Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

When Bishop Barry C. Knestout invited Deacon Charles Williams Jr. and Deacon Francis “Frank” Nelson Jr. to meet with him to discuss the Diocese of Richmond’s Office for Black Catholics, Deacon Williams said he was hoping the bishop would hear what he had to say about the office. That is, remain as it had been since it was established in 1980 — separate and with its own director.

Not long after that meeting, Deacon Williams heard from the bishop, who asked him to serve as interim director of the Office for Black Catholics. He accepted the part-time position, effective Sunday, Dec. 1.

“I did not seek the position, I did not ask for it. In my mind, it’s got to be from God. God spoke through the bishop; I did not see this coming. All I know is I felt heard,” he said regarding the meeting with Bishop Knestout and the subsequent invitation to head the office. 

When the office’s previous director, Pam Harris, left in July to become director of Catholic Ethnic Ministries for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, Comboni Sister Inma Cuesta-Ventura, director of the diocese’s Office of Hispanic Ministry, was given the responsibility of overseeing the Office for Black Catholics. 

“I understood that was the trend in other dioceses around the country, that they rolled all the ethnic offices (into one),” the deacon said in an interview with The Catholic Virginian, Thursday, Dec. 6. “But my spirit told me that was not the right thing to do for the Office for Black Catholics in the Diocese of Richmond.”

One reason Deacon Williams sees the need for a separate office is vocations.

  “One of the great things the office did is bring black priests to this diocese, and if it wasn’t for this office, we would never see black priests other than Msgr. (Walter) Barrett or a black bishop,” he said.

Raised in the Jackson Ward section of Richmond, Deacon Williams, 67, uses himself as an example. 

“If I had known (a black priest) and I could have reached out to one, I might have been a priest instead of a deacon. Who knows?” he said. “But there was nobody around for me to talk to when I had those kind of things running through my heart and through my spirit. Because there was nobody that looked like me.”

Deacon Williams added that fostering vocations was “a primary reason to evangelize to the African American community — especially to our young people.” He is counting on help from the very people he hopes to evangelize.

“I will have to reach out to a lot of people for suggestions and ideas. That is part of why I want to build an advisory council so that I can include some young people in that so they can help me understand (how to evangelize young people),” he said. “We need to focus on that. That needs to happen.”

One of the “gifts,” according to Deacon Williams, that he brings to the directorship is the “lived experience of being an African American Catholic in the Diocese of Richmond.”

He recalled his days as a student at St. Joseph School.

“We had nuns (Franciscan Sisters of Mill Hill) that did not buy into the stereotype that blacks couldn’t learn or didn’t need to be taught. Those nuns taught us. They would not take any guff off of us,” he said. “And when I look back on that experience, 60 percent of the school was non-Catholic. Other African American families in that community thought that was a good place to put their children, even if they had to pay for it.”

His time in elementary school was also the time of “Massive Resistance,” which sought to keep schools from being integrated — even withholding state funds or closing a public school that attempted to integrate. In 1959, Prince George County closed its public school system rather than integrate it.

“So, my parents decided that to guarantee I had a seat at a Catholic school, they had us baptized Catholic in 1960. My parents said, ‘OK, I am going to guarantee his continued education is not going to be interrupted,” Deacon Williams recalled, noting he, his brother and their mother were baptized on the same day.  

Describing himself as a “desk Catholic,” he added, “We had to do it to keep the desk (in St. Joseph School). That was my parents’ thinking.” 

Deacon Williams left the Catholic Church for 25 years after the diocese closed St. Joseph in 1969, as well as other black parishes around that time. When he returned to the Church in 1996, it was as a member of St. Paul Parish, Richmond. As he grew in faith, he entered the diaconate formation program in 2008. Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo ordained him a permanent deacon in 2013 and assigned him to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, where he continues to serve. 

In his new position, he is focused on letting people know the bishop wants the office to stay intact. He is also looking at what the office has done — what has worked and what hasn’t.

“Part of my job responsibilities going forward is to look at all of it and see what in 2019 and 2020 the Office for Black Catholics should look like in the Diocese of Richmond,” he said.

The office will honor winners of its Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest during the 5:15 p.m. Mass Saturday, Jan. 19, at the cathedral. Bishop Knestout will preside. Planning is also underway for a “culture and faith” day at the Diocesan Pastoral Center, Thursday, Feb. 21. Details are being finalized.

As the office returns to being an independent entity, Deacon Williams will make evangelization a priority.

“My hope for the office is that it will serve a vital role in the evangelization of the black Catholic community and that it will help grow the black Catholic community. That’s my biggest hope — that it will help grow the black Catholic community, that more blacks will come back to the Catholic Church,” he said. 

The deacon noted that the Church “lost a lot of black Catholics in this town” when black parishes and schools were closed in the ‘60s.

“I think we’re still grieving from that, which they may not want to admit to that out loud: ‘Oh, that’s in the past, that was a mistake, get over it,’” he said. “That’s not true. We’re still living that experience today.”

Editor’s note: Deacon Williams can be contacted at the Office for Black Catholics in the Diocesan Pastoral Center, 804-359-5661, Ext. 104.