She's painfully shy. She's soft-spoken and demure. But in her roles as a pediatrician, minister and anti-slavery activist, Gloria White-Hammond doesn't know how to quit.
In 1983, on a long drive with her husband from Boston to Philadelphia, Gloria White-Hammond who had always been an upbeat, hopeful person, seriously considered suicide.
She and her husband, Ray, also a physician, had been married for 10 years. Together, they had survived the grueling routine of overlapping residencies - he as a Harvard-trained surgeon, she as a Tufts pediatrician. Ray and Gloria should have been happy. But they were not. 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 Bostonís 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.
After some soul-searching, Gloria and Ray decided to broadcast the lessons of their own recovery. They launched a pre-marital and marital counseling service through the auspices of the church that Ray-a pastor as well as surgeon-had founded, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, located in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. There they personally advised scores of couples in distress.
Gloria and Ray went further by taking their struggles public. 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," says Walker, who has since become close friends with White-Hammond.
It was through Walker that White-Hammond first learned of the modern-day practice of slavery in Sudan. "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 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 past summer, in early July) to help purchase the freedom of some 10,000 slaves.
White-Hammond had long been inclined toward the public health side of medicine. Following her pediatric residency, White-Hammond signed on at the South End Community Health Center, where she has worked as a pediatrician for the past 23 years. The Center, where White-Hammond now sees patients three days a week, has proven a perfect match. "Her clinical skills are very, very good; her interpersonal skills are extraordinary," notes Dr. Gerald Hass, medical director of the Center. "She relates to her patients as individuals. She gives them time, and they just love her."
Not everything, she found, could be readily fixed. "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. White-Hammond promptly launched a program called "Do the Write Thing" 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 talk. Fourteen-year-old Niquicia Wilson was there that first year and recalls how White-Hammond would challenge the girls to be more accountable in their lives. "She would say to us, ĎAre you skipping school? Why do you do things like that?í " White-Hammond talked to the girlsí parents. She gave them weekly writing assignments. She took them to plays in Boston. "She exposed us to culture weíd never seen before," says Wilson. "She opened up our minds."
Last year, working in partnership with the cityís 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 programís alumnae to date have either graduated from high school or earned their GEDs.
At the same time that she was urging teenage girls towards 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 join her husband, Ray, in the pulpit. "I had struggled with that for a while," she says.
"I used to wonder, ĎWhat were my [enslaved] ancestors thinking?í she told a reporter from the Providence Journal. "Now I think I know. 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 donít happen again."
White-Hammond graduated from Harvard Divinity School 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. 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, itís as though a light shines and she becomes a vessel of her faith."
She has needed every ounce of that power. During her first trip to Sudan in July 2001, White-Hammond 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. Nearly perpetual civil wars and a series of 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.
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 going rate 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. By any measure, this is healing writ large.
Liberation was not the end of it. Concerned that slaves were facing dire conditions once freed, White-Hammond, her friend Walker and a few other women organized a group called "My Sisterís 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.
"Iím afraid but also clear," White-Hammond says of her anti-slavery mission, in what might be a motto for her life. "You do it because youíre called on and because you must, not because itís comfortable."
Profile written by Bruce Morgan
Bruce Morgan is the editor of Tufts Medicine - the official magazine of the Tufts University School of Medicine. The complete version of this story appeared in the Summer 2004 issue.
This story originally ran on Oct. 4, 2004