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Where are all the Black Catholic missionaries?

Dr. Ronald E. Smith puts forth a timely question on the need for an expanded evangelistic imagination among African Americans in the Church.

An African-American missionary is pictured in Zambia. (Word & Way)

My wife and I visited Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda in October 2022. Out of a group of 20-plus people, I was the only African American. We saw few Black tourists or volunteers during our three-week journey. As a Black man, I am used to being the “only” or “one of a few” at Mass, chamber of commerce meetings, charity events, Rotary meetings, etc. It’s the norm where we have lived and traveled. I can now include Africa as part of that experience.

The sight has been the same on our visits this year: we have encountered few African Americans or other non-African Black people in the areas we have visited. Having traveled to South Africa 20 years ago, I know Black tourists travel to Africa, but maybe not to these countries. One must wonder why Black people are not visiting the continent as volunteers, if at all. Of course, my limited experience does not tell the whole story—I visited three African countries out of more than 50—but it makes me wonder why the volunteers are all White. 

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate their efforts to help the people in Africa. We met Christians making a difference with people that did not look like them. These Christians share in the local living experience and are helping to bridge cultural, denominational, and geographical differences. They are wonderful people carrying out their Christ-centered mission and they have my full support and respect. They are making a difference in the lives of thousands of people. However, it would be nice to see Black Americans helping as well. I have met a few pastors that have traveled to Africa to plant churches. Outside of that, I do not personally know anyone serving abroad.

Dr. Ronald E. and Sandy Smith pictured at St. Kizito Rubuguri Primary School in Rubuguri, Uganda, where they are missionaries and benefactors.

In the Catholic Church, I rarely hear of missionary opportunities for parishioners. Local volunteer opportunities exist and priests and religious visit parishes and share their work overseas, but rarely have I heard of volunteer or missionary opportunities through the Church or Church-affiliated organizations. My limited experience tells me that other denominations focus more on missionary work than does the Catholic Church in the US. That is to say, there may be Black missionaries, just not Black Catholic missionaries. Again, I’m just speculating here. I’ll leave the fact-finding to the professional researchers or the interested reader. I lived 10 years in the Diocese of Fresno and the past two in the Diocese of Orange, so my knowledge of opportunities presented in other dioceses is minimal. 

As a Rotarian, I read the Rotary magazine monthly and have discovered many projects that Rotary clubs from America, Europe, and Australia have initiated on the continent. Where are the non-African Black Rotarians? I’m not the first, but I plan to spread the good news that African Americans are welcome in Africa, and we are needed. The ability to serve as a role model and missionary exists in Africa and I am proud to serve. When I see the Rotary wheel, I know there is a world of support behind the project and a high likelihood that local community members were instrumental in assessing project needs and implementing the solution. How do I know this? We are working on a project in Rubuguri, Uganda and members of the Rotary Club of Kabale (two hours away) are working with the local community on the community assessment. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that several Rotary clubs where we used to live have active Rotary projects in Uganda and Tanzania.

I’m guessing, but there are probably more African missionaries in America than there are African American missionaries in Africa. How could this happen? Christian missionaries spread the gospel throughout the world. Today, African priests and members of religious orders serve as missionaries by spreading the gospel in different countries. I have attended Masses led by priests from Nigeria as well as the ordination of several African priests. One priest shared how it is a blessing for African priests to fill the priest shortages in the countries that originally sent missionaries to the continent. We are fortunate that they are helping in the United States as well.

The experiences of my wife and I show that being a “missionary” is not a defined one size fits all role. Our first trip was with an organization that serves those suffering from HIV/AIDS. There were many roles to play on that trip and it was a true learning experience. My wife and I came across St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Rubuguri and St. Kizito Rubuguri Primary School while vacationing near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. We are taking steps to raise funds to improve the campus, sponsor students, purchase books, etc. We have created our own missionary path. We encourage others to do the same. In fact, we plan to organize trips to Uganda to encourage people to combine volunteerism with tourism. 

Our learning experience has included traveling throughout Uganda visiting national parks, cultural museums, religious shrines celebrating the Ugandan Martyrs, and places of interest. It is a beautiful country with breathtaking views. There is also poverty and unmet needs. The opportunity exists for people to visit the country and provide assistance. 

Classrooms and other buildings being constructed at St. Kizito School in Rubuguri.

In Matthew 9:35-37, we are encouraged to follow Jesus’ lead, as it is written: 

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”

If you are an African American, what is keeping you from becoming a missionary? Where are the Black harvesters? If you want to share your faith while helping others, now is a great time to do so. Jesus issued the directive 2,000 years ago. Today, the Christian world is facing persecution at home and abroad. The time has come for us to join in the calling to be Christ-like in service abroad. I commend everyone who is of service at home while challenging people to get out of their comfort zone and serve abroad. 

If one does not make the effort, one will never know the joy of serving people who are grateful that you are there. My wife and I are well received on each visit, and we appreciate the hospitality we have experienced. We have found our calling and pray that others find theirs as well. If you are a student, consider studying abroad and doing missionary work while you are young. But be careful, though: it may put you on a lifelong journey of Christian service. Nothing could be better.

Let us commend all missionaries for serving under Jesus Christ. Their efforts lead to a better world with less division for us all. Pray to God for guidance. He will lead you where he needs you!


Ronald E. Smith, Ed.D, is a lifelong Catholic who enjoys writing. He is a Rotarian and a parishioner at St. Edward the Confessor Church in Dana Point, California and St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Rubuguri, Uganda. He and his wife Sandy recently founded Friends of St. Kizito Rubuguri Primary School in Rubuguri, Uganda, where they serve as missionaries. He can be reached at resmithinc@aol.com.


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