Recently there have been media reports concerning how devastating the COVID-19 pandemic has been to minority communities, especially Native Americans and Alaska Natives. But what is less widely reported, is the Catholic response to Native Americans and Alaska Natives during the pandemic. Native Americans are susceptible to COVID-19 more than most cultural groups. The Catholic Church has been working with Native American communities for hundreds of years. Currently, Catholic parishes and missions present at reservations have been laboring to transform hopelessness to hope, especially during this time. 

The greatest reason for the devastating effects of COVID-19 is poor health care stemming from poverty. Some reservations are the poorest places in the United States. This leads to a bad diet that leads to many underlying conditions. In those reservations, there are also many people living in a small space, and some places do not have running water.  

Cars in Coyote Canyon, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation, line up to receive food at a food distribution point before the start of a weekend-long curfew May 15, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/David Wallace, The Republic, USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters)

Along with meeting the current needs created by the pandemic, agencies such as Catholic Charities are working to address their long-term needs. Recently there has been an organized effort by the Catholic Church to understand the origins of Native American poverty and to work with Native Americans and Alaska Natives to alleviate poverty. This effort is being led by Catholic Native American leaders themselves. 

Two agencies in the Archdiocese of Washington are key to this ongoing effort. Since 1874, The Black and Indian Mission Office has been working to enhance the faith and help with the physical needs of Catholic Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Also, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a subcommittee of bishops devoted to Catholic Native Americans. They advise the general body of bishops on any issues and concerns from Native communities. 

The federal government has a direct impact not only on Native Americans and Alaska Natives living in reservations, but also those who live in urban areas. About two-thirds of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in urban settings outside of reservations. One of the principal responsibilities of the Black and Indian Mission Office and the USCCB Subcommittee on Native American Affairs is to help Natives in urban areas to be aware of not only issues like poverty, racism, but also aspects of faith.

In almost all of the major urban areas in the United States, there are Catholic Native Americans or Alaska Natives exploring what it means to be both Catholic and Native. The largest organization of Catholic Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the United States is the Tekakwitha Conference. For almost 100 years the Tekakwitha Conference has been bringing together Natives and those who minister with Natives to explore all aspects of Catholic Native ministry including Catholic Native urban ministry. 

Anyone who would like to get involved in this ministry can contact Ansel Augustine, the executive director of Cultural Diversity and Outreach for the Archdiocese of Washington, by emailing him at [email protected] 

(Father Michael Carson is the assistant director of Native American Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington D.C. He serves as the staff person to the USCCB Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. Father Carson, a priest of the Diocese of San Jose, California, worked extensively in the Navajo Nation at Christ the King Parish in Shiprock, in the northern part of New Mexico.)