Could black philanthropy help solve the black student debt crisis?

Could black philanthropy help solve the black student debt crisis?

Left: Robert Smith. Right (clockwise from left): Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Jay-Z, LeBron James and Nicki Minaj.
Reuters, USA Today

When billionaire Robert E. Smith decided to pay off the student loans of the graduating class of 2019 at Morehouse College, he suggested that others follow his lead.

“Let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith declared in his commencement speech.

But is there even enough black private wealth in the United States to pay off all black student loan debt?

As a scholar in social transformation and African American studies, I’m intrigued by this question. It provides an opportunity to examine black wealth, higher education and the possibilities for alleviating debt, which in turn opens the door to new economic opportunities.

Black celebrities give to higher education

Smith’s gift is estimated to be worth US$40 million and will benefit 396 students.

That’s a lot of money, and he’s done it before. Before his gift to Morehouse, Smith donated $50 million to Cornell University, his alma mater, in part to support African American and female students at Cornell University’s College of Engineering.

Other black celebrities have also stepped up to fund education. Powerhouse couple Beyonce and Jay Z gave more than $1 million in scholarships to students who lived in cities they were touring in 2018.

Rapper Nicki Minaj gave 37 “Student of the Game” scholarships. LeBron James, through his foundation, promised to pay for 2,300 students to attend the University of Akron – at an estimated price tag of $100 million. Oprah Winfrey has donated more than $400 million to educational causes.

But with just five black billionaires in the United States – Smith, Winfrey, David Steward, Michael Jordan and Jay-Z – monumental gifts like the one that Smith made will likely be few and far between.

Is Smith’s claim that “we are enough to take care of our own community” true of all the black wealth in the U.S.?

Philanthropy among African Americans

A strong heritage of black philanthropy dates back to mutual aid societies of the 1700s and 1800s in which free blacks sought to help fellow blacks facing hardships or distress and, in later years, in need of education and job training.

Black charitable giving also arose from the black church and fraternal organizations throughout the 1800s and 1900s with movements such as abolitionism, the Black Women’s Club Movement and the civil rights movement.

Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, described how charitable organizations had “a keen sense of the responsibility” to secure economic and educational resources, “lifting as we climb” up the ladder of social mobility. This ethic of giving was also present among the early black economic elite such as Thomy Lafon, Madame C.J. Walker and James Forten.

Black giving remains strong to this day. Despite racial wealth gaps, black families contribute larger portions of their wealth than any other racial and ethnic group. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation reports that two-thirds of all black households donate to charitable causes. This giving amounts to about $11 billion annually, most of which goes to religious organizations.

But how much of it goes to higher education? African Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum report donating 17% to education – both K-12 and post-secondary institutions and scholarship funds. That adds up to about $1.8 billion donated annually.

Counting black millionaires

The percentage of black households worth over $1 million has remained at or below 2% since 1992, or about 877,000 based on 2018 population estimates.

Among black high net worth households – those with a net worth of more than $1 million (not counting the value of their primary home) or with an annual household income of $200,000 – 49% report giving to higher education. This is significant since across all racial groups, the share of dollars donated by high net worth individuals to higher education was only 4%.

Black student loan debt

Student loan debt in the U.S. reached an all-time high in 2019, making it the second-highest consumer debt category behind mortgage debt. Over 44 million borrowers owe roughly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.

Looking at 2016 data, 86.4% of blacks completing a bachelor’s degree had some form of student loan debt, and the average amount borrowed was $34,010. If we multiply the total number of blacks that graduated with some form of debt – roughly 168,000 – by the average amount borrowed per individual, the average cumulative debt for this one graduating class was roughly $5.7 billion. This includes graduates from all colleges – public as well as private – but not community colleges.

Of course, looking at it at the most basic level, the collective wealth among America’s black billionaires – which totals $13.4 billion with the recent addition of Jay-Z – can easily subsidize the debt of a single graduating class.

And while a more sophisticated calculation is undoubtedly warranted, a rough estimate shows that the $5.7 billion in black student debt could be covered by America’s black millionaire households if each one chose to devote $6,500 toward eliminating the overall debt.

Of course, the debt load for black students goes far beyond one graduating class. The majority of blacks in the labor force that hold a bachelor’s degree or higher have some form of student loan debt. This means that the figures for the entire black population with outstanding student loan debt across generations are significantly higher than $5.7 billion.

Robert Smith’s gift to the class of 2019 at Morehouse provoked an interesting discussion about whether black philanthropy can alleviate black student loan debt. However, one-off philanthropic efforts that help a small group of beneficiaries can’t compete with the kind of large-scale change needed to alter the course of an entire community.The Conversation

Mako Fitts Ward, Clinical Assistant Professor, African and African American Studies & Women and Gender Studies, School of Social Transformation, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A matter of faith: Democrats embrace religion in campaign

A matter of faith: Democrats embrace religion in campaign

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker meets with people at an event at the True Love Missionary Baptist Church, Saturday, April 20, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

 

When 10 Democratic presidential candidates were pressed on immigration policy during their recent debate, Pete Buttigieg took his answer in an unexpected direction: He turned the question into a matter of faith.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, accused Republicans who claim to support Christian values of hypocrisy for backing policies separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The GOP, he declared, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

It was a striking moment that highlighted an evolution in the way Democrats are talking about faith in the 2020 campaign. While Republicans have been more inclined to weave faith into their rhetoric, particularly since the rise of the evangelical right in the 1980s, several current Democratic White House hopefuls are explicitly linking their views on policy to religious values. The shift signals a belief that their party’s eventual nominee has a chance to win over some religious voters who may be turned off by President Donald Trump’s abrasive rhetoric and questions about his character.

“The bar for Democrats on reaching broad swaths of the American faith community is lower than ever because of Donald Trump,” said Michael Wear, who led White House faith outreach during President Barack Obama’s first term and re-election. Wear said Democrats have an opportunity to show faith voters they don’t just “have a seat at the table, the values table is our table.”


Video Courtesy of Bloomberg Politics


Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who married his husband in his home church, often invokes his faith on the campaign trail and has tangled over values with Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a practicing Methodist and former Sunday school teacher, recently declared that all of her expansive policy proposals “start with a premise that is about faith” as she cited a favorite biblical verse about Jesus urging care for “the least of these.” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has called Jesus “the center of my life” and excoriates Trump for what he calls “moral vandalism.”

John Carr, founder of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, urged Democrats to focus more on their personal faith and avoid wielding religion as a political weapon.

“When you use faith as a way to go after your adversaries, it sounds more like a tactic and less an expression of who you are,” said Carr, who spent more than two decades as an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Regardless of Democrats’ changing tactics, Trump and Republicans are all but certain to maintain their grip on one of the most influential religious voting blocs, white evangelicals; 8 in 10 who self-identified with that group voted Republican in the 2018 midterm elections, according to AP’s VoteCast survey. Though Trump rarely discusses his own religious identity and isn’t seen as particularly devout, he’s won the loyalty of many evangelicals through his administration’s successful push for conservative judicial nominees and focus on anti-abortion policies.

Democrats have more appeal, and opportunity, with other religious voters. VoteCast showed Democrats captured half of self-described Catholics and 42% of Protestants in last year’s midterms.

Democrats have long had to walk a tightrope with religious voters, given that their support for abortion and LGBTQ rights is at odds with leaders of several prominent denominations.

The 2020 candidates aren’t shying away from those differences. Warren, for example, opposes the United Methodist Church’s prohibition on same-sex marriages and LGBTQ pastors, which has prompted more progressive congregations to weigh a split .

“Elizabeth believes equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, in the workplace, and in every place,” spokeswoman Saloni Sharma said.

Instead, they see an opening to talk about religion as a driver of their basic values, not a litmus test. Immigration offers one such opportunity, given that Trump’s detention policies have drawn criticism from leaders of multiple faiths, including some evangelicals.

Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice group Sojourners, described the drowning of a father and his toddler daughter who attempted to cross the border as a test of faith for policymakers. Many devout Latino voters who are being courted to vote Republican next year “believe that’s a religious question,” Wallis said.

The Democratic candidates come from a variety of religious backgrounds and differ in how they speak about faith on the campaign trail.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand identifies as Catholic but regularly attends evangelical services as well as Mass, her campaign said. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said in a statement to The Associated Press that he was raised attending Catholic Mass, but, “As an adult, I have found a stronger connection with God outside of the church.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speak about their faith less frequently than some of the others. But Sanders — who would be the first Jewish president — recently joined liberal Jewish activists for a picture that identified them as Jews against Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has openly struggled to reconcile his Catholic faith with his party’s more liberal position on abortion. In the 1970s, he said the Supreme Court went “too far” in legalizing abortion nationwide and later said abortion should be legal but not government-funded. He reversed that position only last month under intense pressure from his Democratic opponents, drawing a public reprimand from the archbishop of Philadelphia.

But Biden flouts his church’s hard-line positions against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. “We are all God’s children,” he explained last month at a Human Rights Campaign gala in Ohio.

Booker speaks often about his faith as he campaigns. His home church is Metropolitan Baptist in Newark, New Jersey, and his campaign said he attends services whenever he isn’t traveling to early voting states.

The New Jersey senator generally avoids direct use of religion to criticize the GOP, but he told a South Carolina pastor during a CNN town hall in March that “the Bible talks more about poverty, about greeting the stranger, about being there for the convicted … than it talks about the kind of toxic stuff you often hear the president spewing.”

___

Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Emily Swanson and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Nick Riccardi in Denver, and Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed.

7 Ways to Survive Seminary for Students of Color

7 Ways to Survive Seminary for Students of Color

Video Courtesy of Jude 3 Project


Updated from 2017

The other day I got an email from a friend on how he was getting frustrated and tired of reading books and hearing lectures on Eurocentric theology and church history. He wanted to have some color injected into his Bible college and seminary education.

It’s a story I’m all too familiar with. By the end of seminary, most people are screaming at the top of their lungs, “Let me out!” But they press on anyway because they know they have a calling and they know this is the path God has them on in order to equip them. This is even more true for those students who are of non-white ethnicity. The seminary is a far cry from their home culture and the things taught there are taught from a predominantly white historical and theological perspective. Consequently, you can feel like you are being brainwashed or indoctrinated into whiteness or at the very least just made to feel like an oddball or invisible because your experience is different from a lot of the other students. I’ve been there. And I would have lost my mind if it weren’t for these principles working themselves out in my life intentionally or unintentionally.

1. Remember why you are there

You are there because you are called. You are here because you want to soak up the knowledge to make you effective in ministry. You are there to connect with like-minded folk who may one day partner with you in ministry. Do not let the overwhelming whiteness take you off course. Learn. Soak it in. Grow.

2. Make two sets of notes

There are two sets of notes to take. Notes for the paper you will write and notes for yourself (Shout out to MK Asante). Some things will be helpful for your academic career but other things will help as you take your seminary training back home.

3. Find the alternative books

When I first started attending Fuller Theological Seminary I had the privilege of working in the library. As I put the books back on the shelves I learned about James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez and so many others. I began reading those books even before I started classes because they spoke from a perspective I understood and was familiar with. Just the exposure alone helped me to tackle some of the lack of diversity I was experiencing.

4. Find like-minded students

There is always, at least, a handful of students of color on any campus. If you can’t find students of color then there are many white students who understand where you are coming from. Reach out and connect. It may be the best thing you have ever done.

5. Find like-minded professors

In an attempt to make their faculties more diverse, most seminaries and Christian universities have hired at least two or three non-white professors who teach from a different perspective. Go and take their classes if you have the opportunity. If you can’t take their classes then find some way to connect with them. They understand your experience and are rooting for your success. Personally, I found Dr. Ralph Watkins and Dr. Jehu Hanciles. Just their teaching and course content helped me to not lose my mind!

6. Ask thought-provoking questions

Don’t just sit in class like a lump on a log. Ask questions—thought-provoking questions. Not solely to cause trouble. Ask questions from your unique ethnic and socio-economic perspective. It will not only bless you but also those in class around you who may be going into these contexts or just those who need to have their world expanded

7. Keep a vital and dynamic relationship with God

Last but not least, keep your eyes on Jesus. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop reading your Bible. Remember this isn’t about ethnicity. This is about God’s calling on your life.

What about you do you have any other tips to include? What was your experience in seminary like? How did you keep from losing your mind?

 

Maryland has created a truth commission on lynchings – can it deliver?

Maryland has created a truth commission on lynchings – can it deliver?

Lynchings happened across the U.S., including the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. Shutterstock

Between 1850 and 1950, thousands of African American men, women and children were victims of lynchings: public torture and killings carried out by white mobs.

Lynchings were used to terrorize and control black people, notably in the South following the end of slavery.

Yet despite the prevalence and seriousness of the practice, there has been an “astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching,” reports the Equal Justice Initiative, the leading organization conducting research on lynchings.

Until now.

In April 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – the first lynching memorial in the U.S. – was opened in Montgomery, Alabama. In December of the same year, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that defined lynching as a federal crime.

More recently, in April 2019, the state of Maryland established a truth commission to investigate the lynchings of at least 40 African Americans between 1854 and 1933.

The legislation that authorized the truth commission, Maryland HB 307, was sponsored by Maryland House Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee in February 2019, Peña-Melnyk said that the commission would be an opportunity “to send the message that the lives of the 40-something people really mattered.” Written with the help of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project and endorsed by the Equal Justice Initiative, the bill passed with strong bipartisan support just two months later.

The commission has the potential to educate the public about dozens of lynchings – some of which occurred with the knowledge or direct involvement of local, county and state government entities. The commission can also provide the opportunity for reconciliation between the families of those who were responsible and the families of those who were killed.

Can it live up to its promise?

Death certificate for George Armwood, 22- or 23-year-old lynched in Maryland by a mob.
Maryland State Archives/Flickr

Truth commissions around the world

I study human rights, with a particular interest in institutions that hold individuals, organizations and governments accountable for human rights abuses. My current research focuses on truth commissions and how they can be designed to be effective.

A truth commission is a temporary body that investigates different forms and systems of violence that happened in the past. Examples include the commissions that investigated apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Timor-Leste and the dictatorship in Chile.

Generally, governments establish commissions to examine documents and collect witness testimony. A key goal of commissions is preparing a report that details the facts and traces the legacies of violence and abuse. A second, related goal is reconciliation. In Maryland’s case, this would mean working toward respect, understanding and trust of those of other races and their experiences.

Based on my research and analyses of truth commissions in Chile, South Africa and Timor-Leste, I believe that the commission in Maryland has the potential to succeed.

But it faces some big obstacles.

Truth commissions in the US

The commission in Maryland will not be the first in the U.S.

In the 1980s, a national commission studied the government’s relocation and internment in camps of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. The commission’s work led to both apologies and reparations for victims.

In addition, there have been commissions at the local level – for example, the 2004 commission in North Carolina that examined the killing of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in Greensboro in 1979. There have also been commissions at the state level – for example, the 2013 commission in Maine that investigated the separation of indigenous Wabanaki children from their communities since 1960.

However, the commission in Maryland will be the first to research lynchings, which investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in 1909 called the U.S.‘s “national crime.”

The truth commission in Maryland

The Maryland law establishing the commission calls for “full knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the truth.”

How would a commission accomplish this?

I have found in my research that a commission needs support from politicians, access to information, and community knowledge and involvement. It appears that the commission in Maryland has – or will have – each of these characteristics. In this regard, it is similar to previous successful commissions.

First, similar to South Africa, the commission has support from politicians on both sides of the aisle – in this case, Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisan support affords the commission public legitimacy as it seeks access to court records, historical archives, and local and statewide newspapers. So, it may be harder to politicize the commission’s work.

Second, as in Timor-Leste, where the commission held hearings in the villages where violence occurred, the commission in Maryland will hold hearings across the state, including in communities where lynchings occurred.

By operating throughout the state, the commission can more easily reach victims’ descendants and collect their stories. Collecting information from as many sources as possible is important to ascertain the truth.

In addition, the commission will be well positioned to broadly share its work and findings, through the hearings themselves, local news reporting and more. This is key to both truth and reconciliation.

Third, as in Chile, the commission in Maryland will receive recommendations from the public, including from victims’ families, about erecting memorials and historical markers where lynchings occurred.

Getting families and the wider community involved in this aspect can help provide healing and closure. For more than a century, the pain and trauma they experienced went unacknowledged.

Now, not only does Maryland have the potential to address this pain and trauma, it has the opportunity to memorialize the lynchings so others, too, can know what happened.

Obstacles to truth and reconciliation

There are, I believe, obstacles that may prevent the commission from accomplishing all of its goals.

To start, the commission’s limited focus may lead to limited reconciliation. Lynchings represent just one form – the most extreme form – of race-based discrimination and violence.

Other forms – which persist today – include the over-policing, over-criminalization, and mass incarceration of African Americans. The commission hasn’t been designed to address these issues or the broader context of racism and violence. So, it’s unclear how the commission will lead to widespread reconciliation.

In addition, while the families of those responsible for lynchings can work with the commission and take the opportunity to make amends to the victims’ families and communities, they may decline to do so. And victims’ families may not be prepared to forgive.

Finally, the commission has been created in a fraught social and political environment. Hate crimes have increased in recent years throughout the U.S. Some elected officials have trivialized racial violence – including lynchings. And some race-focused policies, such as reparations, are widely unpopular among Americans.

So, while the commission benefits from broad support from government leaders in Maryland, it may not enjoy similar support from the public.

Whether the obstacles I describe will overcome the strengths of the commission remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the commission represents an important first step and offers a guide for similar efforts in other states.

Kelebogile Zvobgo, Provost’s Fellow in the Social Sciences and Ph.D. Candidate, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Gospel choirs try to build racial harmony through song

Gospel choirs try to build racial harmony through song

The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis performs on March 15, 2019, in St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan

Emi Belciak teaches third grade in a tough part of suburban St. Louis, where she says her students are exposed to more violence than any child should be.

The school where Belciak teaches is just three miles from the site in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed. Five years have passed, but this part of north St. Louis County hasn’t completely healed.

Belciak wanted to do something to help — so she joined a choir.

The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis is dedicated to bridging the black and white communities in a metropolitan area rarely associated with racial harmony. The diverse group aims to break down racial, cultural and economic barriers among its members and the community.

The 75-member choir opens its Monday night rehearsals with group prayer. Next, the choir preps for an upcoming performance or refines a new song. The idea is to get the lyrics and music memorized so the choir can improvise in front of an audience, just like a jazz or blues musician would.

At the core of the repertoire are message songs, about gathering inner strength in the face of adversity. Typical are the rousing “Call on the Lord” and “Now I’m on My Way.”

The choir is 40 percent black and 60 percent white, unlike many choirs that are either all white or all black. CGC members often socialize outside of official choir activities, say group members. They go out to eat and sometimes belt out a rock anthem together at a karaoke bar.

The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan

Most are Christian. For them, singing gospel music is a religious experience.

“What really attracted me was the choir’s endeavor to bring races together through African-American spirituals and gospel,” said Suzanne Palmer, the group’s musical director. “I thought, this is great, to try and bring the races together through the good news of Jesus. I thought, wow, that’s probably for me.”

As part of its mission, the group also tries to collaborate with other choral groups of different backgrounds. An early March concert matched the CGC with the New Sunny Mount Baptist Chancel Choir (which drew a primarily black audience) and the Ambassadors of Harmony, a barbershop-quartet-style group with a mostly white fan base.

The CGC is open to all comers, said Tom Ptacek, CGC president. It had a Reform Jewish rabbi member at one time in its 12-year history and currently has at least two LGBTQ members.

“We’d accept a Muslim member. We don’t have any — yet,” said Ptacek. “We need to get some Hispanic members in the choir, too. We are diverse by race, economics and geography. We made a conscious decision to include people from different economic backgrounds to be part of the choir.”

Up the Mississippi River a bit from St. Louis, the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir in Minnesota has a similar mission. It seeks to bridge communities across racial, cultural and economic divides through its soulful interpretation of African-American gospel music.

The Twin Cities choir is now in its 26th year.

Founder Robert Robinson started the choir at Metropolitan State University to create a diverse community on campus, said Laura Tueting Nelson, TCCGC president.

The Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, led by artistic director Ed Newman, center, is in its 26th year. Photo courtesy of TCCGC

“Minnesota has a large chorale tradition, and interestingly enough, Scandinavians initially showed up to sing in the choir, so it started out being a lot of white people,” Tueting Nelson said. “Then Robert brought in more people of color and he started this group singing. Most of the Scandinavian white folks did not have any experience singing gospel music so he started from the beginning.”

That meant they didn’t sing from scores, but rather followed the oral tradition of listening to how to sing the music properly and repeating it.

“From the beginning, it was teaching people about the tradition and the impact of gospel music,” Tueting Nelson said. “They sang throughout the community and were quite successful.”

Emi Belciak sings with the Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan

The Twin Cities choir focuses on the cultural and artistic aspects of gospel music, rather than seeing it as a religious experience.

“People from any background can participate and learn something about what this music meant historically as well as where it’s going today since there’s a lot of new music being written,” Tueting Nelson said. “We include an oral talking history of gospel music and a whole capsule about this American music that led into blues and jazz and uniquely American forms of music.”

The TCCGC is 20 percent black, representative of its community’s diversity. The group rehearses weekly, like its St. Louis counterpart.

“It’s impressive to me that people are willing to give every Thursday of their lives, as well as performance dates, to sing with this choir,” said Tueting Nelson. “Anyone can join; you don’t have to go through a tryout. We assume they’ll be able to carry a tune.”

Back in St. Louis, Belciak says being part of the gospel choir has been “therapeutic.”  She’s always loved singing and said that getting to know choir members has allowed her to meet people from different walks of life and to hear their stories.

It’s a small step toward building a stronger community.

“I’m definitely supportive of the mission of the choir,” Belciak said. “Seeing the kind of violence that my kids are exposed to and how it affects their self-esteem, I like to think I’m making a difference and playing a part in the solution.”

 

Prayer, Praise, and Prostitutes

Prayer, Praise, and Prostitutes

RELATED: The Prayer of Examen: A Prayer for Greater Self-Awareness

Our rendezvous point was the home of a saint. Together, we climbed the 25 steps that led to the bedroom of Mother Teresa, a five-foot giant of love and mercy. We peered into the small, modestly adorned space where she had slept, prayed, and responded to letters from every corner the world. Slowly, we descended the stairs and walked into the chapel that contained Mother’s tomb. Some of the women kissed the tomb. Some gave alms. Some cried. One showed her daughter how to fold her hands in prayer. They were prostitutes and owners of brothels. I was a woman who was about to journey from ignorance to understanding, and from judgment to love.

This was just one of the many mind-changing and heart-opening encounters I had on a recent mission trip to India. For years, Anita, a missionary and friend of mine, had been asking me to accompany her overseas, but I always had one good excuse or another. I had supported her efforts financially, but I didn’t think I was called to go to other parts of the world to serve when there were enough folks in my own backyard who needed to be served. Mind you, I wasn’t really serving people in my own backyard, but the excuse made me believe that I had my priorities straight. This year though, she had urged me, was the right year for me to go because she would be doing something different. Along with distributing rice, other staples, and the good news of God’s love for everyone, she wanted to offer soul care to religious leaders as well as HIV-positive children living in orphanages, widows, nursing mothers, those attending churches in the jungle, the hearing impaired, and prostitutes. She thought that since I had a certificate in the practice of spiritual direction and a master’s degree in family ministry and spiritual formation, I was well equipped to help people pay greater attention to the quality of their relationship with God.

I knew that I was ill-equipped to speak to such a broad range of audiences, but I decided to go because I was interested in visiting that part of the world and curious about what I could learn from a different culture. Learning, I was to discover, was about to take on a whole new depth after I spent a day with women whom I thought I knew. What I deemed to be knowledge had been prejudice in disguise.

Sharing Life Together

Writer Maisie Sparks at the home of Mother Teresa.

After we left the chapel, the women and I went to the museum that chronicles Mother Teresa’s life. Some of the women couldn’t read English or their own language, but we looked at the pictures and followed the visual narrative about the impact Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu had made on the world.

The women were well-dressed. Not in that I’m-trying-to-pick-up-a-guy kind of way that I had assumed they would be, but in a I’m-going-somewhere-important-and-I-should-dress-for-the-occasion way. Their saris were made of vibrant, colorful, and intricately designed materials. I, on the other hand, was sorely underdressed. I had bought an inexpensive contemporary Indian-styled blouse on the first day of my arrival. My attempt at replicating the culture’s fashion sense was so bad that one of my interpreters convinced a store owner to give me a better price on some souvenirs because I was not a rich American. The evidence of my station in life, she pointed out, was the kind of material my clothes had been made from. Although my pride was hurt, my wallet was happy.

As we walked through the courtyard that connected the buildings that comprised the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity, I pulled out my journal and began to capture some of my thoughts. I was starting to feel as if this was going to be a watershed day and that I should write down as much of it as I could. But I had to stop. A group photo was being organized, and I hurried over to make sure that I was part of it to memorialize the day that I began to see similarities and not just differences. Even though we didn’t speak the same language and were from different cultures, we all shared the same desires. We wanted better for our lives, and especially, the lives of our children. We had suffered at the hands of others and had been impacted by systems and circumstances that restricted the financial mobility of the poor—especially women. We all, at some point in our lives, had overstepped the bounds of righteousness to secure the life we thought we wanted.

Uncomfortable Truths

In some cultures, prostitution is a viable choice for women who are poor, lack education, and have little, if any, hope for help from charities or government programs. It provides a career path to ownership of bars, hotels/brothels, catering services, and other ancillary services once a woman can earn more money than she needs to survive. Indeed, several of the women I met were business owners.

One of the missionaries who we served with in India told me that the women have been open to hearing the gospel, especially in the engaging ways Anita had shared it on previous visits. Yet, few have been motivated to change their careers. Where she’d seen the greatest change is in the numbers of them enrolling their children in the pre-schools she had established.

As the day continued, I would learn that even before the local missionary opened her pre-schools, many of the women had given their children an education. Some had even put their children through college—both boys and girls. Educating girls is significant because they don’t have equal worth in this and many other cultures. I realized that this belief is pervasive and is manifested in my own culture by unequal pay, glass ceilings to career advancement, and the inability of women to obtain business loans.

Teaching and Learning

After visiting Mother Teresa’s home, we took a short walk to a cloistered hotel with a beautiful lawn and an air-conditioned meeting room. Anita began the teaching part of our day by sharing the good news of the sacrificial love of Christ. The session ended with joyous songs of praise from the women. To take a break from a long spell of sitting, we went outside to play a game.

Anita had each woman find a partner. One partner was blindfolded, and the other had to guide the blindfolded person through a maze of chairs by giving only verbal directions. It was comical to watch and uncomfortable to experience. But it led us into a discussion about what it’s like to walk in darkness, to stumble around, to be fearful. We asked ourselves: Can we trust the voice we hear? Are we good at giving directions? Are we good at taking directions? Do we know our left from our right? The exercise elicited much laughter. Anita transitioned from talking about the darkness to introducing the Light. There is a voice we can trust, she declared. That voice invites us to walk a path that leads to the better life that we all seek.

After a spicy lunch, it was my turn to teach, and I introduced the women to the prayer of examen. Each time I shared this prayer in this culture, I wondered whether it would be experienced as relevant. Poor people don’t need a reflective prayer, I thought. They need a prayer about getting God to do things for them through prayer. What I was to learn, however, is that everyone, everywhere needs time to reflect on what they think about God. We all need to discover that our deepest desire is to know God deeply, no matter where we live, what we’ve done, or what our circumstances are.

As I shared my presentation, I often paused, asking questions, and waiting for feedback to see whether I was explaining the prayer clearly. They responded with answers that let me know that they understood me. Near the end, one woman stood and prayed the prayer using examples from her own life—direct confirmation for me that she got it.

I discovered that prayer – reflective, sincere, and unbiased – can activate compassion and give birth to love. We ended the day singing songs of praise, playing balloon volleyball, giving gifts, and sharing hugs. I no longer experienced their presence as “them and me.” We were one: women united with a universal bond and a desire to know God, each other, and our own selves at a much deeper level.

I had traveled more than 8,000 miles to be part of a mission trip, but in reality, I had taken a longer journey. I had experienced the mysterious lengths God will take to get us out of our heads and into His heart. That is the longest and most significant distance each of us can ever travel.



Maisie Sparks is a spiritual director and the author of Holy Shakespeare and other titles.