King's Message Inspires Utah's Black Catholics

King's Message Inspires Utah's Black Catholics

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Each seat in the church was occupied this particular Saturday evening.

They came to listen, not just to the regular sermon at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Taylorsville, but to a speaker who traveled a great distance.

From Montgomery, Ala., the young priest, the Rev. Fred Briers III, had arrived in Utah with a five-page homily.

"When the machinery of our lives and other people's lives is jammed with injustice, our contract demands that we speak up for justice," he said. "When the peace in family, place of employment, neighborhood, city or country, is broken, our (baptismal) contract demands we be the peacemaker."

It was a message that the Black Catholics of Utah, the group that arranged Briers' visit earlier this month, wanted Utahns to hear during a time of the year that recalls the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 1950s, King saw injustice in the way blacks like himself were treated in this country, said group member John Sparks, but he didn't just sit and watch. He called on political leaders, community members and the world to recognize and correct the wrongs. In that sense, he was carrying out the baptismal contract that Briers mentioned.

"We'd like to remind (the public) of the message of Martin Luther King Jr.," Sparks said.

King's message helped ignite a movement that propelled the nation's desegregation and the advance of political rights for minority groups.

And, indirectly, it paved the way for people such as the Black Catholics of Utah to worship side by side with others who don't look like them.

This year, the group chose Briers, a recently ordained priest, a self-described "cradle Catholic" and scholar of theology whose interests include studying the experience of blacks in Catholicism.

Worldwide, there are more than 200 million Catholics of African descent, according to the National Black Catholic Congress. For some of them, the experience of injustice is the same as for blacks of all religions in this country and in other parts of the world.

Equality and justice for all are still ideals, especially for ethnic minorities, Sparks said.

More than 36 years after King's assassination, his words should bring hope and love, said Briers, who speaks of the richness that King left behind, something visible in places like his native Alabama. He also speaks of the role religion plays in seeking equality.

At the Mass he celebrated Jan. 8, Briers told the story of a shoeless boy in Birmingham on a winter day. A woman who was walking by took him by the hand and bought him shoes and warm clothes.

"That's our challenge this evening, to be those individuals who mirror the kingdom of God," he said.

It's a challenge that King took on and one that's become popular among religious movements such as African-American liberation theology, which, according to a scholarly paper from Wake Forest University, "seeks to find a way to make the gospel relevant to black people who must struggle daily under the burden of white oppression."

Briers' words, however, are ones that black Catholics in Utah, such as Christine Diniz, hope others will apply to other types of injustices in the world.

And no matter how small a group is -- black Catholics number about 50 in the state -- it's never too small to try to bring enlightenment to a community, she said.

"We're small in numbers, but we have strong faith," she said. "You realize that there's a need for education, for role models. Every day is a calling."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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