HEIGHTS OF PERSPECTIVE — Raphael Civil, a third-year student at St. John’s University, was unaware of Black Catholic History Month until very recently, but it has become a quick study.
After reading about it, Civil stepped in to help school administrators organize the campus celebration.
“I personally didn’t realize it was a big deal until someone told me about it,” he said. “But now I see how important it is and why we should celebrate it. Black people have had an impact on the church. I think it’s important to bring that awareness to people.
Black Catholic History Month, celebrated nationwide every Novemberwas started by the National Back Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States in 1990.
The SJU commemoration, conducted virtually due to COVID-19 precautions, took place on Thursday, November 18 at 1:20 p.m.
The celebration included prayers and discussions about the accomplishments of black Catholics and their role in advancing the church.
One of Civil’s tasks that day was to introduce keynote speaker Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, associate professor of history at the University of Dayton and author of the forthcoming book “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle”.
Civil is working to raise awareness on campus for Black Catholic History Month and Black Catholic history in general – not just for this year, but for the future in hopes that more students will seek out information, just like him.
For example, students might be interested to know that there are many black saints in the Catholic Church, he said.
According to CollegeFactual.com, black students make up 14.2% of the undergraduate population at SJU. White students make up the largest segment, at 42.1%.
Dr. Andre McKenzie, the university’s acting diversity director, said the on-campus celebration of Catholic Black History Month is tied to the university’s core mission.
“First, it is important for us as a Catholic institution which, as part of its mission, is an anti-racist institution. It’s important from the perspective of the core values of this institution, which speaks of love, opportunity, service, excellence and truth,” McKenzie said. “And one last, which is respect – respect for every individual who was here and respect for the diverse campus environment that we have,”
Civil, a Maryland native, said he didn’t feel like a minority at SJU.
“It’s quite a diverse campus. I never felt discriminated against. I have many friends from different backgrounds and different races. That’s how you grow, when you see different people coming together.
He specializes in health services and plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health.
Civil’s student leadership roles include serving as vice president of the university chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Chapter members visit the homeless on the streets to deliver food, clothing and blankets.
“I want to have a seat at the table when institutions make decisions,” he said.
Civil is also a member of SJU’s Catholic Scholars Program, in which recipients receive $5,000 a year for each of their years in college and meet regularly with campus ministers for prayer sessions, lectures and retreats.
“When we talk about our Catholic faith, it’s not just about prayer,” he said. “It’s about what you do outside of the church that really defines who you are.”