For the first time, an archbishop has attended a board meeting of Oregon's association of African American Catholics.
Archbishop Alexander Sample and his mother, Joyce, were guests last month at The Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland.
For the more than 30 years the African-American Catholic Community of Oregon has been active, archbishops have presided at the group's annual Mass. But this is the first time the spiritual leader of western Oregon Catholics has attended a general gathering.
"We are in this together. We are one family of faith," Archbishop Sample told the group of several dozen African American leaders. "I want to be there and support you."
Organizers explained the history of their group, which was inspired by the 124-year-old National Black Catholic Congress. Called the Portland Black Catholic Lay Caucus when it began in the 1980s, the organization has held an annual Mass in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.; revivals; retreats; days of reflection; and trips to the National Black Catholic Congress.
Mary Harvey and Edna Hicks, organizers of the group's annual two-week summer Bible school at Immaculate Heart Parish in North Portland, told the archbishop that their effort aims to keep parish and neighborhood kids away from gang influence and offer Catholic teaching as an alternative.
"We have been focused on evangelization," said Lucinda Tate, outgoing chairwoman of the association.
Portland also has chapters of the Knights of Peter Claver and the Knights of Peter Claver Ladies Auxiliary, both national service groups for African American Catholics. A phone survey by the organization found that there are about 300 African American Catholics in Oregon, most in Portland.
According to the 2012 census, African Americans make up 2 percent of Oregon's population, 78,000 out of 3.9 million. Portland's population is 6.3 percent African American.
Leaders of the Catholic group explained to the archbishop that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Oregon into the mid-20th century and more subtle racism like blocked real estate access and loan refusals has endured even longer.
The archbishop said the church needs to evangelize the broader African American community.
"The best kept secret in the Catholic Church is the presence of Black Catholics. That's from saints to bishops to priests," said Teletha Benjamin, explaining that Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and even St. Augustine were from Africa. "All we want to be is valued and respected for what we bring to the church. We are ready."
The archbishop and his mother, Joyce, joked with the crowd. When he apologized for running late because there was heavy traffic when he went to pick her up, she said in a deadpan: "Blame the Mother." That prompted a lot of laughter.
"I'm very pleased he agreed to meet with us," says Evelyn Couser, incoming chairwoman of the African-American Catholic Community of Oregon. "We wanted an informal meeting to help him learn what we do and he said yes. That delighted us."