City's churches open way for Islam
By SHERMAN N. MILLER
The plight of St. Hedwig's Catholic School in Wilmington is a picture of a neighborhood school facing the financial chopping block. St. Hedwig's was the pride of the Polish immigrant community of the past, but attendance has declined over the years.
Although black Americans are not known to embrace Catholicism, they may pay a significant upward-mobility penalty if Catholic schools fade. Inner-city Catholic schools have succeeded in working with the children that public schools abandoned as uneducable.
Today some inner-city parishes may find themselves in the untenable position of having more funerals than baptisms. When churches were filled with families, their schools also expected to be filled. However, the diocese must now face the modern Catholic exodus to the suburbs. It leaves emptying city churches as parishioners age, suggesting that the churches may not be offering what communities want.
Some religious purists might cringe at the thought that the Catholic Church must learn marketing strategies to survive in inner-city America. Churches are competing with a host of activities on Sundays. The parish school may no longer have the emotional appeal of yesteryear for students not related to parishioners. The question becomes: Why should a parent pay tuition for a child to go to a Catholic school?
I asked Bishop Michael Saltarelli of the Diocese of Wilmington why people might want to send children to Catholic schools. He said they offer children discipline (not corporal punishment but learning to adhere to societal rules) and moral values. The bishop acknowledged that many secular institutions offer good education. However, Catholic schools offer students the ability to function in life.
Still, the extinction of inner-city Christian education accompanying the suburban exodus sends a message that inner-city souls are less valuable. This opens a beachhead for Islam to gain converts. Inner-city black neighborhoods appear to be prime candidates where Muslims can gain mainstream legitimacy by becoming the religion of native-born Americans.
In an August 2000 article posted on FreeRepublic.com, "Islam challenges black churches," a Christian minister projected what might become of inner-city black folks left behind by Christianity. The Rev. Carl Ellis, president of Project Joseph, a Christian ministry trying to stem the tide of black converts to Islam, says Islam's growth in the inner city has more to do with the weaknesses of the traditional black church than Islam's strengths. Traditional churches, he says, are perceived as abandoning the strict moral and cultural leadership they once championed.
I asked one of my Muslim friends for his take on Islam's growth in black America. Rudolph Ali argued that Islam fills the void that black Christian churches are missing. He echoed Saltarelli by highlighting Muslims' moral and family values and discipline.
Ali then said he is involved with interfaith activities with elite Christians and Jews, but not black churches. He thought that black ministers may be avoiding interfaith activities with them. Ali said he was once a Christian, but he did not study religion then as he has studied Islam.
In 30 years, huge suburban black churches could find themselves trying to find sufficient membership for their churches to survive if the Muslim conversion rate continues.
Perhaps the Catholic Church might reconsider closing city schools and seek solutions to the enrollment problem.
The Rev. Joseph Cocucci. rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington, offered hope for city Catholic schools. St. Peter's has two aggressive nuns who know how to meet the needs of their community. One nun focused on outreach to find students. The other nun selects excellent lay teachers.
Closing inner-city Christian schools today might turn out to be tomorrow's nightmare for American Christianity.
Sherman N. Miller, of Wilmington, was a former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.