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Winter 2005
Photo by Kathleen Dooher
Honey & Fire
She’s soft-spoken and demure. But
in her roles as a pediatrician, minister, and anti-slavery activist, Gloria
White-Hammond, M76, doesn’t know how to quit

First the darkness. In 1983, on a long drive with her husband from Boston to Philadelphia, Gloria White-Hammond, M76, who had always been an upbeat, hopeful person, seriously considered suicide.

She and her husband, Ray, also a physician, had been married for ten years. Together, they had survived the draining routine of overlapping residencies—he as a Harvard-trained surgeon, she as a Tufts pediatrician. They had acquired a house and two cars; they had begun a family, with two young daughters, ages one and four. Ray and Gloria should have been happy. But they were not. As sometimes happens in a marriage, they had lost touch with each other. They were desperately alone, gritting their teeth through every day. “By then, I wanted out of marriage or out of life,” White-Hammond says, glancing toward the floor of her office at Boston’s South End Community Health Center.

Lucky for the world, she decided to say yes to life. Over the past 21 years, this quiet woman with the dangly earrings and luminous cocoa-brown skin has made herself into a ferocious tiger for change in the lives of countless afflicted and forgotten people, from black female teens adrift on the streets of Boston to throngs of Sudanese enslaved beneath a burning African sun. White-Hammond is both a physician and a minister, and her practice extends from heaven to hell and back. There are no boundaries to her compassion or her care. Faith is her inextinguishable pilot light.

As evidence, consider that the grim drive to Philadelphia had posed a crisis in White-Hammond’s life and marriage. Where did she turn for help? “I went to God,” she says matter-of-factly, as though the divine kept hours in a storefront on Main Street.

“He wouldn’t give me permission to break a contract. Instead, He gave me the courage to keep a covenant.” She stayed alive and married for the sake of her daughters, and, gradually, she and her husband began to reclaim their love. The process of recovery didn’t stop there. In what has become a typical pattern for White-Hammond, a woman for whom walls have a way of becoming open doors and passages, the scope of her involvement widened to include countless others in pain.

She and Ray decided to broadcast the lessons of their own recovery. They launched a premarital and marital counseling service through the auspices of the church that Ray—a pastor as well as a surgeon—had founded, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, located in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. There, she says, they personally advised scores of couples in distress. “We would listen,” says White-Hammond, reflecting on those early counseling days. “We would tell them that there was nothing the Lord can’t address, and that if they were willing to invest the work, ‘These bones can live again.’ ”

Gloria and Ray went still further by talking publicly and candidly about the obstacles to intimacy they had faced and mastered in their marriage. Veteran Boston newscaster Liz Walker happened to catch them in an appearance on an evening national magazine show during this time and came away intrigued. “My own marriage was going down the tubes, so I was interested in that topic. Also, African-Americans in a positive role are not that common on TV, unless you count ‘Cosby’—and that’s off the air,” laughs Walker, herself an African-American. Walker and Gloria White-Hammond have since become close friends.

It was through Walker that White-Hammond first learned of the modern-day practice of slavery in Sudan, a desolate, impoverished nation south of Egypt where civil war has been raging for most of the past 30 years. “If you wanted to rank the murderousness of things in the world, this would be right up there at number one or two,” says Charles Jacobs, an ex-journalist who broke the story of Sudanese slavery in the New York Times a decade ago and who now directs the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group. Once aware of the slavery issue, White-Hammond decided she had to do something about it. Since 2001, while working part time as a pediatrician and part time as a minister, she has traveled to Sudan six times (most recently, this summer, in early July) to help purchase the freedom of some 10,000 slaves.

Gloria White-Hammond relaxes with “Do the Write Thing” participants.
Photo by Kathleen Dooher
White-Hammond has never known how to shrug things off. For some reason, wherever she is, whether in Boston or in Africa, she can’t leave troubled people alone. She insists on going the extra distance—the humanitarian and spiritual lengths that her faith demands of her—in order to heal them.

EARLY DAYS Her quest began with medicine. When she was eight or nine years old, Gloria White walked into her town library, plucked How to Become a Doctor off the shelf, and took it home to read. Gloria was the third of eight children born to a stay-at-home mom and a dad who was a sergeant in the Air Force; the family moved around like it had itching powder in its socks, with brief stays in Texas, Tennessee, Maine, New Hampshire, Guam, and finally rural Indiana, where she graduated from high school.

White’s decision to attend college at Boston University drew her into a more cosmopolitan environment, a milieu which (as she confessed to a Boston Globe reporter recently) included some nice-looking men of color. She married one of them, a young man she met at church named Ray Hammond, in 1973, when she was in her first year at Tufts Medical School and he was a second-year student at Harvard Medical School. Gloria and Ray seemed destined for a life of high-powered conventional achievement, but that is not how things panned out. “They could have been rich suburbanites, and instead they are devoting their lives to service,” a friend observes.

White-Hammond had long been inclined toward the public health side of medicine. Dr. Gerald Hass, medical director of the South End Community Health Center, where she has worked as a pediatrician for the past 23 years, remembers a somewhat shyer Gloria White stopping by the clinic to get a taste of it in the early 1970s, when she was still a BU undergraduate majoring in biology. “She was lovely, very personable, and seemed to enjoy the atmosphere and enthusiasm of those days,” says Hass.

Obviously something clicked. Following her pediatric residency, White-Hammond signed on full time at the center, which serves a population that is some 60 percent Latino and 30 percent African-American. The center, a large, cheerful space (the clinic’s sixth location in 35 years) where White-Hammond now sees patients three days a week out of an office the size of a broom closet, has proven a perfect match. “Her clinical skills are very, very good; her interpersonal skills are extraordinary. She combines expertise with gentleness,” notes Hass. “She relates to her patients as individuals. She gives them time, and they just love her. In particular, she is adored by her teenagers.”

This last observation is confirmed during a reporter’s visit to the clinic on a day when two adolescent girls pop up from their seats in the waiting area and rush toward White-Hammond as she passes, throwing their arms around her. “My girls,” says the doctor softly.

A WHOLE DIFFERENT TRACK Many, perhaps most, physicians working in a place like the South End clinic would be content to provide excellent, sympathetic care to their patients during office hours and call it a day. There was certainly no lack of challenge in the practice. Her patients were showing up with what White-Hammond calls “the usual, urban kind of medical problems—asthma, adolescent gynecology, plus lots of social issues like academic underperformance and kids coming from marginal families.”

White-Hammond just couldn’t ignore those gnarly issues lurking behind the symptoms and the attitudes. “She was seeing patients in need of intervention, and she wanted to help these girls find creative outlets to express themselves,” explains Nickey Mais-Nesbeth, director of Generation Excel, the social-service arm of Bethel A.M.E. Church. To address the shortfall, White-Hammond launched a bold program called “Do the Write Thing” 10 years ago. It was designed for inner-city girls between the ages of eight and 17.

For three hours a week in evenings at the church, White-Hammond led the conversation. Fourteen-year-old Niquicia Wilson was there with three other kids that first year (“I heard about it on the street,” she says), and recalls how White-Hammond would announce at every meeting, “Let’s do a weather check. How is the weather in your life?” The girls would respond figuratively, with some saying, “Oh, it’s sunny,” and others mumbling, “It’s a storm today.” White-Hammond listened respectfully to their answers, taking note of their highs and lows.

The doctor would press and challenge the girls to be more accountable in their lives, according to Wilson. “She would say to us, ‘Are you skipping school? Why do you do things like that?’ ” But the leader’s involvement didn’t stop there. White-Hammond talked to the girls’ parents. She gave them weekly writing assignments—on the seasons, on their best friends, on what hope meant to them. She got them reading Toni Morrison. She talked about the role played by influential black women throughout history. She took them to plays in Boston.

“She exposed us to culture we’d never seen before,” says Wilson. “She opened up our minds.” The value of this was beyond measuring. “Back then, there was so much stuff going on in the streets—hanging out, cutting school, stuff like that. I was a knucklehead when I was younger,” Wilson volunteers. “Miss Gloria’s program helped me stop being such a knucklehead. She didn’t realize what an influence she had on us. She put us on a whole different track.”

Digging through some ragged notebooks for a sense of who she was back then, Wilson quotes from her decade-old essay on hope. “Hope is a silver lining behind a dark cloud . . . Hope is having ambitions to be someone successful . . . Hope is having a future as long as you believe in yourself.” She might have added that hope also has a sweet way of being predictive. This spring, Wilson graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston with a degree in management and marketing.

Wilson’s academic flowering was not an isolated case. Last year, working in partnership with the city’s Department of Youth Services and the Boston public schools, “Do the Write Thing” touched the lives of 235 girls. A stunning one hundred percent of the program’s alumnae to date have either graduated from high school or earned their GEDs.

PUZZLE AND PARADOX At the same time that she was urging teenage girls toward the attainment of higher goals from the basement of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, White-Hammond was attempting to address her own welling desire to become a minister and join her husband, Ray, in the pulpit. “I had struggled with that for a while,” she says, sounding like someone whose bedrock had been shifting underfoot, almost imperceptibly, for years.

The option of remaining in the role of the supportive preacher’s wife did not answer her basic spiritual hunger. “There was a sense of being ‘called’ to the ministry,” she explains. “That was a watershed moment for me. It was not a matter of saying, ‘I’ll take that one’ (pointing to a spot in the air), but rather a sense of yielding to the call.”

White-Hammond enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, from which she graduated with her M.Div. degree in 1997. Currently co-pastor with her husband of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, she devotes half her week to her religious obligations and shares the preaching duties with him. (Ray Hammond is now a full-time pastor as well as current chair of the philanthropic Boston Foundation, having abandoned his surgical practice some years ago.) Donning the ministerial robe and standing tall at the front of the congregation, seeking to inspire others, has not been easy, White-Hammond hastens to point out.

She is basically not a public or a demonstrative person. The kind of shyness that has dogged her since childhood, when she would cry every year on the first day of school in anticipation of facing a new crop of classmates and teachers, has not entirely left her, even as the boldness of her adult roles drives her irresistibly into the world’s glare. Rise and preach to hundreds of people? For someone like White-Hammond, that was really going against the grain. “It’s easier than it used to be, but I can’t say I don’t abhor it,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “I never get up in the pulpit without wishing I were sick and didn’t have to do it.”

Her reluctance is not visible from the pews. Hass, her boss at the clinic, has attended an occasional service at the Bethel A.M.E. Church and witnessed a subtle transformation in his star physician. “She is rather quiet at the health center,” he observes. “But when she preaches, it’s as though a spirit moves within her. It’s almost as though a light shines, and she becomes a vessel of her faith.”

The effect can be powerful. Newscaster Liz Walker happened to be sitting in the church one day, minding her own business in a back row, when she noticed the Rev. White-Hammond moving steadily toward her down the center aisle. White-Hammond stopped by Walker’s side and asked, “Are you ready to accept God’s call?” “I thought, ‘Who is this woman? Is she crazy?’ ” says Walker, still seeming to shake her head in disbelief at the experience. “But she did it in that quiet, soft, Gloria way, and I said yes.” In addition to her on-air duties, Walker is now a third-year student at Harvard Divinity School.

White-Hammond hovers as a puzzle and a paradox. “Honey and fire,” one friend says when asked to describe her essence. “That’s what I think of when I think about her.” She is both the meekest person in the room and the most galvanizing. She dreads public roles, yet transcends them magnetically and unforgettably. She has absorbed a lifetime’s worth of horror, but she never stops smiling, laughing, and distributing kindness like lollipops or flowers.

In person, watch out, my friend! Her brand of intimacy is hypnotic. She works on you at a deep, instinctive level, so that no matter what your conscious mind might be saying (“No, I’m sorry, I really can’t go to Africa with you next week”), your soul overrides this in a flash and becomes eager to follow her without hesitation down any road she might select.

SLAVES UNDER THE TREES Traveling from Boston to Sudan, in northern Africa, isn’t like grabbing a Jet Blue flight to Miami. You can’t get there in a single hop. Instead, you must first fly to an airport in Europe, and proceed from there to Nairobi, and from there to Lokichoggio, and then from there to Sudan. The journey takes an exhausting day and a half, and once safely landed, you are somewhere you’d rather not be. “You do it in doses,” says White-Hammond of her time in Sudan. “It’s hard getting over there, and it’s hard while you’re there.” On this latter point, Walker, who has made the trip twice with her friend, is more explicit. “It’s brutal when you’re there. It’s just hell,” she says.

Once informed of the slavery trade, White-Hammond was determined to see it for herself. She admits she was hopelessly, dangerously naïve. “I was so ignorant of what I was getting into that I didn’t have the sense to have trepidation until three days before we left,” she reports. “I figured we’d at least find a Motel 6 somewhere.”

Instead, during that first trip in July 2001, she and her small party (including her husband, Walker, and a handful of others) stepped into the middle of what the United Nations has termed “the worst humanitarian crisis” in the world. Military regimes favoring Islamic-oriented governments have ruled Sudan’s politics since the nation, about one-fourth the size of the United States, won independence from Britain in 1956. Nearly perpetual civil wars rooted in northern economic, political, and social domination of non-Muslim, non-Arab southern Sudanese —and a series of attendant famines—have brought two million deaths and the displacement of four million people to the region. Ethnic cleansing and slavery are facts of life here, like grief and the buzzing flies.

Travelers to Sudan are hanging by a thread. Walker describes reaching a village where a truck was supposed to be waiting to carry her group to the next village, 10 miles distant. “If you know anything about Africa,” she comments, “you know that the truck may or may not be there.” That day, no truck appeared. White-Hammond took charge, saying, “We’ve got to get there—let’s go,” and set out across the trackless, rugged country in 102-degree heat. “She just trekked straight ahead with the first group of African women, who were used to it,” Walker marvels. “When we got to the next village, she was already there, waiting. This was an example of that steely determination that she has.”

Doctor, minister, activist: When she’s in Africa, White-Hammond can deploy any and all of her three roles, depending on where the need is most acute. Steven Rothstein, president of the Boston-area Perkins School for the Blind (and son of Alan Rothstein, A52, M56), who accompanied White-Hammond on her third trip in the summer of 2002, can attest to her flexibility. “In a single day in Sudan, I saw her giving medical advice about a starving baby, leading a large group of people in a spiritual song, and talking with leaders in the community about the local political situation,” he says.

Purchasing freedom is not like buying a can of peas. Sudanese slaves are mostly women and children who have been abducted violently from their homes by slave-traders and taken north. Under the auspices of Christian Solidarity International, an organization based in Zurich that funds the effort, anti-slavery activists have devised an elaborate system of intermediaries for identifying and transporting masses of slaves to an agreed-upon neutral site for the buy-back process. The experience can be surreal. “You go around a bend and see 500 people standing under a set of trees, because it’s so hot,” recalls Rothstein. Large numbers of slaves have been raped. Some are mutilated, and many bear physical scars on their bodies.

The going rate of freedom is $33 per slave. After some haggling, an exchange of papers, and a painstaking check of identities to ensure that slaves are not being recycled by the slave traders, family members are able to retrieve their loved ones and take them home. On her third trip to Sudan in 2002, over the course of two days, White-Hammond and those in her party negotiated the liberation of 1,100 slaves. This is healing writ large.

But liberation was not the end of their involvement. Concerned that slaves were facing bleak conditions once freed, White-Hammond, her friend Walker, and a few other women organized a group called “My Sister’s Keeper,” designed to help the women of southern Sudan prosper. The group has raised $5,000 to buy two grinding mills for the villages of Panliet and Akon, so the women can grind maize and sorghum at a faster rate than was possible using the prior method of grinding by hand. The money the women earn funds a literacy program in one village and a school for 100 girls in the other.

Don’t shrink back Fighting slavery in Africa remains grueling, monstrous work. It’s not for the faint of heart. On her second trip to Sudan, undertaken in early 2002, White-Hammond happened to be the sole woman in the group. “I was way out of my element,” she says now. “It was very scary. The weather was horrible. Bugs were everywhere. It was wet. It was hot. It was dirty. We were sleeping on the ground. I couldn’t bathe—and all these things were very unlike me. I like showers; I like clean toilets. I hate camping.” Bear in mind that this personal discomfort was occurring in a Sudanese war zone.

The risk to foreign visitors is real. A companion on one of White-Hammond’s trips recalls the pilot of their small plane taking evasive maneuvers to improve their chances of escaping detection by the militia roaming and plundering the countryside. White-Hammond has arrived in villages that have been bombed the day before, where rubble is proof of the madness she has traveled 9,000 miles to penetrate.

“I’m afraid but also clear,” she says of her anti-slavery mission. “You do it because you’re called on and because you must, not because it’s comfortable. A passage I rely on very, very much comes from [the book of] Hebrews, and refers to a period when the early Christians were getting ready for hard times. “ ‘You’ve seen hard times,’ it says. ‘Do not throw away your confidence. It will be richly rewarded. If you shrink back, God will not be pleased with you. We do not come from people who shrank back.’ ”

As she descended toward Sudan on the last leg of her second trip, White-Hammond found herself filled with dread. She was peering out the airplane window, and she was crying. “I hated it,” she says of the challenge that loomed in front of her. “I was so out on a limb. That Scripture came to me then, with the reminder that I don’t come from people who shrank back. Compared to what my ancestors endured and to what most of the world endures every day, this was nothing.”

The reference to her ancestors is a poignant reminder of the irony of White-Hammond’s role in Africa. In the early 21st century, by tapping her reserves of faith, she is helping to secure the release of people who are in many ways her brothers and sisters. Their present is her past, their agony under the lash her own not-so-distant history.

White-Hammond has immersed herself in American slave narratives, whose mysteries she is struggling to plumb. She recently came across the story of a male slave who had been blinded by his master with a hot poker for the sin of trying to read. According to White-Hammond, the man bore not a trace of anger at his fate. Rather, he simply related the facts of his life for the sake of his descendants and concluded by telling them, “That’s why I want you to keep going.” History flows in a deep, ever-moving stream, White-Hammond seems to say. We each have our place in it.

“I used to wonder, ‘What were my ancestors thinking?’ ” she told a reporter from the Providence Journal last year. “Now I think I know,” she replied in answer to her own question. “I think they were thinking about people like me. They were thinking that if they could hold on, maybe there would be somebody like me who would have degrees from wonderful institutions of learning, who would have titles and live in a nice house and see her responsibility to do everything she could to see that such things don’t happen again.” In effect, history has dragged White-Hammond, kicking and screaming, to fulfill that obligation.

Bruce Morgan is editor of Tufts Medicine magazine. He may be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.

Reprinted from Tufts Medicine, Summer 2004