Black Catholic Voices series: Dr. Ansel Augustine, executive director for Cultural Diversity and Outreach for Archdiocese of Washington
Nov 6, 2020
(Dr. Ansel Augustine, the executive director of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the Archdiocese of Washington, was interviewed on Oct. 14, 2020 for the Black Catholic Voices series by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor. The following is a transcript of the interview.)
How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?
Ansel Augustine – “As an African American Catholic, our faith journeys are interesting in comparison to our other brothers and sisters. Growing up in New Orleans, of course New Orleans being a very Afrocentric city and a very Catholic city, the two are one and the same. I grew up in Tremé, the oldest Black neighborhood in the country at St. Peter Claver Church, which is my home parish, which I helped to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. The experience of Gospel music, the environment of having images of holy people, men and women in our parish that look like me was second nature. It wasn’t until I started going to other Catholic spaces and especially working in the Church that I realized that wasn’t the norm. But what it did for me was help me to understand that this is my Church. In my youth ministry, I help the young people I work with, whether at home in New Orleans or around the county, help them to see that this is their space and we, although we may look different than the people in leadership, we too are made in the image and likeness of God and we are called to help others understand that as well. And so I lean on the sacrifice of my ancestors that came before me, to make a better way for those coming after me.”
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped your life?
Ansel Augustine – “You see, when I look at the witness of other Black Catholics, especially my elders, I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for their sacrifice.
“Coming from the South in New Orleans, Louisiana, there were churches where people of color could not attend, or they had to wait outside, or they would have to get Communion after Mass, after the White parishioners would go. And to see the faithfulness of my elders and ancestors, to keep the faith in the midst of those times, I learned to keep my faith in the trials that I still face today. We are not equal. There are still challenges that we have to be considered fully Catholic by some of our leadership. Unfortunately, that’s the reality.
“But the fact of the matter is, our faith is still the same, our journey is still the same, our responsibility is still the same – to help others see us as God sees us, and for us to see ourselves as God sees us. And to help others coming after us be those advocates for them. That’s our role. That’s what I learned from those that have come before me and, as I said before, to make a way for those coming after me.”
Are there instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Ansel Augustine – “Unfortunately, as we are seeing more and more in our society today, racism is a reality that many of us deal with on a regular basis. I’ve dealt with it growing up, and I still deal with it today. And there were times in the Church, in and of itself, that I experienced racism. At St. Peter Claver, at my home parish, there were times that we would be the only Black Catholic church at diocesan events, and thus we were singled out because there was this group of Black Catholics attending this mostly White event. So, we would get singled out there...
“Yes, there are times and instances of racism in the Church that still pain me today. One example of many, unfortunately, but one example that sticks out to me is after Hurricane Katrina I started working for the Archdiocese of New Orleans as the coordinator of Black Youth and Young Adult Ministries, trying to diversify the efforts of our youth ministry office to include our Black Catholic churches, at that time there were 26 in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, (and bringing our) youth groups into the work of the archdiocese which had been mostly tending to the needs of our White counterparts in the archdiocese.
“So we had this group called Teen CROSS which is the archdiocesan youth leadership board that put on diocesan events, and so we decided that the best way to integrate diocesan events is to integrate the youth board. Well, unfortunately because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, there were not many churches we could meet at because of the damage. So we would meet at a church in the suburbs of New Orleans, outside of Orleans, as you say in other parts of the country, ‘counties,’ we say ‘parish.’ So, outside of Orleans Parish this was in Jefferson Parish in the suburbs, not known for being the most welcoming places in certain spots to people of color, but the rule of thumb was if any of these young people were to attend these events from our Black Catholic communities, they would have to come with, at that time before my doctorate, Mr. Ansel.
“So I would pick up our Black Catholic youth from the Black Catholic high schools in the city and bring them to the meetings. Well, this one meeting in particular the volunteer that usually comes ahead of time to set up the rooms couldn’t get off work early, so they asked me to open up the hall to set up for the meeting. So I went early to St. Augustine High School, our Black Catholic male high school, Josephite high school in New Orleans, picked up some of the young men, and then I drove straight to the church in the suburbs.
“When I had the key in hand, and I put the key to open up the hall to set up, this Caucasian women came around the corner and she started grilling us, these four Black men, myself in diocesan polo, and these three other young Black men that were in St. Augustine High School, Catholic school uniform. (She asked), ‘Why were we there? What are you doing here? Who gave you the key?’
“And before I could even answer, the questions kept coming and coming, like we were up to no good. When I told her who I was, why I was there, why I had the key, trying to keep calm for the sake of the young men that were there and (to) set up for this meeting, she immediately threatened to call the police. We all froze because who knew what officer would show up, what the interaction would be, and who would they believe, and what the outcome would be. But thank God, before any officer showed up, the other volunteer that usually comes early to set up, he pulled up. He asked what was going on, he was a White male, and she believed him. They didn’t know each other, because after she left, after asking, ‘Are they with you?, and she was finally pleased with that answer, and she walked off, he asked, ‘Who was she, and what was that about?’
“Well of course, we were dejected and upset. I was just angry. Even still to this day as I think about that interaction, it just made me feel unwelcome in my own Church. And these young people, understandably so, and their parents never participated in youth ministry on that Teen CROSS board ever again.
“And so these are the challenges. At least I have a voice but there are many, many, many, many other stories that are out there of people who don’t even have a voice to share their testimony, and (they) have been hurt by the people in the Church. Racism is real, and it needs to be addressed and it’s up to us as people of faith to do the right thing, not the easy thing.”
What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since this spring in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police?
Ansel Augustine – “You know as we see all this – ‘racial unrest’ is the terminology that has been used in the media and other sources, post the murder of many, many unarmed Black men and women in this society – I see it as just the world waking up to a reality that always has been. There’s always been, as Pope Francis says, the people on the margins that have been crying out for justice, those on the fringes that have been trying to be the prophets in our society.
“For me, this is exactly what I’ve seen growing up in New Orleans, exactly what I have seen growing up in a Black community, trying to fight for the needs of our community, trying to fight for the justice that we see not happening for our own people. As a youth minister, I saw a different treatment of my own young people growing up, even by the archdiocese itself, the lack of resources, the lack of attention to the needs of my own kids and my own people.
“So when I see the racial unrest going on right now, I see the needs of people crying out. You know, I look back to the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the late great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ So, when people see people out in the street protesting, some that are rioting and even when we see instigators that aren’t part of the movement creating these violent moments in these movements, when we see these things, we are seeing unheard people crying out because they’re in pain, and their injustices need to be addressed. And we as a society are called to understand those movements.”
People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this?
Ansel Augustine – “You know when we look at the health disparities, and the effects of the coronavirus especially on communities of color, it just shows the under-resourced nature that these communities have come up in and still reside in, and for us as a country, the wealthiest nation in the world, how more of a responsibility is it for us to create that equal and level playing field, where even the most vulnerable, as our Church says, our most vulnerable are attended to and cared for.
“It shouldn’t be that when you come into the world you’re left on your own. It’s up to us to create this pro-life mentality, from the womb to the-tomb, so that all have the opportunity to succeed. Not just because you live in a certain neighborhood. Not just because you have a certain color of skin. Not just because you have a certain title or a certain amount of commas in your bank account, but just because God thought enough to create you, you are able to succeed. So, when we look at the coronavirus and the health disparities that are there, how are we as Church responding as people of faith to make sure that the injustices are addressed, but also to create opportunities and procedures and policies so that those injustices never happen again?”
Archbishop Gregory noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism, and what do you think individual Catholics should do?
Ansel Augustine – “You know the Catholic Church, when we talk about racism, there are people that have said from decades and generations ago, I believe it was the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, they made the statement that the Church is part of a White racist institution, and the Church in and of itself, aligns itself with that institution. And so we have to look at, what were the Black Catholic clergy saying then, and what is the reality of today, and unfortunately not much has changed.
“We still see people not feeling included in certain spaces. We still see leadership that doesn’t understand the challenges that go on in our communities of color. So, how are we called to address it? You know, when we look at the Church, they have these beautiful documents that are out there from ‘Brothers and Sisters to Us,’ ‘What We have Seen and Heard,’ and even now ‘Open Wide our Hearts. And how are we using those documents, not as, on the bookshelves collecting dust, but how are we using those documents to live out our faith?
“Even in his latest encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti,’ Pope Francis has beautifully said how we are going as people to create a society where all feel as a part of the kingdom of God. And so for us when we talk about this pandemic, and this original sin, America’s original sin of racism, as the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) says, how are we either participating in it, benefitting from it or affected by it, because no matter what color of skin you are, you are affected by it, in some way, shape or form.
“And so, how do we make a way so that we are all welcome in the house of God but (also) in God’s society? You know we all have different jobs, not everybody, necessarily, works in ministry but our work is ministry, no matter where it is, to create a just society because that’s where we are called to be. So even when you are in Mass praying, pray for a just society, When you look at those injustices that may be on the job, or in society or in your community, how can you be an active part to make sure the world is a better place for all? Because for me, I want, if God blesses me with children and grandchildren, I want them to grow up in a safer and more just society, and I think that’s the need for all of us, and a more positive society where everybody can benefit and have the chances and opportunities that everybody else has.
“So for us as Catholics, as an institution, look on the inside of our institution and on the outside of our institution and see where we can create just opportunities, so that all people have great chances and opportunities to be who God called them to be. And as individual Catholics, look at our own lives, our own thoughts, our own families and even in our own neighborhoods and communities, to see where we can make that change, because that’s what God calls us to be as people of faith.”
How would you summarize the archdiocese’s new initiative aimed at ending racism?
Ansel Augustine – “As Archbishop (now Cardinal-designate) Gregory has said in the Mass, I believe it was in August, we’ve created this new initiative, and we are working on putting the pieces together, because of the amount and the greatness of this work that needs to be done, not only locally but nationally, but especially here in the Archdiocese of Washington. The initiative ‘Made in God's Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism’
calls us to look inward as an archdiocese at all our structures, from clergy, to lay people, to staff, to seminary formation, to catechist training, to all those spaces, how we can make spaces where people feel welcome and valued, but also educate people on the injustices that have happened and how to prevent those from happening again, looking at racism in those spaces.
“When we look at our Catholic schools, we are looking at what is taught there and what isn’t taught there, and how to address those needs, so that we form Catholic students and Catholic leaders in our society that understand the needs of their brother and sister whether they look like them or not.
“When we look at the lay faithful in our communities, are we creating opportunities for them to learn? Of course, in the pandemic, we are hindered with in-person meetings and in-person gatherings, but we’re working with various departments throughout the archdiocese, so it’s not just one department doing this, it’s all departments working together to address these needs in ways for us to collaborate, create opportunities where people can learn about this sin, how to address this sin, and how better to come out of sin in the form of reconciliation and penance so that we are all one. It’s not just the archbishop’s initiative, this is all our initiative, because if this is truly as the USCCB says, ‘America’s original sin,’ we have to address the sin at the source, and figure out how we as a people can become one and right again with God and one another, so that we can all be brothers and sisters in Christ.”
How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country, over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?
Ansel Augustine – “You know, when I look at the issue of racism, within our Church and within our country… it is tiring living it and then now having to address it. It’s tiring because it’s a 24/7 thought process. It’s doesn’t just turn off. When I go out there the world sees me in a certain way. Sometimes when I visit certain churches, not necessarily here, but when I’ve been at home and as an archdiocesan employee when I’ve visited certain churches in certain neighborhoods, I was told I wasn’t welcome or I was treated like I wasn’t welcome, and I was told that I stood out and didn’t belong there.
“So, how do I keep hope? Well, that is why I studied my history, to know what those people that came before me, ancestors and living elders, have gone through to make a way for me. And then what brings me hope, not only (for my) faith but in our country, is when I see our young people and these young adults, as someone that is a youth minister at heart, no matter my position, and I see our young people and our young adults out there leading these movements, putting their faith into action.
“When we teach them these concepts in religious education or vacation Bible school or in theology courses in our Catholic schools, or even in our Catholic universities, and they hear about these great men and women of God and what they did and what they faced to make a just society in their time period, these holy men and women of God, whether it’s the six African Americans on the road to canonization or even the saints that are out there, they all faced some kind of trial to live out a faith and a just life in their community. And that’s what I see right now with these youth and young adults, living out their faith, as we say back home, ‘praying with their feet,’ putting their faith into action so that they can create a just society, and that’s what gives me hope.
“For right now, despite what may be in front of us, hope also comes from faith. What does the Bible say? Faith is the substance of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1) So, we may not see the outcome right now, but as people of faith we know that the world will be better. But it’s up to us not to sit on our laurels and wait, but for us to take action. And as I said before, not to do the easy thing but to do the right thing.”