William King knew he wanted to be a priest since he was 4 years old.
He traces the decision to one of his childhood priests, Father Greg Chisholm, a Jesuit who once served as pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Jefferson Park. Like King, Chisholm is African American, and seeing him in this role planted the idea that he, too, could become a priest someday.
When King was in high school, another African American priest, Father Allan Roberts, the late pastor of St. Bernadette Church, took him under his wing and nurtured this vocation.
King, 22, aspired to be like them — strong preachers, personable and good caretakers of their parishes — and their presence proved to him that priesthood was a viable path for African Americans. So after graduating high school in 2015, he entered Juan Diego House, a seminary for men aiming to become priests for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“It made a huge impact to know that black men like myself could be in a role that’s predominantly seen as white or Latino — and that I could do it well,” he said.
But his experience is not the norm. Many black men in Los Angeles have never known an African American priest, and vocation stories like King’s are becoming increasingly rare.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles — the nation’s most diverse Catholic diocese, where worship and ministry happen in more than 40 languages — has ordained only one U.S.-born African American priest in its 82-year history.
Roberts, King’s mentor, became the first African American priest ordained by the archdiocese in 1980, but since his death in 2016, Los Angeles has had no African American diocesan priests.
“It’s the reality of many of our dioceses,” said Father Stephen Thorne, a priest with the National Black Catholic Congress. “I believe that God has called black men to the priesthood in the Catholic Church, so it’s not about the call. It’s that we have not done our best to recruit them and to sustain that vocation.”
Today, of the 3 million African American Catholics living in the United States, only eight are active bishops, 250 are priests, and 75 are seminarians in formation for the priesthood, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Even if African Americans do enter seminary, it’s not always an easy path. Deacon Mark Race, of Transfiguration Church in Leimert Park, called it a form of culture shock.
When he applied to seminary, he was asked why he wanted to be a deacon.
“I remember saying that I wanted to be a deacon so that I could come back to my community, represent the archdiocese and show an African American face as clergy,” he said. “And I was told point-blank that you’re not being ordained for your community — you’re being ordained for the diocese. Initially that was hard to swallow.”
In addition, he said, the style of worship he had grown up with wasn’t taught at seminary.
“They’re not singing your songs, they’re not praying your prayers, they’re not preaching the way you preach, they’re not doing anything the way you learned it,” he said.
“What you’re bringing almost has to be strained out of you so that you can learn what’s called the ‘proper’ way of worshipping, the ‘proper’ way for liturgy, the ‘proper’ way for doing things,” he went on. “It’s a whole new type of learning. So it’s difficult, especially for a young man who’s been in the African American community his whole life.”
King, who entered seminary in 2015, agreed. Several of his fellow seminarians told him that they didn’t like the African American style of worship — singing, dancing, call, and response — or that it was liturgically incorrect.
“If we trace our Christian roots, we know that it started with different people in different villages in their homes, celebrating the Eucharist in different languages,” he said. “So why can’t African Americans worship and celebrate how they feel comfortable?”
Father Samuel Ward, vocations director for the archdiocese, said these types of incidents show “unfamiliarity and ignorance” with African American culture.
“When people say, ‘We don’t do Gospel here,’ it’s just because you haven’t done it here before,” he said. “And that’s different from a dogmatic law of ‘No, we can’t.’ ”
King’s mentor, Roberts, died during his first year at Juan Diego House, so he had to look beyond Los Angeles for guidance from other African American priests who understood what he was going through.
A year-and-a-half into his formation, King decided to leave. It was a combination of factors, he said — personal, spiritual, academic — as well as a realization that the seminary was no longer a good fit for his goals. So in 2016 he withdrew from Juan Diego House.
King was the archdiocese’s only African American seminarian, and today it has none.
After King left the seminary in 2016, he started working for a stained-glass artist who creates windows for churches and hospitals in Los Angeles. The experience broadened his horizons and brought him closer to God, he said.
But stepping away from seminary also made clear to him that he needed to return.
So last year he re-applied and was accepted into seminary — but not to a seminary with the archdiocese. Instead, he is now with St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart — commonly known as the Josephites — a nationwide religious order that specifically ministers to African Americans.
By joining the Josephites, he said, he’s guaranteed to serve African Americans and to help revive the black Catholic community — missions he said he feels called to do.
But it also means leaving Los Angeles. In January, King moved to Washington, D.C., to attend St. Joseph’s Seminary. After ordination, he could be sent anywhere in the country.
Full story at Angelus News.