I am concerned about maintaining our Catholic presence in Kansas City’s urban core in the future.  We have a limited number of priests serving our diocese; the bishop and diocesan leaders must send priests where Catholics live and worship to provide sacraments—there is not a proportionate number of Catholics living or worshipping in our inner city.  I and some others who serve there contend that where the need is greatest our response should be strongest.  There are certainly great needs in the center of KC and, with or without priests, Catholics and non-Catholics will always respond by providing social services.  But without a sacramental presence, our outreach gets diminished, and our connection gets weakened.

As a longtime parishioner at Saint Therese Little Flower often reminded me: “Any ole dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.”  The Catholic Church in our inner-city has fought hard to swim against the current for many decades as church after church ceased operations due to lack of viability; subsequently, black Catholics have struggled and suffered in notable ways.  The list of now defunct parishes in primarily black neighborhoods is long.  It includes Saint Louis on Swope Parkway, Saint Augustine on Paseo, Saint Aloysius on Prospect, Blessed Sacrament, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Annunciation, Vincent DePaul, Holy Name, and Risen Christ—once vibrant faith communities.  It is unfortunate that the remaining urban churches scrap for survival, but that is our reality.  I hope we can change that reality from a hope to survive to an opportunity to thrive.

The worship experience in urban parishes is different from other places.  As my niece says, “Inner-City Jesus is much livelier than the other Jesus.”  The liveliness is expressed in numerous ways: when congregants sway and clap to music, or as they splash in baptismal waters, or take to the microphone during the Prayers of the Faithful to share heartfelt pleas, when names of those killed in our city streets are read and prayed for each week, when people come forward to the altar to offer their gift for the week ahead, or come out of their comfort zones to hold hands to encircle the Holy Eucharist while singing The Lord’s Prayer, or as they go throughout the church during The Sign of Peace to greet friends and welcome strangers, or when children pick up instruments to join the choir for the recessional song that sends us back into the streets and back into our other lives.  These adaptations allow Inner-City Jesus to touch worshippers in remarkable ways.

If our churches are going to thrive in the urban core—and perhaps everywhere else—we need to do church differently than in the past.  In addition to lots of people and money, success seems to hover around three things: good music, a strong message, and a clear mission.  When music, message, and mission touch the soul, faith communities tend to grow.  But we must also get the Gospel message out in other ways.  At Saint Thomas More, I could reach 2-3,000 people each weekend in person but when transferred to a parish that had suffered a mass exodus and where few attended, I was urged to post a blog to reach a similar amount of people each week; the blogs evolved into a podcast to reach others.  Likewise, we cannot count on Sunday collection baskets to keep churches financially solvent from week to week, as in the past, but must find nontraditional ways to assure that our parishes are fiscally stable.  And, in the central cities, we’ve got to ensure that white clerics and officials are not making decisions about black communities without black parishioners leading the decision-making process.  I am also encouraged by people in suburbs and rural areas who become members of urban parishes because it helps them stay connected to the core of the city and the heart of our faith; they are very inspiring souls.

Though I am truly concerned about the future of our inner-city parishes, I have great hope that the few remaining churches there will not only survive but thrive.  They have been swimming upstream against the current for a long time.  Linked with people of goodwill throughout the metro area, and by adaptations of the heart, we have a chance not just to survive but to thrive in the heart of Kansas City.