Enola Aird of the Community Healing Network believes too many Black youth have internalized the myth that their lives are not as valuable as the lives of others — and it’s leading them to act out in destructive ways. She’s out to change that.
The horrific beating death of Chicago teenager Derrion Albert has revived the national discussion about the moral and spiritual collapse of America’s urban communities, and its Black communities in particular. But in our shock, are we asking the right questions?
From her home in Connecticut, Enola Aird watched the Derrion Albert coverage with the rest of the nation. But she was not surprised by Albert’s killing, just sadly reminded of how broken our communities are. Like many activist leaders working on family and community issues in America’s cities, Aird is familiar with the kind of societal breakdown and dysfunction that leads to violent crimes among young people. As the founder and director of Mothers for a Human Future, she fights against society’s “commodification of children” and works to empower mothers to raise responsible, emotionally healthy kids.
In 2006, Aird led the launch of the Community Healing Network (CHN) at her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the oldest predominantly African American parishes in the United States. Though still young, the CHN is already sparking a movement of community renewal in the New Haven area and beyond.
Aird, who’s also the wife of author and fellow Yale Law School graduate Stephen L. Carter, recently spoke to UrbanFaith about the CHN initiatives that she hopes will catch on nationally, including this weekend’s second-annual Community Healing Days.
URBAN FAITH: How did you develop the vision for the Community Healing Network?
ENOLA AIRD: I was privileged to serve on my church’s New Beginnings leadership team and had long been interested in finding ways to help Blackpeople work to overcome the myth of Black inferiority — the myth created centuries ago to justify the enslavement and subjugation of Black people. It says that Black people are not as smart, not as beautiful, not as lovable, and not as valuable, as other people. It is still undermining us.
I approached our then-Senior Warden, Jill Snyder, with the idea of expanding the church’s ministries to create a “community healing” initiative to build a movement for emotional healing and renewal for Black people in the Greater New Haven area. Ms. Snyder and I presented the idea to our rector, Rev. Dr. Victor Rogers, who took up the challenge. In October 2006, the Community Healing Network sponsored its first Community Conversation and Healing Service in association with Christian Community Action, a local inter-faith service agency. We followed that first gathering with additional community conversations and healing services in 2006 and 2007.
How did this local initiative evolve into something that’s now getting national attention?
I was inspired by the wisdom of Dr. Maya Angelou, who has said we need to “take a day to heal from the lies you’ve told yourself and the ones that have been told to you.” Taking that to heart, we issued a “Call to Healing and Renewal” that includes an annual celebration of Community Healing Days to build a movement for emotional healing and renewal for Black people everywhere.
In 2008, I was blessed to renew an acquaintance with Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher and to meet Janice M. Jones, and share our plans with them. Betty is a graduate of Tuskegee University, a senior mentoring consultant, and the presidential spouse at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and Janice is a human resources consultant in Montclair, New Jersey. Through their good offices, the idea began to spread — and people in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Montclair joined in the first annual celebration of Community Healing Days.
What are the primary goals of the network?
First, we want to raise the Black community’s awareness of the destructive, present-day effects of the myth of Black inferiority. Second, we want to share the resources of faith to help people in our community free themselves from the burden of this myth, once and for all. Third, we’ve got to create safe spaces for popular education, community dialogues, and story sharing workshops and trainings to help people work together toward healing and wholeness. And finally, we want to foster the development of a nationwide Community Healing Network, a diverse group of individuals, faith communities, and civic organizations working together to promote healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, so that our community can be renewed.
What kind of Community Healing Network events will be taking place this year?
Well, this weekend people in more than 15 cities will join in the celebration of the second annual Community Healing Days. We have chosen the third weekend of every October for the annual observance.
Also, we have a huge event planned for November. After hearing about our Community Healing Days last year, through our board member Janice Jones, Dr. Maya Angelou agreed to serve as chair of CHN’s Board of Advisors. Together with hip-hop artist Common and national radio personality Tom Joyner, Dr. Angelou will lead what we believe will be a groundbreaking intergenerational gathering on Saturday evening, Nov. 7, at the Riverside Church in New York City. The event will introduce CHN nationally, launch a global movement for intra-racial healing, and call the world to interracial reconciliation.
UrbanFaith is based in Chicago, where Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student, was literally beaten to death by other Black students. And, of course, Chicago isn’t the only place where youth violence is happening. What does this kind of incident say about the state of our communities?
It says that our communities, our people, are urgently in need of healing. Joseph Walker, Derrion Albert’s grandfather, told reporters, “I don’t know where all this anger comes from [in] these people today. That’s just too much anger for someone to have in their heart.”
Where does that kind of rage come from? At CHN, we believe that a lot of it comes from living in a world that devalues the lives of Black people. Too many of our children have internalized the myth that their lives are not as valuable and worthy as the lives of other people — and it is causing them to treat themselves and each other carelessly and violently.
How do you speak hope into disheartening situations like the Derrion Albert tragedy?
We can speak hope into seemingly hopeless situations by declaring that it is time to get to the root of what is ailing too many of us and our children. It is time for us to deepen our understanding of the impact of our history on our emotions. We need to come to terms with the fact that our past as a people has a powerful effect on our present. As psychologists Brenda Lane Richardson and Brenda Wade have put it, “our history didn’t just happen to a group of anonymous people. These people were our ancestors and, in many respects, they are part of us.”
So, you believe our African and African American ancestors’ legacy is having a direct effect on our situations today?
Many of the feelings, beliefs, and attitudes of our enslaved ancestors have been handed down to us — like family heirlooms. Much of what they passed on to us is good. Their legacy has enabled the Black community to make extraordinary strides in the 40-plus years since the official end of segregation. But many of the beliefs and attitudes we have inherited continue to hold us back. Even in the year 2009 it is not unusual for a Black person to let slip some statement about “good hair,” or a remark describing light skin far more favorably than dark skin, or some self-deprecating comment about what Black people cannot do intellectually. These and other negative beliefs will not disappear by themselves. We must be intentional about working to free ourselves — and our children –from them.
At this late hour, it’s probably too late for an all-out celebration, but how can people reading this interview participate in this year’s Community Healing Days?
Individuals and churches can visit our website at www.communityhealingnet.org, and click “How?” for ideas on celebrating Community Healing Days. Your celebration does not have to be elaborate.
For individuals, the key is to take the time to take care of themselves — by nourishing their bodies, minds, spirits — and relationships. Faith communities can celebrate by praying for emotional healing and renewal in the Black community, sponsoring special Scriptural studies on healing, and holding special healing services or musical programs. They can launch a community healing book club or movie club with a focus on one of the books or movies listed on our website. We also would be happy to consult with pastors, youth workers, and Christian leaders seeking further information. They can contact us at [email protected].
A growing number of people in communities across the country and the world (Panama, Togo, Burkina Faso, for example) are expressing interest in the celebration of Community Healing Days, and we expect many more communities will join the movement in 2010.
About Community Healing Days
Community Healing Days is an annual observance held on the third weekend of October [Oct. 16, 17, and 18 of this year] to celebrate healing for Black people and to focus on the work needed to overcome the myths keeping them from reaching their full potential. The celebration of Community Healing Days is about putting “time for healing” on our calendars. It is about doing the work of “seeing ourselves in a whole new light.” What began in 2008 as a call to Black people in the Greater New Haven community has led to celebrations in more than 15 communities in 2009.
“People can celebrate Community Healing Days wherever they are in the world. All they need to do is to acknowledge the need for healing — and start by engaging in simple acts of healing,” says Community Healing Network founder Enola Aird. She offers these suggestions for the observance of Community Healing Days:
• Pray for healing for you, your family, and your community.
• Focus on eating right and exercising.
• Pay close attention to your thoughts. Try to substitute a positive thought for each negative one.
• Make a commitment to say more encouraging words to those around you.
For more information and celebration ideas, visit the website for the Community Healing Network.
But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
This week the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing that in 2008, the number of children living in poverty increased by 750,000 to 14.1 million. This is the biggest increase in child poverty since 1992.
When I read this I felt a pit in my stomach. In the wealthiest country that the world has ever seen, over 14 million of its most vulnerable citizens are coming to age in the midst of poverty.
Panhandlers and beggars seem to bombard us in the city. They wash our windshields at stoplights and then come to our windows expecting payment. They cling to ragtag cardboard signs and approach us with forlorn faces. Some are missing limbs. They sit in wheelchairs holding dirty cups. Some are in obvious need. We can tell by looking in their eyes that they truly are blind or hungry or ill.
What should we do?
As the leader of a large organization that specializes in ministry among the homeless, let me give you my expert opinion: I don’t know!
I think God gives us these dilemmas to cause us to rely on the compassion of Christ he has implanted in our hearts. Coming face to face with someone who asks us for money is an opportunity to be led by the Holy Spirit, instead of being driven by guilt or obligation or the desire to bolster our own ego as a “generous person.” There is no simple answer.
Jesus said in Luke 6:30 that we are to give to everyone who asks of us. Most of us are hesitant to do that because we are afraid that we will be taken advantage of. Perhaps the recipient of our charity will use our hard-earned cash for booze or drugs. Surely giving to someone who would use our money for those purposes would not be in anyone’s best interest, would it? Yet, the directive is clear. We are to give without question and without judgment.
While we don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction, it is helpful to understand that people who are living on the street usually do not have access to appropriate pain medicine, mental health counseling, or the gentle pacifiers such as chocolate and ice cream that we turn to when we need a lift. Who are we to judge them for how they spend money? I certainly have not always made the best decisions with the money that God sends my way. Yet God keeps giving to me.
On the other hand, our gifts do not always have to be cash. I urge people to give financial gifts to organizations that specialize in wise care for the under-resourced — like Sunshine Gospel Ministries, Circle Urban Ministries, or my own Breakthrough Ministries — and then get involved by volunteering to help those ministries. Then, when asked for cash, we can respond like Peter and John did when confronted by the crippled beggar. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:1-10).
A financial gift to a mission or an organization that provides opportunities for the homeless will help men and women who have been crippled by life get back on their feet and — in the name of Jesus Christ — walk a new walk. As stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, we want to make sure our gifts to the poor are invested wisely.
Instead of giving cash to people on the street, we can give directions, or perhaps a ride, to the nearest ministry that provides loving care in the name of Christ. Like the Good Samaritan that Jesus described in Luke 10, we can transport those who are battered and broken to the nearest rehab center and pay for their rehabilitation.
I have a friend who always gives people exactly what they ask for. If they ask for change, he gives them change. If they ask for a couple of dollars, he gives them a couple of dollars. He says that in the grand scheme of things, considering his budget for giving to the poor, the amount of money he hands out is actually relatively small. He thinks we make a bigger deal of being taken advantage of than we should. After all, Jesus let himself be stripped, beaten, and hung on a cross unjustly to show his great love. It is not likely that we will ever experience that much injustice in our giving to the poor.
The June 13th entry in Oswald Chambers’s great My Utmost for His Highest reads, “Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.” So, again, we are asked to let the Spirit guide our practices when we come face to face with someone asking us for money.
One thing I am quite certain about is this: When I stand before God in the judgment, I don’t think he is going to drill me about how smart and frugal I was when I was face to face with someone who asked me for money. I doubt that God will point out how proud he is of me that I didn’t let myself get scammed by someone who was lying to get a few bucks out of me.
God is more likely to say something like this: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
You don’t have to spend too much time in Chicago, the city I currently call home, to realize that Chicagoans are passionate about the great American pastime, baseball. We have not just one but two professional baseball teams, with their own stadiums, long-standing traditions, and loyal fans.
Josh and Alyssa Canada
In early December, my wife, Alyssa, and I moved to Huntington, Indiana, a town of 17,000 that’s about 98 percent white. Alyssa is Taiwanese American and I’m African American, so this was a bit of a shock for both of us.
Although we both attended Taylor University in nearby Upland (another 98 percent-white community), we were in college then. Our community was students, staff, and professors. Though the student body was predominately white (only 7 percent American ethnic minority), with just under 2,000 enrolled, most people of color didn’t feel isolated. Additionally, the town was so small that we didn’t spend much time in civic life or patronizing businesses. To grocery shop, go out to eat, and engage with the broader community we ventured to Marion or Muncie. Although we were in rural white America, as college students, the town was not our home. In Huntington we aren’t afforded that exemption; we are community members in a northern Mayberry. We shop. We go out to eat. We have friends. We go to church. We are citizens of the City of Huntington. For two ethnic minorities who are interracially married, this foray into rural white life has been an interesting journey.
A few weeks ago Alyssa and I were engaging in one of our favorite activities, our weekly shopping trip to Aldi. We had gotten our cereal, fruit, and other necessities and were heading to the checkout. But before we made it, my ADHD kicked in and I decided to go back and grab some other — unnecessary — items, namely more cereal. When I returned to my wife, I noticed she was conversing with an older, white woman. When she saw me, the woman responded in a surprised yet excited manner, “This must be him!” In retrospect, I think she was scouting us from the moment we entered through the sliding doors. As we chatted, we discovered that the lady, stereotypical of many older women, was quite inquisitive. She thought our olive oil was wine, and she was overbearingly sociable. After seemingly meaningless banter, our conversation ended by her saying that she was “very glad that we were in Huntington,” and like many “good” Christians, she invited us to visit her church.
Alyssa and I pushed our cart up to the checkout lane, bagged our items, and headed to the car. Then my wife filled me in on chapter one of the story.
While Alyssa was walking through the frozen food section, she almost bumped into something. She turned around and noticed this something was an older lady. The cordial “excuse me” came out from both my wife and the elderly woman. My wife assumed that the incident was over; both had gone through the social routine of apology and now it was time to move on with life. However, the woman, in her curiosity, had other thoughts.
Before Alyssa could scoot away and find me, the woman asked, “Oh, are you from the college?” It is a logical assumption: 1) we are young and many of those under 25 who live in Huntington are students at Huntington University, 2) when in non-business clothes, we (I especially) dress more “urban,” and 3) we are ethnic minorities, and many of the ethnic minorities that live in Huntington are affiliated with the college — or work at a restaurant.
Post-assumption, Alyssa informed the woman that she was not from the college and that I actually worked at the university. Unaffected by my wife’s attempts to escape, the woman asked where we lived – assuming that we didn’t actually live in Huntington. Alyssa told her that we just moved from Fort Wayne and that we previously lived in Champaign, Illinois. At that moment, the great awkwardness began. In an effort to connect with the anomaly of an Asian American in Huntington, the lady trotted down the road of “trying too hard.”
“I lived in Chicago!”
My wife politely responded, “Oh, I am from the suburbs of Chicago.”
The lady, in all genuineness . . . and cluelessness, said, “What, Chinatown?”
Alyssa’s face immediately expressed the words she could not — or at least should not — articulate, “Are ya serious?” The lady must have noticed my wife’s chagrin because she quickly recanted her statement, “That was a stupid and dumb thing to say . . . but you are Chinese, right?”
My wife, attempting to maintain her patience, responded, “Kinda, I’m Taiwanese.”
At this point, I, the unsuspecting husband, came up with my box of Aldi-brand Honey Bunches of Oats.
The complexity in this situation comes from the lady’s honest naiveté. She had probably never interacted with an Asian American in Huntington; she was probably nervous and somewhat dumbfounded; she was probably hopeful about the prospect of diversity, yet unsure of how to embrace it.
The blessing of this situation, odd as that may sound, is that my wife was given the opportunity to offer grace. When dealing with racial issues — reconciliation as a whole — grace must remain preeminent. This doesn’t mean that words do not hurt, people aren’t insensitive, or that people aren’t bitter. It does mean that as Christians we do not have the liberty of staying mad at someone. Grace is sometimes difficult. Uttering something racially offensive — in either ignorance or brazenness — not only conjures personal incidents of racism, but uproots the experiences of others, of family, and of ancestors. This is a deep litany of pain. It is much easier to choose the ways of anger or apathy rather than the way of grace.
The words that this woman spoke were wrong, they were insensate, but my wife had the opportunity to show her love just the same. If Alyssa had snapped back and said, “No, I am not from Chinatown, you racist idiot?” her frustration would have negatively influenced this white woman’s tolerance for diversity and understanding of others unlike her. My wife’s face said enough to suggest that the comment was not cool.
Don’t get it twisted, though; my wife was upset with the words spoken and she was angry that they were spoken. One is justified for having those emotions as the response of the sin and/or its ramifications. Grace does not preclude us from experiencing frustration and anger, but rather redirects those emotions to a productive, restorative response.
Ultimately, this situation was neither about my wife nor this woman, it was about reconciliation. A graceful response both freed my wife of bitterness and, hopefully, influenced that well-meaning woman towards a greater understanding of racial diversity and, more important, reconciliation.