The fourth installment of our Women of Color in Catholic Media interview series is a candid conversation with author Alessandra Harris. We explore several topics, ranging from her books to the global debt crisis to the racial demographics in Catholic media. We also discuss how she manages life’s balancing act as a writer and a mother of four. Finally, she offers a challenge for all readers of Where Peter Is.
In addition to being a Black Catholic, author, wife, and mom, Alessandra Harris earned a Bachelor’s Degrees in Comparative Religious Studies and Middle East Studies and is a co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger. She also contributes to various Catholic publications, and her third novel will be published later in 2021.
Were you aware that, according to a study conducted by the Gordon Conwell Seminary, today’s ‘typical’ Christian is a woman of color who lacks access to healthcare and lives in unsafe circumstances—a vastly different demographic than even a hundred years ago?
Yes, I am aware that the typical Catholic is a woman of color, globally. And I think that the Church has a long way to go to catch up to that reality because, when you talk about: ‘a woman who might not have access to healthcare’ you don’t have to look farther than the United States to see that reality.
I read somewhere that since the beginning of the pandemic, over 12 million people have lost their health insurance due losing their jobs. I believe in universal healthcare. I believe that healthcare is a right. It is the type of issue that affects our faith because we should be taking care of each other out of respect for our shared human dignity. There should be a preferential option for the poor. We should be doing the corporal works of mercy, and we should be helping others with the necessities of life.
In terms of the Church needing to play “catch up” with race, then, there seem to be two areas that need to change: not only does there need to be more visibility for that typical Christian woman (including in media), but the Church also needs to be more in touch with the challenges she faces—even in our own country, in areas such as access to healthcare.
I saw a quote today from Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism in a ‘Black and Catholic’ Facebook group that said, “Every single day the Catholic Church feeds, houses, and clothes more people, takes care of more sick people, visits more prisoners, and educates more people than any other institution on the face of the earth could ever hope to.” So, on one hand, I don’t want to discredit the charities of the Church, religious orders, and organizations, and how they really do help people.
But I think that, at the same time, you have this disconnect between this and what is presented as the face of Catholicism. Catholic media is overwhelmingly white, and you don’t see people of color who are also Catholic. So it seems on the surface that Catholic media and our bishops—who are overwhelmingly White—are catering only to a specific demographic. Meanwhile the demographics are rapidly changing in this country. Take the Bay Area where I live: there are older white priests, but most of the young priests are from the Philippines, Latin America, or Africa. It’s very rare to see a young, white priest here. That’s the shift in the Church, since I’ve lived here, that I’ve definitely witnessed.
How can we really help people?
People need to be better educated about the specific types of injustices that keep countries poor. From 2005-2008, I was on the board of a global non-profit, Jubilee USA, which is a faith based organization with different chapters all over the world. At that time, Jubilee USA was really working hard to educate people and to advocate about the debt crisis. Our organization was based on the biblical principle that every seven years, during the ‘jubilee year,’ debts would be forgiven or reduced. The global Jubilee chapters lobby for banks and for Western Countries to forgive and reduce the debts of these nations.
Many people don’t know that countries in the Global South are paying back debts of billions of dollars to Western countries, the World bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Most of that debt was accumulated during dictatorships, or in the process of coming out of them.
When these countries tried to pay back their debts, the World Bank and IMF would make “structural adjustments,” which meant cutting money for healthcare and education so that these nations could make their payments. When people wonder why those third world countries can’t “get it together,” it’s because they don’t understand that these places just can’t get ahead economically.
I love this one quote from Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He says, “The opposite of poverty is justice.” When people talk about what we can do to help those here or in different parts of the world—how we can help the ‘typical Christian,’ now the underprivileged woman lacking access to safety and necessities, it is important for them to understand that what she needs is justice, not just our sympathy.
Tell us a little about your faith journey and you writing career.
I’m a cradle Catholic and I attended Catholic school until my sophomore year of college. I ended up transferring to a state university where I earned a degree in Comparative Religious Studies and Middle East Studies. In 2007, I started writing for City Flight, a San Francisco Bay Area magazine for the local African American community. I wrote articles for them and then later I began writing fiction. In 2016 my first book came out. and in 2018 my second book was published. My third book is under contract right now.
My publisher, Red Adept Publishing, is small, but it’s a good press. They’ve had a number of New York Times and USA Today bestsellers. Unfortunately, despite recent efforts at diversifying, publishing is still overwhelmingly white. So there are not as many opportunities for Black authors or Black editors and agents. I’m so grateful that I found a publishing company that allows me to be authentic as an African American writer and to to explore topics that are important to me.
How did Black Catholic Messenger start?
Nate Tinner Williams—the main editor and president of Black Catholic Messenger—reached out to Black Catholics he knew as he was starting the media site. I was interested and wanted to be involved because there really was no Black Catholic media available. Whenever I read traditional Catholic media, often I feel like I’m not represented at all. It still seems as if—based on a lot of Catholic media—Black Catholics don’t even exist. I felt like this was an important need and I wanted to address that as a writer.
What’s it like balancing all these wonderful media and literary endeavors with your homelife as a mom of four kids?
Writing was easier when the kids were younger and would go to bed earlier. I could just write after they went to bed at 8 pm. But now that they’re older, they go to bed later than me, so it feels more challenging to carve out the space to write. But my kids, for the most part, respect when I’m trying to write. They understand that I need time to work on the computer— that doesn’t mean they don’t interrupt me—but I have learned to focus through the distractions. Also I don’t really watch TV or stream shows, so I dedicate my free time to writing.
Tell me about your upcoming novel.
It’s a thriller with social topics. My third book reflects how I’ve grown in my faith journey. With my latest work, I did specifically want to write something so that if a priest wanted to read it, he could. That isn’t necessarily the case with my first two novels.
The main plot centers around a little girl who gets kidnapped, so it’s a thriller, but this book also talks about issues that are important to society and to our faith. One character, for example, is a husband who was recently released from being incarcerated and is trying to re-enter society. He’s a father, but he faces the unique challenge of carrying the stigma of being formerly incarcerated. This affects how he is seen by potential employers whenever he applies for a job.
This is relevant to our faith, because in many ways the mass incarceration of African Americans is just a different form of slavery. Former inmates today are treated like the untouchables of society. It’s become socially acceptable to consider those formerly incarcerated—who are seven to ten times more likely to end up homeless—as second-class citizens. They can’t qualify for government housing or food stamps (though Joe Biden is trying to change that). All these barriers to gainful employment and housing impede their ability to re-enter society and to support themselves and their families.
Too often, the formerly incarcerated—who are overwhelmingly Black—are shut out of mainstream society. Similar to the connection between debt and poverty in the Global South, we have to ask about the contributing factors to homelessness in our own country. One of the answers is mass incarceration. With my third novel, I wanted to humanize the lives of these people, especially African Americans, who face barriers when they re-enter society. Most Black people know someone who is or who has been incarcerated. It’s a huge issue affecting our community. It’s reality.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Veritatis Splendor community that’s being planned in Tyler, TX. Based on their promotional materials, the organizers of this Catholic compound are not big on diversity. The project appears to focus on one demographic in particular.
Yeah, I saw that. All the conversation around it made me know that [laughs] it won’t be a place I will be living in, nor would I want to live or ever be invited to live there. So I haven’t really extensively investigated it.
But I also don’t think it’s necessary to isolate in a community like Veritatis Splendor. Because so much has gone online during Covid, I actually have felt much more connected to the Black Catholic community. And that’s how I’d rather be: connected.
Just last weekend, I attended a webinar given by the Knights of St. Peter Claver that focused on the “blind spots” of racism in the Church. They discussed how there are three million Black American Catholics (some even estimate that almost half of all Catholics in the U.S. are people of color) and yet, still we are almost invisible.
Do you think there is a link between affluence and the current racial landscape of leading figures populating Catholic media?
Honestly, I can’t really say a lot about the role of affluence because I just don’t have a lot of information about it. It wasn’t Where Peter Is, but I was just reading an article about these really conservative people with a lot of money who are funding a lot of the Catholic think tanks. Catholic University of America and the Napa Institute were a few that were mentioned. The article discussed how these people are basically able to control the narrative of what the official Catholic institutions and organizations teach and focus on.
I don’t think that people, just because they have money, should be controlling the narrative of our faith. I think the pope, and those who are working for and within the Church—taking care of the needy, teaching and evangelizing—who should be determining the direction of the conversation. Not money.
Our Holy Father has called those people in the trenches “social poets” in Fratelli Tutti.
Oh, I like that! I read a lot—but not all—of Fratelli Tutti.
What is your overall impression of Catholic media now, compared to when you started? You mentioned earlier that because of Covid, you were able to connect more with Black Catholics online. Perhaps things have improved since the pandemic? What are your thoughts?
I would say that since 2020, I saw a lot more Catholic publications covering issues that are important to African Americans, and I noticed more African Americans being interviewed and profiled. That is positive and a really good step. I’ve also used my YouTube Channel as a platform to highlight issues facing Black Catholics, our faith, and history. But I also feel that Black people can talk about a lot more than racism or racial justice. When Black people are finally able to be thought of as just Catholics, and we don’t have to write about race issues all the time, that would also be nice.
Great point. Thank you! What words of encouragement can you offer those who are reading this in Where Peter Is? Is there something you want to leave with us about the work of Black Catholic Messenger?
I would just encourage the readers of Where Peter Is, if they feel called to elevate the voices of Black Catholics or to support our work—whether it’s just following us on social media or signing up for our newsletter, or even making a donation—to do so. All of those things help us so that we can hopefully be around for the long term.☼
This interviewer would like to thank Alessandra Harris for her time, work, and witness!
Faithful women of color are strongly encouraged to submit their content to Where Peter Is, which strives to feature diverse voices. If you are a woman of color who would like to be featured in this series, please contact us by using the “Contact Us” link at the top of the WPI homepage.
Keep up with and learn more of what Alessandra Harris is up to by going to the links below: