Doctor Brings 'Ministry Of Healing' To Darfur

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The atrocities in Darfur have moved many people to think about ways they can make a difference. One woman, the Rev. Gloria White Hammond, is determined to keep Darfur's plight on the minds of Americans and U.S. policy makers. In this week's Faith Matters, Hammond, a pastor and medical doctor who chairs the Save Darfur Coalition, explains her passionate feelings about what is happening in Sudan.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I am Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, from the terrorist attacks in India to the economic crisis at home, we hear what you have to say about our coverage. It's this week's Backtalk. But first, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. Many of us hear about the stories of violence and despair in the Darfur region of Sudan and wonder, is there anything I can do? Well, our next guest came up with an answer.

The Reverend Gloria White-Hammond has been deeply involved in trying to solve some of the most difficult social problems of our time, in the United States and abroad. She's worked with at-risk African-American girls and enslaved women and children in Sudan. Earlier this year, she became chair of the Save Darfur Coalition. That's a group that's been working to keep the issue of atrocities being committed against civilians in Darfur and front of the American public and policymakers. And the Reverend Gloria White-Hammond is here with me now. Reverend White-Hammond, thank you so much for speaking with us.

The Reverend Dr. GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND (Chairwoman, Save Darfur Coalition): It's a real pleasure for me.

MARTIN: And I should also explain, you are Reverend Dr. White-Hammond.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're a medical doctor as well as a pastor, a pediatrician, long career, working at the medical center, South End Community Health Center in Boston and co-pastoring a church.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: It's interesting to me because the work spans both the physical and spiritual needs of care. Is there a common thread that binds those two together?

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: There is and it's called a ministry of healing. So, it is not confined to any particular arena, but it's body, mind and spirit. So, I learned early on that I could either see myself as pursuing a career in medicine or answering a call to a ministry of healing, and it's that latter that's really informed the span of my work over the years.

MARTIN: I want to talk about your public work, but before we do, I wanted to talk about a time in your private life that was painful, something you've been public about, which is that there was a point in your life when you and your husband, Ray, who is also a pastor and physician, went through a difficult period in your marriage.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: And it was so difficult that you say you considered suicide.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people would find that hard to fathom.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: There're lots of reasons why we arrived at that point, but we were about six years into the marriage and having finished our residencies, as intense as they are, with two small children and two car notes and student loans and looking up and discovering the ways in which we missed one another, and at a very painful point in our relationship - I say it was somewhere between suicide and husband-cide(ph). And I said to God, you know, I don't love this man anymore, I want out of this relationship, and God never gave me permission to leave the relationship, but he did give me the strength and the resolve to keep a covenant. And so, we worked very hard, fought our way back and we are now, 35 years later, very much a solid couple. We still work very hard. I say marriage is a labor of love. Sometimes the operative word is labor; sometimes it's love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: So, we work at it, and we're really grateful for what we've created together with God's help.

MARTIN: You and your husband not only took your struggles public; you launched pre-marital and marital counseling...

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Yes.

MARTIN: Service at the church that you founded in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. I have read that you were actually a very shy person.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: I am.

MARTIN: So, there are a couple of things that I am curious about, is, number one, how do you, as a shy person, take that leap to being public about something that is private, and for a lot of people, embarrassing? And then, how do you get the idea to turn that private pain into a public service?

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: I have to go into another space and get out of me as the shy - all of that sort of stuff and recognize that it's not about me and do the hard work - and it is very hard work for me to be so public in so many different arenas - but do the hard work of thinking not about me but about the other people who need the coaching and the counseling and modeling. And one of the reasons it's so important to us is because at that point in time, we felt like we virtually had no place to turn to. We didn't talk to our family members or friends. We struggled all by ourselves and, again, by God's grace, found our way out. But we determined at that point that we would be for other couples what we didn't have for ourselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with the Reverend Dr. Gloria White-Hammond about her work at home in the Boston area and also her work overseas. And I'd like to turn to that work, now not because the work at home is not important, but because the United Nations has termed the situation in Sudan there the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. I wanted to ask how you got started going to Sudan and with your work there.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Sure, right. To be perfectly honest, what took me there was not a sense of altruism but really more a matter of obligation. My - a good friend who was a broadcaster in the Boston area had been invited to do a story on slavery, which was a byproduct of the civil war, what could, I think, arguably be called the genocide in southern Sudan. She invited me and my husband. My husband was very excited and said he was going to go. I just didn't think it was a great idea. It wasn't really opportune to going to a war zone at that time.

But he was determined to go, and my broadcaster friend Liz was determined to go and I said, well, gee, if I don't go, then Liz will be the only girl and then my husband, if he should experience an encounter of a life-threatening kind, I won't be there to be able to say I was with him right up to his last dying breath. So, out of a sense of obligation I went, and when I went, saw the situation, met the women especially, heard their stories. It certainly did prick me in a way, and at the same time I had, again, a sense of calling that this would be a work for me to take on. And through many dangers, toils and snares, I arrived at that place where I agreed to take it on. And so, I've been there now many times, both in southern Sudan and also in Darfur and Chad as well.

MARTIN: I understand that since 2001, you've traveled at least seven times to Sudan. You have a couple of projects there. Since your first trip, you have been involved in purchasing the freedom of some 10,000 slaves, enslaved people. How did that happen?

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Well, in my earliest days, we traveled with a group that was based in - that is based in Zurich called Christian Solidarity International. They had been invited as far back as 1994 by local people in southern Sudan to look at this very elaborate underground railroad that the locals had developed in which they partnered with sympathetic Arab Muslims to go into places in the north where their love ones had been enslaved, again, as a result of the war. They identified them, either bought them back from their masters or abducted them, then returned them to their villages in the south, where, for the exchange initially of cattle or money, that freedom - their freedom was purchased and they were brought back to live in their villages. Christian Solidarity International, CSI, partnered with them, began raising funds for - to facilitate that. And I became involved with that effort as well, likewise, raising funds, coming back, making sure that people knew about this story of the enslavement, in the context of several trips, bear witness to the freeing of, as you've heard, 10,000 women and children.

MARTIN: Certainly people understand - most people understand it as a terrible situation in Darfur and in other parts of Sudan, but there are those who say that purchasing slaves perpetuates the problem. What you've really done has established a market price.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Mm-hm.

MARTIN: It really just gives people an incentive to enslaving more people.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Sure.

MARTIN: It just becomes another source of income. What do you say to that?

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Right. What these villagers were doing were, they were rewarding the people that they saw as being sympathetic to their cause for bringing them back. Now, what they would also say is that this was not allowing them to generate a profit, and there was never any documentation that people were, in fact, being recycled or that you had people who are falsely presenting themselves as those who were enslaved. So, while that was a legitimate threat - in fact, when I initially agreed to be involved with this and I remember specifically posing that to a woman on my second trip as I was getting this sense that I should get engaged.

And so, an old black woman who had - an old Sudanese woman who had been enslaved for some 10 years, and she said to me, when I explained to her about the controversy. She said, will go back and tell the American people that I said, thank you for buying my freedom? She said that if she were free for only one day, given what she'd endured in the north, it would be worth it. And then she looked around in the dry season and saw how difficult it was. She said, I've suffered in the north and surely I will suffer here in the south as well. Then she took her hand with those dark, dark chocolate fingers and cut the dirt and said, and thank you for returning me to the place where the soil is the color of my skin. At least here I will suffer with my own people.

MARTIN: When you were growing up, is this what you envisioned for yourself?

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Totally not, Michel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Again, you're talking to someone who's shy, and one of the ways that you keep safe is you live inside the box, you follow the rules, you color inside the lines. So, for me to engage in something that was controversial was a hard place to be, and it's one of those periods when my own faith was very much tested.

MARTIN: What do you say to people who say, well, this is fine for you, you know, Reverend White-Hammond, because you're, you know, very well-credentialed, you're well-educated, people respect you, you're pretty, you can all do these things; but I just can't do all those things. I'm just a little squirrel out here trying to do my own - get my own little nut. What do you say to that? I couldn't do possibly do these things; what do you say to that?

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Everybody can do something. You can get informed and tell other people about the crisis. You can send an email. You can make a phone call or hold up a sign. If everybody does even a drop, right? Eventually, the bucket does get full.

MARTIN: We generally like to close by asking if you have any wisdom to share.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Some wisdom that I shared with a young woman just yesterday who wondered how I do all these things, how I hold all these things together, how I've managed to accomplish the things that I've accomplished and arrive in this place, and my wisdom is to live with integrity today, every day, in terms of the choices you make as an individual in the way that you treat other people. And it's a tremendous reward that will come back to you, but it will be a blessing to so many others as well.

MARTIN: The Reverend Dr. Gloria White-Hammond was kind enough to join us from the studios of WBUR in Boston. She is retired from the South End Community Health Center in Boston. She is still working as a co-pastor with the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she is chairperson of the Save Darfur Coalition, among her many accomplishments. Reverend Dr. White-Hammond, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. WHITE-HAMMOND: Thank you so much, Michel. What a delight.

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