In the first installment of this series, I shared a study that showed the stark contrast between the ethnic and racial demographics of global Christianity and that of the leading public figures in Christian—especially Catholic—media in the United States.
Focusing on racial exclusivity in Catholic communications, which is dominated by people of Western European descent, may strike some as wokeism. The findings of the Gordon Conwell study reveal the undeniable fact that today’s “typical Christian” is a woman of color—someone who is undeniably hard to find in Christian media.
In my first interview, I asked Dr. Jaime Waters, associate professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago, about her thoughts on this lack of representation. She powerfully asserted:
“It’s important for the Church to recognize and appreciate its diversity and changing demographics. Appreciation in this context should inspire Catholic media to elevate diverse voices, not only to ‘catch up’ [i.e. become more diverse] but to acknowledge the important contributions of all people, especially those who have been historically underrepresented or marginalized.”
Dr. Waters’s words echo Pope Francis’s sentiments regarding the media and the marginalized in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, when he said that our new forms of media have the potential to build up “a sense of the unity of the human family which in turn can inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all” (FT 205). Simply recognizing the paucity of people of color, especially women, in mass media is not an expression of cultural “wokeism” —it’s simply noticing the disparity between the true “face of the Church” and the fact that when you tune into your favorite Catholic radio station or TV show, the faces and voices of women of color are nowhere to be found.
In 1988, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published a document entitled The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society, which explained that for Catholics “it is important to educate to a positive appreciation of the complementary diversity of peoples. A well-understood pluralism resolves the problem of closed racism…All Catholics are invited to work concretely side by side with other Christians and all others who have this same respect for persons” (CR 33).
Even if this exclusion is not intentional, we should still heed the Church’s guidance and do something to change it. As Melinda Ribnek wrote in January, “We know the system is still broken, and if we really do want equality for all people of every race, we must actively address racial inequality.” My objective with this series of interviews is to help amplify the voices of talented Catholic women of color who work in media and communications. I want to give them the opportunity to discuss their thoughts and ideas and share their impressive work in this space. I hope that offering this platform will serve as at least a small step towards achieving the unity desired by the Church—one that admits of “no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex” (Lumen Gentium 32).
Recently, I spoke with author and actress Preslaysa Williams about the paucity of female minorities in mainstream Catholic media. A Catholic revert and homeschooling mom, Williams is a member of Romance Writers of America, the Authors Guild, and the the Screen Actors Guild. Her latest novel, A Lowcountry Bride, will be released on June 1, 2021, and you can pre-order it here.
Williams’s self-coined moniker for her brand of writing is “Hallmark and Hard Topics,” which—in addition to being suitable for all ages—includes female protagonists of color who often deal with issues that are specific to minorities. “The genre I write in is called ‘sweet romance’ and you don’t find a lot of People of Color in those. I also delve into tougher topics of issues of race and chronic illness (such as sickle cell anemia, which is specific to black and brown people of color) and navigating a white society.” In 2015, she won the American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for unpublished authors. Her debut novel Healing Hannah’s Heart was released in 2019.
Williams, a Columbia University alumna, has also earned a Master of Public Administration from the College of Charleston and a Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. As an actress, she played Cindy Ornette on Nickelodeon’s The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. She returned to Catholicism in 2019 after a time with Evangelical Christianity, and since then she has been interested in participating in Catholic media. This is our interview (slightly edited for length and clarity):
Can you tell us a little about your involvement in Catholic media and the factors that helped you along the way?
My first foray into Catholic media was when I saw a new website called Catholic Speakers of Color (CSC). This outlet was specifically focused on Catholic people from historically underrepresented backgrounds, and so it was easier for me to be included in this media outlet.
What is your experience with Catholic Speakers of Color?
I found out about CSC from Leticia Ochoa Adams’s Facebook page. This is one of the few religiously focused outlets I am involved in. I’ve found non-religious media to be more inclusive. Non-religious media outlets are usually more open to my voice.
Were you aware of this global trend (increasingly female and non-white) in Christianity before? Do you have any thoughts or reactions to the reality that worldwide, the face of a typical Christian is that of a non-white woman?
I first became aware of this trend when my Evangelical pastor read Gordon Conwell’s statistics to our congregation in 2001. So I knew that there was a disconnect between what we perceive most Christians to look like versus what they actually look like. I think the increased missions work to Black and Brown nations contributes to the change. A lot of this mission work is done by Protestant, evangelical ministries.
However, I also question these statistics with regards to how the typical Christian looked 100 years ago. In 1921, there was a huge Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, California which was led by a Black man named William Seymour. He was baptized Catholic, but then he joined the Holiness denomination later in life.
The Azusa Street Revival birthed modern-day Pentecostalism and the Church of God in Christ, a Black denomination. In addition, many people at the Azusa Street revival were working-class folks of all ethnicities. It was actually the first time where the color line was broken in a church setting. Black and White people worshipped together.
In addition, the Black Protestant Church movement was alive and well in 1921. They’ve been active since the antebellum era with the starting of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Black Baptist Church, and many other Black Protestant denominations.
In the first half of the 20th century, there was a rise in the Black Catholic population by over 200%. Today, there are 3 million Black Catholics in America. This number is larger than the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
I say all this because I wonder if Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a white evangelical institution, took the history of the Black Church into account when they conducted their study. On the surface, it looks like they didn’t. It looks like that history was erased, but I don’t know their data set. I do know that the Black Church has always been present, especially in the United States.
The original study underscores a starkly different demographic than we see represented in the current Catholic media. Your thoughts?
Even given the questions I raise about how Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary gathered their data, I am not surprised that there’s a stark difference in demographics between what we see in Catholic media versus the large numbers of Catholics of color today.
A few years ago, this disconnect in (Christian media) would’ve bothered me. Today, I don’t like to spend my time ruminating about why someone isn’t inclusive or diverse. I’d rather spend my time creating a more diverse and inclusive world through the stories that I write.
Is there a place for calling out racial discrimination in the Church?
There is a place for calling out racial discrimination in the Church. There is no tolerance for racial discrimination in the Church. However, it gets exhausting to spend time talking about how religious spaces don’t include me or don’t want to believe I exist. I’d rather spend my time creating the world I want to see.
Doesn’t Toni Morrison have a quote about this? [she looks it up] “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being” (Link). I’d rather not be distracted and just work on what I’m good at.
Can you speak to challenges you’ve encountered trying to fit into Christian media?
Before I became a Catholic revert, I spent about eleven years trying to get my writing published by evangelical Christian publishers. The evangelical Christian publishing industry is about 95% white. The majority of its authors, editors, marketing folks, and sales reps are white.
After eleven years of receiving rejections by evangelical Christian publishers, I stopped submitting my work to them. I stopped submitting my work to them around the same time that I reverted to Catholicism, and I found that many Catholic media spaces and Catholic publishers are also 95% white.
Have you tried to find inclusion in mainstream Catholic media?
Honestly, I haven’t sought to be included in mainstream Catholic media because many outlets also aren’t diverse or inclusive. I go to where I know I can fit in. If I don’t look like a media outlet’s target demographic, then I most likely won’t be welcome there.
The media outlets where I am welcome explicitly say they are inclusive and/or diverse. Or these media outlets are making concerted efforts to create more diverse and inclusive platforms.
Many inclusive and diverse media outlets are not religiously focused. I feel like God is placing me in non-religious spaces. I feel welcome there, and I feel at peace with where I am. Jesus’ Great Commission says that we are to go out into the world, and that is what I’m doing.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what are some of the ‘points of affluence’ (i.e factors helped you break into media) that set you up for success?
I grew up in an inner city, mostly Black neighborhood. When I was very young, my parents made an income selling items at a flea market. Then, when I was around 10 or 11 years old, Mom got a city job and Dad became a nurse’s assistant. My mother is Filipino, and my father is African-American.
I recall that my mother faced discriminatory hiring practices by the City’s Human Resources Department. She received the highest score on her civil service exam, but Human Resources hired someone else, someone who had an “in” with the department. My mother wrote letters to call out their discriminatory hiring practices, and she was eventually hired.
She worked there for over twenty years, and when she retired, I was shocked at her ending salary. Her salary upon retirement was equal to what an entry-level college graduate would receive today. It’s very low.
I was raised Catholic and I went to Catholic School all my life. In the beginning, my local parish helped cover my tuition until my parents paid for my tuition on their own. At the same time that my parents were working, I became a child actor. My mother took me into New York City for auditions. I eventually landed a role on Nickelodeon’s The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. It was a fun period of my life.
However, when my parents were unable to pay for my senior year at my Catholic High School, I used my acting earnings to pay the tuition so that I could graduate. I also recall that the vice principal of my Catholic high school was trying to hold me back from graduating because he said that I missed too many days of school due to my acting work.
Well, there are legal school requirements for child actors, and I met all the legal requirements while I worked on set. Yet the VP stood his ground.
That was the first time in my life that I experienced discrimination, and it was discrimination in a Catholic setting. I had to grow up really quickly and learn to stand up for myself. Thankfully, I did. I also graduated and attended Columbia University for undergraduate school.
So my points of affluence are: attending private Catholic schools, attending an Ivy League school, and working as a television actor. However, as you can see, those points of affluence were affected by the intersection of racial discrimination which led to greater economic disparities.
Would you like to find yourself included in mainstream Catholic media?
I would love to be in Catholic spaces too! However, many Christian spaces (Catholic or Protestant) are not inclusive or diverse, and I know that I won’t fit in there. There are some Protestant spaces for Black people, and I can easily connect with them based on our shared culture and faith. I haven’t found this in many white Christian spaces.
Could Catholic media be perceived as upholding white supremacy?
If a Catholic media platform isn’t diverse or inclusive, then they can be perceived as upholding white supremacy. Whether they actually do or not, is something which remains to be seen.
Also, if a person of color manages to be included in mainstream Catholic media, they risk becoming the token minority everyone points to show their inclusiveness. That’s not okay either.
Does Catholic media need to play “catch up” with regards to diversity in its ranks?
Yes, and with regards to showing the diverse perspectives and viewpoints in Christendom.
What concrete steps can Catholic media take to lift every voice?
Seek her [the ‘typical Christian’] out and give platforms for her voice. Open up areas of opportunity for her gifts and charisms to shine. Local parish communities can make disciples of these women and empower them to lead their faith communities in various ministries.
When the “typical Christian woman” is in economic need, then the Church should increase its social justice efforts to provide her with food, clothing, and shelter for her and her family. These are just some ways that they can help.
Currently, Preslaysa homeschools her two children while writing novels. She explains that times have been tough for her family after her husband recently became unemployed:
I feel like, for all intents and purposes, I am well-educated, and I have been successful, but there continue to be economic disparities and gaps in opportunity between Black women’s salaries and those of their white counterparts.
I homeschool my children, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit and my husband became unemployed, I started applying for full-time jobs. I applied for many. Some employers called me into their office for an in-person interview. They would say that they’d get back to me, but they never responded. They never told me whether I would be hired or not.
My husband has applied for many jobs too. He has even gone on second and third interviews for positions, and, as of the date of this interview, he has been met with the same results. No one has called to let him know whether he has been hired or not. These are the things that Black and Brown people face when we say that there are gaps in opportunity which lead to economic disparities.
So I am praying that St. Joseph, the patron saint of workers and employment, will open doors for our family soon.
St. Joseph, pray for Preslaysa and her family!
I’d like to thank Preslaysa for her candid interview and I hope both her experiences and the novels she writes are shared far and wide. Here again is the link to pre-order and purchase her novels. —MN
Minority women of faith are highly encouraged to submit their content to Where Peter Is, which strives to feature diverse voices. If you are a minority woman 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.
Images provided by Preslaysa Williams
Marissa Nichols studied English Literature at both the University of San Francisco and Oxford University, England. In the past, she’s blogged, contributed to Catholicmom.com, and currently teaches English while editing for Where Peter Is. She left a theology masters in progress at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology to raise a growing family. Her family was featured in America Magazine, and her adult child of divorce story was featured in the book, Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak. When she isn’t editing and teaching, she’s volunteering at her local, non-profit pregnancy center which she also helped found.