Overcoming obstacles is nothing new to Dr. Ansel Augustine. He was homeless after Hurricane Katrina, and he has a brother serving time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
But the nurturing he received from a nun and a priest led Augustine to know the Catholic faith and how God uses broken people to accomplish great things.
Augustine, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said God used him to reach youth, no matter their situation, just as his now-deceased mentors – Edmundite Father Michael Jacques, former pastor at St. Peter Claver Church, and Sister of the Holy Family Eva Regina Martin – encouraged him to achieve his personal best.
“So, for me, it’s to provide and plant the seed and let God do his work,” Augustine said about being a youth leader. “There is a lot going on, a lot of challenges in our community. … It’s for us to continue to provide those positive spaces … where young people feel they belong in the church.
“This message for them now – not when they get older or married or have children – is, ‘Jesus loves you where you are, and he can use you to make a difference in your life and for other people, even if you don’t feel it now.’”
For his efforts over more than a decade, Augustine recently earned the 2016 National Catholic Youth Ministry award for multi-cultural gifts at the National Conference for Catholic Youth Ministry, where he was emcee. He also won the Trailblazer award in January at Dillard University from NOLA Gospel Awards.
Augustine said he is humbled to be acknowledged and quickly shifted the accolades to his mentors and those who carry on the torch.
“I will never forget them – that nurturing,” he said about Father Jacques and Sister Eva Regina. “They met me where I was, just like Jesus did. I was rough around the edges, and they loved me for who I was.”
When Hurricane Katrina displaced the St. Peter Claver neighborhood, Augustine – with nowhere to go – literally found refuge in the church. At the request of Father Jacques, he acted as an on-site guard protecting church property and preparing church buildings for contractors.
“When he called and needed my help, I was there because I knew I belonged at St. Peter Claver as a young person because that was home,” Augustine said. It was where he had his first youth ministry post.
After losing his post due to the scarcity of parishioners, he began working hurricane recovery for Catholic Charities Archdiocese New Orleans. That led to speaking engagements in parishes nationwide to explain New Orleans’ recovery. Then, a job with the archdiocesan CYO office led to attending national conventions, where he was recognized from speeches and that led to national youth speaker status.
Augustine said his head was spinning as he received the multi-cultural gifts award, recalling everyone, everything on his journey.
“That God would bring me here, it was just crazy,” he said. “So, when I am keynoting or speaking and traveling, I do it for my church, my neighborhood and my city,” Augustine said. “I am shocked that I get all these awards. I dedicate them to the archdiocese, the people of New Orleans and especially the kids at St. Peter Claver, because they see if I can do it, they can do it, too.”
Augustine considers his biggest accomplishment seeing where his message has fallen on “fertile ground” of young adults who mentor others.
“The ones that get it and come back and give back, that’s where my heart feels the passion and love that God tells me, ‘You are doing the right thing,’” Augustine said. “I’ve buried many (young adults); I’ve visited prison of those who have made wrong choices or life’s circumstances have landed them there. But they are still God’s children, and we are called to love them. Then you have the few that ‘get it,’ and the seed falls on good ground. God is amazing.”
Augustine said experience has given him enough insight into youth to know they don’t want things to do; they want places to belong and to know that someone cares.
“Do they feel welcome enough to belong and call it their own, or is it just a class they attend, led by adults telling them what to do, and then are gone?” Augustine asks. “Are we really listening to give them their agenda? Youth ministry, ideally, should be their ministry, where they are ministering and learning about God and ministering to each other.”
Earned a doctorate
On the educational side, Augustine has a master’s degree in pastoral studies from the Loyola Institute for Ministry in New Orleans and a doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation in Mishawaka, Indiana. He also teaches at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies, the place where Sister Eva Regina encouraged him to earn a youth ministry certificate.
He contributed to the African-American Catholic Youth Bible, published by St. Mary’s Press, through the National Black Catholic Congress in 2014 and has worked on programming with the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry and with the National Black and Indian Mission Office.
“I use my gifts the best way possible,” Augustine said. “My motivation is to make a better way for the people coming after me, to honor my ancestors who sacrificed for me. That Sankofa moment – looking back to the best but looking forward.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.