Together, a mother and a daughter keep the faith
Dr. Gloria White-Hammond was a pediatrician working at the South End Community Health Center when she got her call.
Her daughter, Mariama White-Hammond, was the executive director of Project Hip-Hop, an organization that helps young artists use their craft for social change, when she received hers years later.
God, mother and daughter both sensed, wanted them to enter the ministry. And both said yes to the divine curveball that would reshape their lives, individually and as a family.
“You don’t have to figure it all out at once,” the elder White-Hammond told a group of Tufts University students last month, days after celebrating her daughter’s ordination. “There are seasons.”
In this season, the mother-daughter pastor duo are often in public together: speaking to students and church groups, attending community events, or ministering at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, founded in the late 1980s by the elder White-Hammond and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond. The women are an unusual presence in the city’s religious circles, where couples and father-son pastors are more common, and black women represent a small minority of clergy.
The younger White-Hammond said she uses her clerical title and often wears a clergy collar on the MBTA “partially because I don’t look like what people think a reverend should look like.”
The two women are trying to change other conversations, too. A visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, the elder White-Hammond is working with colleagues in medicine and ministry to teach clergy how to help people with serious illness plan for better end-of-life care. She often speaks to women about being sexually abused by her father as a young girl, and about how that experience inspired her to help survivors of sexual violence in Sudan.
“There are so many little girls who are sitting in our congregations now . . . who never told the story,” she said to the audience at a recent women’s conference at Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan.
Her daughter, who studied international relations at Stanford University and will graduate from Boston University School of Theology this month, is focused on the intersection of social justice and environmental issues, especially climate change. Her official title at Bethel is “minister for ecological justice” (she also works with youth). She’s involved with projects ranging from her neighborhood community garden to an effort to install solar panels on church roofs in low-income communities. A sought-after speaker here and nationally, she addressed the Boston Women’s March in January and kicked off the Earth Day rally on Boston Common last month.
“We’re in a moment of system collapse,” she told the students at Tufts. Humanity’s survival, she said, will require inventing a new economy that does not depend on fossil fuels or “throwing people under the bus.”
And the solutions, she said, are “going to come from young people who don’t have an option.”
Mother and daughter are hardly carbon copies of each other. The younger White-Hammond, who is 37, is effusive, extroverted, and casual, an animated and fearless public speaker. Her 66-year-old mother is elegant, naturally shy, and soft-spoken, with a pediatrician’s warmth and gentle focus. With the encouragement of both her daughters — Mariama’s younger sister, Adiya, is a teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo — she has spent years cultivating the courage required to maintain her now-hectic teaching, preaching, and speaking schedule.
“I get exhausted from it,” she acknowledged. “I do it in doses.”
But they are each other’s advocates. Mariama admires her mother’s bravery in stepping out into a more public role, and in putting the pain she endured as a child to work in her humanitarian efforts. She says she’s naturally more competitive than her mother, but she has learned from watching the elder White-Hammond that focusing on others and building strong relationships are powerful tools for prodding people to change.
“A huge part of her ministry is investing in people, so they can realize who they’re supposed to be,” said the younger White-Hammond. “I’ve learned from my mom about being able to listen to people, let them cry. Let them have 12 things they need to work on, but let’s just focus on these two, because nobody can change 12 things.”
Dr. White-Hammond says her daughter’s ecological evangelism has deepened her own ministry by offering a more expansive vision of what it means to build healthy communities for women. Initially, the elder White-Hammond was skeptical that the Bethel congregation would relate to her daughter’s sermons about climate change and exhortations to find ways to live in a more environmentally friendly way. She was wrong.
“Lo and behold,” the elder White-Hammond said with a laugh, “people are down with recycling!”
Ordinary tensions arise between them sometimes, but the power struggles of the teen years have faded. Their bond has strengthened, too, since Rahn Dorsey, the city’s education chief, joined the family, marrying Mariama White-Hammond. And Gloria White-Hammond says she has changed since her daughters were younger, and she was under the misimpression that she could form their identities, that what they wore and did were a direct reflection of their mother.
“I needed to let go of that,” she said.
Yet the younger White-Hammond’s identity was profoundly shaped by her parents’ decision to immerse their daughters in many different communities. The couple were doctors, but they chose to live in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester at the height of the crack epidemic and build their church in the city. The Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond eventually left medicine to be at Bethel full time; his wife continued her pediatric practice in the South End, even as she pursued a divinity degree at Harvard and assumed ministry responsibilities at Bethel. Their elder daughter attended an Afrocentric preschool and the mostly white Winsor School in Boston. On weekends, she took classes at the Museum of Science and attended church school in their predominantly black urban church.
The deep experience across socioeconomic and racial divides has sharpened Mariama’s hunger to make a difference.
“What was frustrating and tough to me was that my sister and I had access to all this opportunity,” she told the crowd of mostly black and deeply religious women at Jubilee. “I saw people in my neighbors who were beautiful, gifted, and intelligent, but . . . the systems and the structures were not in place for them to have what we had.”
Transforming those systems and structures can seem like discouraging work. Violence is worse in South Sudan than it was when the elder White-Hammond first visited in 2001. The Arctic ice sheets are melting. Racism and inequality seem entrenched in Boston, and in the rest of the country as well.
Mother and daughter say they have no choice but to maintain hope.
“Part of the bottom line job description of my profession,” the younger White-Hammond told the Tufts students, “is that transformation is possible.”
Her mother agreed. If one generation doesn’t complete the work, the next will, or the next. The important thing, she says, is to make sure you’re doing what you’re called to do.
“You just keep it moving,” she said.