Deacon Miguel Fabian at the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Americas. (Emily Benson photo)
Deacon Miguel Fabian at the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Americas. (Emily Benson photo)

Most people don’t want to go to prison, but Deacon Miguel Fabian doesn’t mind.

A chaplain at Washington Correctional Facility in Comstock and deacon at the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Americas in Albany, Deacon Fabian has found a comfortable balance between two vastly different places of work.

Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, he moved to the U.S. almost 30 years ago to join family in the Capital Region. He and his wife now live in Clifton Park with their three children. Between church, family and the occasional baseball game, Deacon Fabian is a busy and respected man within the faith community. The Evangelist’s Emily Benson sat down with Deacon Fabian first in March before the pandemic and then again this month to talk about his faith, his work as a chaplain and deacon and his experience as a black Catholic living in the Albany Diocese.

TE: Tell me about your upbringing.

DF: I was born in the Dominican Republic. I come from a big family and … we didn’t have a choice not to go to church. I think that was a part of my base foundation, my family; how they sent us (to church) to be able to be faithful at an early age and have so much support in the community, I think that was one. I remember I was part of the youth group. At age 15, I was vice president of the group and that was some kind of surprise. Being involved in the faith and with the community, I remember when I came to the United States, that was a specific moment when I recognized the need for (being in a youth group), what it was doing (and) how important it was for me.  Thank God, when I came to the United States, I was able to get involved again. That was part of the journey, and to have a faithful family, that makes a difference.

TE: How was your adjustment to the United States?

DF: When you come with no knowledge of the language, and you come from a hot weather country, you don’t have to face this type of weather. It’s a big, drastic change, and that’s not something you want to come to, (but) that was a family decision. It’s different when you’re dreaming, ‘Oh I have to be there. Oh, I have to go.’ (This) was a family decision.

TE: Tell me about your path to becoming a deacon.

DF: I was already involved in (the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Americas) when I became a deacon. But I remember for some reason I went to an ordination (for deacons) at the Cathedral and something happened to me I will never forget. I was getting to the Cathedral and the future deacons were getting into procession, and this lady was looking at me like when you know someone but you haven’t seen them in a long time? My sister was next to me and I said, ‘Do you know that lady?’ And she said, ‘No.’ And at the end of the celebration, (the same lady) comes to me and she asks me, ‘What do you do in church?’ And I tell her I’m a Eucharistic Minister and reader and work with the youth. I felt like I was doing a lot! And she asked me, ‘Would you like to become a deacon?’ Just like that. And I said, ‘I will think about it.’ And then the same day, Father (Francis) O’Connor (chaplain at Our Lady of the Americas) came to me 10 minutes later and he said, ‘Miguel, you’re gonna be next!’ And then another lady who was working at the Diocese at that time, she said, ‘When you’re ready for FMP (Formation for Minister), you only have to come to my office and I’ll sign the paper.’ That was in 20 minutes, three people came to me, and from there I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

TE: That must have felt like a sign from God.

DF: I knew I had to do something in my life, something to get closer to God, but I never thought it would be a deacon. To make that decision, I was praying a lot, asking God for direction. And I remember one day I was in Mass and I stayed in the back of the church for a little while and prayed and asked God for direction. And something I will never forget — I cannot say God talked to me — but I felt in my heart when He said, ‘Do my will and I will take care of you.’ And from there I was feeling a lot of peace and the decision was made. And that gave me some kind of clear understanding. And at the same time, my wife and my children and my whole family and the whole community were there supporting me.

TE: How has the parish been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

DF: I see the unification of the community, because everybody was trying to reach everyone and find out how you’re doing and (now during) the welcome of people (back to Mass), how we are trying to make everybody feel at home, and at the same time safe. We don’t want people to get into something we don’t need right now. And that type of support, we need it — like a community, like a family — to be able to function properly. 

TE: How did you get involved in prison ministry?

DF: I was a volunteer first. When I was in the formation for the diaconate that was the only time I missed some of the retreats because they told us you have to stop anything major you’re doing through the process of formation to focus on that. But I was a volunteer for the program and in some ways I think that’s why they assisted me to be a chaplain. Ten months (after) I was ordained a deacon; they probably knew I wasn’t afraid to get in!

TE: Were you always comfortable ministering in prison?

DF: I never felt intimidated or anything like that. I never feel that way. I remember when I became a volunteer, I was asking God to put me in some place where I could be helpful to someone, and I remember when I went to the first meeting in jail and I felt like that was the place. I remember I was speaking English and Spanish through my talk on a retreat and one man came to me and he told me, ‘I never cry in my adult life, as a grown man I never remember crying, when you stopped talking I couldn’t stop crying.’ And I remember every time I feel like I’m not going to go to this meeting, that comes to my mind; how that man reacted, that pushes me to keep going.

TE: Did you ever see yourself becoming a chaplain?

DF: In a way. I was a volunteer plus through (my) formation through the diaconate (and) I fit the need of the position (of chaplain). At the same time, you have to identify with the need. The previous day to my ordination, they asked me where you see yourself being a deacon, and I said without thinking twice, wherever there is a need. And I think in some ways God took that seriously and sent me to jail!

TE: You mentioned before how faith can really impact the men in the facility?

DF: These men sometimes they’re so busy in the streets, (but here) they have the opportunity to reflect about their own life and reconnect that relationship with God. You know many people when they come from a Catholic faith community, you have some kind of background that’s there, and (this is) the moment when they use that, when they feel like they have to. That’s why I always say to families, ‘Teach your children no matter what.’ Even if you feel like you’re pouring water into the ocean, keep doing it. I usually say when you give some family values to your families, it’s like when you’re putting money in the bank; they’re going to use it when they need it, but it’s going to be there.

TE: Is helping the men at Washington Correctional similar to how you help your parish?

DF: No, it’s a big difference. When you have to deal with a death in the family of the inmate or the death of an inmate, that impacts the whole facility, especially when the inmate has a death in the family, to not be there, or to do almost nothing for the family. They don’t have a way to provide this, and in some ways it’s difficult to see that. In some way it’s similar. I say inside the facility, it’s a big community of people walking on a small piece of land versus in the parish, it’s a big diversity but the feeling of the community is the same. It’s not like here I have a family who has issues. With any type of family issue, I could intervene and help them, that’s something I could identify more with because I have my own family. Everybody has different needs in different ways. In the beginning I was wondering what do I say in this type of situation, and in time I learned it’s not what you have to say, the important thing is this: to listen to them, to be there. Sometimes you don’t have to say that much, but you have to listen and you have to be compassionate and you have to show that you’re there with them.

TE: How has Washington Correctional Facility handled the COVID-19 spread?

DF: So far I can say we’ve been more than blessed. The facility has been good. According to cases, no inmates were affected; many (facilities) have multiple cases. It’s easy for everybody to get it, and that’s the dangerous part; especially to be there supporting the inmates, we were more wondering about people getting stressed. Not knowing about family and delivering bad news, about a death in the family, especially when you’re not expecting death, that was the difficult part.

Talk about your reaction to George Floyd’s murder and the growing protests?

DF: The situation of the death of Floyd was … (you) find the whole country in one position of wondering what’s going on. I think in a way … those tensions have been there forever and now this is the time when people are not working, not going to school. They had the time to (protest) in the ways it’s been done, but this is a way to move for your rights, and that’s not something new. That’s always been there.

TE: As a person of color, what is it like being a black Catholic in Albany?

DF: You don’t see the high population of black community in Albany. We have some, we have a black community here, but it’s not like a big one compared to someplace else. And in my case to be black, to be Latino, is more where I come from. The Dominican Republic is 97 percent Catholic, sometimes you don’t have a choice. But here, when I have to work with people of color, black, they say, ‘Oh, you’re Catholic?’ Like they’re kind of surprised. That happens, especially in this area. I remember during my formation, we would be in a big congregation of people and I would be the only black person.

TE: Does the Church need to be more receptive to people of color?

DF: I think we have to be more welcoming; more welcoming to the people to let them know you are there, and they believe what we believe. Because we have so many Catholics that are only Catholic by name and tradition, it doesn’t mean they practice the faith. Let’s say my grandmother was Catholic, when they had to answer what your religion is they would say Catholic, but they never practiced the faith. I think we should welcome those people; we’ll be able to have some kind of interaction with those people, some kind of communication. And if we’re more open to them, they’ll become more faithful, more close to the church and probably more realistic with what they believe. I believe this community (at Our Lady of the Americas) is a really welcoming community. We have people from almost all over the place: All Latino America, we have people from Africa, from Pakistan, India, all these different countries, Central, South America, Caribbean. And to have a big diversity here and to function properly with all different backgrounds, different cultures, different languages, it’s a big challenge, but if you welcome them, they feel at home. And I usually say on Sunday when we do the announcements, I ask anybody who is here for the first time, I usually say welcome home, and I say home because the Church is the home of everybody.

TE: Do you have a life philosophy?

DF: I think one of my life philosophies is to see everybody as your brother, your sister. Because sometimes we take simple things and make them difficult. I always say life is not too complicated depending on us, on how we deal with (life). Sometimes you have some kind of issue, some kind of problem, and it’s not difficult to resolve. It all depends on how you’re facing that and how you try to resolve that.