While enjoying a date night with my spouse at the Orpheum Theatre to see “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Farewell Play Tour,” I met Jasmine Nichol Tate, a young lady with a beautiful smile who was seated next to me. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted a bit before the performance began. She mentioned that she had traveled to this event to celebrate with her mother, who was quietly seated next to her. During the intermission, we continued our conversation. She further shared with me her life-long challenge with Sickle Cell Anemia, but her reason for celebrating this particular occasion was for another issue. Jasmine was recovering from a mastectomy and had just recently completed a series of chemotherapy.
Jasmine was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 23 years old. But on this occasion, she was excited about feeling good enough to take this trip to have fun with her mom. My immediate feeling of sadness had no time to settle in as her engaging smile and excitement charged our personal space. Perhaps she had explained her circumstances too many times before that it resembled a sermonette. I listened to her story with my heart, and this compelled me to seek meaning in her truth. Not only did I realize that any test in life can accompany a blessing, I now know that life’s challenges can renew our spirit bringing lessons and new beginnings. Hopefully, I can share this beautiful miracle and inspiring message in a little neatly wrapped package, as Jasmine managed to do.
Discovery: The Storm
Simply preparing for what Jasmine describes as an ordinary day, she performed an examination of her breast. She mentioned her awareness of the importance of this routine. However, on this specific day, she felt something odd that seemed to be a lump. During a follow-up visit to her doctor, who normally treats her for Sickle Cell disease, further inquiries were conducted, but ultimately, she was sent home with no answers. Later as the pain worsened in that area of her body, she knew that what she was experiencing was certainly not normal. It’s as if she developed a sixth sense to visit another doctor, her OB-GYN, as soon as possible.
She recalled having to insist that this medical staff listen and give their full attention to her complaints and concerns. A referral was issued to continue more testing at the Breast Center Clinic, where both an ultrasound and a mammogram were performed. To her surprise, the results were labeled “undetermined.” Unsettled with these findings, she was offered a third option. A biopsy procedure was done. This exam revealed that indeed, there was cancer detected in her left breast. Jasmine explained that on Tuesday, August 1, 2017, the day that she was given her diagnosis, became “the day her life changed forever.” This news was devastating, especially to a Sickle Cell Anemia patient. What else could happen? Where was God in all this?
There were many decisions to be made regarding the methods for her treatment. Included in her many choices, were the willingness to have faith or fear what was happening to her. One ray of hope which emerged was early detection. Jasmine’s saving grace as a survivor was God’s guiding hands in the ordeal. Critical to surviving was “finding her cancer in its early stages.” She knows that this really does save lives; therefore, routine exams are essential. Even having taken these precautions, she was not spared from the physical and mental agony of a mastectomy and chemotherapy in addition to a flu virus. Her fear of uncertainty lingered with hair loss, recurring bouts with her Sickle Cell disease, and lengthy hospital stays. As if this was not enough, the situation progressed. Her weakened immune system invited a staph infection. According to Jasmine, this was indeed in the “deathbed” category. It invaded her body for some time and caused a tsunami of medical complications. It was the perfect storm that placed her odds for survival unconscionably bleak. Yes, there was a great support system and its benefits, but the battle was personal.
Some storms come with more turbulence than others. At times it may seem that the mayhem within a storm captures our attention even more than the rain or lightning. Likewise, it just may be the havoc that occurs in our minds that causes us to seek shelter — this was Jasmine’s reality. What was totally out of her control had to rest within the shadow of the almighty God (Psalms 91:1). She found herself seeking that secret place in her soul. Realizing that her human reactions to her situation were only human instincts, they voided her thoughts about her purpose in this storm. It took some reflection time, but gradually, she began to embrace a new truth related to her life. As her body was changing, so were her mind’s eyes. Instead of only focusing on her pain and suffering, she felt the need to develop a more positive mindset. Maybe her current crisis was allowing her to learn how to redefine and discover herself as not just sick and vulnerable, but human. Eventually, she could see that her thoughts were helping her to transform purposefully. Perhaps she was not the victim as she had thought, but victorious. Every new day was another miracle of surviving and a reason to be hopeful. From what appeared to be a difficult experience with cancer and its unforeseen twists emerged a path to show her who she really could become and how she could best contribute to humanity. She practiced gaining a clearer focus, which contributed to her will to help others accept and respect the change in life as well. Could it be that through both prayer and praise, God had granted her a gift via her cancer ordeal?
The pain and the uncomfortable treatments continued, and there were many watershed moments, yet she learned that these moments were her body’s mechanisms for mental, physical, and spiritual cleansing. Throughout this healing process, there were revelations of how she could help others with her advocacy. No matter how uncertain things looked on some days, what was certain was that each passing day, she grew in her faith and hoped for a cure. During the discovery of her cancer, she felt that something was wrong. Now at this point, she saw that there was something right happening. By harnessing the realization that healing both from the outside with medicines to inside her mind was rejuvenating. The power of her mind shift was as necessary as the medical treatment that she was receiving.
Recovery: A Glimpse of Sunshine
Today, Jasmine lives cancer-free. Her acceptance of what exists in her life, along with lessons learned to fuel intimate gratefulness to God. The wisdom gained from her experience has become an unexpected welcomed blessing. As a breast cancer survivor, hope in her purpose to encourage others is limitless. Her journey remains a real eye-opening experience proving that everything in life possesses unique meanings. Seeing the world through new lenses helps to appreciate days that are no longer consumed by “what ifs” regarding cancer, but her “what is” concerning her life. For Jasmine, learning to differentiate grief from grace is a continuous part of healing. Somewhere in the middle, she has found purpose in ways that encourage us all to learn to trust our journey and its processes. She urges us to seek wisdom to manage all parts of life through our faith, especially things that we cannot control.
Negativity is its own disease. Therefore, attitude plays a significant role in rising above any challenge, because you can then begin to recognize that in life, everything seems to be a miracle. Jasmine strongly affirms that “I know that I’ve beat breast cancer” as she prepares to complete the next phase of breast surgery to replace a tissue expander with the actual breast implant. Enthusiastically, she says, “being challenged and pushed to my limit developed new perspectives of what is less fatal, but more important.” Her perspective on faith and hope is staying positive and to smile through storms. There is profound meaning in the portion of the Lord’s prayer, which requests God to “give us our daily bread (Matthew 6:11).” This bread for Jasmine represented the gift of empathy in that it is her understanding to see people, things, and circumstances from different points of view. Avoid worrying about issues that rob you of your peace. Teach yourself to let go of stuff not significant enough to hold in your mind-space. It’s only stuff, the extra baggage that may have kept you stressed in the first place. It tends to bring you “peace that passes all understanding” that believers often speak of in (Philippians 4:6-7).
Second, only to trust that God holds the first and last words over our lives, it is necessary to know that education is the key to surviving. Take time to learn about your body, for no one knows its changes, pain, or discomfort better than you. Trust your gut feeling, for it can be God’s message to you. Use both your physical and common senses by remaining persistent, asking questions, and becoming proactive. Remain curious about that which concerns you and learn how to interact with medical professionals effectively. One opinion from a single individual may not be the absolute answer for you. Celebrate you!
This was her reason for traveling to celebrate on the evening we met. At that time, I did not immediately see the scope of the grandness in her bright smile when we encountered each other. Upon reflection, her eyes were like a ray of sunshine, showing me a glimpse into her soul. Her story may seem fairly typical to many, but to me, the richness of meeting her was in divine order. It was a wake-up call filled with life’s truths to ponder from this day forward. As directed in Proverbs 3:5-6, we must remind ourselves to “trust in the Lord and lean not to our own understanding, but acknowledge Him in all things, and He shall direct our paths.”
I grew up in the pre-Katrina New Orleans in the 1980s and 90s. The city was impoverished and crime-ridden, but it was home. The diverse cultures that permeated New Orleans, its friendliness and music, were potent enough to make it one of the most amazing places in the world to live. The big downside for a kid like me was the educational system, which had been ranked one of the lowest in the country for decades. The fact that I was able to navigate a failing school system and become a first-generation college graduate was nothing short of miraculous.
Or so it seemed to me until, as an educator, I conducted research on the significance of teachers of color for black students. I now recognize that my success is heavily attributed to the teachers of color who walked the halls of my primary and secondary schools. Yes, I had wonderful white teachers who loved me and supported me, but having teachers who looked like me enhanced my educational experience exponentially.
Shirley Dufour was my second-grade teacher and my first African-American teacher. She was a charismatic, nurturing and extremely knowledgeable educator who commanded the room. She taught us with firm love. She always dressed professionally and spoke so articulately, personifying excellence with every step she made and word she spoke.
I idolized Mrs. Dufour. She looked like me and was able to connect with me in a way my white teachers could not. She set the highest expectations for me and refused to let me settle academically or personally. Her unwavering commitment to the pursuit of excellence is what I wanted to mirror when I became a teacher.
Now, it is my professional purpose to exemplify for my students what Mrs. Dufour modeled for me. When I became a teacher in Dallas ISD in 2006, I knew that I wanted to work at an impoverished school so that I could be for those students what my teachers of color were for me. I always tell my students, “your address doesn’t dictate your success.” They believe that motto so much more when the person saying it looks like them.
In my classroom, my students gain an experience. They are empowered and feel accomplished every day regardless of their academic abilities, because I believe that this dissipates the achievement gap between black students and their peers. Whenever I can, I aim to validate the cultural needs of my students. I affirm the challenges of their environment as I steer them towards opportunities that can eradicate the blatant systemic oppression in their neighborhoods. My experiences as a student of color allow me to provide a unique perspective that only someone like me can give them, and it challenges them to think outside of the box to find solutions and enact change.
Research emphasizes that teachers of color matter for all students, and especially for students of color. It is imperative that we begin to change the narrative of America’s schools; this starts with recruiting, developing and supporting teachers of color so they remain in the classroom. In a just-released report, Teach Plus and The Education Trust lay out the reasons why teachers of color leave the profession. I can relate to many of these, and I know that we must be intentional about creating opportunities for teachers of color to operate with autonomy, authenticity and authority, so that we can address some of the issues that stifle the educational success of students of color across the country.
It is imperative that my students feel like they matter, and that they are accurately represented in their classrooms. I want them to see someone who looks like them, shares similar experiences and provides authentic anecdotes to overcome the challenges they experience. That magnitude of leverage begins with the intentional development and implementation of a pipeline of effective teachers of color.
This article was originally published on TribTalk, a publication of the Texas Tribune.
While living in Detroit earlier this year, Brianna Snitchler wanted a cyst removed from her abdomen. But her doctor wanted the growth checked for cancer first. (Callie Richmond for KHN)
Brianna Snitchler was just figuring out the art of adulting when she scheduled a biopsy at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Snitchler was on top of her finances: Her student loan balance was down and her credit score was up.
“I had been working for the past three years trying to improve my credit and, you know, just become a functioning adult human being,” Snitchler, 27, said.
For the first time in her adult life, she had health insurance through her job and a primary care doctor she liked. Together they were working on Snitchler’s concerns about her mental and physical health.
One concern was a cyst on her abdomen. The growth was about the size of a quarter, and it didn’t hurt or particularly worry Snitchler. But it did make her self-conscious whenever she went for a swim.
“People would always call it out and be alarmed by it,” she recalled.
Before having the cyst removed, Snitchler’s doctor wanted to check the growth for cancer. After a first round of screening tests, Snitchler had an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy at Henry Ford Health System’s main hospital.
The procedure was “uneventful,” with no complications reported, according to results faxed to her primary care doctor after the procedure. The growth was indeed benign, and Snitchler thought her next step would be getting the cyst removed.
Then the bill came.
The Patient: Brianna Snitchler, 27, a user-experience designer living in Detroit at the time. As a contractor for Ford Motor Co., she had a UnitedHealthcare insurance plan.
Total Bill: $3,357.52, including a $2,170 facility fee listed as “operating room services.” The balance included a biopsy, ultrasound, physician charges and lab tests.
Service Provider: Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
Medical Procedure: Ultrasound-guided needle biopsy of a cyst.
What Gives: When Snitchler scheduled the biopsy, no one told her that Henry Ford Health System would also charge her a $2,170 facility fee.
Snitchler said the bill turned out to be far more than what she budgeted for. Her insurance plan from UnitedHealthcare had a high-deductible of $3,250, plus she would owe coinsurance. All told, her bills for the care she received related to the biopsy left her on the hook for $3,357.52, with her insurance paying $974.
“She shrugged it off,” Snitchler’s partner, Emi Aguilar, recalled. “But I could see that she was upset in her eyes.”
Snitchler panicked when she realized the bill threatened the couple’s financial security. Snitchler had already spent down her savings for a recent cross-country move to Austin, Texas.
In an email, Henry Ford spokesman David Olejarz said the “procedure was performed in the Interventional Radiology procedure room, where the imaging allows the biopsy to be much more precise.”
“We perform procedures in the most appropriate venue to ensure the highest standards of patient quality and safety,” Olejarz wrote.
The initial bill from Henry Ford referred to “operating room services.” The hospital later sent an itemized bill that referred to the charge for a treatment room in the radiology department. Both descriptions boil down to a facility fee, a common charge that has become controversial as hospitals search for additional streams of income, and as more patients complain they’ve been blindsided by these fees.
Hospital officials argue that medical centers need the boosted income to provide the expensive care sick patients require, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
But the way hospitals calculate facility fees is “a black box,” said Ted Doolittle, with the Office of the Healthcare Advocate for Connecticut, a state that has put a spotlight on the issue.
“It’s somewhat akin to a cover charge” at a club, said Doolittle, who previously served as deputy director of the federal Center for Program Integrity at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Hospitals in Connecticut billed more than $1 billion in facility fees in 2015 and 2016, according to state records. In 2015, Connecticut lawmakers approved a bill that forces all hospitals and medical providers to disclose facility fees upfront. Now patients in Connecticut “should never be charged a facility fee without being shown in burning scarlet letters that they are going to get charged this fee,” Doolittle said.
In Michigan, there’s no law requiring hospitals and other providers of health care services to inform patients of facility fees ahead of time.
Brianna Snitchler’s procedure took place on campus at Henry Ford’s main hospital site. When she got her bill, with its mention of “operating room services,” she was baffled. Snitchler said the room had “crazy medical equipment,” but she was still in her street clothes as a nurse numbed her cyst and she was sent home in a matter of minutes.
With Snitchler’s permission, Kaiser Health News shared her itemized bill, biopsy results and explanation of benefits with Dr. Mark Weiss, a radiologist who leads MediCrew, a company in Flint, Mich., that helps patients navigate the health system.
Weiss said it probably wasn’t medically necessary for Snitchler to go to the hospital to receive good care. “Not all surgical procedures have to be done at a surgical center,” he said, noting that biopsies often can be done in an office-based treatment center.
Resolution: Hoping for a reasonable explanation — or even the discovery of a mistake — Snitchler called her insurance company and the hospital.
A representative at Henry Ford told her on the phone that the hospital isn’t “legally required” to inform patients of fees ahead of time.
In an email, Henry Ford spokesman Olejarz apologized for that response: “We’ll use it as a teachable moment for our staff. We are committed to being transparent with our patients about what we charge.”
He pointed to an initiative launched in 2018 that helps patients anticipate out-of-pocket expenses. The program targets the most common elective radiology and gastroenterology tests that often have high price tags for patients.
Asked if Snitchler’s ultrasound-guided needle biopsy will be included in the price transparency initiative, Olejarz replied, “Can’t say at this point.”
In addition to the pilot program to inform patients of fees, Olejarz said, the hospital also plans to roll out an online cost-estimator tool.
For now, Snitchler has decided not to get the cyst removed, and she plans to try to negotiate on her bill. She has not yet paid any portion of it.
“You should always negotiate; you should always try,” Doolittle said. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to work, but it can work. People should not be shy about it.”
“We are happy to work out a flexible payment plan that best meets her needs,” Olejarz wrote when Kaiser Health News first inquired about Snitchler’s bill.
The Takeaway: When your doctor recommends an outpatient test or procedure like a biopsy, be aware that the hospital may be the most expensive place you can have it done. Ask your physician for recommendations of where else you might have the procedure, and then call each facility to try to get an estimate of the costs you’d face.
Also, be wary of places that may look like independent doctor’s offices but are owned by a hospital. These practices also can tack hefty facility fees onto your bill.
If you get a bill that seems inflated, call your hospital and insurer and try to negotiate it down.
Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by Kaiser Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!
Panama’s “Festival del Cristo Negro,” the festival of the “Black Christ,” is an important religious holiday for local Catholics. It honors a dark, life-sized wooden statue of Jesus, “Cristo Negro” – also known as “El Nazaraeno,” or “The Nazarene.”
Throughout the year, pilgrims come to pay homage to this statue of Christ carrying a cross, in its permanent home in Iglesia de San Felipe, a Roman Catholic parish church located in Portobelo, a city along the Caribbean coast of Panama.
But it is on Oct. 21 each year that the major celebration takes place. As many as 60,000 pilgrims from Portobelo and beyond travel for the festival, in which 80 men with shaved heads carry the black Christ statue on a large float through the streets of the city.
The men use a common Spanish style for solemn parades – three steps forward and two steps backward – as they move through the city streets. The night continues with music, drinking and dancing.
In my research on the relationship between Christianity, colonialism and racism, I have discovered that such festivals play a crucial role for historically oppressed peoples.
To Portobelo’s inhabitants, especially those who claim African descent, the festival is more than a religious celebration. It is a form of protest against Spanish colonialism, which brought with it slavery and racism.
History of the statute
Portobelo’s black Christ statue is a fascinating artifact of Panama’s colonial history. While there is little certainty as to its origin, many scholars believe the statue arrived in Portobelo in the 17th century – a time when the Spanish dominated Central America and brought in enslaved people from Africa.
Various legends circulate in Panama as to how the black Christ got to Portobelo. Some maintain that the statue originated in Spain, others that it was locally made, or that it washed ashore miraculously.
One of the most common stories maintains that a storm forced a ship from Spain, which was delivering the statue to another city, to dock in Portobelo. Every time the ship attempted to leave, the storms would return.
Eventually, the story goes, the statue was thrown overboard. The ship was then able to depart with clear skies. Later, local fishermen recovered the statue from the sea.
The statue was placed in its current home, Iglesia de San Felipe, in the early 19th century.
Stories of miracles added to its mystique. Among the legends in circulation is one about how prayers to the black Christ spared the city from a plague ravaging the region in the 18th century.
At the time of the arrival of Cristo Negro, the majority of the Portobelo’s population was of African descent. This cultural heritage is significant to the city’s identity and traditions.
The veneration of the statue represents one of many ways that the black residents of Portobelo and the surrounding Colón region of Panama have engendered a sense of resistance to racism and slavery.
Each year around the time of Lent, local men and women across Colón – where slavery was particularly widespread – dramatize the story of self-liberated black slaves known as the Cimarrones. This reenactment is one of a series of celebrations, or “carnivals,” observed around the time of Lent by those who identify with the cultural tradition known colloquially as “Congo.” The term Congo was originally used by the Spanish colonists for anyone of African descent. It is now is used for traditions that can be traced back to the Cimarrones.
During the carnival celebration, some local people dress up as the devil, meant to represent Spanish slave masters or complicit priests. Others don the dress of the Cimarrones.
Many of the participants in both the black Christ and carnival celebrations of Panama are Catholics as well. Together they participate to bring to light the Catholic Church’s complex relationship with Spanish colonization and slavery. Many Catholic leaders in the 16th to 18th centuries justified the enslavement of Africans and the colonization of the Americas, or at least did not object to it.
These robes draped on Panama’s black Christ are meant to represent those placed on Jesus when he was mockingly dressed in royal garb by the soldiers torturing him before his crucifixion.
Evoking this scene perhaps serves to remind the viewer of the deeper theological meaning of Jesus’s suffering as it is often understood in Christianity: Although Jesus is the Son of God prophesied to save God’s people from suffering and should thus be treated like royalty, he was tortured and executed as a common criminal. His suffering is understood to save people from their sins.
Some pilgrims specifically come during the October festival to seek forgiveness for any sinful actions. Some wear their own purple robes, the color indicating a sign of their suffering – and, of course, that of the black Christ.
Gospel artist Donnie McClurkin. Photo by Christian Lantry
Two decades ago, gospel singer Donnie McClurkin stepped on a London stage to record his second album.
Now, he’s returning to the United Kingdom for 20th-anniversary concerts on Oct. 18 and 19 to reprise the music of his “Live in London and More” CD that featured songs like “That’s What I Believe” and “We Fall Down.”
The Grammy-winning pastor of Perfecting Faith Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Freeport, N.Y., says he latched onto the popularity of black gospel music that existed overseas long before his 1999 concert.
“People like Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins and the like, they made the music global so it was all a byproduct of the global impact that American gospel had,” he said.
McClurkin, who will turn 60 on Nov. 9 and celebrate with a gospel-star-studded celebration a week later in Jamaica, N.Y., also hosts “The Donnie McClurkin Show.” He features a mixture of new and classic gospel music, interviews and inspirational messages that airs online and in some 60 markets from the U.S. to the United Kingdom to Africa.
He talked to Religion News Service about how Oprah Winfrey boosted his career, the status of his relationship with gospel artist Nicole C. Mullen and how retirement is a ways off.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Donnie McClurkin presents an in memoriam tribute to Andrae Crouch at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 28, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Why did you decide to record an album in London 20 years ago, which some people might’ve considered an unusual move?
I decided to go to London, which was considered unusual by the record company itself, because of my mentor, the late great Andrae Crouch. He did a musical concert in 1978 in London. That became a landmark. And I always wanted to go to London from the time I knew where England was. And that was my prime opportunity because they gave me a blank check and said you just do an album however you want to do it.
There are certain celebrities who have helped you early in your career. Who are a couple of people that immediately come to mind and what difference did they make?
I was nominal, I was at B-level at best — and Oprah Winfrey got wind of the (1996) CD. She put me on her television show and held up the CD and said, “This is my favorite singer. This is my favorite project.” And we went from 30,000 to 300,000 in a month and then finally went platinum. Then there’s President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton and those kinds of things happened and made it something larger than life.
What were the presidents’ roles? What did they do?
They brought me to their convention, to sing at the (Democratic National Convention), to sing at the (Republican National Convention), opened it up to thousands of people in a room, millions of people around the world and that’s where a lot of attention started coming in.
Is this London concert an unusual singing venture for you now, given you’re pastoring a church and you’re hosting a radio show, or do you continue to perform in concert on other occasions?
I’m over in London just about once a year in concert. Since “Live in London” 20 years ago, I’ve got a very strong base over there, very strong community in England and in Europe period, from Italy to Germany to Holland to the U.K.
And do you sing much in the U.S. as well?
I sing less in the U.S. than I do in Africa and Europe.
You won a Dove Award in 2017 for “The Journey (Live)” and you were recognized in 2001 with a Dove for “We Fall Down” from your “Live in London” album. As the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards celebrates its 50th award show next week, what are a couple of main changes you’ve seen in gospel music over that time?
In the GMA, I see a lot of inclusion. For a long time, it was very, very segregated. GMA was for the CCM (contemporary Christian music) and the white gospel singers. And in the last three or four years I’ve seen such an inclusion, integration of black gospel artists along with the contemporary white gospel artists.
Gospel artist and pastor Donnie McClurkin. Photo by Christian Lantry
Do you mean that if you look at the show, if you look at the Dove Awards itself, that there is more integration?
The GMA as a whole, as an organization, not just the awards show but the organization itself. It’s grown and it’s matured and it’s let go of a lot of the institutionalized bias and has become inclusive of our music form, which is — and I probably will get in trouble — but our black music form is the strongest music form in gospel music. It’s what people gravitate to around the world, so “Oh Happy Day,” the whole of our repertoire. It’s been the most marketable. It’s been the most commercial. It’s been the most prominent. It’s apropos that at this point in time we are now sitting with equality at that table as well.
You have described yourself as a victim of childhood sex abuse and when you claimed you had overcome homosexuality, that prompted opposition from gay rights groups. How do you describe yourself now and are you involved in either so-called ex-gay ministries or initiatives that affirm LGBTQ people?
First of all, I’ve never been a part of any ex-gay anything. My past is just that: past. P-a-s-t. It’s gone. Who do I consider myself to be now? I consider myself to be Donnie. A wonderful, old man now — I never thought I’d be calling myself that — who is peaking 60 years old come next month and who has overcome a lot more than sexuality. But that’s been a great part of my life. It is something that I celebrate. I am a part of a church that embraces everybody. I am a pastor of a church that has hetero and homo in it as well. I believe in the love of God that reaches out to everybody, the love of God that is unconditional, the love of God that is not based on ethnicity, it’s not based on denomination, it’s not based on classification.
I believe in the transformative love that only comes through God and that’s what I preach. That’s what I live. That’s what I teach. I have a lot of LGBTQ friends in and out of the church. I’ve got a lot of people that appreciate what I’ve been through and they don’t judge me and I don’t judge them and that’s the way that this is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be a love that is real and genuine, that can accept people for who they are, even if you don’t agree with them.
Gospel artist and pastor Donnie McClurkin. Photo by Christian Lantry
There were reports in recent years of you dating another gospel artist, Nicole C. Mullen. So where does that relationship stand now?
We are great friends. We are very, very great friends.
Is there any thought of retiring from singing or from preaching anytime soon?
In another 10 years (laughs) or maybe 20 years. Singing is something that’s marginal for me now. I do it when I want to do it. I do it when it’s convenient to do it, and I do it when it has a purpose, if it’s going to bring somebody to a greater understanding of who Christ is. I don’t do it just for the entertainment aspect of it any longer. I am selective in what I do. Aretha Franklin told me years ago, “There’s a time when you got to sing and there’s a time when you sing when you want to.” And that makes sense to me now. I’m at a time now I sing when I want to.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. He becomes the 100th Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the first Ethiopian to receive the accolade.
Abiy is the 12th winner from Africa to be awarded the prize. Last year it was won by medical doctor Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other African winners have included Albert Luthuli, Anwar al-Sadat, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Kofi Annan, Wangari Maathai, Mohamed ElBaradei, Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet won it in 2015.
The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 under the instructions of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in his will. The Peace Prize is awarded to the person who, in the preceding year, has:
done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
his important work to promote reconciliation, solidarity and social justice. The prize is also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions…efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
But who is Abiy Ahmed? Does he deserve an international accolade? And what of the challenges still facing the country he leads?
Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, commented in her announcement speech that:
… many challenges remain unresolved. Ethnic strife continues to escalate, and we have seen troubling examples of this in recent weeks and months.
Unexpected rise to power
Barely two years ago Abiy Ahmed was largely an unknown figure. In early 2017 a couple of YouTube clips started to circulate on social media that showed him gathered with veteran leaders at a party meeting. He came onto the scene with a simple, but powerful, message of togetherness.
At the time he was a political leader at regional and cabinet levels. But he didn’t sound like one. He comes across as remarkably authentic and his approach was distinct. At a time of elevated fear that the nation might head into disintegration, his message soared above the popular anxiety of possible conflict.
Unlike Ethiopian politicians of the past four decades his rhetoric mimicked neither Albanian Marxism nor Maoism. He has anchored his story on local cultural and religious sensibilities.
Abiy’s extraordinary rise to power, as well as his ability to steer a more peaceful political course in Ethiopia, is remarkable given the tensions and complexities of the country’s politics.
He has distanced himself, at least in his political outlook, from his party’s maligned old guard. He has had to steer a delicate course to keep various factions of the political coalition that has ruled Ethiopia for almost three decades – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – on board. The ruling elites from this party have never tolerated dissent. There have been numerous accusations levelled against them of human rights abuses and the imprisonment of journalists who criticised the regime.
Instead of dismantling the existing system, Abiy opted for internal transformation.
It has taken tremendous courage to break away from a powerful political machine while remaining within the system. But he has stuck to his beliefs, even promoting the notion of “Medemer” – synergy and togetherness – while remaining within the party.
Abiy inherited a nation that was in political disarray. Hundreds of people had died in three years of anti-government protests.
But shortly after taking office from Hailemariam Desalegn in April 2018, Abiy began to move ahead rapidly with political reforms. He released political prisoners, unfairly incarcerated journalists and activists. He opened the door for political dissidents.
His message was that the country needed to win through bold ideas, not through the barrel of a gun.
He also showed his intention to build institutions. One example was the appointment of the well-known political dissident Birtukan Mideksa as the head the electoral board.
He has also championed the role of women, including in politics. He appointed women in the positions of president, chief justice and press secretary. He also brought their share in his cabinet to 50%.
But arguably his biggest achievements have been in international diplomacy. Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea share a common culture, language and ways of life. But a decades-long conflict between the two nations has brought immense misery to people who live on the border, and to families split by the fighting.
Abiy brought the conflict with Eritrea to an end. A treaty ended the state of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and declared a new era of peace, friendship and comprehensive cooperation. A lot remains to be done, though.
He also played a crucial role in regional politics. He was key to bringing leaders of Sudan and South Sudan to the negotiating table and helped mediate between Kenya and Somalia in a maritime territory dispute.
His popularity in the region and further abroad is evident when he’s traveling. He’s often greeted more like a rock star than a head of state. But maintaining the same image at home has been more complicated.
The Nobel Prize is an acknowledgment of Abiy’s achievements over the past two years. But it doesn’t guarantee his future success.
A case in point is Myanmar’s Aung San Suu kyi. After surviving house arrest, and attacks on her life by the ruling junta, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991. But her fortunes turned after her party won a national election. It now stands accused of carrying out what the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya Muslims.
There are a great many troubling issues still unresolved in Ethiopia and tense times ahead with an election due next year. Abiy also has many enemies. These include agitators who try to use ethnic fault-lines for their own political ends, powerful ethno-nationalist activists who thrive on division and political entrepreneurs who only see politics as a means of personal enrichment. All are relentlessly working to exploit a fragile situation. Securing the safety of the citizens is the bare minimum he needs to do.
In my view he needs to accept the Nobel Peace Prize as an acknowledgement of what he’s achieved, as well as a mandate to champion equality, justice and lasting unity in Ethiopia.