It was not your typical Roman Catholic Mass. While a crowd of 1,000 people jostled for seats in a sweltering high school auditorium in Suitland, Md., a parade of acolytes began two-stepping down the aisle to the insistent beat of drums and rattles. Bringing up the rear, draped in robes embellished with African designs, the Reverend George A. Stallings Jr. proceeded to the altar and began the service by pouring wine over soil in an offering to Mother Earth. By the time the three-hour ritual was over, he had pranced and prostrated himself on the stage—and delivered a stinging denunciation of the Catholic powers that be. “I’m not going to let anybody who has been brainwashed and preprogrammed tell us how to worship our God,” he thundered. “We’re going to worship Him any way we want.”
As the self-appointed spiritual leader of Imani Temple, a fledgling church that takes its name from the Swahili word for “faith,” Stallings, 41, has set off a fractious religious dispute. Charging the Catholic hierarchy with racism, he launched his renegade sect early this month in a bid to set up a national parish for blacks that would not be subject to the authority of local archdioceses. James Cardinal Hickey, Archbishop of Washington, promptly suspended Stallings from his duties, and since then the two have sparred angrily via television and the press. Says Rev. William Lori, a spokesman for the archbishop: “If it is clear Father Stallings wants schism, the possibility of excommunication is there.”
Stallings insists that schism is not his goal. What he wants, he says, is a Mass combining Catholic liturgy with a down-home revival-meeting style, and a church that truly serves the needs of its black congregation. The son of a convent housekeeper in New Bern, N.C., Stallings has tested the limits of Catholic authority since he began training for the priesthood at 16. As a seminarian in North Carolina, he challenged his bishop’s order to shave off his mustache, insisting it was part of his black identity. During his studies in Rome, he earned a reputation as a rabble-rouser for advocating that fellow seminarians have a greater say in their education programs. Soon after he was ordained in Washington in 1974, he promptly demanded his own congregation—a process that normally takes some 15 years—and was named pastor of St. Teresa of Avila, in the city’s poor, black Anacostia neighborhood, in 1976.
Stallings flourished at St. Teresa’s. He hung a painting in the church depicting Christ as a black, introduced gospel music at Mass and delivered sermons so charismatic that the congregation grew from 200 to 2,000 during his 12-year tenure. “We created models at St. Teresa’s that would have worked for the black community,” he says. “But Hickey didn’t have any interest in what we were doing. He treated it as an aberration.” At the same time, Stallings says, it became clear the church had a “double standard” that worked against blacks. Despite his own rapid rise through the ranks, he claims the church was slower to promote black pastors to bishops and that it would never put one in charge of a major archdiocese.
In September 1988 Stallings was removed from St. Teresa’s and named head of evangelism in Washington, D.C, charged with drawing more minorities into the Catholic fold. Stallings and his followers insist it was a token position—and another example of racism. “George was getting too powerful,” says the Reverend Elias Farajaje-Jones, a professor of African-American religion at Howard University. “The [hierarchy] has this plantation mentality—they think blacks can’t be trusted.”
Whatever the case, Stallings was viewed with increasing disfavor by Archbishop Hickey, who claims the priest spent too much time on the road making revival appearances and failed to produce a program to bring more local blacks into the church. By last month, the rift had become unbridgeable: Stallings demanded that he be allowed to form his own African-American church, and after Hickey reportedly suggested he see a church psychologist, Stallings defiantly launched the Imani Temple. His zeal has left many church officials angered by what they see as Stallings’s megalomania. “I think he just wants a larger arena,” says Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the national Committee on Black Catholics. “He wants an amphitheater-style church with an audience of 5,000 people. He wants a TV ministry.” Adds Hickey spokesman Lori: “I reject the principle that only a black can minister to blacks. There’s a word for that from the bad old days: segregation.”
But Stallings will accept no more counsel from the Catholic hierarchy. “The only elder I’m concerned about,” he says, “is Jesus Christ.” Stallings has already attracted 1,000 adherents to his Imani Temple and is looking for a site on which to build a permanent church. Neither an appeal from the Pope nor the threat of excommunication, Stallings insists, could persuade him to abandon his mission. “I love the church,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean I can’t challenge it.”
—David Grogan, Deborah Papier in Washington