Pastor Gloria White-Hammond prays with parishioners during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church in Boston. (Kayana Szymczak for Kaiser Health News)
“It would feel like murder to pull her life support,” a young woman tells the doctor.
The woman sits by a hospital bed where her mother, Selena, lies unresponsive, hooked up to a breathing tube. The daughter has already made one attempt to save her mother’s life; she pulled Selena out of the car and performed CPR when her heart stopped en route to the hospital — an experience she calls “beyond terrifying.”
Now the doctor tells the family Selena will never wake up in a meaningful way. But the daughter says she can’t let her mother go: “I’m always looking for another miracle.”
The scene, captured in the documentary “Extremis,” took place in a hospital’s intensive care unit in Oakland, Calif.
Three thousand miles away, at Boston’s Bethel AME Church one recent fall evening, the Rev. Gloria White-Hammond watched the film with a group of women from her predominantly black congregation. As they gathered around a long table in the church’s youth center at 7 p.m., White-Hammond offered oranges and chocolate chip cookies — and a warning that the film might be very hard to watch.
White-Hammond, an energetic 67-year-old activist and minister who also teaches at Harvard Divinity School, is accustomed to broaching difficult subjects. She often speaks out about being sexually abused by her father during childhood — an experience that motivated her to work with survivors of sexual violence in Sudan. Now, she’s using her unusual credentials as a pastor — and a pediatrician — to take on a new subject: death.
Pastor Gloria White-Hammond speaks with parishioners after a Sunday service at Boston’s Bethel AME Church. White-Hammond wants to get all 600 congregants to write down their end-of-life wishes and discuss them with their families. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)
As the film ended, White-Hammond and her congregants sat quietly as letters on the screen revealed Selena’s fate: The family had Selena surgically attached to a breathing machine. She lived that way, drifting in and out of consciousness, for nearly six months.
White-Hammond broke the silence with a prayer.
“We know Selena,” she said, speaking metaphorically. “Her brothers are our brothers.”
Like Selena, most of the people in the room were black women. They are grappling with the question: If they end up like Selena, what would they want their families to do?
“God, guide us and direct us,” said White-Hammond as heads bowed. After they die, she said, her parishioners may see the face of Jesus, and “sit at his feet and be blessed.”
Pastor Gloria White-Hammond and her husband and co-pastor, Ray Hammond, stand during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church. (Kayana Szymczak for Kaiser Health News)
But first, they have work to do.
Pastor Gloria White-Hammond and her husband and co-pastor, Ray Hammond, stand during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church on Dec. 3, 2017, in Boston. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)
White-Hammond is determined to get all of her 600 congregants to write down their end-of-life medical wishes and discuss them with their doctors and families.
White-Hammond treated patients until about seven years ago, and her husband and co-pastor, Ray Hammond, is a doctor, too. But when an organization called The Conversation Project approached her a few years ago about leading death-and-dying workshops with her congregation, she discovered she hadn’t planned for her own death or serious illness.
“I didn’t have my own documents” outlining medical wishes, she said. “I was kind of embarrassed.”
Nationwide, only a third of Americans have documented their end-of-life wishes, according to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. For black adults 65 or older, rates are much lower: Only 19 percent have documented their end-of-life wishes, compared with 65 percent of whites. Older black adults are half as likely as whites to have named someone to make medical decisions on their behalf if they became incapacitated, the poll found. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)
Another KFF poll found that blacks are more likely than whites to say that living as long as possible is “extremely important,” and that the U.S. medical system places too little emphasis on extending life.
As part of the discussion at Bethel AME, White-Hammond asked attendees to look through the “Five Wishes” end-of-life planning document. At monthly workshops, White-Hammond has introduced over 100 parishioners to the document over the past two years. She said people often get stuck when filling out the second wish, which asks whether they want life support in certain grim scenarios that they may not be familiar with, such as permanent brain damage.
White-Hammond screened “Extremis” to illustrate what ventilators and feeding tubes are really like — and what it’s like for families to make decisions without explicit instructions. The documentary, which lasts an intense 24 minutes, provoked a strong response.
Pastor Gloria White-Hammond speaks with parishioners after a Sunday service at Boston’s Bethel AME Church. White-Hammond wants to get all 600 congregants to write down their end-of-life wishes and discuss them with their families. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)
Janine Hackshaw, a 35-year-old black immigrant from Trinidad who works in microfinance, told the group she felt anger toward one ICU doctor in the film. She felt the doctor was rushing a family to make a life-or-death decision about whether to put their loved one on a ventilator.
“Why is she rushing?” Hackshaw asked. “Do you need the machine for something else?”
Mistrust of the medical establishment is one major reason black Americans are less likely to write down their end-of-life wishes, and more reluctant to end life support, White-Hammond later said. That mistrust stems partly from historical racism, including segregated hospitals, forced sterilization of black women and the infamous, government-led Tuskegee syphilis experiment that denied effective treatment to black men.
The mistrust persists today as “race becomes more tense” across the country, and as people continue to experience disparities, White-Hammond said. Like some other black church leaders across the country who are trying to change perceptions around hospice, White-Hammond believes cultural change can start at church.
“We’re capitalizing on our credibility as an institution of faith” to drive conversations around end-of-life care, she said. The goal, she said, is to make these discussions “part of the culture.”
Another obstacle, White-Hammond said, is that people don’t want to talk about death.
Rhona Julien, another parishioner who hails from Trinidad, said she regrets avoiding the discussion with her mother before she died three years ago. When her mother started to talk about dying, Julien would change the subject.
“I never wanted to deal with it,” she said.
But she said she learned a lot from her mother’s death, including the pressure families could create to keep a person alive. Julien, a 58-year-old environmental scientist, was the sole caretaker for her mother, who had pulmonary fibrosis. At the very end, Julien said, her siblings wanted to put their mother on a ventilator, to keep her alive long enough so that they could fly from Trinidad to say goodbye. Julien refused.
“She’s not going to be connected to a machine to keep her alive for other people’s benefit,” Julien recalled thinking.
“Nobody should be hooked up to this and that, like Frankenstein,” she said.
A 23-year-old Haitian-American woman in the group said she has not been comfortable speaking up to her family about her grandmother’s care. (She declined to give her name, for fear of upsetting her family.)
She described her grandmother, who moved to the U.S. from Haiti, as an independent, strong-minded woman who would regularly walk an hour to church instead of taking a bus. She raised three kids on her own and made a life in the U.S., even though she didn’t speak English, couldn’t read and had no formal education.
Her grandmother was so prepared for death that she had a drawer in her room with clothes that she planned to wear at her funeral — an elegant white suit and white, wide-brimmed hat. She would check the drawer every couple of weeks.
Pastor Gloria White-Hammond distributes Holy Communion during a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church. (Kayana Szymczak for Kaiser Health News)
But when the grandmother had a stroke a couple of years ago in Randolph, Mass., doctors asked if she should be kept on feeding tubes or offered only comfort care. The family chose feeding tubes. The grandmother, who is 85 and cannot walk or talk, has been living in a bed ever since.
The young woman said she feels frustrated that her family didn’t prioritize what her grandmother would want.
“We were hoping for a miracle,” she said. But she knew her grandmother “wouldn’t have decided to live a life where she would be bound to a bed.”
Dr. Alice Coombs, one of three black female doctors participating in the evening’s discussion, turned to the young woman and gently suggested that she speak up on her grandmother’s behalf.
“I took it as a challenge,” the young woman later said, “to talk about this topic.”
Julien said she was initially reluctant to talk to her own kids about her end-of-life wishes — “Are you jinxing yourself?” she wondered — but she successfully broached the subject as part of homework for the workshop.
After watching the film “Extremis,” she said, she felt motivated to take the next step: “I’m going to fill out these forms!”
As the discussion ended, White-Hammond prayed to God for help filling out those end-of-life forms. “Put the fire under us,” she asked, so the task doesn’t languish “on the to-do list.”
Pastor Gloria White-Hammond officiates a Sunday service at Bethel AME Church in Boston. Pastor White-Hammond conducts workshops with her parishioners around end-of-life issues to help them talk about death, name a health care proxy and fill out their end-of-life wishes. (Kayana Szymczak for KHN)
SHINING STARS: Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks star as a mother and daughter in ‘Sparkle,’ the remake of the 1976 classic about the highs and lows of a family singing group during the Motown era.
Sparkle hits movie theaters this weekend with a star-studded cast of black actors and entertainers. Based on the 1976 classic, this remake is a cautionary tale that chronicles the story of three sisters in their rise to fame as they navigate the twists and turns of the music industry.
American Idol-winner Jordin Sparks, in her film debut, plays the lead role of Sparkle, while pop star Cee Lo Green, actors Derrick Luke and Carmen Ejogo, and comedian Mike Epps appear in supporting roles. But there’s no doubt that throughout the film, all eyes will be on the late Whitney Houston, who plays the mother of the aspiring girl group.
In the film, the three sisters (Sparks, Ejogo, and Teka Sumpter) move up the record charts as they sing and dance in high fashion. In their search for fame, the girls are swept away by mesmerizing men, challenged by the demands of life, and overcome by the dreams that almost tear their family apart.
It’s quite ironic, then, that this is the last project Whitney Houston completed before her untimely death on February 11, the night before the Grammy Awards. At 48 years old, Whitney accidentally drowned in her hotel bathtub. The coroner’s report later revealed that cocaine was a contributing factor in her death.
After her tragic passing, the world reflected on Whitney’s life and how we watched her grow up to fulfill her dreams. Much like the girls in the movie, she was beautiful, rich, and famous. She had it all, and yet there was immense sorrow which ultimately led to her demise. Until her final days, she continued to smile, pursue her dreams, and to profess her love for Christ. And she continued to sing!
Singing, of course, will be a highlight in Sparkle, which features songs from the original film written by the great Curtis Mayfield as well as new compositions by R. Kelly. The movie was preceded by a soundtrack release which includes Whitney’s final musical recordings. In what is sure to be a highlight of the film, she sweetly sings “His Eye is on a Sparrow,” a song that encourages us to sing even in the midst of suffering and sorrow. And even in her absence, Whitney’s performance emanates with hope.
Yet I wonder, what is a proper response when singing and dream chasing is the catalyst for sadness? The painful reality is there are almost too many parallels between Whitney’s life and the lives of the girls in the movie. I wonder what kind of responses that will elicit in the theaters this weekend. As we sit and watch, I wonder if we will “Celebrate” as she and Jordin encourage us to do in their recently released single from the soundtrack. I wonder if we will shed a tear at the new images of Whitney, her gentle grace, or the sound of her voice as she lifts her hands to worship God during the church scene. Will we pause and reflect?
You see Sparkle causes us to consider important questions. What happens when we get exactly what we want? Will we hold on to our family, faith, and friendships? Will we hold fast to our dreams at all costs? And what happens to us — our identity — when those dreams are lost or deferred? How will we respond when our dreams are fulfilled? Will we sparkle? Will we shine like a light, or will our lights flicker and go out like an ember in the darkness?
Whatever the case may be, Sparkle opens tomorrow, August 17, in theaters everywhere. So grab your girlfriends, get a date, and head to a cineplex near you. And then let us know what you think.
ROAD TO REDEMPTION: Rodney King, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool on Sunday, June 17. In April, he was a featured author at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he discussed his autobiography, 'The Riot Within.' (Photo: Susan J. Rose/Newscom)
Rodney King’s untimely death over the weekend has led to a lot of conversations about his significance as a key civil rights figure. King, of course, gained fame for the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles cops that he endured and the subsequent race riot that followed in 1992 after the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. He then became an unlikely voice of reason when, in the midst of the deadly and destructive rioting, he famously asked, “Can we all just get along?” Sadly, that question still echoes today after each new racially charged issue or controversy that erupts in the media.
But what will be King’s lasting legacy? By his own admission, he was not a perfect man. In fact, drunk driving and alleged substance abuse were the reasons he was pulled over by the L.A. cops initially in 1991, and he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol apparently until the night of his death. In a Los Angeles Times post, reporter Ken Streeter recalls his series of interviews with King this year and confirms that King was still drinking and still smoking pot (he said for medical reasons).
So, King doesn’t exactly fit the classic image of the heroic civil rights icon. Yet, he stands as an important symbol in our nation’s uneasy saga of racial unrest and our stutter steps toward reconciliation.
“The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country,” Cannon explains. Indeed, under L.A. police Chief William Bratton in the 2000s, the department began focusing on community policing, hired more minority officers, and worked to heal tensions between the police and minority communities who continued to protest racial profiling and excessive use of force.
In the post-Rodney King world, adds Cannon, “It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black.”
To his credit, King was well aware of his shortcomings and shared his story in an autobiography released earlier this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. In The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, King came clean about his failures and his continued struggles with alcohol addiction, but also about how God had helped him begin to turn his life around.
In a poignant interview with the Canadian public radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, King talked about his book and expressed optimism about both his own future and the state of race relations in the United States.
What do you view as Rodney King’s legacy? What does his complicated journey say about race relations in America? Will he rightly be remembered a civil rights icon?
Good manners are “keepers of the peace,” according to a lengthy article in The Christian Science Monitor, and many Americans have “tuned out politics” because they are tired of incivility in that highly combative arena of public life.
Is Limbaugh Paying More?
Such incivility was on display last week when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law student a “slut” after she testified about contraception at a congressional hearing. Limbaugh has since been pilloried by pundits on the left and right, and numerous businesses have announced that they would no longer advertise on his radio show. On Saturday, Limbaugh issued a qualified apology, but it failed to satisfy most critics.
At The Daily Beast, Kirsten Powers joined the chorus of condemnation, but also wondered where the left’s outrage is for the misogynistic outbursts of progressive pundits Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, and Ed Schultz.
Powers said Schultz described former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a “bimbo” and called Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut,” while Keith Olbermann “has said that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp should have been aborted by her parents” and Michelle Malkin is a “mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick.” Matthews has referred to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “she-devil,” “Nurse Ratched,” “Madame Defarge,” “witchy,” “anti-male,” and “uppity,” according to Powers, and Maher has called Palin a c-nt, among other insults.
“Many feminist blogs now document attacks on women on the left and the right … but when it comes to high-profile campaigns to hold these men accountable—such as that waged against Limbaugh—the real fury seems reserved only for conservatives,” said Powers.
Debating Breitbart’s Legacy
The debate about which political bent produces the most incivility extends to notorius conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart, who died suddenly March 1 at the age of 43. While some liberals, like Arianna Huffington, offered public praise for the man who orchestrated successful media attacks against Acorn, Shirley Sherrod, and former congressman Anthony Weiner, others, like Slate’s Matt Yglesias reveled in his death.
Today, at The Root, Joel Dreyfuss said there’s been too much public praise for Breitbart.
“Avoiding speaking ill of the dead is not a reason to remain mute about an evil legacy,” said Dreyfuss. “Breitbart was an agent provocateur who lied and cheated and distorted the facts to support his right-wing political agenda. He was largely responsible for destroying ACORN, an organization that worked for decades on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. He nearly ruined the reputation of Shirley Sherrod, who had a distinguished civil rights record. Before he died, Breitbart was promising to expose unsavory information about President Obama’s college days.”
But, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat compared the legacy of Breitbart with that of respected and respectful social scientist John Q. Wilson, who also died last week.
“Wilson thrived … in precisely the kind of media-intellectual ecosystem — institutionalist, high-middlebrow, genteel — that Breitbart spent his career putting to the torch. Whether Breitbart was working for Matt Drudge or Arianna Huffington or building his own empire, his first loyalty was always to the sensational scoop, the wild-and-crazy stunt, the overcaffeinated public feud with whichever enemy happened to be hating on him. … He was a P. T. Barnum figure, at once lovable and deplorable, who embodied the online media landscape like no other figure on the right or left,” said Douthat.
“It’s easy to see the shift from Wilson’s old-media conversation to Breitbart’s new-media circus … as a straightforward story of cultural decline,” Douthat said, but he concluded that American journalism in the Internet age represents a return to form and said “a republic that survived the excesses of William Randolph Hearst can presumably survive the excesses of HuffPo and BigGovernment.com.”
Manners Empower People
It may survive, but is the republic made better or worse by incivility?
“Manners empower people to demonstrate respect for others, to avoid inflicting the unintentional insult, to defuse the kind of confusion that leads to conflict and violence. The mannerly know how to make good apologies when they mess up, as they inevitably will. And – as with the well-placed snub – they know how to deviate from convention as a means of voicing their concerns. Observers say manners and civility, in fact, form the core of an ethical life, one lived first with respect for others,” the Christian Science Monitor article said, and I agree.
What do you think?
Is incivility destroying public discourse and damaging the republic?
Whitney Houston funeral guest shows his program to journalists (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Whitney Houston’s family achieved the near-impossible for themselves and for her. They managed to hold a private “home-going service” for the superstar, and did so, in part, by graciously broadcasting that service to the world.
The setting was an unlikely one, dotted as the neighborhood is with abandoned and half-built buildings. An exceptional, appropriate silence prevailed throughout a wide perimeter around the church. Local gangs reportedly even called a truce in Houston’s honor.
When I spoke to Rev. Howard in preparation for my reporting, he expressed concern that fans would forget that, although Houston was a public figure, her untimely death is fundamentally a family tragedy.
“If people have any kind of dignity and compassion, if they truly love Whitney Houston in the best sense of the word, they won’t go clamoring at the church, knowing they have no invitation,” Howard had said.
Perhaps fans did, in fact, love her enough to stay away, because there were no crowds—only a couple hundred journalists, a significant police presence, and handfuls of fans keeping vigil several blocks away as limousines and luxury cars came and went.
The Rev. Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, has known the Houston family for decades. He shared his memories of the woman he called “Nippy” at CNN.com and provided commentary for the network with Soledad O’Brien, Piers Morgan, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the service got underway.
When I spoke to Rev. Soaries Friday evening, he said his ministry to grieving families is informed by his own painful experience of having lost his father suddenly when he was only 24 years old. Because of his father’s stature as a minister in their community, other clergymen came to visit him and his family in the days after his father’s death. None sought to comfort or pray with him, he said. Instead they tried to influence who would preach the funeral. When the time came, minister after minister got up to speak until Soaries passed a note to the emcee saying the family would leave if these men didn’t stop their “foolishness.”
“It was clear to me that their presentations had nothing to do with my dad, nothing to do with the family, and everything to do with them seeing the church full of people, and this big crowd. They were motivated to perform rather than serve,” said Soaries.
Roberta Flack and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie pass a sign that flashed "We Will Always Love You" and "Whitney Houston" as they leave her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Perhaps because they’ve dealt with sycophants for so long, the Houston family seemed to give the microphone only to those who would focus on their “Nippy” and her faith in God.
“You paid a tremendous price in life,” Bishop T.D. Jakes told Houston’s family as he began his remarks. “You shared her with the world and we want to take a moment and say thank you.” Yes, thank you so much.
Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Costner said he fought for Houston to play the leading role in her first film, The Bodyguard, and talked about the insecurities that both made Houston great and contributed to her decline. He said insecurities like hers are not unique among the famous.
Media mogul Tyler Perry said there were two constants in his friend’s life: “a grace that carried” and her love for the Lord. Quoting from the Apostle Paul, he said neither the height of her fame nor the depth of her struggle could separate her from God’s love.
“What then say you to these things?” said Perry. “If God be for you who can be against you? God was for her and she is resting, singing with the angels.”
Soaries said it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of a deceased’s person’s life because “there is some redemptive value in every life” and because doing so “helps counter negative feelings and the negative imagery of the dead body.”
This week a reporter told Soaries that sources who knew Houston kept saying, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
“That’s poetry and, for some, it takes years for the morning to come,” he said. “There’s nothing in the Bible, either in verse or theology that suggests we get over death. Death is too unnatural. What the Bible promises is that God will help us get through it.”
In regard to Houston’s long struggle with drug addiction, Soaries told Piers Morgan that she “was surrounded by an environment of temptation” growing up and “had access to all kinds of things.”
“I would not condemn [ex-husband] Bobby Brown for Whitney’s struggles,” he said.
“I’m surprised to hear all these secular people talk about demons,” Soaries told me. “Once you claim Whitney or anyone was struggling against demons, then you have to understand that it’s not her struggle. All of us, therefore, are struggling against the demons that attack our vulnerabilities. When we are incapable of dealing with demons, that’s when God and God’s emissaries take control, which means that death for a Christian is deliverance from the attack; it’s not surrender to the attack.”
Houston’s struggle wasn’t unlike the struggles of a person who can’t afford to buy food, but buys lottery tickets every week, he said. “It’s the same problem … It’s not that drugs used by a superstar are any worse than gambling for someone on food stamps. Something attacks our vulnerability and causes us to behave in self-destructive ways.”
This is what journalists call the "coffin shot": Whitney Houston's casket being carried out of New Hope Baptist Church after her funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).
Rev. Howard went further in his assessment of Houston’s decline. He believes that she, like so many exceptionally talented artists before her, succumbed to an “occupational hazard.”
“Talented people are somehow caught in a cycle of demand for their services without regard for their humanity,” said Howard. “I think it’s a dance between the artist’s temperament and their vanity or ego and their desire to remain on top in a very competitive business. I think there are people who are around them, who suck their blood, so to speak.”
I felt like one of those people yesterday, showing up as I did to photograph and report on her funeral. Around me journalists jockeyed for shots of her casket being loaded into a hearse and for the inside scoop on why Bobby Brown abruptly left soon after the funeral began. Like them I took the coffin shot and reported what sources inside were saying about Brown because that’s what the world wanted to see and know.
“What is the social madness? What is the social need that makes us virtually deadened to the family hurt and pain of this loss?” Howard asked. He would have liked to see Houston singing into her old age like Etta James (who died last month at 74 years old) did.
“[James] had her own struggles, but she managed somehow to pull out of this,” he said.
Perhaps the great lesson to be learned from Houston’s unlikely funeral is the one her family — rooted as it is in community, church, and gospel — taught us. Artists like her generously share their gifts with us. They don’t belong to us. They belong to the people who love and nurture them through the heights and the depths of their lives, and who send them home with grace when their battles are done.