Catholic Diocese of Cleveland

1404 East 9th Street | Cleveland, Ohio 44114

New director of diocesan African-American ministry shares thoughts on race and the Church

Each culture has its own voice and it is important to keep the spirit of diversity alive in the Church and the Diocese of Cleveland. Bishop Nelson Perez said he is committed to that philosophy.

So when Vanessa Griffin Campbell, who led the diocesan Office of African-American Ministry for many years, retired late last year, a search began for her replacement. Cary Dabney was selected to fill the role.

He addressed the First Friday Club of Greater Akron on Nov. 2, speaking about racism in the Catholic Church and giving those in attendance a peek at the topic of his doctoral dissertation, “Race and the Catholic Imagination”.

Dabney talked about the history of racism within the church and the country. He explained that while desegregation took place in 1954, it wasn’t until 1958 that the American bishops made their first statement – and the message had little effect.

It was a very basic statement he said:  “Be quiet and be prayerful.” However, the Protestant faiths had a very specific statement by the end of 1954. It told their church leaders that they needed to desegregate.

Dabney said the U.S. Catholic bishops realized they had not done enough. In the 1960s, he said there were parishes that had Masses specifically for white parishioners and other Masses for those of color. Some churches had screens down the center of the building to separate the white and black parishioners so that they couldn’t see each other. And still others had people of color seated in the balcony. Also, they were not permitted to receive Communion until all of the white parishioners had received it first.

Although improvements have been made, Dabney said the Catholic Church still has a long way to go to improve cultural diversity. Today, 42 percent of American Catholics are people of color. Of the 463 American bishops, only nine are African-American and of the 415,000 American priests, only 250 are African-American.

Regarding where we go from here, Dabney told the audience that an ad hoc committee is being formed and another letter will be sent from the bishops to address the situation. He said a Catholic Truth Commission exists and it is looking at the Church’s history since 1847.

After his presentation, Dabney fielded a few questions from the audience. One person asked what a white Catholic could do to help resolve things. Dabney’s response was very simple: “Live out the teachings of the faith; respect everyone. Remember that we are all created in the image and likeness of God.” Another person asked why Dabney remains a Catholic despite the racism that exists in the Church. “Racism isn’t really the Church’s tradition,” Dabney said, explaining that what keeps him faithful is the fact that “We are the only faith that receives the actual human form — the body and blood of Christ — and even if you had to go last to receive him, knowing that you are receiving the body and blood of Christ makes it all worthwhile.”

Dabney encouraged the audience – especially the schools — to take advantage of the resources available from his office.

For more information on the diocesan Ministry to African-American Catholics, visit

Information about the next First Friday Club of Greater Akron luncheon can be found at

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