Priest tells lector to stop wearing BLM T-shirt; archdiocese defends dress code

Our Lady of Sorrows Church in South Orange, New Jersey.
Our Lady of Sorrows Church in South Orange, New Jersey. | Screenshot: Google Maps/Street View

The priest of a Roman Catholic Church in New Jersey is being criticized by a local activist group after he asked a lector to refrain from wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during mass.

Two weeks ago, Rev. Brian Needles, the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in South Orange, New Jersey, sent a letter to the lector, 68-year-old Tom Morris.

According to a copy of the letter shared online by the SOMA Black Parents Workshop, Needles explained to Morris that “several people” complained about his attire at mass. The religious leader asked Morris to refrain from wearing the shirt when lectoring and said that he prefers males wear a collared shirt when they lector.

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“A t-shirt, incredibly enough, can be a real source of division and distraction,” the letter declared.

“We live in such a contentious society already and I don’t want a t-shirt worn at Mass to become a source of distraction or bad feelings in our parish,” Needles added. “When the word of God is proclaimed, nothing, including a slogan on a shirt, should distract listeners from the fruitful hearing of the scriptures.”

Needles stressed that “nobody in their right mind … disagrees with the idea that the lives of Black people matter” and that they deserve respect and legal protection. However, Needles pointed out that many people have concerns about the Black Lives Matter 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization due to its “agenda that is very controversial, to say the least.”

Morris shared the letter with the SOMA Black Parents Workshop’s Facebook page. The Black Parents Workshop is an organization that advocates against racial discrimination in schools and the community. 

BPW Director Walter Fields wrote in a Facebook post in which he shared Needles’ letter that Needles’ request “rings of the same denial that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out in his ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ to white pastors in that community.”

“Since when does taking a stand on justice offend the Scriptures or the teachings of the Church?” Fields asked. 

In response to the criticism, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark defended Needles’ request. 

The archdiocese explained in a statement shared with The Christian Post that Needles was merely seeking to enforce the archdiocesan dress code for lectors.

“Celebrants who serve in the role of Lector — who have volunteered to serve on the altar and read from the scriptures — are required to follow the archdiocesan dress code, which is communicated during their training,” the statement reads.

“The policy requires celebrants and lay ministers to refrain from wearing t-shirts as well as any clothing that draws attention to the individual and distracts from the word of God. This is to ensure that the assembly’s attention is focused on scripture and not on the individual proclaiming it.”

As for lay parishioners who would like to wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to mass, the archdiocese states that “they are free to wear clothing that promotes causes and movements.” However, the archdiocese encourages the faithful to “use their discretion to ensure that their attire is appropriate for a house of worship.”

The debate in the Catholic Church and across Christianity over whether to embrace or denounce the Black Lives Matter movement has become contentious in the weeks following the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day.  

For example, earlier this summer, a Catholic priest was suspended for describing Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters as “maggots and parasites.” Meanwhile, a Mississippi pastor was fired by his church’s board for endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement.

In an interview with The Village Green of Maplewood and South Orange, Morris made it clear that he would not comply with Needles’ request to refrain from wearing the T-shirt. 

“I won’t stop. I’m committed. I will not back down,” Morris was quoted as saying. 

The Village Green reported that since receiving the letter from Needles, Morris has elected to attend daily mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Newark. The church is described by Morris as a more progressive” parish.

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