In a city delineated by politics, status and race, the Monsignor Ray East finds a way to bridge the gaps out of a historic Catholic parish rooted in Washington, D.C.’s most marginalized neighborhood.
His wife had just died when a collar-wearing man came calling. Within days the widower found himself seated in the back pew of Saint Teresa of Avila parish, barely hanging on but for the swell of the gospel choir.
“I lost my love of 55 years this week,” he said into the visitors’ microphone halfway through the Mass, gasps of grief halting the words. “It’s all I can do to feed the cat. But I met your Father East, the Monsignor, out there on the street, and he told me to come here. I nearly didn’t, but my Rose, she would love this. The hope you’ve given me this morning, your spirits, your song. It’s the only thing…”
Murmurs swept through the pews as hands reached out and Lord-have-mercy’s mingled with tears.
“Gather ‘round, saints,” came a gentle voice from the front. A tall, lanky priest robed in Lenten purple had returned to the pulpit where he had just finished giving the homily. “Gather ‘round this son. Lift up your hands, saints. Lord, have mercy.”
The Rev. Monsignor Raymond G. East—or “Father Ray,” as he’s affectionately called—is an African American charismatic Roman Catholic priest, a rare combination amongst the 3 million black Catholics who live in the United States. The grandson of Baptist missionaries to South Africa, he pastors the oldest parish east of the Anacostia River, sitting in the shadow of Frederick Douglass’ home. Founded in 1878, the church’s history mirrors Anacostia’s evolution from a multiracial working class suburb to a segregated township to the predominantly black neighborhood that it is today. Sunday Mass combines classic Catholic liturgy with African American traditions, including interpretive African dance, gospel music and call and response style preaching. This hybrid was pioneered by East’s controversial predecessor, Father George Augustus Stallings, who, though now ignored by the Vatican, first put the church on the map in an explosion of creative vitality that lasted from 1976-1988.
On any given Sunday St. Teresa swims in color, its sanctuary draped in purple silks and red taffeta as stained glass refracts the sun. There’s a mural of a black Jesus behind the altar, and not far to the left is a gentle portrait of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who herself chose this corner of 13th and V Streets SE for her Missionaries of Charity in 1982. Seven nuns from seven countries live adjacent to the church now, and when they’re not praying or feeding the homeless they’re worshipping with the parishioners, tapping their feet to the soulful spirituals almost despite themselves. A big banner above Jesus depicts a cross, at an angle, pointing toward the heavens and proclaiming: “The Passion of Life is in Christ.” Before the weekly procession, parishioners wait freely and in expectation, some exchanging embraces and others bowed low in prayer. There are canes, wheelchairs, singers in caftans, albinos, obese, grandmothers, teenagers, cancer patients, rosy young women and fathers leading sons on their shoes. Dignity frosts the air as hands extend grace and peace. There’s the scent of a haven here, shalom. The empty lots and broken bottles just outside tell another story.
East first came to St. Teresa in 1989, eight years after becoming a priest. Prior to sensing a call to religious life he had worked in business with the National Association of Minority Contractors, a job that took him from his native San Diego to Washington, D.C. He had wanted to be a priest since his six-year-old ears heard the missionary stories of his grandparents, however, and in 1981 decided to switch course to pursue that path. Over 30 years have passed and he’s been the priest of six parishes, directed the Office of Black Catholics and has been named the vicar for evangelization for the Archdiocese of Washington. Back at St. Teresa’s now, 62-year old East shepherds a community whose heart pulses from the pews to the sidewalks and back. This flow stems in part from St. Teresa’s own legacy as a church enculturated in local rhythms and realities, but also because East is convinced that the faith-driven life cannot be compartmentalized.
“Keep so busy workin’ for my Jesus, I ain’t got time to die.”
East sings this in the middle of a Skype chat, his bearded chin relaxing in the smooth baritone inherited from a mother who sang alongside Whitney Houston’s mother in the church gospel choir.
“Cause when I’m feedin’ the hungry, when I’m healin’ the sick, when I’m takin’ care of the poor, I’m workin’ for the Lord. If I don’t praise Him the rocks are gonna cry out! Glory and honor, glory and honor. Ain’t got time to die.” This is one of East’s favorite spirituals. It’s also his life map.
East grew up hearing all about his missionary grandparents and aunts and uncles, though his own folks, the late Thomas and Gwendolyn East, did not follow that path. His father’s rural South African upbringing did shape the family outlook, though, and East and his siblings were raised to be open and to serve others. No matter who.
“There’s a certain frugality that a family has growing up on the mission,” East says. “Dad kept that up and we lived a really beautiful lifestyle where you tried to think about others, where you were interested in world affairs, where you dedicated your lives to service. That kind of mentality, that kind of spirituality was woven throughout all the branches of the East family.”
East knew his grandmother as a kid, and spent many a bedtime story hearing her tell of how she and his grandfather had approached South Africa’s Xhosa people with a “rounded” appreciation for their native resources and cultural reservoirs. They brought nursing and agricultural science along with their theology degrees in the early 1900s, keeping pragmatism in step with spiritual concerns. A century later, East is sharing the same with Anacostia—desiring to meet people where they’re at in both spirit and body, listening to their daily duties, respecting their heart language.
“The Word meets the world in a very clear way for Father Ray,” says Kate Perkins, who lives across the street and attends St. Teresa as one of the few white worshippers. “Take Good Friday. We have this large wooden cross and we walk around the neighborhood. It’s Stations of the Cross, but Father Ray has rewritten the liturgy to mirror issues in the neighborhood. So we’ll pray for homeless people in a way specific to every corner, we’ll stop by the Wailing Wall where all the addicts go and talk to those folks, and then we’ll go to a housing project.”
Father Ray sees nothing unbridgeable between holy hymns and street sense. Here in Ward 8, where a history of racial injustice, drugs and violent crime haunt alleys and porch-side stories, the church is as much a product of the neighborhood as it is a wounded healer. East rejoices in this cycle of energy.
“When I think about historic Anacostia,” he says, “I think of a treasure buried in a field. At one point we were the murder capital of the country and the bloodiest precinct in the District. We also deal with high rates of HIV infection, 38% illiteracy, one out of four men incarcerated. This is the Gospel field we have to plough. But the pearl of great price is here, right here with the people. It’s the beloved community that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about, that Jesus describes in the Gospels. The beautiful City of God, set on a hill.”
Blended with his desire to apply the Gospel in and to particular places and peoples is East’s ecumenical outlook and cross-cultural savvy. When his father, having grown up in this Baptist missionary context, fell in love with a Catholic girl from Newark, New Jersey, the family tree suddenly got a lot more interesting.
“I think this is one of my gifts,” East admits. “I feel a real calling to see unity and to work for unity between believers in God. One of my uncles was Jewish, cousin a Muslim, and we have almost all of the Protestant denominations represented. So we’re ecumenical just when we get together for family reunions!”
His parishioners marvel at this. Michael Howard, who has been a member of St. Teresa’s for over 30 years, calls it “crossing over,” and he doesn’t frame the gift solely in religious terms.
“Father Ray can go and sing beautiful harmonies with David Haas, a white composer of contemporary liturgical music,” says Howard. “And then he’ll join Valerie Jensen in California. But best of all he brings all these gifts and folks back to St. Teresa. So when there’s a white priest that’s preaching, we’re not caught up in the skin tone. We’re caught up in a message. Because of him I’ve learned to appreciate white spirituality, even as they love coming back to St. Teresa.”
John Carr, Executive Director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, says that “Ray is at home in a mosque, in a synagogue, in an affluent suburban parish, in an Anacostia Catholic parish where people put up their hands and shout.” Carr remembered one particular instance in the early nineties when he was trying to establish the Gift of Peace House, an HIV clinic in NE D.C., a black neighborhood. At the time HIV/AIDS was viewed as “a disease for gay white men,” and suspicion from multiple angles attacked the initiative.
“It was this most divisive, disheartening thing,” says Carr. “Here we were trying to protect the vulnerable and the outcast and people couldn’t get past their own prejudices.
“Ray was a bridge builder. He crossed lines of race and religion, of ideology and politics. And he got people to focus on the dignity of those who were despised.”
These character traits haven’t avoided trial, however. When East first came to St. Teresa’s, he stepped into the shoes left by the youngest preacher in St. Teresa’s history – then 28-yr old George Augustus Stallings – whose vision for an African American liturgical rite catapulted the church’s membership into the thousands. He preached a liberation message that resonated with the experiences of many African Americans, and infused Scriptural teaching with soulful music. East was one of only a few black priests who had gifts commensurate to the new demand. But shortly after East arrived, Stallings, did something unprecedented. He established his own church, Imani Temple, which would be an African American Catholic independent congregation, with its own African American rite. In Stallings’ view, the Roman Catholic Church remained a white supremacist institution, uninterested in accommodating the unique spiritual and cultural traditions of African Americans. Others saw Stallings’ move as less about the Catholic Church failures and more about Stallings’ needs. Nonetheless, he jumped ship and was excommunicated.
He almost took St. Teresa with him.
“Imagine,” Howard says. “Somebody takes a knife and starts at the top of your head, goes straight down between your nose, between your breasts, between your hips, your legs, everywhere. That’s how the body was split. Families. Spouses. Brothers going to Imani, sisters staying at St. Teresa. One Sunday, Father Ray looks out at a full sanctuary, the next, empty.”
The memory remains painful for many parishioners, and though St. Teresa has since recovered both members and morale, East himself can still recall the earthquake that emptied the pews.
“This fast movement of independence caused us, we who remained in the Catholic Church and connected to the universal body, it caused us to examine our mission and effectiveness. We had to ask some hard questions at St. Teresa: Were we being truly black, and truly Catholic? Were we proclaiming the Gospel with integrity? Without compromise either to the Gift of Blackness (which is the way we would describe our African heritage in America) nor to the call to be one with believers in Christ around the world?”
East refuses to denigrate the agent behind the shakeup, and Stallings claims that he and East maintain close contact. Stallings himself still leads the independent Imani Temple, though many of its original members have returned to St. Teresa or gone elsewhere. To a speckled set of pews Stallings now preaches a message of empowerment, saying things like “God’s desire is that you become like He is,” and “He has to have someone on His level – that’s you!” Organ music amplifies his main points at key intervals, and behind Stallings’ throne is a gold painted symbol that translates, “Except for God There is No One Greater Than Yourself.” Stallings’ face is featured in several photos on the church bulletin cover.
But neither East nor St. Teresa’s members want to talk about Imani Temple. Instead there is gratitude for restoration beyond the wounds, and a nod to a tenacious soul.
“I can’t imagine the bruised road Father Ray saw before him the day everyone went Stallings’ way, but he built the church back up to a point where it was on level ground,” says Howard carefully. “He put the church in a place where he could hand it off to somebody else and it wouldn’t be a thing where I the lay person believed in St. Teresa because Father Ray is priest. No, it wasn’t about him. It was about us.”
Something about these words encapsulate East, whose slender frame and unassuming manner belie the places he’s traveled and the people he knows. He walks as a servant always seeking the next good of his master, and yet he has the face of a contented child, delighted by parental provision. He takes notes wherever he goes, learning and learning more. There is no rancor in him, but he speaks with meaning, rooted in a transcendent belief that doesn’t easily fit any one ideology or cultural construct. And on this year’s Palm Sunday, as he brought up the caboose of the procession with the stained glass heaving to contain the people’s dancing, his head bowed with a smile at the corner as he lifted up a cross, one couldn’t help but muse at the words of its victim.
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This piece was originally reported and written in the spring of 2012.