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REJOICE! The Conference on Black Catholic Liturgy

The 1989 REJOICE! Conference was held in Rome at the Vatican. The conference brought together Black Catholic leaders from all over the United States to showcase the richness of Black Catholic liturgical tradition.  In this photo Jackie Wilson, the executive director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Black Catholics (far left) and then-Father Ray East (far right) stand in St. Peter’s Square during the conference with two other participants in the center. (Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)

One of the most successful programs within the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Black Catholics in the 1980s was REJOICE! The Conference on Black Catholic Liturgy.   The Office of Black Catholic had begun as the Secretariat for Black Catholics under Archbishop William Baum in 1974.  When Archbishop James Hickey became the archbishop of Washington in 1980, he reorganized the administrative structure of the archdiocese and re-tasked the unit as an office.  

The Office of Black Catholics sponsored the first Archdiocesan Black Catholic Revival, “Jesus Made Us Free” in 1982.  For four nights in March more than 1,000 people flocked to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for a spiritual renewal lead by Father Giles Conwill and featuring the first combined Archdiocesan Gospel Choir lead by Leon Roberts, music director at St. Augustine’s.  A second revival was planned for 1984.

Interest in Black Catholic liturgy stretched back to the 1970s when the National Office of Black Catholics headquartered at the United States Catholic Conference (now part of the USCCB) initiated a national movement.  The work going on at the national office inspired Jackie Wilson, the executive director of the Office of Black Catholics, and Leon Roberts to begin discussing how to bring this movement to the Archdiocese of Washington to meet the needs of Black Catholics locally. The Black Catholic Revival was one of the first results, but Roberts also led a Gospel Music Workshop. The workshop began planning a conference, which was held in the same year as the second revival.  

Soon it was decided to call the planned conference REJOICE! The Conference in Black Catholic Liturgy.   A combined choir was formed for the five day conference, which showcased Black Catholic music, composed just for the conference.  Recordings were made of the choir at Archbishop Carroll High School, St. Augustine’s Church Hall, and at Howard University. In addition to the choir, Black Catholic liturgists, artists, catechists, lay Catholics, clergy and religious made presentations and gave lectures.  

REJOICE! became an annual event running from 1984 to 1990. The conference was held at Howard University, The Catholic University of America, or at a downtown hotel. After 1986, the conference became national as leaders in Black Catholic Liturgy from all over the U.S. contributed.  They included: Evelyn Haettenschwiller, Richard Cheri, Roderick Bell, Patricia Fointno, Roger Holliman, Kenneth Louis, Derek Campbell, Grayson Brown, John Higdon, Avon Gillespie, Joe Zamberlin, Henry Panion III, Orrin Bynum, Majorie Gabriel-Burrow, Norah Duncan IV, and Alecia Johnson.

This photo is from the first Archdiocesan Black Catholic Revival held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington over four days in March 1982. The striking banner showing Christ as both Black and white has the words “Here I stand Knocking” at the bottom. It hung from the high pulpit and was a feature of the decoration for the revival. (Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)  

In 1989, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Olivier lead a group of nearly 100 Black priests, theologians, historians, liturgists, musicians, and parishioners to Rome for an international REJOICE! Conference.  Through presentations by Father Clarence Williams, Sister Eva Marie Lumas, Leon Roberts, then-Father Edward Braxton, and Dr. Diana Hayes, the rich tradition of Black Catholic liturgy was showcased at the Vatican.   The impact of the conference was felt nationally and internationally within the Church.  

REJOICE! The Conference on Black Catholic Liturgy was held annually from 1984 to 1990. This brochure is from the 1986 Conference held at Howard University.  It gives highlights of the presentations planned and the lists of the names of speakers.  (Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)

As today much of our work is motivated by Open Wide Our Hearts, the work of the Office of Black Catholics in forming REJOICE! was based on an earlier letter from the Black bishops of the United States, What We have Seen and Heard.  What We have Seen and Heard specifically promoted the training of liturgists and catechists in a liturgy that was authentically Black and truly Catholic. The Catholic Church is universal and as such the presence of Black Catholics is a precious witness to that universality. The Black bishops of the United States encouraged Black Catholics to share the richness of their Black experience with the entire people of God. REJOICE! shared that abundance not only within the archdiocese but with the entire world.  

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)