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Interview: Dr. Ansel Augustine, new USCCB leader for African Americans

The former youth minister and diocesan official will help guide the U.S. bishops' ministry to African Americans, succeeding longtime head Donna Grimes.

Dr. Ansel Augustine speaks in a 2020 interview series with Black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington. (ADW/YouTube)

Dr. Ansel Augustine was announced on Thursday as the new director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on African American Affairs in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, a position vacant since September. 

In his new role, he will help guide the bishops’ outreach in the Black Catholic community and move to address pain points that have often proved difficult to overcome. He sat down with Nate Tinner-Williams to discuss the role and the transition from his native New Orleans to Washington, D.C. (a move he previously made in 2020).

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Nate Tinner-Williams: So you’ve been hired as the USCCB’s new director of African-American Affairs. In other words, you're going to have the ear of the US Catholic bishops as a whole. How does it feel?

Dr. Ansel Augustine: In a way, it’s surreal. Moving away from home was not something I anticipated doing again. But after several people sent me the position, I said, “Lord, if it's your will, make it happen.” Just trying to be obedient. So when I finally applied, as protocol, I had to get Archbishop Greg Aymond’s permission since I'm one of his employees. In fact, I got his support. He said, “It’d be a great position for you to get it in.” 

After the interview process and follow-up calls and different things, we came to this point. So it's a little overwhelming, like I said. But I’m humbled and honored. Hopefully, like you said, the outcome will be me representing the community so that our voices are heard at that level..

NTW: Absolutely. And you mentioned that you're coming to DC “again.” You previously served in the Archdiocese of Washington, right? What do you think it’s going to be like bringing that New Orleans perspective and vibe to the DMV again?

DAA: You know, I can't be anything but myself. I’m a New Orleans boy who loves his community, loves our traditions, and loves the Black Catholic faith that we have here. Sometimes even here in New Orleans, where we're so blessed, we take what we have for granted. So bringing that flavor is something I hope is a benefit, a perspective that’s different to that space and place. But it’s also knowing that I have the community with me, if that makes sense. 

When I went to D.C. last time, of course, it was the pandemic, I moved there on March 20, 2020. The whole DC area shut down on March 23. So I only got three days before everything closed off. And of course, I was there when the January 6 insurrection happened. It was like, “I don't feel comfortable here,” you know? I didn't have a network that I was able to build, in the same way I could have if things were open and I were meeting people, seeing people, and doing what would normally happen. So I’m excited about the difference of this time. 

Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri of New Orleans, who was my mentor, called me at that time and asked me to come home to help them at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans, when he was named parochial administrator. No one knew that a year later, he would be passing. So I had that opportunity to take care of my mentor and at that same time, keep people around the country updated on his condition. So you know, I wondered why he brought me home, because things weren't the best—financially and stability and all those things. But I realized when Bishop got sick, and the work that I saw his family doing to help him, I needed to just be that voice for our community, locally and nationwide, to let them know how they could support. And I was also helping my mentor during that transition phase.

NTW: Yeah, it sounds like God led you back at just the right time. And now, coming to the USCCB, you'll be filling big shoes—those of Donna Grimes, who had been there quite a while. What do you think the transition will be like? Have you been in communication with her?

DAA: One of the things I will do, of course, is reach out to her for her institutional knowledge and wisdom, because I've worked with her in other capacities for years. She's someone I look up to and respect. So yes, I want to honor the work that she and those that have come before her have done. 

One of the priorities we talked about during the interview process was reconnecting with our Black Catholic, especially African-American Catholic, young adults. I started out as a youth minister at my home parish, St. Peter Claver. In fact, this year marks my 25th anniversary in full-time ministry. So it's funny that this is what God is taking me to at this point in my career. I thought I'd be a youth minister for the rest of my life when I first started in 1999. 

I think when you say yes to God, he'll take you places you never thought you'd be. I never thought I'd be working at this level, and I just want to give him honor and glory while also honoring the work of the elders and ancestors that came before me..

NTW: Amen. In addition to highlighting the perspective of youth and young adults, which is sorely needed, what do you think some of the needs are for the immediate future of the Black Catholic community?

DAA: Well, you know, we want more African-American bishops. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to share that and to support those active African-American and Black bishops who are there now in our communities and those at the USCCB who work with them. 

I do a lot of grassroots work here in New Orleans and around the country, but hopefully I’ll be able to also bring a different perspective of voices that are not normally heard from in the Catholic community, but also beyond the Black Catholic community. The Black community in general. There is a need to understand our nuances, our ways of being, because that's why that Secretariat exists. It’s there to help create those bridges between our community and the bishops themselves. So I will be learning from the bishops and what they need, and from those who work with them, but also helping to educate them on the real, unique needs of our community—including, like I said, building a bridge for the voices of our Black and African-American Catholic young adults. And also to try to create pathways and avenues for more Black bishops; that's not my job, but I’ll be helping to create an understanding of the need.

NTW: Is there anything else you'd like to share as you transition into this role?

DAA: So I came back to work with Bishop Cheri and was doing other work in the city, but when the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in New Orleans was vacated, Archbishop Aymond asked me to come back and run the office again, which I did previously from 2013 to 2017. It’s been, I think, three years since I've been back here. I'm gonna miss home. One of the biggest things I'll miss—you know, I'm a Black Masking Indian—is Mardi Gras, the culture bearers, just the work that we all put in. But hopefully, when you talk about the flavor I’ll bring to DC, it’s these unique things we have, whether it's our unique Black Catholic spirituality, the connection with Congo Square, and even the Black Masking tradition. Those things are what I bring with me up there to Washington. 

It’s not technically my job, but I think another priority is to continue to put in front of the bishops and other people the importance of getting our Black Catholic holy men and women canonized. That’s another important thing that comes to mind.

NTW: Wonderful. Well, I appreciate you speaking with me about all of this.

DAA: I appreciate all you do, brother.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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