For those interested or who have never heard of the organization, I am honored to have the opportunity to share my knowledge, perspective, and experience with the Knights at the invitation of Where Peter Is. While I am actively involved in recruiting for my local community, I do not hold an official position with the Knights and my endorsement here is solely my own.
Founded nearly 112 years ago, the Knights of Peter Claver is a wonderful community rooted in Black Catholic life and experience. We respond in a unique way to the desire of Black Catholics to participate in our Church as “fully functioning” members—to borrow a line from Sister Thea Bowman. This means that for those seeking to work for social justice in the Church, the Knights provide a platform, program, and opportunity for action to do so.
What else are we? We are for everyone. Like all authentic Catholic lay groups, we originate in a particular culture and context, while pointing to the universal. This means that we welcome all Catholics to join and participate in the mission of the Knights.
The Black Catholic experience is—by definition—multicultural (to quote Sister Thea, again): “We are a multicultural people.” We are therefore invested in building an inclusive Church within the context of the Black Catholic experience. For anyone desiring to fight racism and affirm that Black Lives Matter in our Church—while looking for Catholic fellowship that has a place for women, boys, and girls, in addition to men—the Knights may be for you.
An Equitable Hierarchy
The Knights of Peter Claver is an international Black Catholic lay organization, similar to the Knights of Columbus. Currently there are over 700 subordinate units throughout the United States and a unit in Colombia, South America. It is now headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana and has over 18,000 Catholic family members. Like many other Catholic Orders, it is a member of the International Alliance of Catholic Knights.
Acknowledging the importance of the family in Black Catholic culture and spirituality, membership is open to all members of the human family. The Knights of Peter Claver are therefore made up of various divisions: Knights of Peter Claver, and the Ladies Auxiliary among others. For kids, there’s also a Junior Knights and Daughters program. As we are dedicated to equity within our organization, there is shared governing responsibility between both the Supreme Knight and Supreme Lady. We have been “spreading faith, hope, and love through friendship, unity, and Christian charity since 1909” when we were founded in Mobile, Alabama by Josephite priests (The Ladies Auxiliary started not long thereafter in 1922).
At a time when Pope Francis has recently emphasized the equality of men and women with respect to their baptismal priesthood, I take pride in the fact that the Knights of Peter Claver fully embody this reality. The benefit of this shared work and ministry is that the Knights of Peter Claver take on key and important issues that other fraternal orders may overlook. For example, the Knights maintain an active ministry to fight domestic violence.
Throughout our history the Knights have continued to grow and expand to fulfill our mission with strong support from the Church. In broad strokes, the Knights have the following goals:
- To participate collectively in various parish and community activities
- To promote civic improvements and social justice
- To encourage Lay Apostolic and Catholic action
- To make contributions to worthwhile causes
- To award scholarships and support education
- To foster recreational assemblies and facilities
- To develop youth in a positive, nurturing environment
- To provide social and intellectual fellowship for its members
The Knights also provide a powerful connection to the Latin American traditions that are growing in the United States as well. Our namesake Saint Peter Claver, was a Spaniard that ministered to African slaves in Colombia. He labored so hard for the slaves that he was called “el esclavo de los esclavos” or the slave of the slaves. His method of ministry was one that mirrors the Knights’ ministry today: “Primero los hechos, luego las palabras”—First deeds, then words. Like our namesake, commitment to social justice, love of neighbor, and commitment to promoting Black dignity still drive us today.
The fact that the Knights, from their inception, have helped anchor Black identity during our global diaspora means that today we are well-positioned to be a place of encounter for the many different people who make up the American Church. This is also in keeping with the philosophy of Sister Thea: “Culture is the expression whereby we as the family of Christian, black Catholic people learn from our history and accept it all. We have to stop fussing and fighting about . . . who came from what island. We are a multicultural people. We must claim our roots and proclaim our peace.”
On a personal note, as an Afro-Latino American, the Knight’s connection to the diaspora powerfully affirms to my own experience. Although I was born in the United States, and experienced my Black American identity through the American Black experience, I am also defined by the experience of my Venezuelan Black ancestors (at the time of Saint Peter Claver, modern-day Venezuela and Columbia were part of the same colony, Nuevo Reino de Granada).
A Christian does not have to be Mexican to love Our Lady of Guadalupe. But you need to love Mexicans. You do not have to be French to love Saint Joan of Arc, but you need to love the French. In the same way, you do not have to be Black to join the Knights of Peter Claver, but, my brothers and sisters, you do have to love Black people.
I am a member of the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, which was established by Pope Benedict XVI for communities that developed in Anglican spirituality. There, I see all kinds of people—even from outside the Anglican tradition—come to be enriched by the Anglican patrimony and become authentic members of our spiritual community. In a similar way, I invite you, no matter your background, to share in the spirituality and ministry of the Knights of Peter Claver. It is an opportunity to encounter Black Catholicism in the context of your faith community. Perhaps most significantly to our times, it can help combat racism and allow you to experience how affirming the cultural heritage and communities built by Black Catholics are to the Church and to your own faith life.
Well, what are you waiting for? Join already!
Image: Knights of St Peter Claver
Gunnar Gundersen is an attorney in Newport Beach, CA. He serves in his parish council and choir, is a published essayist, and regularly lectures on natural law and the American Founding. He is also the first Ordinariate member of the Knights of Peter Claver and is starting their first council in Orange County. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.