Altered Calls

Altered Calls

UrbanFaith contributing writer Jacqueline J. Holness’s first book grabbed our attention right away. Yes, in part because we’re proud of the personal and professional achievement of one of our own (her first book!), but even more because the title, After the Altar Call, is where many of us spend our daily lives as Christians. The joy, freedom, and zeal that we experience in that initial moment of salvation at the altar is gradually replaced by the boredom, temptation, and disappointment of everyday life, and we’re soon left wondering, “How do I get that fire back?” As a preacher’s kid who has spent her entire life in the church, Jacqueline knows that feeling well, and she set out to create a book that could help her and other women (heck, I’ll say men too) recapture and maintain their sense of hope, passion, and mission.

After the Altar Call:The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship with God includes first-person accounts of 24 women who share stories of inspiration as they recount what happened after their altar-call experiences. Interviews with a variety of women, including The View‘s Sherri Shepherd, A.M.E. trailblazer Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and author and life coach Valorie Burton, make the book a fresh and relevant how-to manual for Christian women who want a serious relationship with God. Jacqueline, who is also a correspondent for the Courthouse News Service in Atlanta, says After the Altar Call is the handbook she wishes she’d had after her own salvation experience.

What I like most about the book is that Jacqueline avoids trite formulas and goes after answers to real-life questions that will eventually wreak havoc on our best-laid plans. So, among other things, we read about women who have faced divorce, religious conflict, breast cancer, the loss of a family member in the war, and chronic illness. We spoke with Jacqueline about her book and the lessons she learned from writing it.

URBAN FAITH: The title of your book, After the Altar Call, suggests a sort of post-conversion emphasis. This is for people who’ve had that salvation experience and are in the “Now what?” stage. What led you to write about this?

JACQUELINE HOLNESS: The Christian life traditionally begins for many of us at an altar at the front of a church. After that, your life changes because you now live based on what God wants for you instead of what you want for you. I wrote this book because when I decided to follow Christ in my early 20s, I wanted to know what it was like “for real” to live as a Christian. My father had been a pastor, so I grew up as a “PK” [Preacher’s Kid], but I wanted to get beyond the “rules” I had been taught at home and at my home church. Also, I have always been a person with a certain joie de vi·vre for life. I wanted to be sure that wouldn’t end because I decided to be a Christian.

So you went on a quest.

As a budding journalist at the time, the only way I knew to get my questions answered was asking numerous black women whom I met along the way about what it was like to be a Christian. I asked about really personal stuff. I also looked for books in which women shared their testimonies. I kept hoping I would come across one book that contained life stories from diverse black women and their faith in God, but I did not. This book is the answer to my earnest search for “realness” at the time. I have interviewed women of varied walks and stations of life, from their 20s to their 80s. I looked for inquisitive women like myself who needed to “count the cost” before making that all-important decision to be a follower of Christ.

CHRONICLING WOMEN'S STORIES OF FAITH: Journalist and author Jacqueline J. Holness.

You spoke to a variety women who are either famous or accomplished in their particular fields. What was the most common recurring theme that you heard from each of them?

Regardless of age, socioeconomic background, or career path, it was obvious that each woman was intentional about having a personal relationship with God, and that was inspiring to me. I was inspired that someone like Sherri Shepherd, who has a nationwide if not worldwide platform on The View and a glamorous life, not only knows but acknowledges her utter dependence on the Lord. And it was the same with Betty Prophete of the Haitian Christian Mission. In Haiti, where voodoo is prevalent, she has been able to demonstrate to thousands if not more that knowing Jesus is more powerful than knowing voodoo.

Who surprised you the most with something she said?

The most surprising statement came from Melissa Summers, who was once a prominent radio personality in Atlanta. She was so popular, she was known as “Atlanta’s Girlfriend.” She decided to leave her radio position, in which she earned a six-figure salary not including endorsement deals, to become a missionary in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.  Today, she does not even have a regular salary and is truly dependent on the Lord to meet all of her needs. Not too many people, even Christians, would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice.

What does faith in God look like today for ambitious, successful women?

I think God deals with each one of us differently according to His purposes for our lives, and success for one person may not be success for another. For instance, Sherri Shepherd is probably the most famous woman that I interviewed, and her success and faith are very public. But for someone like Tracy King, who struggled with infertility, faith and success are defined differently. Tracy King’s success is found in being a wife and mother. And while she does not hide her faith, it does not look like Sherri’s faith. Both are equally ambitious, successful, and faithful women in God. Stephanie Bronner, who is married to the youngest of the Bronner Brothers [who created the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show] is a mother to seven children. She toyed with idea of working as she started to have children but realized that success for her meant being a full-time wife and mother. Obviously, being a mother to seven children is very ambitious and requires lots of faith.

What were some of the different views about the church that you found among your subjects?

I did not ask the women about any of the polarizing issues in the church, because I wanted as many women as possible to be drawn into the book rather than be put off by various opinions and debates. Also, I tried to include as many denominations as possible. However, a few topics came up that may be conversation starters. For instance, Cee Cee Michaela Floyd, a minister and actress probably best known for starring on Girlfriends, talked about courtship versus dating, and I know that many people have debated this topic. Fiction author Monica McKayhan has been divorced twice and is married again. I know some Christians don’t believe in divorce, so that may be controversial for some people.

The topic of love and relationships is, of course, the source of never-ending discussion, debate, and anxiety for women in general, but there are obviously unique challenges for black women. What new light does your book shed on the subject?

I did not get into the gloom-and-doom of the present day when it comes to marriage and black women. And in fact, of the two dozen women in the book only three are not married (and one of them is me!), so we are not all “man-less!” Instead of focusing on negative statistics, I interviewed them about how their faith came into play in their romantic relationships. Erica Mountain, who is in her 20s and was probably the youngest woman in the book, shares an incredible story of meeting the man who would become her husband when she was a teenager but not realizing it until years later when they were both engaged to other people. After Cee Cee Michaela Floyd became a Christian, she was celibate for close to 11 years before she got married. Lisa McClendon confessed that the views of a church she attended at the time persuaded her and her first husband to get married less than a year after knowing each other, when in fact they should have never married. She has an interesting perspective on the 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 passage that says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried …”

In speaking to these women for your interviews, what did you recognize as the greatest challenges facing them on their faith journeys?

I think it is difficult for all Christians to develop a personal relationship with a Being whom we can’t see. I think their greatest challenge was to learn how God speaks to each of them and how He directs them in their daily lives. I hoped to demystify some of that process in my book.

You write about your own experience of having grown up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, being a PK, yet you didn’t really begin to embrace the faith as your own until later. Can you talk about that?

I’m a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid, and a preacher’s niece, so faith is our family business so to speak. Like most people, I just wanted to fit in as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I actually do fit in because we all, to some extent, are the products of our family background. And as I’ve met more people, I realize that it was a blessing to be raised in a Christian household with clear rules. It has spared me a lot of drama, being the adventurer that I naturally am.

You spoke to a lot of successful, professional women? What about women who aren’t there yet — women who have experienced setbacks, made poor choices, or who just can’t seem to catch a break? What kind of encouragement does your book offer them?

Many of the women in my book have experienced setbacks or made poor choices, but through their relationship with God, they are being redeemed. Susie Doswell, executive director emeritus of the Annual Christian Women’s Retreat, talked about her history of teenage pregnancy and marrying abusive men and how she has been able to make better choices. Lola Uter, the oldest woman in my book, talked about hearing about the Lord as a teenager but not responding to what she heard and how that poor choice affected the rest of her life. These, as well as other stories, encourage women to acknowledge poor choices and make better ones in the future.

When readers are finished with your book, what do you hope they’ll do with the stories and information?

This quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, applies here: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” I hope my readers develop an inspiring and adventurous personal relationship with God that sustains and propels them from season to season in their lives. And I hope the book shows them that it’s entirely possible, regardless of their inevitable mistakes and missteps.

For more information about Jacqueline Holness and her book, visit her website: AftertheAltarCall.com.

The Ghost of Christmas Pride

The Ghost of Christmas Pride

O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …

It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.

… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …

A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.

… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”

He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”

I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?

“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”

I looked at Uriel.

“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.

“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.

As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”

“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.

After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.

The December air blew colder. No one said a word.

There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.

We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?

That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?

Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.

We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.

‘Addiction Is Spiritual’

‘Addiction Is Spiritual’

LOST SOUL: Amy Winehouse in London on July 23, 2009, exactly two years before her death. (Photo by Shaun Curry/Newscom.)

This week, Amy Winehouse’s official cause of death was finally announced, three months after the singer was discovered dead in her London home on July 23. After initial autopsy results came back inconclusive, the coroner determined that Winehouse died from consuming an extreme amount of alcohol. According to test results, the 27-year-old singer’s blood alcohol level was five times the drunk-driving limit. Her doctor said the troubled star had resumed drinking in the days prior to her death, after a short-lived period of sobriety.

Besides being a talented artist, Winehouse was emblematic of the numerous celebrities today whose public battles with substance abuse are regularly in the headlines. By the end of her life, Winehouse’s struggles had stretched to the point of becoming fodder for jokes and riddles (“Q: What was Amy Winehouse’s biggest hit? A: Her last one!”). Sadly, our society has grown so accustom to addiction that we now laugh it off. But for those in its grips, it’s no joke.

We asked LaTonya Mason Summers, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based mental health therapist, to comment on the realities of drug and alcohol addiction and what we can do to help those affected by it.

UrbanFaith: After Amy Winehouse’s death, the Huffington Post featured a commentary by Rabbi Shais Taub which asked the question, “Was the World Powerless to Stop Amy Winehouse?” In other words, are there addictions so strong and pervasive that they’re beyond human understanding and control? How would you answer that?

LaTonya Mason Summers: The word choice is interesting here, and I agree: the “world” was powerless to stop Amy Winehouse. But it was the “world” that fueled Winehouse’s addictions. Not “world” in the sense of the “earth,” but “world” as defined by Winehouse’s frame of reference — the background, culture, and lifestyle out of which she lived. Addictions are strong, pervasive and hard to understand and control, but it’s even more difficult when one tries to stop addiction by their own strength and understanding. It is reported that Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. Drug and alcohol abuse is a byproduct of something far deeper. Oftentimes, it’s a symptom of low self-esteem, unresolved trauma and abuse, rejection and abandonment, and mostly fear. We do a great disservice to addicted persons when we focus on their addictions and ignore the underlying problems.

We see so many celebrity drug and alcohol addicts today that our culture has almost grown cold and callous to it. For instance, before her death there was a website devoted solely to the question of “When will Amy Winehouse die?” We see celebrities such as Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, Whitney Houston, and Charlie Sheen, and we make jokes about them. How does this affect our culture’s understanding of addiction?

When we have a culture entertained by reality TV shows, court and crime TV, and sensationalized Web broadcasting — not to mention today’s popular music — we can’t help but have a desensitized society. We are no longer afraid of or empathetic toward anyone or anything because we’ve been there and done that through TV and the media. So, why wouldn’t we have a “When will Amy Winehouse Die?” website?

Unfortunately, we live in a society that “dumbs down” addictions but tacitly gives a “thumbs up” to its portrayals. Remember when there used to be cautionary documentaries on drugs and alcohol, and on people who struggled with them? Now, we have reality shows that glorify dysfunctional behavior. No wonder we are ignorant. Understanding addictions is no longer newsworthy.

How do you counsel a person with a serious drug addiction? Where do you begin, and what kinds of things should family and friends understand as they’re trying to help that person?

I used to set up and run treatment programs for adolescent and adult substance abusers. I absolutely loved that line of work, but it was emotionally tough. After 11 years of doing it, I stepped away to work solely with mentally ill people. The public sees addicted persons as weak people who lack self-control and deserve every consequence they face. But can you imagine the level of shame, guilt, frustration, and hopelessness that those substance abusers felt by the time they got to me? Imagine having failed everyone, including yourself, family, friends, employers, and the legal system — not to mention God. I always started treatment by instilling hope and restoring the addicted person’s sense of worth. It was much easier to establish rapport, trust, and motivation that way.

God forbid I say this, but oftentimes the families were more sick than the addicts. In fact, family members would wind up on my couch before the addict would. Family work is important in substance-abuse treatment, because the family members can make recovery hard. They help too much. Their helping sometimes hurts the addict. When my patients had toxic families, I’d send my patient to a treatment program in another city or state so they could get better.

Over the summer, former NBA star Jalen Rose was sentenced to 20 days in jail for drunk driving. Some wondered if the treatment was overly harsh because he was a black celebrity, since others have gotten off easier. Do you think jail time is an effective way to steer people clear of destructive behavior involving alcohol and drugs?

In my experience working in the court system as an advocate for my clients, the courts made it worse. The punishment given rarely fit the crime. The probation officers were inconsistent. The judges sent mixed messages by punishing minor crimes with maximum sentences and vice versa. Jail time is punitive, and punishment does not work when the drug or alcohol use is secondary to something else. Addicts don’t mind punishment because they typically feel useless and worthless anyway. That kind of punishment affirms what they believe about themselves. However, I am not saying they should not suffer consequences for drunk driving, drug use, etc. I am saying that offering them rehab while they’re incarcerated might yield greater results.

What kinds of miracles have you seen in your work with people battling addictions?

LaTonya Mason Summers

Goodness, the stories I can tell. I’ve had a hand in imparting into the lives of addicted persons who are now pastors, business owners, and even addictions counselors. I had a 15-year-old girl whose parents brought her to me as a last resort. She had refused other counselors, and I assumed she would do the same with me. After I asked her parents to leave, the girl opened up to me like a book. (It wasn’t because of anything special that I said to her, but other professionals simply had failed to remove the parents.) The girl was a cocaine user and held me by her confidentiality rights, so I could not tell her parents. We made a pact that if she stopped using I would keep her secret. I cannot tell you the anxiety I had for weeks thinking something would go wrong. I collaborated with her physician to drug test her weekly to ensure the girl’s abstinence. After three months, her parents called thanking me for my help. The girl had returned to a healthy weight, her appetite had been restored, and her mood had improved. Today (four years later) she is a successful college student studying psychology.

Among the celebrity success stories that stand out are Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual victory over substance abuse. It only came after several stints in jail and a long, public battle. What kinds of things contribute to a successful road to recovery, and when do you know that someone is legitimately recovered?

My biggest weapon is instilling hope. I do this by challenging the addicted person’s mentality and perspective. I am a cognitive behaviorist, which means I help change the way people think. I do not know what works, as I have often thrown up my hands on clients who later recovered. Then I have lost clients whom I thought had arrived. All I really know is, pray hard in each session. I ask for God’s help. I ask Him to give me the words to say, and I hold on to Isaiah 50:1-7, believing I am called as a therapist.

I honestly don’t know when a person is legitimately recovered, as I believe it’s a lifelong process. Like those of us who are not addicted, we have our own lifelong battles — we try to stop lying, cheating, stealing, yelling, cursing, overeating — everyone has a Goliath they must face. And can any of us say we’ll ever arrive in this world? From my perspective, messing up is just as much part of the recovery process as getting it right is. And, if you get it right all the time, how do you know you’re recovered?

Is it possible to effectively treat addiction without addressing the spiritual aspects of the problem? 

Absolutely not! I’ve had to learn how to minister without saying “God” and “Jesus,” so that I can reach everyone. However, I know how to make others want what I have. I was mentored by a man who told me, “I may not be able to make a horse drink the water, but I should be able to make him thirsty.” And that’s the approach I take in therapy. I see myself as sowing seeds, believing someone will come behind me and water them, and eventually increase will come.

Addiction is spiritual. I believe an addict’s zealousness can be indicative of the great calling on his life. He just needs to move that zealousness away from destructive behavior to purposeful, life-giving behavior.

LaTonya Mason Summers is the founder and executive director of Life Skills Counseling and Consulting in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the cofounder of the NC Black Mental Health Professionals Alliance, which aims to educate African Americans about mental health issues and wellness.

Is Gadhafi a Martyr?

Is Gadhafi a Martyr?

CRIMINAL OR MISUNDERSTOOD?: Even in death, Gadhafi has his defenders.

In the aftermath of his death, some are wondering whether the late Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi will be remembered as a martyr instead of a mad tyrant.

Fellow dictator Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for instance, expressed anger over the death of his friend. “They assassinated him. It is another outrage,” he told reporters. “We shall remember Gadhafi our whole lives as a great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr.”

Some have pointed to the free health care and subsidized housing in Libya as evidence of Gadhafi’s compassion, as well as his financial support of other African nations. “Mr. Gaddafi was a dictator, but he was a benevolent dictator, whether you like or dislike him,” said French journalist and blogger Moe Seager. “And he gave millions to black African health, educational and agricultural projects.”

But in addition to his support of impoverished nations, the Libyan leader was also known for funding a variety of notorious outfits. In fact, his government was implicated in the financing of many controversial militant groups, including several associated with terrorism.

Earlier this year, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan defended his friend Gadhafi and criticized President Obama and the United States for supporting the Libyan rebels. “It is a terrible thing for me to hear my brother called all these ugly and filthy names when I can’t recognize him as that.”

With a controversial friend like Farrakhan as an advocate, it probably isn’t a total shock to hear some African Americans sympathizing with Gadhafi’s plight and speculating about conspiracy theories in the wake of his death. In the comments section at the black news site NewsOne.com, for instance, one reader declares, “Any Black person who celebrates the ‘death’ of Muammar Gaddafi has to be a product of western media propaganda.” He goes on to argue that Gadhafi was a strong benefactor of other African nations, and concludes by implying that Gadhafi’s ouster and death were the result of a CIA plot.

It’s easy for most of us to take for granted that Gadhafi was an international criminal whose multitude of vicious sins had finally caught up to him. But it’s interesting to note that not all Americans subscribe to that view.

And so, the question lingers: Was Gadhafi a misunderstood revolutionary or a cruel tyrant? The smart money is on the latter, but your answer most likely depends on your personal view of the media, international relations, and America’s role in the world.

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

FALLEN STAR: Amy Winehouse, dead at 27.

Amy Winehouse emerged on the pop-music scene not so much like a rising star as like a falling one.

In “Rehab,” the hit song from her 2006 breakthrough album, Back to Black, the singer let us know upfront what we were in for if we decided to become her fans—a maddening, chaotic, troubled ride. But her soulful and honest voice, and the potential we heard there, left us no choice but to listen, appreciate, and hope against hope that she would eventually shake her well-publicized demons and rise to the brilliant promise of her talent.

But it was not to be.

The report of the British singer’s death today at 27 was not unexpected, but it still jarred us, like the earthshaking blast of thunder that trails a violent lightning flash. On Twitter and Facebook, update after update expressed a sort of resigned shock. “I knew it was a matter of time,” wrote one commenter. “I’m surprised she lasted this long,” said another.

Another popular Winehouse song found the singer declaring, “You know that I’m no good.” Like “Rehab,” it was a prophetic moment of self-disclosure that felt like both a defiant proclamation and an eerie plea for help. The lyrics — “I cheated myself, like I knew I would” — resonated with many of us who, like the apostle Paul, struggle with the reality of our sinful natures.

“I do not understand what I do,” said Paul. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

For Amy Winehouse, the struggle was with drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships. For us, the addictions might be different, but we have felt the strain nonetheless.

There’s so much in Ms. Winehouse’s tragic story to explore. In some ways, her brief career was the most convincing anti-drug campaign to hit pop culture. Or, maybe everything that needs to be said was already said during her descent.

The initial reports said Winehouse’s cause of death was unexplained. But no explanation was really necessary.