New York Theological Seminary President LaKeesha Walrond on June 25, 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Sitting in her office on Manhattan’s far west side, the new president of New York Theological Seminary, the Rev. LaKeesha Walrond, recalled how she once was reprimanded as a youth for crossing the pulpit area of her church during a choir rehearsal.
Back then, she was taught, and believed, that women could not be preachers. After a career as an educator, executive pastor of a Harlem megachurch and, since June 3, the first African American woman president of the 119-year-old seminary, Walrond sees her trajectory as a sign that “God had this plan.”
After serving at First Corinthian Baptist Church, where her husband, the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., is senior pastor, she views her leadership of a 300-student multidenominational seminary focused on urban ministry as a reason for hope for other women.
Walrond, 47, spoke with Religion News Service about her diverse student body, her concerns about child sexual abuse and her support of open-mindedness among her students.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does it mean to you that you’ve been chosen as the first African American woman president of New York Theological Seminary?
It is such a blessing. It’s such an honor. When I started my career, I was planning on presidency being part of it, but presidency at Spelman College. As I received my call into ministry and began working full time, I thought that would just be one of those dreams that never really came to fruition. So, for me, this feels like a coming together, a fulfillment of possibility and opportunity to work both in ministry and education in a way that transforms humanity.
What were your connections to Spelman?
I did my undergraduate education (there) and my president at the time was Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, and she changed my life forever. She was the first person I ever heard talk about heroes and “sheroes.” And not just history, but “her-story.” She made me believe that I could do absolutely anything. And not only that I could do it, but I had a responsibility to do it.
New York Theological Seminary President LaKeesha Walrond on June 25, 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
So you did pursue academia in some ways?
Absolutely. I did my master’s in school administration and my Ph.D. in special education and literacy. But I got this call into ministry. We relocated from North Carolina to New York, and I said, “God, you got jokes, right?” (Laughs) ‘Cause now I got to go back to school to get the Master of Divinity so that I can be prepared to preach and teach in our church.
But this kind of merging of the two, it just seems like God had this plan. We talk about how God knows the plans that God has for us, plans to prosper us and not harm us, plans to give us a hope and a future. And so this is that moment for me, where I understand that sometimes in order to receive the dreams or plans that God has for us, we have to be willing to release the dreams and plans we have for ourselves.
There are at least four other African American women leading theological schools and divinity schools. Does that say something about the state of theological education or the growing role of women, including black women, and its future?
One, I think it identifies the importance of diversity within leadership and in our institutions. And, two, we now have more African American women going to divinity schools or theological schools than we’ve ever had before. For them to be able to see a face in leadership that looks like them also opens up the different kinds of possibilities. It speaks to possibility for my daughter, for the daughters coming behind her, that there are still these glass ceilings that need to be broken, and it’s possible to do it in our lifetime.
Your seminary includes students from a wide range of religious and life backgrounds, including some who are incarcerated.
Our Sing Sing (Correctional Facility) program was started by (then-NYTS president) Bill Webber back in 1982. Last year, we graduated our 500th student. The gentleman who represented his class and spoke has a life sentence, but still found our Master of Professional Studies degree to be valuable for his life inside the facility. So not only does that program prepare those men for what’s waiting for them when they re-enter society, it helps them to live and to love and to serve and to mentor and to learn and to grow while they’re there.
You wrote a 2017 book for children called “My Body Is Special.” How will you help your seminarians prepare for work in denominations that are grappling with how to address abuse?
That book is really a testament to my surviving molestation by my stepfather, in my mother’s home. I’m grateful that as soon as she found out about it, she left so that I could grow up in a safe environment. There are so many children out there who have experienced this, particularly within the context of faith, whether at a church or by a minister or a deacon or a trustee or a lay leader. We need to have conversations that prevent this from continuing to happen over and over and over again.
So this book is an act of prevention on my part. It helps children to understand what to say, what to do, where to go and who to tell if they are ever approached in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s my way of saying hands off our children. Hands off.
How can you help your students develop as leaders who are open to those in circumstances like the ones you faced?
The goal, really, at any educational institution ought be to expand the minds of those who are entering so they can make an informed decision. We’re able also to engage people of other faiths and other traditions so that we can have a better understanding of the belief systems of others as well.
I grew up in a church that did not believe God called women into ministry. When I went to Spelman College I took a class with Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges — “Women and the Bible.” She began to talk about women preachers. And so I’ve come to understand that my pastor back then was doing the best he could with what he had been given. And we have a lot of pastors who are out here doing the best that they can with what they’ve been given.
At NYTS, we hope to give them more so that they can grow from what they already think they know, to understand that God cannot be put in a box. And if we can stop focusing on what we think we know absolutely and be open to the spirit and the movement of God, we’d be surprised of the types of things we can discover.
SHILOH, Ill. — After a health insurance change forced Bernard Macon to cut ties with his black doctor, he struggled to find another African American physician online. Then, he realized two health advocates were hiding in plain sight.
At a nearby drugstore here in the suburbs outside of St. Louis, a pair of pharmacists became the unexpected allies of Macon and his wife, Brandy. Much like the Macons, the pharmacists were energetic young parents who were married — and unapologetically black.
Vincent and Lekeisha Williams, owners of LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy, didn’t hesitate to help when Brandy had a hard time getting the medicine she needed before and after sinus surgery last year. The Williamses made calls when Brandy, a physician assistant who has worked in the medical field for 15 years, didn’t feel heard by her doctor’s office.
“They completely went above and beyond,” said Bernard Macon, 36, a computer programmer and father of two. “They turned what could have been a bad experience into a good experience.”
Now more than ever, the Macons are betting on black medical professionals to give their family better care. The Macon children see a black pediatrician. A black dentist takes care of their teeth. Brandy Macon relies on a black gynecologist. And now the two black pharmacists fill the gap for Bernard Macon while he searches for a primary care doctor in his network, giving him trusted confidants that chain pharmacies likely wouldn’t.
Black Americans continue to face persistent health care disparities. Compared with their white counterparts, black men and women are more likely to die of heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza, pneumonia, diabetes and AIDS, according to the Office of Minority Health.
But medical providers who give patients culturally competent care — the act of acknowledging a patient’s heritage, beliefs and values during treatment — often see improved patient outcomes, according to multiple studies. Part of it is trust and understanding, and part of it can be more nuanced knowledge of the medical conditions that may be more prevalent in those populations.
For patients, finding a way to identify with their pharmacist can pay off big time. Cutting pills in half, skipping doses or not taking medication altogether can be damaging to one’s health — even deadly. And many patients see their pharmacists monthly, far more often than annual visits to their medical doctors, creating more opportunities for supportive care.
That’s why some black pharmacists are finding ways to connect with customers in and outside of their stores. Inspirational music, counseling, accessibility and transparency have turned some minority-owned pharmacies into hubs for culturally competent care.
“We understand the community because we are a part of the community,” Lekeisha Williams said. “We are visible in our area doing outreach, attending events and promoting health and wellness.”
To be sure, such care is not just relevant to African Americans. But mistrust of the medical profession is especially a hurdle to overcome when treating black Americans.
Many are still shaken by the history of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were used in research worldwide without her family’s knowledge; the Tuskegee Project, which failed to treat black men with syphilis; and other projects that used African Americans unethically for research.
“They completely went above and beyond,” says Macon (center) of Vincent and Lekeisha Williams, owners of LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy.
Filling More Than Prescriptions
At black-owned Premier Pharmacy and Wellness Center near Grier Heights, a historically black neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C., the playlist is almost as important as the acute care clinic attached to the drugstore. Owner Martez Prince watches his customers shimmy down the aisles as they make their way through the store listening to Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kirk Franklin, Whitney Houston and other black artists.
Prince said the music helps him in his goal of making health care more accessible and providing medical advice patients can trust.
In rural Georgia, Teresa Mitchell, a black woman with 25 years of pharmacy experience, connects her customers with home health aides, shows them how to access insurance services online and even makes house calls. Her Total Care Pharmacy is the only health care provider in Baconton, where roughly half the town’s 900 residents are black.
“We do more than just dispense,” Mitchell said.
Iradean Bradley, 72, became a customer soon after Total Care Pharmacy opened in 2016. She struggled to pick up prescriptions before Mitchell came to town.
“It was so hectic because I didn’t have transportation of my own,” Bradley said. “It’s so convenient for us older people, who have to pay someone to go out of town and get our medicine.”
Lakesha M. Butler, president of the National Pharmaceutical Association, advocates for such culturally competent care through the professional organization representing minorities in the pharmacy industry and studies it in her academic work at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University. She also feels its impact directly, she said, when she sees patients at clinics two days a week in St. Charles, Mo., and East St. Louis, Ill.
“It’s just amazing to me when I’m practicing in a clinic setting and an African American patient sees me,” Butler said. “It’s a pure joy that comes over their face, a sigh of relief. It’s like ‘OK, I’m glad that you’re here because I can be honest with you and I know you will be honest with me.’”
She often finds herself educating her black patients about diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other common conditions.
“Unfortunately, there’s still a lack of knowledge in those areas,” Butler said. “That’s why those conditions can be so prevalent.”
Independent black-owned pharmacies fill a void for African American patients looking for care that’s sensitive to their heritage, beliefs and values. For Macon, LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy provides some of that vital support.
Avoiding Medical Microaggressions
For Macon, his experiences with medical professionals of backgrounds different from his own left him repeatedly disappointed and hesitant to open up.
After his wife had a miscarriage, Macon said, the couple didn’t receive the compassion they longed for while grieving the loss. A few years later, a bad experience with their children’s pediatrician when their oldest child had a painful ear infection sparked a move to a different provider.
“My daughter needed attention right away, but we couldn’t get through to anybody,” Macon recalled. “That’s when my wife said, ‘We aren’t doing this anymore!’”
Today, Macon’s idea of good health care isn’t colorblind. If a doctor can’t provide empathetic and expert treatment, he’s ready to move, even if a replacement is hard to find.
Kimberly Wilson, 31, will soon launch an app for consumers like Macon who are seeking culturally competent care. Therapists, doulas, dentists, specialists and even pharmacists of color will be invited to list their services on HUED. Beta testing is expected to start this summer in New York City and Washington, D.C., and the app will be free for consumers.
“Black Americans are more conscious of their health from a lot of different perspectives,” Wilson said. “We’ve begun to put ourselves forward.”
But even after the introduction of HUED, such health care could be hard to find. While about 13% of the U.S. population is black, only about 6% of the country’s doctors and surgeons are black, according to Data USA. Black pharmacists make up about 7% of the professionals in their field, and, though the demand is high, black students accounted for about 9% of all students enrolled in pharmacy school in 2018.
For Macon, though, the Williamses’ LV Health and Wellness Pharmacy in Shiloh provides some of the support he has been seeking.
“I still remember the very first day I went there. It was almost like a barbershop feel,” Macon said, likening it to the community hubs where customers can chitchat about sports, family and faith while getting their hair cut. “I could relate to who was behind the counter.”
The leaders of Pathway Church on the outskirts of Wichita, Kan., had no clue that the $22,000 they already had on hand for Easter would have such impact.
The nondenominational suburban congregation of about 3,800 had set out only to help people nearby pay off some medical debt, recalled Larry Wren, Pathway’s executive pastor. After all, the core membership at Pathway’s three sites consists of middle-income families with school-age kids, not high-dollar philanthropists.
But then they learned that, like a modern-day loaves-and-fishes story, that smaller amount could wipe out $2.2 million in debt not only for the Wichita area but all available debt for every Kansan facing imminent insolvency because of medical expenses they couldn’t afford to pay — 1,600 people in all.
As Wren thought about the message of Easter, things clicked. “Being able to do this provides an opportunity to illustrate what it means to have a debt paid that they could never pay themselves,” he said. “It just was a great fit.”
Churches in Maryland, Illinois, Virginia, Texas and elsewhere have been reaching the same conclusion. RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization based in Rye, N.Y., that arranges such debt payoffs, reports a recent surge in participation from primarily Christian places of worship. Eighteen have worked with RIP in the past year and a half, said Scott Patton, the nonprofit’s director of development. More churches are joining in as word spreads.
The mountain of bills they are trying to clear is high. Medical debt contributes to two-thirds of bankruptcies, according to the American Journal of Public Health. And a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times poll showed that of the 26% of people who reported problems paying medical bills, 59% reported a major life impact, such as taking an extra job, cutting other household spending or using up savings. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed a rule last month to curb debt collectors’ ability to bug those with outstanding bills, and some states have tried various measures, such as limiting the interest rates collectors may charge. But until a comprehensive solution emerges, churches and others are trying to ease some of the load by jumping into the debt market.
A big part of RIP’s appeal comes from the impact even a small donation can have, say participating church leaders. When a person can’t pay a bill, that debt is often packaged with other people’s debt and sold to bill collectors for some fraction of the total amount of the bill. Those debts usually come from low-income people and are more difficult to collect.
RIP Medical Debt buys debt portfolios on this secondary market for pennies on the dollar with money from its donors. But instead of collecting the debt, RIP forgives it.
To be eligible for repayment from RIP, the debtor must be earning less than twice the federal poverty level (about $25,000 a year for an individual), have debts that are 5% or more of their annual income and have more debt than assets.
Because hospitals and doctors are eager to get those hard-to-collect debts off their books, they sell them cheap. That’s how, Patton said, those 18 churches have been able to abolish $34.4 million of debt since the start of 2018.
Working this way puts a high-dollar project within reach of even small churches. Revolution Annapolis, a nondenominational Maryland church with Sunday attendance of around 200 and without a permanent building, wiped out $1.9 million in debt for 900 families in March. Total amount raised: $15,000.
After hearing about another church that paid off millions last year, Revolution leaders decided to try it. At most, they hoped to have an impact in their area, Camacho said. But the money went much further, eventually covering 14 counties in eastern and central Maryland.
Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church, a congregation of about 175 families in Champaign, Ill., had a similar experience. The original idea was to try to have an impact just in Champaign County, said the Rev. Christine Hopkins. But their $15,000 abolished $4 million of debt for the entire diocese, which stretches across the southern half of the state.
“We were bowled over, actually,” Hopkins said. “It was to the point of tears.”
In many cases, churches have not had to do a fundraising campaign because their contribution came from money already on hand. Emmanuel Episcopal, for instance, had leftovers from a campaign set up a year ago to celebrate the centennial of its church building.
The Fincastle Baptist Church, with 1,600 members in the Roanoke, Va., area used money it had budgeted for an annual “Freedom Fest” event to honor first responders, and then partnered with local television station WSLS in a telethon to raise more. That effort abolished over $2.7 million in medical debt targeted at veterans.
The RIP nonprofit allows donors to choose geographic areas they want to reach and can pinpoint veterans as recipients. But beyond that, no restrictions are allowed, Patton said. A church can’t specify which types of medical procedures could be paid for or anything about the background of the recipients.
That didn’t bother church leaders contacted for this story. But it is a subject that’s been broached by donors of all types in the past, Patton said.
For instance, some potential donors have asked to exclude people from different faiths or certain political parties, he said. “It’s just absurd. This is not a revenge tactic,” Patton said. “People who are requesting those things really don’t understand philanthropy.”
Churches don’t necessarily experience a direct return in the way of new members. All the processing goes through RIP Medical Debt, which sends letters notifying the beneficiaries their debts have been forgiven. Donors can have their names listed on those letters, but not everyone opts to do so.
New membership wasn’t the point for Pathway Church in Kansas, Wren said. “Sometimes the more powerful spiritual message is when you’re able to do something for somebody that you’ll never meet.”
The Revolution Church decided against putting its name on the notification letters, Camacho said, because it didn’t want beneficiaries to feel obligated. “When a person has their debt forgiven, we want them to experience that as a kind of no-strings-attached gift,” he said. “We don’t want there to be any sense that because we did this now they should visit our church or something.”
Besides, he said, the gift covered an area large enough that some beneficiaries live a couple of hours away. “I would much rather them think more positively about the church down the street from where they live.”
Donors sometimes hear back from the people whose debts they’ve paid, but not often. Many don’t expect it. “I guess that’s a biblical story, too. Jesus forgave 10, and only one said thank you,” Hopkins said.
Churches have a lot of choices when it comes to charity, but medical debt and affordability issues often resonate with parishioners. Some churches are worried enough about medical costs for their members that they subscribe to cost-sharing nonprofits, in which members pay each other’s medical bills.
Medical mission work has long been an important form of outreach for Fincastle Baptist Church in Virginia, said associate pastor Warren King. The church runs a free clinic, and mission trips to other countries usually include a medical component.
Paying off medical debt is an extension of that line of thinking. “We need to do not just this thing but many things that practically show the love of God,” King said. “It’s hard to tell somebody God loves you if they’re starving and you don’t try to deal with the problem.”
Hopkins said the debt outreach was a satisfying project for her Illinois congregation because it could resolve a problem for the beneficiaries. “We do a lot of outreach that’s food-related and housing-related. This was something different,” Hopkins said. “You help feed somebody, and you’re feeding them again the next day. This was something that could make an impact.”
Forgiving the gunman who shot nine worshipers four years ago during Bible Study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church wasn’t an option for some family members.
“Let me tell you something. I was really mad. Really angry,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother Ethel Washington Lance was among those killed when seventy-seven bullets were fired as they bowed their heads to pray on the evening of June 17, 2015. “But when you look at him, you can’t give this person the power over you. You just can’t.”
Collier made these remarks at the Washington, D.C. premiere of EMANUEL, a documentary film on the shooting set to screen June 17 and 19 in theaters across the country, marking the somber fourth anniversary of the tragedy. Through interviews, family members tell the stories of their loss as scholars help viewers understand this mass shooting through the lens of South Carolina’s past.
The film’s two-night run also highlights the extraordinary remarks family members made to the shooter just forty-eight hours after the killings of their pastor, their grandfather, their mothers, their aunts, their sisters, and their children.
“I just want everybody to know that I forgive you,” Collier said to then 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed White supremacist, as he appeared before the court and the family members via video conferencing for his bond hearing. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you.”
Reverend Anthony Batiste Thompson lost his wife Myra, who that night was leading the Bible study for the first time. But he continued those sentiments. “I forgive you and my family forgive you…We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most—Christ, so he can change you.”
Roland Martin leads a panel discussion with Nadine Collier, Polly Sheppard, Rev. Anthony Batiste Thompson, and Chris Singleton after the screening of the film ‘Emanuel’ at the Museum of the Bible on May 14, 2019, in Washington, DC.
In the film, Felicia Sanders recounted feeling the warmth of her son’s blood after Roof walked up to him and fired several bullets into his body while she and her eleven-year-old granddaughter quietly lay nearby under a table. But she too forgave.
“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” Sanders said. “Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my hero, but as we said in the Bible study, “We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.” Roof also shot and killed Susie Jackson, Sanders’ aunt.
Given the lingering effects of South Carolina’s legacy as the first state to secede from the union during the lead up to the Civil War, along with the historical burnings of Black churches, some onlookers found these expressions of forgiveness remarkable.
As the filmmakers analyze the events of the shooting four years later, during a time in America when the ideology driving violent acts of White supremacy persists, they hope audiences develop a greater understanding of this reaction and a deeper insight into the capacity for forgiveness among these family members. All have deep connections to their faith and to Emanuel A.M.E., one of the oldest Black churches in the South. Even as they sought justice, they chose to forgive the person who took away their loved ones, forever changed the course of their lives and tested their faith.
“It’s a miracle that people here can forgive…and that’s not just because they were conditioned by their environment. Those that forgave—it wasn’t an act of weakness by any way,” said Dimas Salaberrios, one of the film’s co-producers. “God showed up and did something that we can’t explain, but it’s very real and it’s very powerful. I hope that African Americans around this nation will really tune in and see what God has done and the hearts that he’s given us to be able to forgive.”
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 14: Friends and family of “The EMANUEL 9” before a screening of the film ‘EMANUEL’ at the Museum of the Bible on May 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for EMANUEL Film)
Not all family members immediately forgave the shooter and that, too, is an important part of this story, Salaberrios says. “What I’ve learned from examining the lives of these families is that different people are in different places.”
Bethane Middleton Brown lost her sister Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor in the shooting. “I agreed that we needed to [forgive], but I wasn’t there yet,” Brown said. “Mine came because I noticed that my anger was getting worse. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. Finally, I was able to put a face on my emotions and realize that I had forgiven. I never have any anger that links [Roof] in my thoughts. My anger is just simply, I want my sister here. So I have forgiven. I still would like to make sure justice stays, but I have forgiven.”
The loss of these nine lives led to the immediate removal of the Confederate flag, which flew on the grounds of the state capitol building for decades and was featured in many of the images Roof posted on the pages of his social media accounts.
Even so, four years later Tyrone Sanders, husband of Felicia and father of Tywanza, who at 26 was the youngest victim, still is struggling with forgiveness.
“I don’t think I can ever get there. I guess the historic truth about America, you know like slavery, the Indian Removal Act, and Trump’s talking about building a wall,” Sanders explained. “I was born and raised in the church. Christened, baptized, sang in the choir. My grandfather was a preacher. My great grandfather was a preacher. My mother sang in the church and all of her sisters. I grew up in the church,” he said.
But that still isn’t enough to comfort the loss of his son during that midweek Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. that evening. “If I’ve got to forgive, that’s where it will be. Up there. It won’t be on this side. I’ll take that to my grave.”
With EMANUEL as his second major documentary film project, these are the stories that director Brian Ivie feels called to capture.
“What I am trying to do within the context of faith-based films is try to make films that speak to the reality of God to an audience that may or may not believe and that is disinterested and disillusioned,” Ivie said.
Among the films producers include actresses Viola Davis and Marisky Hargitay and NBA MVP Stephen Curry who will donate their share of the profits to the survivors of the shooting and the families of the victims. Visit www.emanuelmovie.com for more information about the time and location of a screening near you.
Arlene Mckenzie, left, handles the cooking at a barbecue hosted by her church, Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist, on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger
James Clark has a perfect recipe for getting to know your neighbors.
Set up a grill.
Light some charcoal.
And put on some hot dogs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Clark, vice president of community outreach at the nonprofit Better Family Life, was offering hot dogs to passers-by at Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist Church in North St. Louis.
Even the mailman dropped by to see what was going on. He joked that he planned to stop by for hot dogs at five other churches having similar cookouts for neighbors that day.
“That’s what I am talking about,” Clark responded and laughed.
The cookouts are part of “Grill to Glory” — a partnership between local churches and Better Family Life to build community in North St. Louis, an area plagued by violent crime.
In 2016, almost 70% of the homicides in St. Louis occurred in North St. Louis, according to an analysis of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department data done by the news organization The Trace and the Missouri School of Journalism.
That chaos creates a sense of hopelessness among people who live in that area, Clark said. And he thinks churches are the institutions best positioned to host barbecues and in doing so, change the psyche of residents who might otherwise be drawn to crime.
“It becomes a neighborhood magnet and conversations begin. Members of the church are there, and they are not aggressively trying to push the Bible. They are just saying, ‘We are the church. We’re here. Come fellowship with us. And if you are free tomorrow morning, why don’t you come to service?’” Clark explained.
Grill to Glory aims to bond North St. Louis through community outreach and fellowship. Photo by StockSnap/Creative Commons
So far, Cook has helped organize events at more than 60 churches around North St. Louis.
Grill to Glory is an offshoot of Better Family Life’s “neighborhood opioid triage,” in which the group tries to help addicts in open-air drug markets by handing out toiletries and Narcan (used to revive someone who is overdosing from opioids), offering to take them to treatment centers and grilling hot dogs.
At one such drug market near a liquor store on North Grand Boulevard, police were called “104 times in a 12-month period for assaults, shootings, drug use, fights and unruly behavior,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in March 2018. Crime analysts and community leaders have linked the growth of such drug markets to increased gun violence in recent years.
In January 2018, Leonard Missionary Baptist Church, located near a drug market, started to hold barbecues on Saturdays.
Some 60 guests would come each week, Clark said.
After seeing the growth, he thought, “what would happen to the neighborhood if we could get the collective church body to buy into this model? And it’s low-hanging fruit. The ask of the church is relatively small.”
So on May 4, Better Family Life, which is not a religious organization, launched the program.
The group has received a few $1,000 donations and has spent about $3,500 so far on grills, lighter fluid, charcoal and food items, said Clark. It’s also asked the churches to contribute supplies such as tables and tents.
Grill to Glory organizer James Clark, right, is greeted while visiting different church barbecue sites on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger
Clark, who has worked for Better Family Life since 1997, received the 2018 Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award from the St. Louis American Foundation, which runs the newspaper that covers the local African-American community. President Trump met Clark at a national conference and thanked him for his efforts to reduce violence.
Around 11 a.m. on May 18, Clark and BJ the DJ, the assistant program director for iHeartRadio’s local hip-hop, R&B and gospel radio stations, left the Better Family Life headquarters in North St. Louis with the goal of stopping at as many barbecues as possible.
BJ had been promoting the effort on his morning show on Hallelujah (1600 AM).
“James and I talked about it, and we saw that the churches were not connected to the community,” said BJ, who has invited clergy to talk about the program on air.
“A lot of times you go past the church and you don’t see any activities,” he said. “It’s like they are there but they are not there.”
At the first stop, Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist Church, Arlene Mckenzie stood over the grill; she’s the church’s culinary specialist.
She’s 63 years old and started attending the church as a young child. She now lives three houses down.
“My heart is for feeding the people. I pass out food up and down the neighborhood, and it’s just a vision of mine. I believe it’s really coming true,” she added.
Another longtime church member, Deborah Mason, said she thinks this is one of the church’s first such efforts since it moved into the neighborhood in 1960.
“People want to know that you care, especially the church. If we are supposed to be models of Christ — that’s what he did. He got up with the people. He was a party animal,” said Mason.
Cheryl Collins, right, chats with fellow attendees at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church’s Grill to Glory event on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger
At the next stop on Clark’s hop, Cheryl Collins, a member of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, offered a hot dog to a young man walking by. He declined.
“How about a prayer?” Collins said.
He stopped and came over.
Church members were all smiles as they embraced Clark and BJ the DJ. Clark hopes to enlist 112 churches around North St. Louis.
“I’m having a ball, man,” said one church member. “This is where it’s at.”
Ike Ghee, a homeless 70-year-old man, said he was unable to bring anything to the barbecue — the church already had the necessary supplies — but wanted to participate.
“I had a divorce and things kinda turned but I’m still God’s child,” he said. “He’s showing me that he’s still here.”
In Addis Ababa, approximately 35 percent of the household fuelwood – mainly eucalyptus – is systematically gathered from the Entoto Mountains just outside the city.
Ethiopia historically planted large areas with fast-growing eucalyptus, a non-native species, to meet the demand for fuelwood. But the trees’ water-hogging nature has had a destructive impact on the land.
There are efforts to reforest areas with native species, supported by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has a tradition of maintaining tree gardens throughout the country.
ENTOTO, Ethiopia — In a tiny home not far from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, 80-year-old Aragash Boka finally rests from a long day’s work carrying an awkward, heavy load. Boka lives and works in a corner of the world where, for the most part, fuelwood has remained important to daily life for centuries.
Ethiopia is a vortex of culture and humanity, starting with the fact that it’s home to three of the things humans value the most: faith, fire and coffee. On any given day, Boka is one of thousands of women who walk from the bottom of the outer valleys of their city up the side of the Entoto Mountains to make a living collecting fuelwood.
The women march up to 16 kilometers (10 miles) in search of wood, bark, branches and dried leaves from eucalyptus trees (Eucalyptus globulus), carrying it on their backs to sell as fuelwood — firewood, charcoal and kindling — at market. Average earnings range from $1 to $3 per day.
Aragash Boka, 80, used to carry fuelwood from Entoto Forest, but now she packs twigs, leaves and bark in bags to sell as stove fire-starter. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Since the introduction and initial planting of eucalyptus here in the early 1900s, through to the establishment of large groves seeded en masse by the 1970s, every part of the tree gets harvested primarily for fuel or building. Though the tree isn’t endemic to Africa, it’s taken so well over its short history to the wide-ranging climates of Ethiopia that it’s quietly set up a colony of its own within the economy and ecology of an entire nation.
The fuelwood gatherers of Entoto, like Boka, today find themselves caught in the middle as both the cause and the victims of environmental damage done by a plant so vital to them. With only 2 percent of native forests left in the country, reliance on eucalyptus is key to the nearly 90 percent of households that still use wood as their primary way of cooking and cleaning and warming their homes.
Generations of women have carried wood from Entoto Mountain to fuel the stoves of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
The importance of Entoto slices through three centuries and is closely tied to the integral role of forests to human society. After Emperor Menelik II and his wife, Taytu Betul, ascended to the imperial throne in the 1880s, they settled the area and established it as the capital of Ethiopia for a time.
A permanent capital was seen as an unusual move, because prior to Menelik II’s reign, the kingdom’s seat of power would rove from forest to forest in pursuit of the natural resources, mainly fuelwood.
Menelik II and Taytu Betul are widely known for leading the Ethiopian army to victory against Italy in 1896, including the Battle of Adwa. The victory cemented Ethiopia’s status as a thorn in the side of the European colonizing powers as they scrambled for control in Africa.
At the behest of Empress Betul, the capital eventually moved again from Entoto to present-day Addis Ababa, but the connection to the forest there has remained. Though historians debate the timeline of events, the main reasons for the move were simple: fire and water.
To fulfill basic needs like fuelwood for an army of nearly 100,000 and their settling families was a daunting challenge. The need for fuelwood was clear, and the lower valleys of Addis Ababa were more hospitable than the wind-whipped hills of Entoto; they even featured hot springs that the empress frequented.
While fuel is a major reason for the proliferation of the fast-growing eucalyptus, it is also used in building construction, often as scaffolding. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
But the move was a costly one for Addis Ababa’s Acacia-Commiphora ecosystem, which provided a steady water source but whose sparse woodlands yielded limited fuelwood. According to historians, Emperor Menelik II was keenly aware of the need for afforestation and wood conservation when dealing with sustaining large permanent settlements of humans.
Several non-native tree species aided in the emperor’s afforestation efforts. One of these was eucalyptus, which became the clear favorite.
This artificial establishment of eucalyptus forests on non-forest land near Addis Ababa has since had a lasting impact. The trees blanket Entoto’s hills and valleys where one hundred years ago only the sparse native groves grew within the savanna. The new eucalyptus groves in and around Addis Ababa were reported by European envoys at the time to have transformed the area from “treeless” to the “Town of Eucalyptus Trees.” This transformation happened because Australian eucalyptus tree grows much faster than the indigenous tree species seemed to be the solution needed in the growing empire.
A wood carrier takes a break along a footpath on Entoto Mountain. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Fire still burns
As fuelwood gatherer Boka picks up bundles of sticks, she quietly shares how she gave up carrying fuelwood and now settles for the lighter loads of eucalyptus twigs and fallen leaves.
In their quest for a sustainable income, the younger women march past her in a uniform of sorts: jelly shoes on their feet, long skirts fortified by swaths of fabric tied at their waists, and scarves wrapped around their heads. Once they agree on a good spot to work, they fan out deeper into the forest to gather wood. They’re dwarfed as they disappear into the enchanted groves of eucalyptus trees standing slim and tall at about 60 meters (just under 200 feet). One woman stays behind to perform the important task of stripping bark from branches to transform into a rope of sorts that will later be used to bundle the foraged wood, bark and branches.
Each woman emerges with her arms full, then swiftly returns to the forest as several piles begin to take shape. Eventually the heaping flammable cocktail of forest debris, weighing as much as 90 kilograms (200 pounds), is bundled together by the carrier. The others help hoist it onto her back for the downhill journey to the market.
This wood is their only source of livelihood.
Approximately 90 percent of the workforce in this backbreaking trade of carrying fuelwood this way in this area are women. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
“I used to carry the wood, but it became too heavy in my old age,” Boka says as she stuffs an armful of eucalyptus leaves and twigs into a crop sack. Recently widowed, she grumbles about the manual labor, saying, “If I had children I would have no need to do this!”
The enclave of women fuelwood carriers who labor across the Entoto Mountains echo her story of hard work sustaining a hard life. Each speaks of having to endure some kind of physical pain to avoid the emotional anguish of the alternative: seeing their children go hungry. Some carry wood fulltime, and others only temporarily.
“My husband cannot always work, so at times I alone must provide for my children … and I have no other way than this,” says one woman, who doesn’t want to be named. She points to the thick bundle she’s laid on a small footbridge in the forest.
The work can be dangerous. Boka sports a wisecracking smile as she tells harrowing tales of when she was younger and strong enough to carry fuelwood like her cohorts. Her thick, brawny ankles and rough palms are evidence that she’s trodden this terrain for decades. In a place like Addis Ababa, an estimate from 1999 found that one-fourth of resident incomes were going to buying fuelwood and charcoal.” In the two decades since, the population and demand for fuelwood has increased. Alongside these increases so has, the demand for the services Boka and thousands of women like her provide.
Why is eucalyptus so destructive?
Retaining walls have been installed in areas around Entoto Mountain in an attempt to halt erosion caused by extensive eucalyptus plantations. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Farther into Entoto’s rocky red hills and valleys, the landscape is peppered with ancient obsidian. Shiny black and sharp to the touch, this volcanic glass millions of years old is everywhere on the slope, erupting from the soil along with the roots of the eucalyptus planted in droves decades ago. These trees are the predominant species in the area, and today make up the majority of this range’s available forest fuel, giving the plantation a monolithic look.
As the slope steepens, the valley opens up into an eroded crevasse 2 to 3 meters (6 to 10 feet) wide, held stable in the middle by a low-tech retaining wall made of stones wrapped in chicken wire like a net full of fish. Down the mountain there’s a sharp contrast of lush green eucalyptus groves to the east that descend into dusty tawny clay to the western upslope, with dugouts for tiny saplings of indigenous acacia trees (Acacia seyal) in between.
A rusty old metal sign explains that the area is a government reforestation project.
The primary reason for large plantations of Eucalyptus is for cooking. Here a woman makes a traditional non-alcoholic beer served at Islamic celebrations. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Debissa Lemessa, a landscape ecologist and director of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, confirms that there are ongoing replanting efforts taking place across the nation like the one at Entoto. He says the proliferation of eucalyptus is due in part to how thirsty the tree is. Its roots are remarkably efficient at sucking up the water from the ground, with a taproot that can reach down five times deeper than the tree’s height. For a time, it was planted in the wetlands of Ethiopia, as the soil it left behind was ideal for growing crops, Lemessa said.
There was a catch, though. The fertility of the soil didn’t last long, and now many of those former wetland areas have become inhospitable to anything except eucalyptus.
“It changes the structure of the soil … it also deteriorates the nutrient contents and soil moisture,” Lemessa says. “So once you planted eucalyptus en masse this means that the soil fertility is gone.”
Today, with a rapidly expanding population of just over 100 million people, the pressure to burn wood for energy is massive. Lemessa highlights the economic trade-off of eucalyptus in the fuelwood market: An easily replenished timber, eucalyptus grows 10 times faster than most native tree species. It meets a critical need for the people of the most populous landlocked African nation, where one of the largest household expenses is fuelwood. Burning eucalyptus wood also keeps consumers from burning what researchers call “livestock residue,” or dried cow dung, which can emit higher concentrations of toxins when set on fire.
Aragash Boka gathers twigs, leaves and bark in bags to sell as stove fire-starter. Boka earns – on average – the equivalent of $1.50 a day from her work. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Cultural Forest Connection
Once fuelwood gatherer Boka finds a good spot to sweep the soil for fallen tree parts, she seems to slide away from the roadside and into the dense woods of the Entoto Mountains, with the eucalyptus closing like a curtain behind her. The tall, straight branches of the trees pierce the smoggy sky and dwarf her frame as she bends down to collect her crop.
Despite the backbreaking work that Boka endures, a proud smile spreads easily across her face, and she details several life-or-death encounters she’s had doing this work. Many of the women wood carriers face threats from wildlife, and Boka is no exception. She tells of how she was once stalked by hyenas as she worked, only to be saved by an Ethiopian Orthodox priest.
She’s still shaken by the encounter, even years later, and has since changed how and where she collects her lot.
She’s also had more than one fall while working, losing several teeth in the process. Once, she was on her way to the market with a load of sticks balanced on her broad shoulders. A speeding truck barreled downhill clipping the 70-kilogram (150-pound) load knocking her down the mountain. Each missing tooth is an unwelcome reminder of the tumbles she’s taken in the name of survival.
Boka used to carry fuelwood, but now she packs twigs, leaves and bark in bags to sell as stove fire-starter. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Today her load is a bit lighter, as she no longer carries larger bundles of fuelwood. Instead, she carries the kindling or starter fuel in the form of bark, leaves and twigs. This means she makes less money than when she used to forage for and haul larger pieces of wood.
Once Boka’s twigs make it to market, they’re sold to heat coffee pots and fire up the ovens that bake the national dish of Ethiopia, enjera, a slightly fermented sponge-like pancake used to sop up platters of soups and spiced vegetables. In Addis Ababa, approximately 35 percent of household fuel is sourced and supplied by women like Boka.
Eucalyptus has been cultivated for the better part of 40 years across Ethiopia, and Entoto is home to some of the nation’s oldest groves. But the water tower bio-service that a mountain range like Entoto typically serves has been dramatically reduced here, and scientists point to the vast number of eucalyptus trees grown in the area as a major contributing factor.
That’s why Tibebwa Selassie Heckett, a self-proclaimed “Earth Healer,” has spent 20 years working to repopulate Ethiopia with its native and endemic tree species. Her tall, athletic frame fills the driver’s seat of her green Toyota pickup truck as she drives through the savanna south of Addis Ababa that buffers the Rift Valley.
She talks with the confidence of a doctor diagnosing the problem and proclaiming the prescription all in one breath. That’s especially the case when she speaks of the imbalance that Ethiopia’s ecosystems have endured due to the lopsided use of forest resources. She also acknowledges the adverse impact of the eucalyptus plantations, which she says have turned the soil acidic over time. This inhibits undergrowth, which is important for soil retention.
A sister on a mission
Tibebwa Selassie Heckett has worked for 20 years to organize disparate groups across the region all concerned about preserving forest biodiversity. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Since moving from Ireland to Ethiopia two decades earlier, Selassie Heckett has been focused on a mission of planting, by her count, thousands of indigenous trees across the country. She wants to help rebuild the native forest landscapes devastated by eucalyptus, drought and urban and industrial sprawl.
“Elephants used to graze right up to Addis when they had the forests they liked,” Selassie Heckett says.
She says she also hopes to make an impact on food security, so she plants what she calls “purpose fruit trees,” indigenous species grown on public land, which can provide a constant source of nutrition for those in need.
Much of her conservation and reforestation work is done in partnership with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. She says clergy “are more open to keeping [trees] alive.” The Orthodox Church here is known for its majestic yet intimate tree gardens outside each church, used by parishioners and others as places for prayer and meditation. That gives the church a strong stake in the survival of native plants, including olive trees (olea europaea ssp. africana), which the gardens typically feature due to their prominence in the Bible.
Eucalyptus wood chopped bound and ready for sale at a roadside market in Addis Ababa. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
“Planting trees is easy, but keeping trees — this is where the challenge comes from,” says Selassie Heckett, a devout Orthodox Christian.
Her love affair with rebuilding the forests in Ethiopia has evolved over time. In 2003, she organized a committee of church and state leaders, including the late President Girma Wolde-Giorgis, to reinstate Arbor Day as a focal point of reforestation. The day celebrates the importance of trees and was first established as a public holiday by Emperor Hailie Selassie I in 1955.
Heckett says she shares the vision of Wolde-Giorgis, a forerunner in the nation’s modern biodiversity movement, to heed Emperor Selassie’s prescient message about the balance created by a healthy forest. The visionary leader focused on the nexus of sustainability and the unbreakable bond between the ecological health and economic wealth of a nation. “The existence or nonexistence of forest wealth in the country is one of the most important factors influencing its development and progress,” the emperor declared on Ethiopia’s third Arbor Day celebration on July 19, 1958.
Countering climate change
View of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from Entoto Mountain. Photo by Christopher Lett/Mongabay.
Attempts at this type of progress are evident at the government-run Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, where Lemessa and his team of researchers scour the nation for endemic, rare and endangered plant species to protect. While their goals include conservation of the unique genetic resources native to Ethiopia’s forests as well as education on the importance of biodiversity, Lemessa has even bigger plans.
“The benefit of this natural resource, the forest, is transboundary,” he says. “When we grow one plant here it has a positive impact on the U.S.A. in terms of climate regulation … and since you cannot produce people’s oxygen in a laboratory, we have to conserve forests!”
Though Lemessa cracks these science jokes about his field, the work he and his team are doing is serious. The biodiversity institute is home to a network of nearly four dozen sites across the country that serve as labs, in-habitat incubators, and seed banks for the protection and proliferation of indigenous plant species key to countering climate change. These efforts are aimed at maintaining the fragile ecological range that comes with managing a topography that varies as widely as Ethiopia’s.
From the depths of the Rift Valley, 126 meters (410 feet) below sea level, to the elevations of the highlands at 4,620 meters (15,160 feet), it’s easy to imagine the magnitude of Lemessa’s challenge. Selassie Heckett agrees it’s an uphill battle.
The interests of Selassie Heckett, a woman dedicated to preventing more forestry experiments like Entoto, and Boka, a woman who depends on this very model continuing in order to survive, may seem at odds. Yet they’re connected by faith and by their dependence on the resilience of Ethiopia’s wide-ranging landscapes. Asked what’s the hardest part about the work they do, they give the same response: “Life.”
Christopher Lett is a photographer and former producer and researcher for CNN and a 2018-2019 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can find him on Twitter at @kolmec.
1.) Menelik and the Foundation of Addis Ababa Author(s): Richard Pankhurst Source: The Journal of African History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1961), pp. 103-117 Published by: Cambridge University Press
2.) Women Fuelwood Carriers and the Supply of Household Energy in Addis Ababa Author(s): Fekerte Haile Source: Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol. 23, No. 3 (1989), pp. 442-451
3.) A Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Deforestation in Ethiopia: With Particular Reference to the Environs of Addis Ababa Author(s): Mekete Belachew Source: Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (June 1999), pp. 89-131