Is Misbehavin'

The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond speaks up, steps out to fight slavery

Gloria White-Hammond

The Rev. Gloria White-Hammond, MDiv '97, says that she used to be a "well-behaved woman." She was a devoted wife and mother, a good doctor, and was active in her local parish. Then she came to Harvard Divinity School and learned to misbehave.

"Well-behaved women rarely make history," she says, quoting Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. "At HDS, I learned that misbehaving women sometimes break the rules for the sake of social justice and end up changing the world."

If making a difference in the lives of thousands of people is an indication of ill manners, then White-Hammond is rude indeed. Since 2001, the Methodist minister and medical doctor has worked in the war-ravaged African nation of Sudan to help free and educate enslaved women and children, primarily through My Sister's Keeper (MSK), an international nonprofit she cofounded with fellow HDS alumnae Liz Walker, MDiv '05, Cynthia Bell, MDiv '10, and Melinda Weekes, MDiv '05.

"Our desire is to help former slave women be reintegrated back into their communities," White-Hammond says of MSK's focus. "We initially wanted to make a distinction between our anti-trafficking and community development work, but the community made it very clear to us that we're all one. So we built a school in South Sudan with 600 students, including some children of former slaves and a teacher who is also a former slave."

Although White-Hammond says that she has always felt passionate about social justice issues, she wasn't necessarily thinking of a career as an anti-slavery activist when she entered the master of divinity program at HDS. She wanted to be a pastor, and she came to HDS for an educational experience as challenging as the one she had in medical school.

Gloria White-Hammond. Photo: Mark LotwisGloria White-Hammond. Photo: Mark Lotwis"Having accepted the call to preaching and pastoral care, I wanted to bring the same academic rigor to the practice of ministry that I had to medicine," White-Hammond explains. "HDS did not disappoint. My classes put me in the same room with people from many different traditions who pushed me to question my assumptions and to think critically. Both the students and faculty were incredibly bright."

Although she expected a strong academic experience at HDS, White-Hammond says that she could never have anticipated the change in her perspective that began almost as soon as she set foot in the classroom.

In her first semester, she took a course on African American religious history with Harvard professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and read Righteous Discontent, Higginbotham's history of women's movements in the black church. The book's title became a mantra for her social justice work.

"I hadn't been exposed to the knowledge before and didn't have that history," White-Hammond says. "Professor Higginbotham helped me to appreciate the richness of the legacy of black churchwomen who are focused on social justice. It was a tremendous source of encouragement."

Usually quiet and reserved, White-Hammond says that interactions with other women in the course also helped her to realize that she could have a strong voice of her own.

"I discovered I could be a 'misbehaving woman' and there would be a place for me," she says. "I felt like HDS could confirm that, not simply tell me to sit down and be quiet and speak when I was spoken to, but to know that I have a voice and to speak up and to speak out. That wasn't a part of my experience, even in medical school."

Despite the education and encouragement she received at HDS, White-Hammond says that she balked when Walker invited her to come to Sudan to address the crisis in human trafficking there. A general practitioner at an inner-city health center, White-Hammond was deeply involved with her community and with her parish. It was hard to rationalize a trip halfway across the world when there was so much need at home.

"I was initially very resistant," she says. "The timing wasn't right. I didn't feel like I could take on another cause. It was too far. My concerns were practical, rather than any deep fear about my safety."

Walker finally convinced her classmate to make the trip to Africa. Soon after she arrived in Sudan, White-Hammond met an 18-year-old woman named Mary, a recently liberated slave.

"Mary had been abducted from her village 10 years earlier," White-Hammond remembers. "At the time she was with her church congregation under a tree for worship. When the village was attacked, she was captured and raped. She lost an eye."

The Americans asked Mary to describe what it was like to be taken from her village and to live for 10 years as a slave. How was she able to endure?

"She said that she remembered that 'If you pray, God will stay with you,' " White-Hammond says. "So she continued to pray and continued to believe and the fact that she was returning home again was a confirmation of her faith, and that if you stay with God, God will always stay with you."

Mary was freed thanks to the work of Christian Solidarity International (CSI), the group that invited Walker and White-Hammond to come to Sudan. CSI raised money, mostly from Europeans and Americans, and then negotiated with captors to liberate the enslaved women and children, sometimes hundreds and thousands at a time.

White-Hammond saw the need for action in Sudan, but was still reluctant to throw herself into human trafficking work after she returned to the United States. Before long, though, she felt the call to go back to Africa.

"One day in February of 2002 I woke up early in the morning," she says. "I was really clear. I had to go back, if only to see again what the need was and how I could respond to it. I went just a few weeks before Easter. I came back and convinced some other women that there was something we had to do and something we had to offer. We went back in July 2002 and with that launched MSK."

With CSI working to bring captives home, MSK focused on helping newly released women and children transition back to their communities and rebuild their lives.

The group helped purchase mills to ease the backbreaking labor that occupies much of the day for women and girls who pound sorghum into edible powder. This left many with time for education. There, too, MSK helped, first by building a girls' school that educates up to 600 pupils a year, and then by launching an adult literacy program that teaches hundreds of adult women to read, enabling them to better support the education of their daughters.

"To educate a girl is to educate a whole community," White-Hammond says. "It's a shortcut to improving the whole community. If we can educate the girls and the women, then we can improve the entire community and make them less vulnerable."

MSK also expanded into advocacy work, spearheading the movement Save Darfur, and then doing similar work in Sudan. To this end, White-Hammond became chair of the board of the Save Darfur Coalition, a group that raised awareness of the genocide in Sudan and lobbied the international community for action.

"We were responding to the crisis in South Sudan when Darfur erupted," she says. "We started to understand the politics. We saw that it was really the same government that was perpetrating violence in different regions of Sudan. That's why we became involved in international advocacy."

Today, White-Hammond is turning her attention back to the United States, not because the work in Sudan is done, but because she sees some of the same problems at home that she does in Africa: human trafficking, domestic violence, and rape.

"Violence against women isn't just a problem for people 'over there,' but for people around the world," she says. "In Sudan it looked like trafficking, rape. Here, there is trafficking, too, and also domestic violence. My calling is to women around the world, wherever violence shows up. We don't excuse ourselves by saying 'It's them.' It's us."

As she organizes supporters and resources for the next chapter of MSK's story, White-Hammond says that she continues to draw on the support of the HDS community.

"I've gotten enormous moral support from HDS faculty and staff, from the deans on down to my classmates," she says. "Professor Stephanie Paulsell has been a tenacious champion for MSK over the years. Professor Higginbotham remains a kindred spirit. They give me the encouragement to believe that I can do this work. HDS gets me. The people there have my back."