White-Hammond provides care to the sick—and addresses the injustice that makes them ill
Gloria White-Hammond, MDiv ’97, is committed to healing and ministry—often in the most difficult situations.
In the 2000s, she entered war zones in the African nation of Sudan to help recently liberated women and girls recover from the experience of slavery as part of her work with My Sister’s Keeper, the international nonprofit she cofounded with fellow HDS alumnae Liz Walker, MDiv ’05, Cynthia Bell, MDiv ’10, and Melinda Weekes, MDiv ’05.
For over 25 years, she served as a pediatrician at the South End Community Health Center, healing Black and Brown children from some of Boston’s most underserved neighborhoods.
A co-pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, MA, and Swartz Resident Practitioner in Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School, White-Hammond has even teamed up with Dr. John R. Peteet of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry to co-teach the course “Spirituality and Healing.”
Now, Rev. Dr. White-Hammond is once again answering the call to the ministry of healing. As a member of the City of Boston’s COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force (HITF), she will help address the ways in which people of color—particularly African Americans—have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“We’re taking a critical look at the health inequity issues highlighted and exaggerated by COVID-19,” she says. “What are the implications of that, both in the short term and long term? How can we do something beyond crafting statements—something that really looks at our systems and the extent to which they are operating equitably? How can we think deeply about changes that get more at the root of the inequity that we are seeing in this moment?”
A Crisis of Public Health—and Inequality
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared a public health emergency on March 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, he declared racism an emergency and a public health crisis. As part of the city’s response, HITF will explore the ways that inequities, not only in health care, data analysis, and testing, affect Boston’s most vulnerable populations.
“We certainly knew that older people were more vulnerable, so the nursing homes were anticipated,” she says. “But there were other conditions or preexisting illnesses—like diabetes, asthma, heart disease, obesity—that we knew were most prevalent in largely African American communities in the City of Boston.”
Preexisting illnesses and other conditions are not the only factors that make Black and Brown communities more vulnerable to the virus. As workers in Massachusetts and the rest of the country received stay-at-home orders in March, it became clear that the mandates would affect Black and Brown communities differently.
“The concept of being able to stay at home—to isolate in your house—is a luxury,” she says. “For the people who have to go out, there are lots of issues that were starting to become clear. We certainly knew that clinicians weren’t going to be able to work from home, but there wasn’t the similar kind of calculation with other people who would end up being essential workers.”
Grocery workers, who became essential to shoppers planning for uncertain months ahead, were especially at risk. And, as White-Hammond observes, “Where there’s a food industry operating, there are workers that are predominantly people of color.” Low wages, poor benefits, and little savings to fall back on also put these employees at risk for the virus, White-Hammond says.
“In areas where there is greater poverty, people are more constrained in terms of their access to medical care,” she explains. “People don’t have primary care physicians, and certainly not insurance. In retrospect, this absolutely should have been predicted once we recognized that in other countries there was a concern about the adequacy of treatment resources.”
The Breath of Life
The killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25 took place against the background of long-standing inequities thrown into high relief by the coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, White-Hammond says that the lockdown gave people time to focus on it all.
“How poorly the pandemic had been handled from the start, the inadequacy of access to testing, the fact that there has been so much dysfunction and so much malice coming from the White House—we were watching it happen in real time. People could focus and look at the videos in the context of all that was going on. It just clicked in a way that all the other videos that we’ve seen did not click.”
The killing of George Floyd also coincided with those of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade and symbolized the ongoing injustice and violence experienced by African Americans in the United States every day. With the whole world watching, Black Lives Matter protests spread to nearly every continent. Here, too, White-Hammond answered the call to ministry and healing.
In June, Bethel AME hosted Clergy United for Peace, Prayer and Protest as they led a funeral procession in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, followed by a memorial service broadcast live on WCVB, the local ABC affiliate. White-Hammond’s daughter Mariama gave the sermon that day, observing that a body can have all its organs, but if it does not have breath, it is not truly alive.
“The thing that makes life sacred is the breath of the Holy Spirit,” Gloria White-Hammond says, “so the breath is really what gives life and renders the whole sense of the sacred. It’s a broader conversation about the extent to which inequity is jeopardizing people’s capacity to live and to live well and to live fully. We constrain people’s capacity to breathe in and to live fully into that sacredness by not providing so many of the resources that people would consider pretty basic.”
Breath also calls us to one another, she says.
“It marks us as people endowed with the sacred, and part of what emanates from us as spiritual beings is the calling to create a space for other people to live and breathe freely.”
As more people join Black Lives Matter protests and the movement for racial justice—as more officials are called to turn toward the inequities in the system highlighted by COVID-19, the calling to restore that breath grows stronger and stronger.
“Mariama’s point was that even as we look at this situation—as we look around this country and see so much of the dry bones in terms of what this country has become—there’s hope in a restoration of people returning to God’s spirit, and when that happens, these bones can live again. The lesson that the Lord might have had for us as a people—as a nation—it can be restored. It requires us to be open to the Holy Spirit, and I think there’s been a lot of evidence of that hope more recently.”
—by Suzannah Lutz