Making history as youngest & first African American elected in state
By Dan Russo
WATERLOO — While sitting in St. Mary Church in New Haven, Connecticut, at a Mass during which the state deputies for the Knights of Columbus from around the world were officially installed, Paul Lee contemplated his unique situation.
It wasn’t long before the father and member of St. Stephen the Witness Parish and Student Center in Cedar Falls was marching down the aisle June 7 with his wife and children to be placed for a term as the head of the Knights in Iowa. The event occurred where the international order, founded by Father Michael McGivney, started. Lee was surrounded by newly elected state deputies from all 50 U.S. states, plus others from Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Poland and Ukraine.
“There were a lot of emotions,” recalled Lee. “There was an immense sense of gratitude to God that he would put our family in this unique position. During that Mass, I just thought of my story being (part of a family) growing up in the north county part of St. Louis, where society would say it’s a little rough, and being afforded many different opportunities to serve and be a servant leader. And within my Knights of Columbus journey, I joined the Knights just to help out and to grow closer to Christ. I had no clue it would lead me to be the top servant out of nearly 32,000 members in the state of Iowa. You feel the weight of responsibility.”
At 33-years-old, Lee is treading new ground for several reasons. He is the youngest state deputy in Iowa history, with only two other men worldwide having served as state deputies at younger ages. He is also the first person from the Archdiocese of Dubuque to be elected since 2004, and he is the first African American ever to serve as Iowa’s top Knight. He will serve a one-year term that officially begins in July after being elected by delegates from across Iowa at the most recent state convention. It is then customary for state deputies to be re-elected for a second term that also lasts a year.
Lee’s father was born and raised Catholic so he was familiar with the Knights as a child. Lee himself was raised a missionary Baptist until sixth grade. At that point, he, his mother and two siblings converted. He became a member of the Knights with his dad while in his teens, but wasn’t really active at first.
“I didn’t know much about the Knights growing up,” said Lee. There was a council at my church. … I saw them as just the guys who were handing out checks and would pass out their Tootsie Rolls and would be at the large diocesan festivals, but outside of that, I didn’t know much about what they stood for. I wasn’t asked to be involved.”
The Knights operate under the guiding principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism, which fuel much of their action. Lee began to get a deeper sense of these ideals when he was asked to help found a college Knights council at his parish in 2010. Although he was 24 and had already graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, he was asked to help out by a friend from church who was still in school. Eventually, Lee served as the first grand knight of St. Stephen’s College Council 1487, one of over 200 councils in Iowa. He later worked aiding college councils around the state. In 2012, he was appointed as a district deputy to oversee four to five councils.
This required him to spend a significant amount of time outside the home, but his wife, Amanda, who also manages her own career in education, was supportive.
“I think the trick to almost any career, any calling is balance,” said Amanda Lee, who married Paul after they met at UNI. “It does take a lot of time. We’ve tried really hard to have the family come along, especially when Paul has to go out of town or out of state. It’s such a good role modeling for our kids to show them how important it is to serve. Our kids really get to see all the ways to get involved at all different levels in the church and the community.”
The Knights charitable activities have had a significant impact on the Lee family, especially the organization’s effort to provide ultrasound machines to crisis pregnancy centers. In 2013, the Lees, who have three living children, lost a son at birth.
“The ultrasound initiative (has meant a lot to us), especially here in Waterloo,” recalled Amanda Lee. “That was kind of around the same time we did lose our little boy, so it became very personal, I guess, to do everything we could to start it locally and then to help it to grow. That has been something really special for the two of us, and it helped us through the grieving process. It gave us something proactive.”
By 2014, the Knights in the Waterloo area were able to raise $42,000 for the machine, one of 26 in the state purchased through the program.
“They have told me that since the machine has been there, they have saved 100 lives,” said Paul Lee.
After being elected state warden in 2015, Lee led the planning of the annual state convention and the effort to upgrade the organization’s website and communications channels.
Lee has been involved with efforts to expand the Knights’ membership, which has seen an increase in the last decade. Knights leadership has been particularly successful in starting councils that include ethnic and cultural groups that are new to the Knights in Iowa, such as Hispanics, Vietnamese, Haitians, Bosnians and others.
Lee believes his African American heritage and youth may be assets to the Knights’ mission to engage and evangelize everyone.
“I think people maybe underestimate the presence of African American Catholics in the Midwest, especially in non-dominant African American communities like St. Louis or Chicago,” said Lee. “In my time being here (in Iowa), I’ve met a number of good Catholics who just so happen to be African American. I was talking to my dad last week. … He reminded me how my election and service will pave a path for others that it’s OK to be involved and be active in the faith when you don’t look like someone who’s in the pews with you week in and week out. I don’t see myself as a trailblazer. I see myself as someone who is willing to serve … but it reminded me that in my position right now, I am blazing a trail … I may or may not see it, but it opens that door. If I can be a catalyst for more people growing closer in their faith with Jesus, and I’m biased in thinking the Roman Catholic Church is the best way to grow in your faith, if that’s the Holy Spirit’s will, thy will be done.”
Lee also hopes to “inspire parents with young kids to find a way to grow your faith and show your kids how to grow in their faith.”
Lee, who works professionally as a safety and regulatory manager, wants to make the most of his time as state deputy. He is aiming not only to raise awareness of the Knights’ large state-wide efforts like their support of the Special Olympics, but also get the word out about the small-scale projects every local council does to support its parish and wider community. Lee believes intensely that the call to service applies to us all, no matter how big or small a job is.
“Some people’s service is to make sure the church is cleaned or the lawn is mowed,” he said. “I think right now God is calling me to be a spokesperson for all the great work that is happening throughout the state of Iowa on behalf of Catholic men and their families. Our church, as a whole, needs strong, faithful leaders to remind people and remind society that there’s still good being done in the name of the Catholic Church and while we, just like everybody else, have our extensive struggles and our challenges, the good still prevails over the bad and that sun is going to shine once again. … There’s still hope in our church. We’re called to show that sometimes with our words, more often with our actions.”
Cover photo: Amanda and Paul Lee. (contributed photo)