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May 28, 2023
Image from The People’s Tribunal (1967). Credit: Dan Alridge Collection

Today’s Invitation

Today, we invite you to explore the descent of the Holy Spirit to communities fighting oppression, through the Pentecost connections to the Detroit Uprising, and the People’s Tribunal at the Shrine of the Black Madonna; engage Catholic Social Teaching through American Black Catholics’ organizing against Black Catholic school closures; and embody these principles with the help of the Shrines of the Black Madonna, Sister Thea Bowman, and Glanton Dowdell’s Black Madonna mural.

Commentary by Marjorie Corbman


Reading 1

Acts 2:1-11

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room.
Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven;
the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting.
Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire;
these separated and came to rest on the head of each one.
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit,
and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.

Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem
from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled.
But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken.
They were amazed and astonished:
“Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans!
How does it happen that each of us hears their words in our native tongue?
We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites,
people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene,
as well as visitors from Rome — all Jews, or converts to Judaism —
Cretans and Arabs, too.
We hear them preaching, each in our own language,
about the marvels of God!”

Responsorial Psalm

Psalm 104

Response: Adonai, send forth Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.

Bless Our God, my soul. / Adonai, my God, how great You are!
Adonai, what variety You have created,
Earth is completely full of the things You have made.
R: Adonai, send forth Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.

You turn Your face away, they suffer;
You stop their breath, they die and return to dust.
You give breath, fresh life begins, / You keep renewing the world.
R: Adonai, send forth Your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.

Glory forever to the Most High! / May Our God find joy in all creation.
May these reflections of mine give God pleasure / as much as the Most High gives me.
R: Adonai, send forth Your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.

Reading 2

1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13

It is for this reason that I want you to understand
that no one can be speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit
and say, “Curse Jesus”;
by the same token, no one can say, “Jesus Christ reigns supreme,”
unless under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
There are a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit.
There are a variety of ministries, but we serve the same One.
There are a variety of outcomes, but the same God who is working in all of them.
To each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
The body is one, even though it has many parts;
all the parts — many though they are — comprise a single body.
And so it is with Christ.
It was by one Spirit that all of us, whether we are Jews or Greeks,
slaves or citizens, were baptized into one body.
All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit.


John 20:19-23

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week,
the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were,
for fear of the Temple authorities.
Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you.”
Having said this, the savior showed them the marks of crucifixion.
The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus,
who said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As Abba God sent me, so I am sending you.”

After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven.
If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved. 

The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.



A New Spirit

In 1967, the city of Detroit broke out into what is variously called the Detroit uprising, rebellion, or riots. Similarly to other examples of urban civil unrest in the mid- and late-1960s, the immediate cause of the uprising was an incident of police harassment – in this case, a police raid on an unlicensed bar – but many in the Black community of Detroit understood the true cause of the rebellion to be “white institutional racism in the form of urban renewal, expressways, and white suburban resistance” (40), in the words of Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas in Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide (2013). 

By the end of the Detroit uprising, 43 people were dead, and thousands of Black residents of Detroit had been displaced from their homes. Police officers’ actions during the period confirmed the opinion of many within the Black community that the police served the role of an “occupying army” in Black neighborhoods (2), particularly as reports surfaced of “the execution-like slaying” of three Black teenagers in the Algiers Motel by members of the Detroit police (40).

During this time, Detroit’s Central Congregational Church, which identified as a Black Christian nationalist community, became a spiritual home for those engaged in the uprising. The church unofficially began to use the name it would later officially adopt, the Shrine of the Black Madonna. The pastor of the community, Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr. (later Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman), understood the events of 1967 as a Pentecostal moment, similar to the spiritual transformation that occurs in the reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. 

In the wake of the uprising, Cleage served as the chair of a committee that organized a People’s Tribunal, in which the community publicly put the police officers who had killed three Black teenagers – Aubrey Pollard, Fred Temple, and Carl Cooper – at the Algiers Motel on trial, recognizing that the community would never receive justice from the courts. After the original location for the tribunal backed out, Cleage volunteered his church. Aware that this would put the church in danger of violence, the church’s officers defiantly released a statement: 

“[E]ven if granting permission for the People’s Tribunal to be held here means the destruction of our building, as churches have been destroyed in Birmingham and all over the South, we still have no choice. We serve the Black Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who came to unite and free an oppressed black nation. Our free brothers have been brutally slain, and it is only right that the voice of truth, silent in the corrupt halls of justice, should ring out in the House of God” (Albert Cleage, “The Death of Fear,” Negro Digest, November 1967)

Cleage was profoundly moved by what he saw happen at the tribunal, especially the “strange fearlessness” exhibited by people who had been terrorized by a racist state their entire lives (30). With this fear miraculously gone, Cleage said, “Detroit is a new city, and black people have a new spirit” (31). This would shape how Cleage understood what Pentecost – the descent of the Holy Spirit – meant for the rest of his life. 

Five years later, in Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church (1972), Cleage would write that the Holy Spirit was “the revolutionary power which comes to an exploited people as they struggle to escape from powerlessness and to end the institutional oppression forced upon them by an enemy” (249). As in the story of the disciples gathering in “one room,” Cleage stressed the fundamental connection between community and Pentecost: “the sudden Pentecostal experience… occurs unexpectedly when the walls of individualism have been eroded quietly through sustained, deeply emotional group experiences over an extended period of time” (72-73). It is this direct encounter with God in community that empowered the apostles – as well as Cleage’s own community – to leave the room and march out into the streets to proclaim their message.

To learn more about Rev. Albert Cleage (Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman), read the biography compiled by the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit here.

Commentary by Marjorie Corbman

Marjorie Corbman is an educator and theologian who currently spends her days working with the wonderful students at Mansfield Hall, a residential learning community for neurodivergent college students in Burlington, Vermont. Her theological writing is informed by her mixed-faith Jewish and Christian background, and her experiences working with organizing/activist communities associated with both religious traditions. She lives with her wife, Meg, and their very silly dachshund in Vermont.

Engage Catholic Social Teaching

Racial Justice

During the same period that Rev. Cleage was articulating his vision for Black liberation as Pentecost, Black Catholics were also organizing for their communities. In “Catholic Social Teaching, Vatican II, and Civil Rights: A Social Justice Trinity in the Fight to Save a Central Louisiana Black Catholic School” (2015), Katrina M. Sanders relates how Black Catholics in the early 1970s fought against the closure of a Black Catholic schools, relying on the principles of post-Vatican II Catholic Social Teaching and the language of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

As Sanders writes, “[t]he Catholic Church’s relationship with U.S. blacks has been fraught with racial tensions ever since the Church established itself in the country” (84). Typically, the U.S. Church did not speak out against slavery or segregation, and in fact accommodated itself to these violent systems. Most shamefully, American religious congregations themselves bought and sold enslaved persons. Up until the end of the 19th century, Catholic seminaries refused to accept Black candidates, and Black Catholics who wanted to pursue ordination, like Augustine Tolton, had to go abroad in order to become priests. In the twentieth century, Sanders writes: 

“[the] growing presence [of the Catholic Church in Black communities] did not eradicate racial tensions buttressed by predominantly white southern congregations that continued practicing racial segregation. In areas with only one Catholic congregation, white parishioners generally segregated their black brethren in a specified area of the church and distributed communion to them only after whites” (85). 

The National Catholic Conference of Bishops made attempts to oppose racial discrimination. In 1958, the bishops issued a statement condemning segregation, Discrimination and the Christian Conscience. A decade later, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the bishops penned a pastoral letter, Statement on National Race Crisis, that began with the recognition that “[Catholic leadership] did not do enough” to oppose racial injustice. For many Black Catholics, however, the efforts were too little, too late. Sanders describes the formation of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in Detroit in 1968, at which sixty Black Catholic priests issued their own statement declaring that the American Catholic Church was “primarily a white racist institution” (90). 

As Sanders’s article demonstrates, Black Catholic laypeople also fought for their communities. She gives the example of St. James Catholic School, a Black Catholic school in Alexandria, Louisiana. After the pastor of St. James Memorial Catholic Church announced the school’s closure in 1971 due to financial instability, the parish council and ministerial staff fought (unsuccessfully) to keep the school open. They presented plans to the bishop in which they used language, argues Sanders, reminiscent of the Vatican II document, Gravissimum educationis (1965), which declared that “since all Christians have become by rebirth of water and the Holy Spirit a new creature… they have a right to a Christian education.” In their community’s advocacy for a unique Black Catholic identity, the parishioners of St. James, like the apostles at Pentecost, were empowered by the Spirit in their courage and confrontation.


A Contemplative Exercise

Rev. Albert Cleage (Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman) wrote in Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church (1972) that “the sudden Pentecostal experience… occurs unexpectedly when the walls of individualism have been eroded quietly through sustained, deeply emotional group experiences over an extended period of time” (72-73). 

In the above video, Pastor Mbiyu Chui, the current pastor of the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit, similarly explains how the apostles who gathered at Pentecost 

“had a basic belief that God could and would intervene into human affairs; they held a deliberate expectation of receiving power from the grand source of energy and creative intelligence in the universe. So they came together, taking the inward journey by spending many hours engaged in confession, conflict, and confrontation, forgiveness, prayer, meditation, fasting, and doing some serious soul-searching, contemplating the road ahead without Jesus, their master, teacher and standard-bearer to lead them.” 

It was this kind of communal gathering that opened them up to the Holy Spirit. Following the lead of the Pentecostal community, find at least one other person to practice “soul-searching” in the way described by Pastor Chui, allowing your conversation and prayer to be open to the Spirit of transformation.

A Witness

Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman

Similar to Rev. Albert Cleage (Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman)’s mission to foster Black Christian community unequivocally grounded in African American culture, and committed to Black liberation, Black Catholics in the twentieth century asserted the importance of African American experience and Black liberation for the Catholic Church. The life of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a Black Catholic evangelist, educator, musician, activist, and Franciscan sister, is a striking example. To learn more about her, watch the above video narrated by the Black Catholic historian, Shannen Dee Williams.

A Community

Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church

Rev. Albert Cleage (Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman)’s mission of Pentecostal transformation through Black liberation continued on after his death in the form of the religious community he founded, the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC). A number of Shrines of the Black Madonna associated with this movement exist today in the United States. To learn more, see the PAOCC’s website.



Black Madonna by Glanton Dowdell [the photo gallery in this article includes images of the mural]

The Shrine of the Black Madonna was named after the mural of the Madonna painted by Glanton Dowdell for the sanctuary of the then-Central Congregational Church. It was installed in 1967, a few months before the Detroit uprising began. Cleage declared, in an address that would later be included in The Black Messiah (1968), that “instead of a sermon, we could just sit here and look at the chancel mural of the Black Madonna which we unveiled on Easter Sunday, and marvel that we have come so far that we can conceive of the Son of God being born of a black woman” (85). It was under this mural that the People’s Tribunal gathered for the “Pentecostal” experience that so moved Cleage. For more on the mural of the Black Madonna, see this 2017 article in the Detroit Free Press.