Wednesday, January 18, 2006

How does that song go?

Why, oh why, oh why?
Because, because, because, because,
Goodbye, goodbye, good bye.

(It's a folk song, the lyrics don't have to make sense.)

The order from the archdiocese had been clear: Stop the accusations, the name-calling, the disobedience to the authority of the Catholic Church.

But parishioner Bill Alston, bundled against the cold outside a church, didn't care as he passed out fliers alleging to his fellow Catholics that a leader at his nearby home congregation, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Anacostia, was "disrespectful, insulting and profane" and that the diocese was sweeping it under the rug.

The unusual public confrontation last month between priest and parishioner was one more point of friction in a year-long dispute -- Alston calls it a crusade -- in which a cadre of longtime members at Our Lady, one of Washington's historically black Catholic congregations, is in mutiny against the white pastor.

Those members contend that the Rev. Donald Fest has ruled by fiat and has refused to confer about decisions or seek compromise. They don't like the administrator he put in charge, and they don't like the new rules on using the church hall, the famous Panorama Room.

The story at Our Lady is one of clashing opinions and, for Alston and his disgruntled brethren, an attempt to regain control of what they view as their church. Their ancestors built it, and generations since have maintained it, tithed to it, sent their children to its school.

What they have learned is that butting heads with a 2,000-year-old institution is no easy task. People at every level of church hierarchy have told them the same thing: The Catholic Church is no democracy.

"We've existed for 2,000 years," Fest said of the Catholic Church. "This parish has existed for 85 years. The pastor has certain rights and responsibilities. It's not a majority-rule kind of thing."

The last straw for the disgruntled parishioners came when Tyree began implementing changes that Fest ordered for the Panorama Room -- changes that the archdiocese said has resulted in a healthier bottom line.

People who used to have keys and unfettered access now must seek permission to use the room, and only for church purposes. Events sponsored by partisan groups were banned, and Fest, in concert with archdiocese policy, required all groups to acquire their own liability insurance before renting the room.

Ronald Saunders, a member of the church finance committee, said the changes were necessary, although some didn't like them.

"Their parents and forefathers built the church, but you can't live by those regulations anymore," Saunders said. "They don't want to live by the laws that govern us now. This is an archdiocese church. This is not their church."

What got them all suspended was passing out fliers, with their names attached, making the allegations about Tyree and gathering 100 names on petitions seeking his removal. The suspensions infuriated the men.

"If that's not racism, I don't know what is," Alston said at a recent caucus. After several people made similar accusations, Paul Kearney, a former federal investigator and community activist, piped up: "I don't agree with you calling [Fest] a racist."

The men view their fight as a symbol of larger injustices associated with being black in America. For more than a century, black Catholics have lobbied, with some success, for recognition of their unique cultural expressions within the church, such as using gospel music and Protestant-like sermons. Still, many believe the Catholic Church isn't doing enough.

At one meeting, Bill Shelton, a lawyer, shared a passage from Randall Robinson's "Quitting America," which chronicled his decision to move to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts rather than endure racism in the United States.

"I am convinced now that I cannot change them from within or without, and even attempting to from within is to run the risk of losing one's soul," read Shelton, a suspended parish council member.

All nodded their heads in agreement.

Read the complete article Revolt Simmers at Church from The Washington Post. I quoted way too much, but one has to create an account at the website. Since that's annying, the gist of the article is above.

The priest made changes. No one likes changes. The priest gave a lot of power to a man who has been working at the parish for seventeen years. That certainly has to rankle long-time members. Then, in order to use parish facilities in a fiscally responsible manner, access to the Panorama Room was restricted and other policies instituted. Add to the mix general feelings of discontent because the Catholic Mass doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the Baptists and other protestants down the street (and it's not like that discussion is anything new for the global Church).

Is there anything in there that would lead one to think that the priest is a racist because he suspended people from their duties in an effort to keep order?

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