Seeing Black Catholics use their God-given gifts and talents to advance the kingdom is a pleasant sight. With so many varying talents, ranging from public speaking to writing to podcasting and beyond, there are a ton of Black Catholics heeding the call for the New Evangelization.
In recent months, a firebrand for the modern Black Catholic movement has taken Catholic hashtags by storm. Black Saints Matter, a new venture dedicated to creating artwork of Black saints, has captured the attention of believers around the world with mesmerizing illustrations and an authentic showcase of Black pride.
I caught up recently with the creator, Caribbean artist Ambrose Jozefzoon, and we discussed some vital questions about his illustrations and the purpose behind his ministry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to start illustrating and publishing images of Black Saints?
I noticed there is a yet unfulfilled need for this art in the Church. That is how the project was born. I spoke with a friend about it and asked him: “Do you think that the time Is right for a graphic novel about Black saints, under the title Black Saints Matter?” He said: “Many won’t understand, but I think the times are changing, so now is the time to try.”
So that is when I started publishing the portraits, but they are planned to eventually be part of a graphic novel in two volumes, with each having around 25 stories about Black Saints. The response on social media shows me that now is indeed the right time to do this.
The name of your online compilation of images is Black Saints Matter, which obviously borrows from the Black Lives Matter movement. Why did you feel it was necessary to stress the significance of these holy men and women?
I consciously named the project Black Saints Matter. It's of course in reference to Black Lives Matter, which plays its part in the fight against racism. From some reactions, I understand that not everybody directly understands that. BLM is of course not a movement from the Church. And it turns out to have ambivalent side effects. Yet it does call for attention, whether or not you agree with the methods.
I search for ways that the Church offers for change. Most people do understand when I explain that I reach larger audience with this title than I scare away with it. Black saints matter as much as any other saints, but many are not even known to a wide audience. How can they be seen to matter if they’re unknown?
In the Church, there seems to be an emphasis on European saints, art, and history, but your images and biographies buck that trend. Why do you feel it’s important that Catholics and people of goodwill know the contributions of Black Catholics?
Saints are important in the Catholic Church. They are our role models, our friends who have already won. They pray for us and bring us closer to Christ. If you can take an example from someone who looks like yourself, that really helps. For Black people, it often looks as if all saints are White—even though lots of saints depicted as White were technically not White at all. But there are also a lot of Black saints still unknown to many. Actually, there are more than I expected myself, before I started my research.
In the graphic novel Black Saints Matter, I want to tell all the amazing stories about Black saints who are still in the shadows. Also of those who have not been canonized or beatified yet, but who have open sainthood causes, so that they will also get the attention and honor they deserve. It is not only aimed at a Black or even Catholic audience, of course; everyone who is interested in getting to know these saints better is welcome to follow along on this journey!
How do you think your sketches serve as a source of evangelism?
The project was born from faith but it also deepens my faith by way of the great and inspiring examples I discover. We can see what discrimination did to Black saints, but also how they responded: with the courage to oppose hate with love. With the knowledge that all who keep the faith are welcome in heaven.
Diversity in heaven is as important as it is on earth. As long as there is discrimination in the Church, it is important to fight against that, not with bitterness and hate, but with the positive examples we already have but often don’t realize are there.
Who’s a favorite Black saint and what lessons have they taught you?
It is hard to choose, as all these stories are inspiring in their own way. Every saint follows his or her own path with the Lord. Every saint teaches us that we can get to Heaven if we cooperate with God’s grace. From Black saints we learn that to get there, it doesn’t matter where you come from. Maybe it’s harder, if you have to be a slave in America, or become a martyr in Africa. But God gives us all the grace that is needed to become a saint.
I hope the book will give motivation and confidence. Some people think I should not focus on Black saints alone. Of course, I have nothing against White saints. All saints matter. But don’t the White saints get enough attention already?
What’s something you hope to accomplish with this project?
I started with the portraits, and soon I received many requests, not only to pre-order the book but also for prints, prayer cards, and multimedia stuff. Who knows what will be possible in the time ahead. Maybe this project will turn into a further blessing and will get the chance to grow to more than the graphic novel alone. Hopefully, it will be sort of an emancipation movement, so that Catholics will see how great the diversity is in our Church—that it is a reason for celebration, not discrimination.
Editor’s note: Shortly after the completion of this interview, the original Instagram account for Black Saints Matter, which had nearly 3,200 followers, was removed from the site for reasons unknown to Jozefzoon. He has since created a new account and reuploaded his work. Give him a follow here!
Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.