By Natalie Romano
When Don Norris moved from his native Washington D.C. to Northern California in the 1970s, one of his top priorities was joining the local parish. He quickly found that his was the only black family in the parish, and that difference made for a painful experience.
“[My wife and I] were basically shunned,” explains Deacon Norris, who today is assigned to Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Fontana. “People wouldn’t even acknowledge us. They wouldn’t sit in the same pew as us. They wouldn’t give us the handshake of peace. Nothing.”
Dcn. Norris says experiences like that are why Black History Month remains relevant today. He hopes we use this time to achieve greater understanding of both the tribulations and the triumphs of African Americans.
“Be open to learning,” he urges. “I don’t think we can teach enough about the total history and contributions of African Americans.”
Dcn. Norris says we should also look inside ourselves to see where we may have inadvertently been prejudiced or unsympathetic. When he brought his concerns to the pastor of his Northern California decades ago, he didn’t get the help he sought. The priest told him to give people time to get used to him, Dcn. Norris recalls. Offended, he walked away from the parish and from his Catholic faith for a time. Five years and several moves later, his desire to raise his children Catholic brought him back to the Church. Dcn. Norris says at that point, he was “welcomed with open arms.” Ultimately, the man who was once the only African American man at his parish became the only African American deacon in the Diocese of San Bernardino. He doesn’t focus on that distinction, but he says he doesn’t forget it either.
“I know how I felt being an outsider,” says Dcn. Norris. “I always keep that in the back of my mind when I deal with parishioners...I became a deacon to serve the people of God.”
This year’s Black History Month theme is “The Family.” Organizers say black family life has been complicated throughout our nation’s history, from slavery onward. Dcn Norris says while the African American family is often “disjointed” it is no less worthy of praise.
“There’s a lot of single mothers, including my daughter and my mom,” notes Deacon Norris. “I think that ought to be recognized and respected….You try to shed light on the positive not the negative. If you do that people will look at things differently.”
Dcn. Norris says our Diocese works hard to promote that kind of respect with events like last July’s Peace Walk in support of black lives. The event was organized after the police killing of George Floyd. Dcn. Norris addressed the crowd saying “All we are asking for is equality, justice and hope. We ask our Church to remain local and proactive in denouncing the sin of racism.”
He was also invited to stand with Bishop Alberto Rojas and Bishop Emeritus Gerald Barnes in a video to raise awareness about racism. The diocesan group prayed a Station of the Cross near the Riverside gas station where African American woman, Tyisha Miller, was shot and killed in 1998 by police while she sat in her car. The video began a year-long initiative of the California Bishops to address racism, including past racist behaviors in the Catholic Church. It aims to create a culture of acceptance in the Church and beyond.
As leaders push for change, Dcn. Norris would like to see a more active African American community as well. He says other cultural groups like Filipinos and Vietnamese have a stronger presence in our Diocese. Dcn. Norris says part of the problem is that many churches have only a small number of African American parishioners and with a Diocese so spread out, it’s harder to gather. Dcn. Norris says there’s also a lack of interest.
“I’m probably going to get into trouble but to a certain extent there’s maybe a little apathy,” he acknowledges. “Most people I know say, ‘I’m fine, I go to Mass, I don’t need to be involved with anything else.”
What seems to be more pressing is the COVID-19 pandemic. Dcn. Norris says that’s what he hears about the most from African Americans and now with the vaccination process underway, there’s fear about the safety of the shots. As for himself, Dcn. Norris says he can’t wait to get vaccinated and shares that with parishioners.
“I tell them it’s good and something we should consider not only to protect ourselves but those around us,” says Dcn. Norris. “I try anyway I can to tie it into a homily.”
Norris will have that opportunity again on February 28th when he delivers the homily at the Diocesan Black History Month Mass. This year’s celebration will be held at 10:15 am at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in San Bernardino.
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.