CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
Fessahaye Mebrahtu comes from a “very strong family, deep in their faith.” Originally from Eritrea in Africa, he immigrated to the Unites States when he was 24 and holds almost as many master’s degrees as roles he has served within the Church. He has joined the Intercultural Ministry staff at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as the new director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries.
From studying theology in Chicago and New Orleans to being one of the founding members of the Ge’Ez Rite Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., Mebrahtu is a life-long learner and passionate about his faith and heritage. Through the years, he has held leadership positions in the African Catholic community, which he jovially terms “my 5-10 job,” including serving as the de-facto national organizer for the Eritrean Catholics of Ge’Ez Rite of North America, secretary for the National Association of African Catholics, and his current post as a board member at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology.
In 1995, he moved to Milwaukee and worked at All Saints and St. Martin de Porres as the youth minister and director of Christian formation for 11 years. “Out of All Saints we created the Pan African Community Association (PACA). That evolved as a small community in the parish but eventually there was a [greater] need, and we grew it into a non-profit organization. For 11 years, I was the executive director for that organization, resettling refuges, placing them in jobs, finding them resources and housing, and schools for their children.”
When funding sources ran dry and refugee arrivals declined, they closed. “That’s where I had to make a transition. For the last five months, before I came here, I worked as a chaplain in Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution in Plymouth.” There, he ministered to people of all religious traditions, an experience that enriched his professional outlook and personal spirituality.
“With the Native Americans and pagans, I had one of the deepest conversations with these groups, and at the end, both groups felt they were appreciated. I also acknowledged that I am learning from them. I am not here as a teacher but as a student,” he said.
“If we approach people with dignity and humility, and try to understand where people are, they respond positively … that approach of humility is something that I cherish.”
In recent years, Mebrahtu started working with the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, specifically serving African Catholics and is still actively involved with the Mariam-Tsion Ge’Ez Rite community in Milwaukee. On June 8, the community celebrated Mass with a priest from the Washington, D.C., parish.
Different ethnicities and communities “bring a wealth of spirituality. Yes, the Gospel should shed light on the negative aspect of any culture, to change it, to be reformed, to be better, but there is always a foundation” that offers something the Church can learn from and appreciate.
For ethnic, refugee, or immigrant communities, receiving the Sacraments and celebrating Mass in their native tongue or with their particular cultural traditions can be rare, but making these supernatural realities accessible and demonstrating appreciation for each ethnic group is a priority for Mebrahtu in his new role.
“As a first-generation African, I know what my roots are and I know what the struggles [of African-Americans] are, but I don’t have that deep trauma that came from enslavement, oppression and segregation.”
“Only strong people can endure so much trauma, so much struggle, and not only survive and thrive but keep challenging. The mere total struggle, relentless in spite of suffering, to keep struggling for justice is something that the Church should appreciate with Black Catholics.” Their perseverance is a gift for our Church and American society as a whole.
Remembering and respecting various heritages is key to ministry, Mebrahtu explained. Ultimately, “we have all been immigrants at one point, except for the Native Americans. That should not be forgotten.”
As the director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries, he will be “hitting the ground running,” implementing a pastoral plan, visiting parishes around the archdiocese, and ministering to the Black, Native American, and Asian communities, focusing on investing in people and developing indigenous leaders.
Ethnic communities have a lot to offer the Church, Mebrahtu said, which is “a paradigm shift we will need, to look at our own assets and be able to utilize them for the benefit of the Church and the rest of the community.”
By making this director position possible, the archdiocese is providing support for ethnic communities “to organize and to have that sense of care from the archdiocese,” Mebrahtu said. Reflecting on his own community, “from us [Black Catholics], we need to make sure we are here to stay and at the same time we are productive and viable members of the Body of Christ.”
Of the five goals established for his office’s outreach, Mebrahtu said evangelization must be a priority, which “can only be achieved when we are true to our faith, integrity, and dignity, so people see what makes us behave and act in this way and we become a living witness. It starts with me and I have to be able to bring that approach.”