Gloria White-Hammond, the co-pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, Massachusetts, a pediatrician at Boston’s South End Community Health Center, and the National Chairwoman of the Million Voices for Darfur Campaign, discusses her personal struggles, the work she did in Southern Sudan and today for Darfur, and how to get involved in the Million Voices for Darfur Campaign.
NARRATOR: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Your host is Jerry Fowler, Director of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience.
JERRY FOWLER: Our guest today is Gloria White-Hammond. She is the co-pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, Massachusetts, as well as a pediatrician at Boston’s South End Community Health Center. She is also the National Chairwoman of the Million Voices for Darfur Campaign, being organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, an umbrella group of more than one hundred organizations working to call attention to the crisis in Darfur. Gloria, welcome to the program.
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: Thank you, I am delighted to be here.
JERRY FOWLER: Gloria, I wanted to start by going back into your history a little bit. In doing research for this, I learned that there was a period about twenty years ago when you felt an incredible amount of despair, even considered suicide.
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: Yes, absolutely. My husband and I, who have been married now for some 32, almost 33 years—we got married when we were in medical school and went through our residencies together—and when we were about ten years into the marriage, we were at the point of divorce, and I was at the point of considering suicide. I was somewhere between suicide and husband-cide. We were at a point where we had gone through an intense period of training, had two children, and mortgage, and two car notes and school loans, and in many ways, had lost sight of one another, and I wanted out. I finally got to the place where I said that to my husband, and much to his credit, he refused to leave the relationship. He said that he was going to ask God to show him how to become the husband that God needed him to be for me and the father that was needed for our daughters. At that point I said to God that I did not love him anymore and that if he would not give me permission to break a contract, then he would need to restore a kind of love to maintain a covenant. We worked really, really hard, and continue to work hard on our marriage. It is not a perfect marriage because the two people that are involved in it are not perfect, but it is a really good marriage, that again, came in the midst of great crisis, but was salvaged because of God’s faithfulness and of our intense focus in doing the work required to make it wonderful.
JERRY FOWLER: I ask that because anyone who is familiar with your work knows what an impact you have had on the world—on African American girls in the Boston area, on relationships between Christian and Jewish women, on women in Sudan, which we will talk about more in a minute—and from the outside people would see this dynamo, I mean you are dynamo, but there is a lot of struggle that is there.
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: Sure. There really is, and I think sometimes people assume that when you do things that are impressive that you just wake up in the morning, you decide you are going to do it, and you just get up and you do it without a struggle, but I am impressed that for each of the things I have been able to accomplish, again by God’s grace and because I have wonderful support from amazing people, but I have had to work at it. I had to work through my own issues, my own struggles, and certainly some of the things I do are a direct function of my having worked through some of my own challenges in life.
JERRY FOWLER: Let us talk for a minute about the work that you have done with regard to Sudan. I mentioned that you are the chair of this Millions Voices for Darfur campaign, but you got involved in Sudan much before the Darfur crisis began.
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: I made my first trip into Southern Sudan in July of 2001. I went under the auspices of two groups, the American Anti-Slavery Group which is based in Boston, and another group called Christian Solidarity International, which is based in Zurich. I was interested in looking at one of their efforts which was certainly controversial. One of the byproducts of the genocide in the South—again the same strategy that you hear employed in Darfur—the government operation in collusion with the Arab militia, going to the villages, killing the men, destroying the villages, raping the women—and in the South, the other phenomena is that many women and children—we do not know how many, whether we are talking tens of thousands or hundreds—are then taken into the North where they are sold into slavery, serve as domestic workers in the homes, and again, live outside with the cattle and the sheep, eat food leftover after the master’s family dines, the women serve as concubines. This group, particularly in Zurich, partners with local communities in the South, identifies Arabs who are sympathetic to their cause, the Arabs go into the North and either abduct the slaves or buy them, take them into the South where a price is set to redeem these slaves; the price is now worked out to be thirty-three dollars a person, a hundred dollars will buy you a cow. It was a controversial effort, but that is what initially took me into Sudan, and after I went for that first trip, I did not necessarily think that I would go back again, but I had this moment several months later where I did have a sense of going back, part of the going back was again, to work through my own wrestlings about whether or not this was a good effort on the part of this group, and whether or not I should be participating in it. The criticism was that there was a risk of fraud, and that was certainly true. There was the risk of having slaves recycled, and that was certainly true. In the years that I was involved with them, and even now, I have the confidence that it was a legitimate operation and even though the critique had its merit in terms of the possibility of fraud, there was no evidence that that actually did happen. While there was the potential, there was not the reality that there was fraud involved. Again, when I was trying to think through whether this was something I wanted to do, in my own internal struggle, I remember having a conversation with a woman who had been enslaved for about ten years, and I said to her, “There are many people who have said that this is not a good thing to do,” and I gave her some of the reasons that people were concerned about, “What do you think I should say to American people?” and she looked me dead in the eye, because that is just a way that Sudanese people do, and she said, “Tell the American people that I said, ‘thank you.’” She looked around and said, “I have suffered in the North, and I will certainly suffer here in the South because life remains hard, and if I am just free for one day, given all that I have experienced in the North, it will be worth it to me.” Then she took her hand and she ran it through the dirt and she said, “Thank you for returning me to the place where the soil is the color of my own skin.” That for me was my own confirmation to continue to do that work at that time; no longer doing those slave redemptions and I have since moved on to work with other women to form a group called My Sister’s Keeper. It is both women led and women focused. Our efforts are to come alongside women in Southern Sudan, and particularly focus now on one rural county in Southern Sudan in their efforts to rebuild their communities. We have had a number of projects. We supported grinding mill projects for two different villages, and those are economic development projects to free women up not only to earn income, but also to start other businesses, and it certainly frees girls up, who do most of the manual labor in terms of pounding.
JERRY FOWLER: The significance of the grinding mill is that it is a machine so instead of spending more time manually—
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: --manually pounding—women will actually spend six to eight hours a day getting meals ready—oh my goodness! Can you imagine spending that much time? The grinding mill does the pounding work in about half an hour, so again, that is much less labor intensive and then allows them to do other things. The biggest project that we are focused on now is supporting a girls school in one of the rural villages—actually the village from which Salva Kiir comes.
JERRY FOWLER: Salva Kiir is now the leader of the Southern rebels and a first Vice President in the National Government of Unity. You just recently took a trip to Southern Sudan. As many people know, there is a peace agreement which has resolved the conflict in the South, even as things in Darfur are still very bad. What was the atmosphere, the environment in the South?
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: I was curious to know what it was going to be like because, of course, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed a year ago between the North and the South, and there are many of us on the outside who see that as being a fragile agreement and I wondered what people on the inside were feeling. I must say that in general, people are feeling very optimistic. We talked with a wide range, from people who were in the rebel army, and who are now in the government of Southern Sudan to young girls, and there is a sense in which this agreement is a good thing, and they are certainly moving now to rebuild. We are taking our cues from them and are doing just that. We would not have built a school two years ago because that of course would have been fodder for bombs but now, in the wake of the optimism we are responding to their asks for a physical building.
JERRY FOWLER: I think one question that has arisen in the United States—there were many, many people who were involved, as you were in pushing for greater United States involvement to bring peace to Southern Sudan—now that there is this peace agreement with the South, an issue that some people have is, is it put in danger by speaking out on Darfur?
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: No, and in fact, what people in the South have said to us is that they have wanted to use the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for the South as a prototype for what could happen in Darfur. When I initially became involved in the work in Darfur, it was really at the behest of the people in the South who said, “We can only be whole when there is no conflict anywhere in Sudan.” They have seen that in order to ensure the stability of their peace, that there needs to be efforts again to challenge this government, to make peace in Darfur—and as we know there are other places in Sudan, for example in the East with the Beja, where there is a potential for similar conflict—the people in the South have understood that it is a whole country and we need to be just as assertive about making peace in Darfur. What we are saying is, given this administration—much to its credit—did more to stop the genocide in the South than any other administration, that we are asking them to continue that work and do likewise in Darfur.
JERRY FOWLER: First you were the co-founder of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, and now as I said at the top of the program, you are the Chairwoman of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign; tell me about this campaign.
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: It is a very exciting campaign, Jerry. We are looking to have a million people sign postcards directed to President Bush urging him to support a multi-national force that has the strength and the mandate to actually protect the civilians in Darfur. We are going all around the country trying to mobilize people to be a part of this campaign; to both inform them about the situation in Darfur, in Sudan, and to inspire them to be a part of it. Sunday, April 30th will be a culmination, a celebration for the campaign.
JERRY FOWLER: So you are trying to get the Million Voices together by April 30th?
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: That is right, and we will have two rallies, one in DC and another in San Francisco, where we will demonstrate our commitment to this cause. We are very excited about this. We know that there are more people who want to speak out, and again we are encouraging President Bush to continue what he has already started.
JERRY FOWLER: What is the importance of people speaking out? I think a lot of people would say, “I am sorry about what is happening in Darfur, but what does it matter if I sign a postcard? What difference does that make?
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: One, it will register the fact that you both know and you are caring. I think people, at some point have to decide—certainly for people who are aware of the Holocaust and the genocides that have happened around the world over the years—the worst thing people can do is be silent because to be silent is to be complicit. By filling out this postcard, we opt to stand up and make our voices heard. To be silent is to remain irrelevant. I do not want to go to my grave being irrelevant and I do not want it to be said that I did nothing to respond to the one genocide that we can see that is unfolding before our very eyes, every single day. We also recognize that in order for President Bush to take the kind of bold moves that we are asking him to take he will really require a mandate from the American people. It certainly remains true that around the world, the involvement in the war in Iraq has raised concerns both home and abroad and it would be difficult for President Bush to take the bold move we need him to take to stop this genocide in Darfur without having a groundswell of support from regular people like you and me. By filling out these postcards, we have the sense that we have done something, but we will also be able to make it clear to this president that we are standing with you as you make a more robust response to stop the genocide in Darfur, even as you have worked to bring peace and justice to all of Sudan.
JERRY FOWLER: If people want to get involved in the campaign?
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: www.millionvoicesfordarfur.org. You can fill out an electronic card, but certainly you can also e-mail us at www.savedarfur.org. Either one of those web sites will get you to the same place and you can let us know that you would like to have a speaker—I am certainly happy to come speak. We have lots of people in our speaker’s bureau. There is something for everybody to do.
JERRY FOWLER: Let me just tie this back to what we started talking about, about your own personal dealing with the moment of despair in you life, and then deciding to move on. We talked about this a little before we started recording. My job has allowed me to meet a lot of people who could legitimately be classified as heroes and I think you are in that category, but one of the things that has struck me is the humanity of heroes, and the fact that they sometimes feel doubt, they sometimes wonder if what they are doing will make a difference. I wonder, in your life, as you have committed yourself to Darfur after all of the work you have done on Southern Sudan, do you still feel that doubt, and how do you deal with it?
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: There was one moment in Sudan when I again was wrestling with whether or not I should be taking this on and it was a moment when I felt so overwhelmed by the enormity of the issue and the smallness of me. I saw a kid whose face was quite deformed, and when I asked him how this happened, his mom said that he, as a slave, was supposed to be keeping the cattle; he lost a cow, the master was so angry, he took an axe and chopped the boy’s nose off. This is what I was seeing. I went to sleep that night haunted by the image of that and, “My God, what can I possibly do to reverse all of the trauma that these people have experienced?” Once I finally fell off to sleep, I was awaken by the sound of a bullet, gunshots, and I am saying to myself, “Girl, what are you doing in the middle of this war-torn area? What is wrong with you?” I remembered having this real struggling and pleading with God—one of those “beam me up Scottie” moments, and “just get me out of here,” and in that moment, I felt the Lord reminding me where I had come from as a person of African descent, and saying that that moment of weakness did not feel like a good place, but every hero has to get to that place. It is a God place when you realize that you can again either retreat back into a place of comfort and safety or you can stand up, hold your head up high, straighten up your back, and move forward in faith and confidence that your work will make a difference. There is a text that I rely on in the New Testament that talks about the fact that when we get into those places, we will be tempted to, what the text refers to as, “shrink back,” and then it says, “but we do not come from people who shrink back. We come from people who persevere and receive the reward.” That is so true, certainly for a person of African descent, but for anybody who came to America, unless they came in a lap of luxury, they have come from ancestry who refused to give up, and so I understand that we are the dreams of grandmothers who refused to stay silent. We are the hopes that could not be lynched. We are the promises that would not be raped. I do not come from people who shrink back, but from people who persevere and win. I am acting very much, I am standing on the shoulders of giants, I am operating in the strength of giantesses who saw and experienced firsthand trauma of all sorts, and I am here because they would not give up and refused to be overwhelmed. I am working at this, and we are making progress, and I just want to believe that if we stay at this, then we will solve Darfur and then we will truly make genocide history. That is what I am about; I am working at it.
JERRY FOWLER: Gloria White-Hammond thanks so much for being with us.
GLORIA WHITE-HAMMOND: Thank you for having me.
JERRY FOWLER: Gloria White-Hammond is the National Chairwoman of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about the Museum’s Committee on Conscience, visit our website at www.committeeonconscience.org.