PHOENIX — The Diocese of Phoenix is taking a major step forward in its efforts to draw Black Catholics and African Americans to the faith with a mission that both welcomes new worshippers and engages inactive ones.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted announced June 26 that the diocese has established a new mission for their pastoral care and evangelization.

The mission will be known as St. Josephine Bakhita Mission, named for the Canossian sister who entered religious life years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery sometimes marked by beatings and torture.

Olmsted made the announcement during Sunday Mass June 26 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral before a congregation that included the mission’s parochial administrator, Father Andrew McNair, and about a dozen members of the diocese’s Black Catholic community.

Beginning Aug. 7, the mission will have weekly Sunday Masses at St. Pius X Church, where the diocese has been historically holding its monthly “Unity Mass.”

McNair, the diocese’s chaplain to the African American community for just over a year, also will serve as parochial administrator at nearby Our Lady of Fatima Parish Mission.

Believed to be one of a handful of such Catholic missions across the United States, St. Josephine Bakhita will serve a group that is a minority in the diocese but one that Olmsted and McNair believe is a ripe harvest field.

According to the chancellor’s office, the diocese’s nearly 1.1 million Catholics include an estimated 63,508 Black Catholics. Another quarter million Blacks who are non-Catholic live within the diocese as well.

“There are 64,000 African-American Catholics, many who are unchurched, meaning they don’t attend Mass; for whatever reason, they have stepped away from the church. There are 64,000 people who are Catholic that we know are out there that we need to evangelize and get back into the church,” McNair told The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Phoenix Diocese.

There also is a small but steadily growing portion of Catholics born in Africa.

“Immigrants who come from Africa — that number is about 11,000. We do know we have a large African American Catholic population here; we need to reach out and get in touch with those people,” McNair added.

The numbers are similar at the national level.

Results of a Pew Research Center study released March 15 found 4% of U.S. Catholics are Black, and only about 25% of Black Catholics attend churches where the majority of congregants also are Black. Most of the churches are on the East Coast or in the South.

Members of the Black Catholic community said their desire is not to segregate but tap into a love for God through their unique culture.

“We’re no different than anyone else,” explained Dawn Crutchfield-Board, vice grand lady for the Knights of Peter Claver-369 St Josephine Bakhita Court, the local arm of the nation’s largest African American Catholic lay organization.

“We are a culture like everyone else. However, we know because of racial issues, it is just as important African Americans are not left out of that, as far as our spiritual need to connect with our God,” she said.

“We love the Catholic faith, and we want to use the Catholic faith as a medium that embraces our culture and spirituality and the gifts we bring that might be different to our spirituality,” Crutchfield-Board added.

Mary Skinner, 369 St Josephine Bakhita Court’s grand lady, echoed those thoughts.

“With the establishment of this (mission), we are going to get our ‘family’ back. Our young kids, who felt that they didn’t have a voice in the church or a way to express themselves, have left. The Catholic faith is a beautiful faith. I love it. I want to bring my boys back to the church and say, ‘Here is something that can feed your spirit,'” Skinner said.

The new mission is the fruit of a panel created by Olmsted in the weeks following the May 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man, during his arrest by white police in Minnesota. The Racial Healing and Reconciliation Commission gathered input from the African American Catholic community regarding its spiritual needs.

St. Josephine Bakhita Mission’s namesake is a model of forgiveness and love needed in today’s divisive, charged atmosphere.

Characterized by the bishop in his homily as a “remarkable saint,” St. Bakhita was kidnapped at age 9 by slave traders in Sudan, then sold and resold several times.

“She suffered so much torture and trauma that she forgot her birth name,” the bishop noted.

It wasn’t until her later teen years, after being purchased and brought to Italy, that St. Bakhita came to know Christ and convert to Catholicism. Her owner sent her to join his daughter at a school run by the Canossian Sisters in Venice. The nuns later turned to the courts and had Bakhita declared free, yet she remained with them, and eventually taking her vows, giving her life to serve others and teaching them about God’s love.

She was canonized by St. John Paul II in 2000.

“She constantly found reasons to be grateful to God, not looking back in anger or even regret for what had been stolen from her as a child, but cheerfully discovering each day the gifts of mercy and love from Jesus, the Lord and Master of life,” Olmsted said.

“If Josephine Bakhita can come out of such terrible things and be a woman of such faith and hope, then that will inspire all of us to do the same thing,” he added. “We knew with the racial commission that we had to focus on good examples as well as see the sin of racism. This (the St. Josephine Bakhita Mission) is a sign of overcoming evil with good.”

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Grant writes for The Catholic Sun, the news outlet of the Diocese of Phoenix.