By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator 

From humble beginnings rooted in the rich soil on both sides of the Mississippi River, Deacon Alfred Adams’ trailblazing life has become his ministry, a career of working toward racial equality using the Gospel as his vehicle.  

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Bishop Stanley J. Ott ordains Deacon Alfred Adams in 1990 at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge. Deacon Adams is the first African-American ordained a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. Photo provided by the Archives Department | Diocese of Baton Rouge

 

Confronted by racism at an early age, when his mother moved him and his siblings from Vacherie to Lutcher, Deacon Adams has used life’s difficult experiences as guide posts along his journey of becoming the first African-American to be ordained a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Baton Rouge as well as a community leader in helping bring racial harmony to Baton Rouge.  

Along the way, he has moved from sitting in the back of the church as a youngster to occupying the front row with his wife of 47 years, or even being on the altar assisting the celebrant during Mass.  

“All of the stuff that happened to me, I thank God for it,” Deacon Adams said. “At the time I didn’t like it but now I look back, it formed me to the person that I am now. This is how you are supposed to behave, not to try to please anybody but just please the God that called me to do this.  

“Thank God for giving me that grace.”  

Deacon Adams’ 1990 ordination was historic and nearly three decades later he continues to embrace his role as an inspiration for future men of color, living proof of what is possible when faith is one’s beacon.  

“Being the first African-American deacon in our diocese is something I will never forget,” said Deacon Adams, who is the director of the Office of Black Catholics. “Bishop (Stanley J.) Ott (who ordained Deacon Adams) pointed it out to me, I remember him saying, ‘Alfred, I appreciate you stepping forward.’  

“I said I’m just a guy who God called. But now I look back and (realize) only the Lord could have done it. It sounds good.”  

“I’m a part of history,” he added. “I can make this good or bad; that’s why I try to be more of a healer than always criticizing.”  

As an African-American male, Deacon Adams is a living witness to some of the most turbulent and difficult times in this country’s history. He first encountered racism as a youthful six-year-old who had moved from Vacherie to Lutcher with his family.  

What he experienced was so hurtful that he told his mother, a single mother of five sons and a staunch Catholic, that he wanted to move back to Vacherie.  

make us (be separated). I just couldn’t understand it. Many times I told my mom I am going to the other side of the river.”  

But Deacon Adams’ mother, who recently passed away, remained steadfast in her commitment to living in Lutcher, which would mark the beginning of the racism he would face not only in his secular life but even as an ordained clergy member. He recalls sitting in the back of the church, complaining to his mother that he could not see the altar and questioning why they would always sit in the rear. She just told him to be patient and let God “take care of it.”  

“When I look back, I say this woman planted the seeds of faith in me,” Deacon Adams said. “Don’t try to understand everything, just surrender to God. She built that faith in me.”  

It was during those early years when he was forced to learn some of life’s cruelest lessons. When his older brother died of complications from a football-related injury, Deacon Adams, 13 at the time, became the man of the house. He was left to tend to his younger siblings while his mother went to work cooking and babysitting for others.  

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Deacon Alfred Adams

 

Deacon Adams took over many of the cleaning and cooking chores, with cooking being a love he has nurtured for decades.  

“From that point, I did what I had to do,” Deacon Adams, the father of three children, including one deceased child, eight grandchildren and a two-year-old great granddaughter, said. “I learned how to cook and clean. You get up and do it every day.  

“I (also) knew I had to be the breadwinner.”  

After graduating from high school Deacon Adams found employment at a chemical plant. When he met his wife, they moved to Convent, where she was raised, and began raising their own family.  

It was during that time Deacon Adams, who also drove a school bus, began working part-time at St. Michael Church in Convent, and has never left. His life would change forever when he attended a conference that he believes the Holy Spirit used to touch his heart.  

Deacon Adams felt a desire to become a priest but knew that was impossible. Friends suggested he leave the Catholic Church and become a Baptist minister, a realistic solution since his wife had been raised Baptist.  

He knew his heart strived for more but was uncertain of the answer.  

“The calling was real but why would God call me to be a priest and I know I can’t be a priest?” Deacon Adams wondered. “That’s all I had in mind, to be a priest.” 

Deacon John Veron, currently the Director of Diaconate Ministry and Life for the diocese, listened to Deacon Adams and suggested to his good friend that he study to become a deacon. 

“I didn’t know anything about deacons,” Deacon Adams recalled with a chuckle. 

In 1985 he began studying for the diaconate and was ordained in 1990 at the age of 35, becoming not only the first African-American deacon in the diocese but also one of the youngest. But even as a member of the clergy, even wearing the vestments during Mass, racism was at his doorstep. 

He recalled one white church member getting up and leaving whenever Deacon Adams was assisting at Mass, 

“Some people still holding on to the church as a white church,” Deacon Adams said. “Then you look at it and say, ‘Wait a minute. This is my church, too. How can I contribute to this church?’ ”

In 1992, he attended the National Black Congress in New Orleans, and shortly after became involved with the Office of Black Catholics. He was appointed director of the office in 2005, and immediately formed an advisory board compromised of representatives from all of the predominantly African-American parishes in the diocese. He said residents from such areas as Donaldsonville, Napoleonville and St. James told him they felt as if they were being left out. 

He also reached out to a Southern University student to bring youth to the board. 

“From there, that is how it got started,” Deacon Adams said, noting how the office has expanded to host youth conferences and days of reflections, along with helping African-Americans overcome issues that might arise in their local churches. 

Deacon Adams was a founding member of the Racial Harmony Commission, founded in 2016 by Bishop Robert W. Muench following a summer of racial unrest and violence in Baton Rouge. 

He said one of the commission’s primary missions is to provide information to the African-American community, hoping that information “can go from the head to the heart to start forming you as you are supposed to be.” 

To achieve that goal, Deacon Adams has developed and presented several racial sobriety workshops, as well as assisted in developing the Racial Harmony prayer. He said it’s “a good prayer and I love it. But that prayer is supposed to be a bridge, and a bridge is only as good as its structure.” 

“If we don’t know how to talk about race, it’s not going to happen,” he added. “Racial sobriety gives you your own voice. Jesus came with his voice, Martin Luther King (Jr.) came with his voice. Nobody can take that away from you.” 

He is also working to encourage more African-American vocations. Father Josh Johnson, pastor at Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant, is the only African-American priest in the diocese. 

Deacon Adams said he is working with the Knights of Peter Clever and other organizations to help nurture those vocations. 

His is a career of many achievements, an architect of bridging the racial divide that divides the community. But perhaps his proudest moment was when Bishop Ott ordained him into history.