Dr. Ansel Augustine, the director of Black Catholic ministry for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, has over 20 years of ministry experience. His new book, “Leveling the Praying Field: Can the Church We Love, Love Us Back?”, has topped the Amazon charts as the #1 new release in three categories.
The book is a powerful testimony to the dedication, faithfulness, and influence of Black Catholics. With the resurgence of anti-Black racial animus and division in the United States, all Catholics can benefit from its insights.
It opens with a foreword by Fr Bryan Massingale, in which he relays a racist experience from a predominantly White suburban parish where he celebrated Mass in place of a sick priest. Wearing his Roman collar, Massingale asked the usher to direct him to the sacristy.
After a brief interrogation, the usher asked: “Well, why didn’t he send us a real priest?”
This is just one of the many incidents discussed in the book that highlight the racism many Black Catholics still experience in Catholic churches, dioceses, seminaries, organizations, conferences, and workshops.
However, Augustine has not written a book to air his grievances with the Church. Instead, his new text is a “love letter” to the Catholic Church by a faithful Black Catholic—though at times that love is unrequited.
As a lay Back Catholic man who has spent years working with Black youth in New Orleans, Augustine has a unique perspective that is invaluable to a church decrying the mass exodus of young people. (A recent Pew study found that only “roughly half of Black adults who were raised Catholic still identify as Catholic (54%), compared with 61% of White adults and 68% of Hispanic adults who were raised as Catholics and still identify with the faith”.)
While many in Church leadership seem not to understand why so many youths are leaving the Church, Augustine knows firsthand what is driving many Black people away: the devaluing of Black people, culture, and traditions. As he states:
“Society can accept Blackness as long as it is entertaining (music, sports, and so forth) but will deny it if it challenges Eurocentric norms as a whole (social justice protests, history that contradicts Western thought and ideas, spiritual practices, and the like).”
Even so, Augustine does not argue that the Church completely turns a blind eye to racism. He cites texts such as “Brothers and Sisters to Us” and “Open Wide Our Hearts” as efforts the USCCB has taken to address the nation’s “original sin”.
Yet, Augustine believes these efforts fail to have a lasting impact or make a difference.
“There is no power shift or racial reconciliation where real issues are addressed, or people in authority—who may be part of the problem—removed. Thus, the cycle continues, and more people of color lose faith in the church—especially our youth.”
While Black Catholics will certainly appreciate “Leveling the Praying Field,” it is also a must-read for non-Black Catholics as well. Augustine dedicates space to address the need for allies to step up and work alongside their Black brothers and sisters.
The above-mentioned Pew study found that 80% of White Catholics attend a church where most attendees are White, and 67% of Hispanic Catholics attend a church where most attendees are Hispanic. So, the majority of White and Hispanic Catholics may not have awareness of the serious issues affecting Black Catholics (and Black Americans in general).
But as a universal church, it’s imperative for all members of the Body of Christ to help alleviate injustice and suffering when experienced by any of its members. As such, each chapter ends with a “Game Plan” that consists of engaging questions for the reader to ponder either alone or in a group.
To end the book, Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri III, OFM of New Orleans offers a rousing Afterword. Speaking directly to all Catholic readers, Cheri asks if enough is being done.
“Child of God, do you profess and confess your complicity with racism in your silence? Are you living in denial, turning a blind eye to the racist political upheaval of January 6, 2021, on the US Capitol? The conviction of Derek Chauvin is not enough. The violence against Black bodies and people of color still permeates the American landscape and the Catholic Church. Lord, have mercy!”
For the majority of Catholics in the United States, the answer to his question is yes: they are complicit with racism. However, spending time reading, reflecting, and praying with “Leveling the Praying Field” would be a good step in the right direction.
Alessandra Harris is author of two novels and is a wife, mother of four, and co-founder of BCM. She earned degrees in Comparative Religious studies and Middle East Studies and currently studies in the Diocese of San Jose's Institute for Leadership in Ministry. She has also contributed to publications such as America Magazine, Grotto Network, and US Catholic. Her third novel is due in 2022.