Should government be more or less involved in the lives of its citizens? Most of our political clashes stem from our different answers to this question. And when Christians get entangled in the debate, the conflict often gets translated into biblical terms.
When my caroling group gave the desperate man a helping hand, we were proud of ourselves. We expected gratitude. We thought someone begging on the street would be thankful for our holiday kindness. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
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 groundbreakingon 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.
I can’t read the guy’s mind, of course, but after the initial, natural response of “Yeah, I got it goin’ on,” I’m thinking this is what President Obama must’ve really been thinking upon hearing that he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize: