Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)

Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.

Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).

Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.

To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?

The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.

• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.

• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.

• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.

• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.

“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.

“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”

But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.

“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.

“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”

Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.

In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”

I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.

What do you think?

Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?

Altered Calls

Altered Calls

UrbanFaith contributing writer Jacqueline J. Holness’s first book grabbed our attention right away. Yes, in part because we’re proud of the personal and professional achievement of one of our own (her first book!), but even more because the title, After the Altar Call, is where many of us spend our daily lives as Christians. The joy, freedom, and zeal that we experience in that initial moment of salvation at the altar is gradually replaced by the boredom, temptation, and disappointment of everyday life, and we’re soon left wondering, “How do I get that fire back?” As a preacher’s kid who has spent her entire life in the church, Jacqueline knows that feeling well, and she set out to create a book that could help her and other women (heck, I’ll say men too) recapture and maintain their sense of hope, passion, and mission.

After the Altar Call:The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship with God includes first-person accounts of 24 women who share stories of inspiration as they recount what happened after their altar-call experiences. Interviews with a variety of women, including The View‘s Sherri Shepherd, A.M.E. trailblazer Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and author and life coach Valorie Burton, make the book a fresh and relevant how-to manual for Christian women who want a serious relationship with God. Jacqueline, who is also a correspondent for the Courthouse News Service in Atlanta, says After the Altar Call is the handbook she wishes she’d had after her own salvation experience.

What I like most about the book is that Jacqueline avoids trite formulas and goes after answers to real-life questions that will eventually wreak havoc on our best-laid plans. So, among other things, we read about women who have faced divorce, religious conflict, breast cancer, the loss of a family member in the war, and chronic illness. We spoke with Jacqueline about her book and the lessons she learned from writing it.

URBAN FAITH: The title of your book, After the Altar Call, suggests a sort of post-conversion emphasis. This is for people who’ve had that salvation experience and are in the “Now what?” stage. What led you to write about this?

JACQUELINE HOLNESS: The Christian life traditionally begins for many of us at an altar at the front of a church. After that, your life changes because you now live based on what God wants for you instead of what you want for you. I wrote this book because when I decided to follow Christ in my early 20s, I wanted to know what it was like “for real” to live as a Christian. My father had been a pastor, so I grew up as a “PK” [Preacher’s Kid], but I wanted to get beyond the “rules” I had been taught at home and at my home church. Also, I have always been a person with a certain joie de vi·vre for life. I wanted to be sure that wouldn’t end because I decided to be a Christian.

So you went on a quest.

As a budding journalist at the time, the only way I knew to get my questions answered was asking numerous black women whom I met along the way about what it was like to be a Christian. I asked about really personal stuff. I also looked for books in which women shared their testimonies. I kept hoping I would come across one book that contained life stories from diverse black women and their faith in God, but I did not. This book is the answer to my earnest search for “realness” at the time. I have interviewed women of varied walks and stations of life, from their 20s to their 80s. I looked for inquisitive women like myself who needed to “count the cost” before making that all-important decision to be a follower of Christ.

CHRONICLING WOMEN'S STORIES OF FAITH: Journalist and author Jacqueline J. Holness.

You spoke to a variety women who are either famous or accomplished in their particular fields. What was the most common recurring theme that you heard from each of them?

Regardless of age, socioeconomic background, or career path, it was obvious that each woman was intentional about having a personal relationship with God, and that was inspiring to me. I was inspired that someone like Sherri Shepherd, who has a nationwide if not worldwide platform on The View and a glamorous life, not only knows but acknowledges her utter dependence on the Lord. And it was the same with Betty Prophete of the Haitian Christian Mission. In Haiti, where voodoo is prevalent, she has been able to demonstrate to thousands if not more that knowing Jesus is more powerful than knowing voodoo.

Who surprised you the most with something she said?

The most surprising statement came from Melissa Summers, who was once a prominent radio personality in Atlanta. She was so popular, she was known as “Atlanta’s Girlfriend.” She decided to leave her radio position, in which she earned a six-figure salary not including endorsement deals, to become a missionary in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.  Today, she does not even have a regular salary and is truly dependent on the Lord to meet all of her needs. Not too many people, even Christians, would be willing to make that kind of sacrifice.

What does faith in God look like today for ambitious, successful women?

I think God deals with each one of us differently according to His purposes for our lives, and success for one person may not be success for another. For instance, Sherri Shepherd is probably the most famous woman that I interviewed, and her success and faith are very public. But for someone like Tracy King, who struggled with infertility, faith and success are defined differently. Tracy King’s success is found in being a wife and mother. And while she does not hide her faith, it does not look like Sherri’s faith. Both are equally ambitious, successful, and faithful women in God. Stephanie Bronner, who is married to the youngest of the Bronner Brothers [who created the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show] is a mother to seven children. She toyed with idea of working as she started to have children but realized that success for her meant being a full-time wife and mother. Obviously, being a mother to seven children is very ambitious and requires lots of faith.

What were some of the different views about the church that you found among your subjects?

I did not ask the women about any of the polarizing issues in the church, because I wanted as many women as possible to be drawn into the book rather than be put off by various opinions and debates. Also, I tried to include as many denominations as possible. However, a few topics came up that may be conversation starters. For instance, Cee Cee Michaela Floyd, a minister and actress probably best known for starring on Girlfriends, talked about courtship versus dating, and I know that many people have debated this topic. Fiction author Monica McKayhan has been divorced twice and is married again. I know some Christians don’t believe in divorce, so that may be controversial for some people.

The topic of love and relationships is, of course, the source of never-ending discussion, debate, and anxiety for women in general, but there are obviously unique challenges for black women. What new light does your book shed on the subject?

I did not get into the gloom-and-doom of the present day when it comes to marriage and black women. And in fact, of the two dozen women in the book only three are not married (and one of them is me!), so we are not all “man-less!” Instead of focusing on negative statistics, I interviewed them about how their faith came into play in their romantic relationships. Erica Mountain, who is in her 20s and was probably the youngest woman in the book, shares an incredible story of meeting the man who would become her husband when she was a teenager but not realizing it until years later when they were both engaged to other people. After Cee Cee Michaela Floyd became a Christian, she was celibate for close to 11 years before she got married. Lisa McClendon confessed that the views of a church she attended at the time persuaded her and her first husband to get married less than a year after knowing each other, when in fact they should have never married. She has an interesting perspective on the 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 passage that says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried …”

In speaking to these women for your interviews, what did you recognize as the greatest challenges facing them on their faith journeys?

I think it is difficult for all Christians to develop a personal relationship with a Being whom we can’t see. I think their greatest challenge was to learn how God speaks to each of them and how He directs them in their daily lives. I hoped to demystify some of that process in my book.

You write about your own experience of having grown up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, being a PK, yet you didn’t really begin to embrace the faith as your own until later. Can you talk about that?

I’m a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid, and a preacher’s niece, so faith is our family business so to speak. Like most people, I just wanted to fit in as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that I actually do fit in because we all, to some extent, are the products of our family background. And as I’ve met more people, I realize that it was a blessing to be raised in a Christian household with clear rules. It has spared me a lot of drama, being the adventurer that I naturally am.

You spoke to a lot of successful, professional women? What about women who aren’t there yet — women who have experienced setbacks, made poor choices, or who just can’t seem to catch a break? What kind of encouragement does your book offer them?

Many of the women in my book have experienced setbacks or made poor choices, but through their relationship with God, they are being redeemed. Susie Doswell, executive director emeritus of the Annual Christian Women’s Retreat, talked about her history of teenage pregnancy and marrying abusive men and how she has been able to make better choices. Lola Uter, the oldest woman in my book, talked about hearing about the Lord as a teenager but not responding to what she heard and how that poor choice affected the rest of her life. These, as well as other stories, encourage women to acknowledge poor choices and make better ones in the future.

When readers are finished with your book, what do you hope they’ll do with the stories and information?

This quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God, applies here: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” I hope my readers develop an inspiring and adventurous personal relationship with God that sustains and propels them from season to season in their lives. And I hope the book shows them that it’s entirely possible, regardless of their inevitable mistakes and missteps.

For more information about Jacqueline Holness and her book, visit her website: AftertheAltarCall.com.

Sisters and Citizens, Part 1: An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry

Sisters and Citizens, Part 1: An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry

RECLAIMING A FEMALE AGENDA: Scholar, author, and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.

For several years, I’ve been particularly interested in what’s happening with women, specifically Black women, especially Black Christian women. And so I have been exploring what it means to occupy each of those spaces, a unified identity that I call BCW (Black Christian women).

Questions of identity, markedly so for women of color, are critical because they fundamentally answer many of the determinative inquiries of our lives. For example: Whom do we love and who loves us? How are we able to live out our commitments to family, friends, and faith? What ideas become our focus spiritually, economically, politically, and professionally? How do we communicate and deal with our unmet needs and desires? Similarly, movements like Black Girls Rock! and the Spelman protest against misogyny in the rap industry are concerned not only with mass-marketed stereotypes and public perceptions of Black women, but also with how the manufactured persona affects how our families, co-workers, lovers, and fellow congregants view us.

These things matter not just for us who are already of full adult age and experience, but also for those younger and future generations of Black Christian girls (BCG) who follow. What will they learn from us about what it means to serve God wrapped in deep brown, café au lait, or bronze skin?

I will explore these questions and others in this series. Given that this is an election year, I thought it appropriate to examine BCW identity first through a political lens. I conducted an interview with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University, and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. She also is the host of a new eponymously named weekend news show on MSNBC. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, specifically related to the impact of stereotypes on the political involvement of Black Christian women; and the role of the gospel in our politics. The context for our conversation largely centered on reproductive issues, as these have dominated political discourse as of late, and provide an interesting perspective from which to consider larger issues of identity.

This excerpt from our discussion was edited for clarity and conversational flow.

CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Over the years, Black women have been portrayed in various unflattering ways by society. There’s the “Jezebel,” who’s promiscuous and sexually undiscerning, and the “strong Black woman,” who’s resolutely independent and often viewed as almost masculine in demeanor. How do you think these sorts of stereotypes play out for Black women, and Black Christian women, in reproductive politics?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: As much as it is the thing that can get women riled up in the public sphere, the fact is our reproductive lives are only one part, one relatively short part of our long lives as women. But they shape so powerfully how people understand who women are. So this is a relatively brief part of our overall life, but the choices we make: whether or not we choose to ever have children, how many children, whether in marriage or outside of marriage, whether as teenagers or older women. Every single reproductive choice you make, to the extent that other people know about it, ends up being a potential source of judgment, criticism, and shame. I think that is particularly true for African American women. Part of that is the Jezebel stereotype, part of it is the broad sense that so many different groups of people feel they have every right to weigh in on the choices that Black women make.

Obviously there is an element of this that goes back to the legacy of slavery where Black women’s reproduction was to the financial benefit of those who owned them, owned their bodies, and therefore owned their children. But it is also part of the discourse of the 1980s about the so-called welfare queen. The whole world has a right to speak about whether Black women have children. There’s almost no part of American culture and political life where there isn’t some group that feels it has the right to speak about Black women and their reproductive choices. So all of those negative stereotypes then weigh in on us as we’re trying to make decisions as autonomous individuals about our own lives, and all those criticisms are very loud in our heads.

CWC: It seems one of the true dangers of the stereotypes is that they are not only placed upon us by others but we also use them to limit ourselves. For example, once we’ve made a certain choice, there’s always the interminable second-guessing. Then if we feel any sense of regret, disappointment, or self-examination over the decision, the stereotypes and shame hit us again because we don’t feel at liberty or like we have permission to get help to deal with what we’re feeling. Do you think that’s the case?

MHP: Absolutely. You hear critics of abortion say that all women regret their abortion. But all women also regret their children. There’s no reproductive choice that you ever make that isn’t one part regret and one part happiness. We’re complicated, we’re not automatons. So do you regret an abortion? Sure, you feel like, What if? But at the same time, you might ultimately think it was the right decision for you. Similarly, do you love your children? Absolutely, every second of every day, but sometimes you just wish they would go to sleep and leave you alone! So there’s no choice you make that isn’t complicated. But I think that’s part of what happens in the way that we talk about women, almost as though they’re not human and can’t have complicated relationships to all of the adult choices that they make. The single biggest issue in shame is not that it’s just about the judgments others make of us, it’s about the judgments we make of ourselves that then limit our ability to seek help, to vocalize our own experiences, to claim our right to have complicated feelings about it.

CWC: Given the fact that African American women have such a close identification with faith and with the church, why do you think that image hasn’t become part of the stereotype about us?

MHP: I think it depends on the circumstance. Undoubtedly in the context of policy-making we normally hear about the negative version of who Black women are, but I also think there’s this whole thing of how Black church women are depicted on TV. I hate depictions of Black church on TV because they make it seem like a show instead of worship. For example, the number of times they show a Black woman at church in the throes of ecstatic religious passion, but without any understanding that it’s not a show or a dance to be performed; it’s an act of worship.

So I do think it’s a part of our stereotype, but one that is largely misunderstood — one that is assumed to be in a lot of ways almost funny. I also think it’s an interesting counterpoint to the Jezebel stereotype. On the one hand you have this vision that Black women are sexually lewd, lascivious, loose hip-hop hoochies, and then on the other hand that we are these church ladies. So I think it’s all about what is useful for the people who are developing the stereotype.

CWC: Great point, because another way that the faith stereotype often manifests is in this idea that says, “Black women are supposed to be some of the most devout, the ones who hold their religion most closely, so why is there so much pathology in your community, why isn’t that piety being reflected?” What’s your response to that? Is our Christianity lived deeply enough so that it’s truly transformative?

MHP: I suppose I have a different experience of what the supposed transformative aspect of the gospel is. When I think about what I mean when I call myself “Christian,” it really is about living in a state of grace, and knowing in a very powerful way that my human failures are not the end of the story about who I am. It doesn’t mean I take them lightly or that you can behave any way you want. For example, I know some devout Christian women who curse like sailors, but they are also the people that would take their last egg and cook something for someone on the street. Or they stay on their feet late at night cooking for church events and barely get a thank you for it. Similarly, I know women who have one or two children out of wedlock but are profoundly and devoutly religious people. And I don’t experience that as their moments of morally failing God, quite the opposite. I see it as part and parcel of their Christian faith.

CWC: Given how pervasive and longstanding these stereotypes are, what are effective political resistance strategies for Black women? You make a reference early in your book to a need for the creation of “new forms of politics.” Is that what you consider an effective political resistance strategy?

MHP: More than anything, what I’d really love to see us doing politically is putting ourselves at the center of our own political agendas. This is particularly true for women in Christian communities. We often internalize the message of the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think we shouldn’t internalize that message. It’s obviously an incredibly important lesson, but we internalize it in a way that no one else in the church does. So other people are perfectly happy to put us on the cross. For me, the goal of the Christian narrative is not to turn Black women into additional sacrificial lambs, but that the liberation of the Cross is meant for Black women as much as it is meant for every one else. We have a right to say when something isn’t good for us. But instead, what we’ll often say something like, “It’s not good for me, but it’s good for Black men. And so I’ll take the hit on this one because I want to do what’s right for Black men.” I think the new model is the one that goes ahead and puts Black women and our politics at the center.

CWC: Why do you think the political involvement of African American women hasn’t continued on an upward trajectory after the civil rights movement?

MHP: I think that we romanticize the moment of the civil rights movement in certain ways. Part of it is a visibility question. When we had a reason to vote, like we did in the 2008 election, we showed up and did. So if you ask why do I think involvement has fallen off, I believe it’s in part because we haven’t seen active mobilization on the part of political parties and organizations saying Black women matter so let’s go out and make sure they are engaged. When it did happen, we were right there and organized and prepared to go into it.

Subsequent parts of this series will consider several of the ideas brought out in this interview.

Good Hair Days

Good Hair Days

I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.

My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.

Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.

Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.

One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.

In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.

Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”

In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.

I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.

This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.

What Whitney Gave Women Like Me

What Whitney Gave Women Like Me

BRIGHTER DAYS: Whitney Houston onstage in 1986. (Photo: Peter Mazel/Newscom)

A friend of mine and I secretly joke about people’s dramatic, gushing proclamations after a celebrity death. We often wondered how someone could be honestly “devastated” by the passing of an individual whose music/voice/personality we’ve only digested through a middleman such as the radio, a Letterman interview, or a blockbuster film.

I wondered this until Saturday, February 11, 2012. I was in Baltimore doing community outreach when MSNBC released a breaking news text that Whitney Houston had passed in her hotel room. My immediate reaction was disbelief. And then the calls came in from my family and friends, checking to see if I knew yet and asking if I was okay. Every call seemed like a damning confirmation and I thought, “Maybe if people stop saying it, it won’t have really happened.” So I got into my car for the long drive home, too numb to really display any emotion. I started the engine and before I could stop it, I heard the pure, clear voice often called “America’s Voice” lean into the gospel classic “I Love the Lord.”

Then it hit me.

This was the voice of a woman who was no longer with us.

I could tell you how the tollbooth guy seemed genuinely concerned by my tear-streaked face during our transaction, but I’d rather share something more useful. Whitney’s life and music taught me a few things:

1. Sexy doesn’t have to mean blond and blue-eyed or skimpy and short. Whitney burst on the scene in the ’80s with big hair, leg warmers, and off-the-shoulder tanks. With her mother Cissy Houston’s guidance and her cousin Dionne Warwick’s backing, Whitney Houston became the face of the All-American Girl, and she didn’t even have to writhe around the stage or downplay her “Blackness.” The world hasn’t been the same since, and it isn’t a good karaoke night until someone sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”

2. Love is a contact sport. As the child of a minister, there were few secular artists whose music made it into our house, but there was no avoiding the big, powerful and family-friendly sound of Whitney Houston. Furthermore, my military elementary school in Texas followed the National Anthem with “One Moment In Time” as a form of civic inspiration, every single morning. Before I got to find out for myself, I learned that sometimes love hurts so bad, love is timeless (“I Will Always Love You”), and that anxious, nervous feeling I got whenever I saw that boy from my class was normal (“How Will I Know”). She even taught us a little healthy self-love with “The Greatest Love of All.”

3. Women are multidimensional. These days, filmmakers anxious to sell tickets give acting gigs to anyone with a recognizable face, making the “singer slash actress” role almost assumed. Whitney, though … she did it right. Whitney not only headlined the soundtracks for The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife … but she acted in them. Let me say that again, she ACTED in them. Whitney was more than a pretty face who could sing; she was a mother, a wife, a philanthropist, an actress, and a producer. She truly epitomized “I’m Every Woman” and taught me from an early age that I could be too.

4. Everyone makes mistakes. For four years straight, I was Whitney Houston for Halloween. And not just because it was a relatively cheap costume, but because she was gorgeous, well spoken, had an amazing talent, and seemed like such fun to be around. She wasn’t human to me; she was larger than life. But while Whitney’s voice inspired and brought joy to millions, her life was often spotted with rough times. Unlike you and me, Whitney didn’t have the luxury of enduring these trials with a finite spotlight cast by her family and friends; Whitney went through it all publicly. While this glaring spotlight may have laid bare her pain, it served to remind us that everyone has problems and everyone stumbles.

The woman that I most wanted to be like growing up has died at 48, leaving her 18-year-old daughter motherless. Her well-known battles with addiction offer cautionary lessons of their own, but they don’t tell us anything about her private struggle to overcome them. That is now between Whitney and her Creator. I won’t speculate about the cause of her death, because big picture-wise it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recognize the very human quality of the entertainers that enrich our lives.

Whitney’s voice made her unique. But Whitney’s troubles made her one of us. And for that, I am grateful.

I haven’t stopped missing Whitney since I got the news. But while I’m sorry she’s left us, I’m thankful that her music itself provides a salve to help heal the wound in our hearts.