masters and doctorate degrees from the University of Florida.
In his homily, Father Eseke shared a story of when he had just arrived in the United States in 2005 and was out for a walk in a joyous state of mind for the all the abundant blessings in his life. But that light was soon replaced by darkness, when he was confronted by a man on a bicycle who asked him, “What are you doing here? You live in this neighborhood? Really?” The tone was terrorizing, Father said, and if “eyes could kill, his would have killed me.” The sober reality of American racism was the dark scare he now would have to live with in his new home.
Augustus Tolton could well relate, though his brush with fear occurred in 1862 as civil war raged in Missouri. Tolton, an eight-year-old slave, along with his mother Martha Jane and two younger siblings, escaped from their Missouri plantation when word reached the family that the Tolton children were going to be sold separately to slave buyers. Their father, John Paul, had escaped months earlier and joined the Union army to provide monies for the family; he would die of dysentery just days after joining the army, far from his family. Martha Jane would receive his $11 monthly pension for the rest of her life.
Now, the rest of the Tolton family fled to seek freedom, but they were soon captured by Confederate raiders who knew they were runaway slaves. After being roughed up, Martha Jane managed to escape again with the three children in tow, crossing the Mississippi River in twilight in a floundering rowboat as Confederate-fired musket balls at the fleeing family hunkered down in the skiff.
The family made it to free soil in Illinois, where young Augustus began his schooling at an all-white Catholic school. Parishioners soon wanted the pastor removed for allowing a black student in the school. Rocks were hurled through the church and rectory windows – the family could not stay in such a hostile climate. So the family moved and found a parish more welcoming to them, and that is where young Augustus took root under the Sisters of Saint Lawrence and Father Peter McGirr – an Irish immigrant priest who lovingly began to foster Augustus’ love for God, the Church and a priestly vocation.
On April 24, 1886, Augustus Tolton was ordained a priest at St. John Lateran Church in Rome, and a day later on Easter Sunday, he celebrated his first Mass – nearly 24 years to the day he was shot at by those angry southerners in a rowboat with his terrified slave mother of three frantically rowing in the gathering dark. One hundred and thirty years later, Father Tolton’s sainthood cause is being sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago.
“As a 12-year-old in Africa, I did not know where America was – it seemed like a fairy tale to me,” Father Eseke shared. “I had no idea about the problems of America…. What does it mean when Jesus asks us to be the light of the world…? We have tunnels of darkness. It may not be slavery today, but we have meanness of public discourse, nastiness of tweets. But I remind you that you are light, I am light that brings peace to our culture. We are the essence of what is good in the world. Love, it comes from the heart.” he said.
“There are two types of Christians,” Father Eseke said, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King. “There are thermometers and there are thermostats. One is a product of the environment and takes the temperature. The other controls the temperature,” Father Eseke said. “The Lord wants us to just become thermostats.”
The just man is a light of darkness, Psalm 112 states. It was the Responsorial Psalm all sung together by the faithful at the Black History Mass.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness