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Poverty Is the First Trauma

by José Humphreys III 04-25-2024
But if trauma can be passed down generationally, so too can healing.
A illustration of a Black woman looking at the labels on human-sized pill botles

Annika McFarlane / iStock 

EVER SINCE THE release of Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma education has proliferated. I have seen training in everything from trauma-informed lawyering to trauma-informed care in emergency rooms. Trauma-informed practices have even started making their way into some correctional facilities and corporate boardrooms. Yet much of the popular writing tends to focus deeply on the more personal elements of trauma, rather than systemic elements, such as poverty.

My colleague Derrick Stroud, who survived 27 years in prison and now is a clinician, once described poverty as the “first trauma” in communities of color. The impact of poverty increases the chances of both low educational attainment among children and placement in foster care; this, combined with the challenges faced by under-resourced schools, can become a pipeline to prison. Neighborhoods impacted by poverty can reinforce traumatic conditions, since residents are more likely to witness or experience violence or be profiled by the police. These ecosystemic conditions impact human bodies and produce negative health outcomes that can have detrimental generational effects — all of which can be traced back to under-resourced systems.

The Alchemy of Grief and Hope

by José Humphreys III 02-12-2024
Our personal formation depends on how we hold grief and journey with it.
The illustration show a patchwork heart on a dark blue background

Shanina / iStock

I RECENTLY HAD a conversation where I found myself feebly describing the pain of caring for an ill and aging parent. My wife, who is an exceptional curator of the emotional landscape, aptly identified my experience, my grief, as an “ache of the soul.” I find no better words for an experience so enveloping, so permeating through my body, my being, down to a cellular level — like a wave of loss that dredges the depths of the soul.

Grief can be complex and does not always begin with a terminal event. Surveyors of the human experience know well the “little” griefs that happen: the waning connection with the living; the loss of memory; the loss of energy and vitality. A once-doting parent who often inquired “Why haven’t you called?” no longer has the energy to do so. Meanwhile, whether relationships with our lost loved ones were good, complicated, or even nonexistent, the ache of the soul can be overwhelming.

Liberation Begins With a Decentered Self

by José Humphreys III 11-30-2023
Moving past capitalist aspirations to a collective imagination for flourishing.
The illustration shows a diverse group of people standing in a row.

undrey / iStock

WHEN I WAS 17, I attended a New York City business school with aspirations of becoming a rich accountant. I had it all planned out: I envisioned a corner office on Wall Street, towering high over the city with views of the Brooklyn Bridge. Each morning I was going to power-walk amid the Wall Street crowd. I never really knew what business people did for a living. My knowledge of Wall Street was limited to what I gleaned from movies and a story my father told me about my cousin the insurance broker, who “made good” for a while, but it didn’t work out for him, so he moved to Florida.

About three semesters in, I uncovered that I wasn’t wired for accounting, nor did I have the social networks that could reinforce such an endeavor. No one told me that accounting would be mostly about accounting for money that didn’t belong to me.

I had inherited a dream with little substance. I was infatuated with a vision that was like an elaborate Hollywood set. While my dream process was somewhat typical of teenage development, it nevertheless demonstrates how imaginations can be shaped by the far-reaching stories we receive. And our identities can become shaped by our service to capitalist aspirations.

Good News About Money

by José Humphreys III 09-26-2023
How the church can embrace an ecosystem of ‘enough for all.’
an illustration of hands in various shades of blue passing origami made out of dollar bills to each other, on a red background. The origami is in the shape of a house, a heart, and a shirt.

Illustration by Alberto Miranda 

EVERY MONTH, TERRY KELLY sends a “rent” check to the Duwamish Tribe on behalf of Quest Church in Seattle, where Kelly serves as senior director of finance.

The church owns the property where it holds services. But the congregation’s monthly payment acknowledges and honors the Duwamish people and other original inhabitants of the land the church occupies, people who have never been “justly compensated for their land, resources, and livelihood,” as the Duwamish “real rent” program puts it.

Members of Quest Church are among the many people of faith who are reimagining the narrative of money in our world today.

The early Christian church was clear in its teachings that money was intended to be used for the benefit of the broader community, not for individual enrichment. But for centuries, and particularly since the Protestant Reformation, the institutional church has more often contributed to ideologies and illusions that reinforce the American form of hypercapitalism. And while money remains a highly visible reality in our everyday existence, our lived stories around money often go uninterrogated.

In America, our views about money tend to be very individualized. We ask questions such as: How is my money going to work for me? Will I have enough to pay bills or retire comfortably? What is my purchasing power? Even the story churches tell is often limited in scope, reduced to teaching about tithes, offerings, building funds, and missions giving. In some instances, we might see positive moves around personal budgeting and reducing debt. But church conversations about money are often left in the realm of personal finance.

Everyone Can Be An Action Hero

by José Humphreys III 09-26-2023
Paying attention to the “superpowers” among us.
The illustration shows five hands reaching in and overlapping.


TWO YEARS AGO I was introduced to De’Amon Harges, an expert in asset-based community development, by a mutual friend in Kansas City, who arranged to connect us due to our common pursuit of neighborhood flourishing. Harges described himself in his bio as a “roving listener.” When I later met him via Zoom, our conversation began with Harges saying: “José, tell me a story about yourself and your gifts.” I felt like I was being recruited into an ensemble of action heroes.

I responded by sharing my passion for being a collaborator and connector who supports people and neighborhood institutions around personal and collective flourishing. Our conversation was imbued with a cosmic energy as we swapped stories about our purpose in the world, as manifested through our purpose in the ’hood. Harges’ sacred curiosity made me feel buoyant, even seen and heard. In Harges, I connected with someone who bore witness to my gift in the world, and I was blessed to be awake to his gift when presented to me.

Ultimately, we live in a society that makes visible those gifts it deems most valuable. One only needs to search through the cultural happenings in New York City this fall. For instance, the New York Philharmonic hosts a stellar lineup of some of the best symphony orchestras in the world. In corporate America, CEOs will work to ensure their companies finish the last quarter well, to receive bonuses that average 74 percent of their annual salary. And paparazzi will chase Hollywood stars to produce tabloid fodder, showing how gifted people can be center stage even at our checkout counters.

A Just Economy Prompts Us to Normalize Jubilee

by José Humphreys III 05-31-2023
"How can we invite the church into seeing the economy beyond just a conversation on tithes and offerings?"
A minimalist cartoon of people at a party. A man and woman stand together to the left next to some plants, a man cooks on a grill to the right, two women sit in chairs while drinking beer in the upper center, and a man holds his bike in the lower center.

Nadia Bormotova / iStock

FOR SOME REASON, conversations about economics and the church are rare these days — even though scripture includes more than 2,000 verses on poverty, such as laws in the Hebrew Bible on debt, labor, and land ownership. In the gospels, Jesus had many conversations with people about their relationship to money.

Our daily lives wade in the waters of economics, even in the most ordinary ways. When I brushed my teeth this morning, for instance, I used a brand-name electric toothbrush and a brand-name toothpaste, one that claims to be gentle on tooth enamel. After leaving my apartment, I gazed ahead to the street corner, where a man with a familiar face extended his hand in need to passersby. On the streets of New York City, the human cost of economic insecurity is painfully evident. I made my way eastbound toward Park Avenue; the potholes had me pondering how my hood is often overlooked in the city’s infrastructure budget. Yet, somehow, new “affordable” luxury apartments pop up, seemingly out of nowhere; I sometimes wonder if these buildings just appear overnight, ready-made. I’m also reminded that our local community board, through its land use committee, had some say in these new developments.

Western Christianity Is Partly a Story of Unconfessed Conquest

by José Humphreys III 03-16-2023
It remains vital for clergy and congregants to foster church spaces that practice a form of healing justice.
An illustration of a red cartoon heart with black streams flowing from it against a blue backdrop. Diamond-shaped stars and circles in green, red, yellow, and purple sparkle all around the heart.

Muharrem Huner / iStock

SOON I WILL be stepping away from the church I co-founded 15 years ago. After the beautiful struggle of seeing it get rooted, Metro Hope Church remains a small but vibrant, justice-minded, multicultural community in the heart of East Harlem. Our reach continues to extend beyond our neighborhood throughout the city and to other parts of the country.

My reason for stepping away isn’t, thankfully, some scandal or health concern. Nor is it burnout (I’ve been there) from the pressures of keeping a church sustainable. Nor is it managing the diversity of cultures and personalities, nor even the heartbreak of seeing people leave. Nor is it even how pastors must, at the same time, draw from the resources of theology; management and leadership thought; and diversity, equity, and inclusion — all while navigating a dicey political climate.

Pastoral expectations can be flat-out overwhelming. But my reason for stepping aside is simply because the time feels right. Today, I’m able to pass the baton with much hope through a community that will continue to live out and pursue the good news of liberation and wholeness.

Black to the Future

by José Humphreys III 12-26-2022
‘On earth as it is in Wakanda’ can be made flesh in our world today.
A 3D cartoon illustration of a Black man points to the sky with a smile as he wears a virtual reality headset. He is surrounded by vibrant shapes.

As Good As Possible / Shutterstock

DNA RESEARCH HAS been a sacred journey of mine for the last 10 years. What started as an exercise in building my family tree evolved into a global adventure unearthing my West African roots. Little did I know that more than 50 percent of my ethnic heritage traces back to West Africa through Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon (connected to the Bamileke people).

The African roots of the Puerto Rican story often remain obscure. Like many Puerto Ricans, I was taught a one-dimensional story of my heritage. Puerto Ricans often, with beaming pride, share their connection to the cultural heritage of Spain or their Indigenous roots, namely the Taino Indigenous peoples. But, for many, the African strands of identity are held at a distance, even suppressed like a muted djembe beat.

Giving Thanks for the Sacred Supply Chain

by José Humphreys III 10-31-2022
Entering into the holiday season with an Indigenous approach to gratitude.
A break in a canopy of green trees shows the clear blue skies, outlined in the shape of a human head looking upward.

Jorm Sangsorn / iStock

AT THANKSGIVING, MILLIONS of us across the country gather around tables. Gratitude will be expressed for blessings both great and small, which indeed is an opportunity to trace the goodness that enfolds our daily lives. Gratitude is one of the more ancient practices of our human society. It has long been observed across different religions, researched in the field of psychology, and mused over by philosophers. Orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

One of my most formative perspectives on gratitude comes from Indigenous practice. Indigenous cultures in the Americas have observed collective practices of gratitude that have long preceded our legislated day of thanks. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois or the Six Nations, have a daily Thanksgiving Address recited by school children just before classes begins. This is a practice author Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “an allegiance to gratitude.” The address uses gratitude to trace life-sustaining provision to the Creator, to the community, and to every food and water source, through every plant, every creature, and even the land itself. Gratitude is essentially ecological this way.

More Than a Comeback Story

by José Humphreys III 08-02-2022
Reducing groups of people to "just" the struggle is a way of shrinking their stories.
An illustration of a head opening in half, with flowers flourishing to one side and wilting on the other.

Dusan Stankovic / Getty Images

I RECENTLY LISTENED to a riveting podcast with therapist Chichi Agorom, author of The Enneagram for Black Liberation, who centered Black liberation and well-being. She described her own desire in our society to be known beyond the “resilient Black woman” label, and she wanted to cultivate spaces that embraced Black liberation in the form of ease, rest, and wholeness.

In a world that can often reduce Black people to stories of grit and resilience, it took time for me to realize how resilience could be a constricting filter in telling our stories. Resilience undoubtedly makes for compelling drama, because we love a good comeback story. We feel buoyant when hearing about the person who spent 10 years in solitary confinement but somehow integrated back into society. Or the refugee who fled war-torn circumstances and, against all odds, made a life for themselves and future generations in a new land. Or the inner-city student who graduated first in their class despite an underfunded school. Hollywood makes a living from stories like Homeless to Harvard and The Pursuit of Happyness.

While we all need stories of hope, reducing groups of people to just the struggle is a way of shrinking their stories. In her popular Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described her first encounter with her American college roommate. Her roommate was surprised that, as a Nigerian, Adichie enjoyed listening to popular singer Mariah Carey or that she even knew how to use basic appliances. Yet, in an almost confessional tone, Adichie described her own trip to Guadalajara, Mexico. Prior to visiting, she had envisioned people in Mexico desperately clawing their way out to cross the U.S. border. Instead, what she witnessed was a city with beautiful people, thriving businesses, and a deeply rooted culture.

How to Be a Healthier Faith Activist

by José Humphreys III 06-06-2022
Part of the journey to wholeness is listening to the body God made.
Illustration of a human face overlaid over the edge of an ear

Illustration by Matt Chase

NEW YORKERS CAN show up late to the party when it comes to slowing down with the summer. Even with the haze and humidity conspiring for an unholy pairing, thickening the air, and lathering our skyscrapers—our hustle remains undeterred. We might pause momentarily in the caress of the cool air leaking out of department store foyers. Still, many of us only begrudgingly slow down.

Fight as we might, our bodies are always communicating. Sending messages. Receiving them. Storytelling and processing the world. Heaven and life continue to stream data vying for our attention by different means. Thomas Merton wrote, “For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of [people].” For Merton, this data could land unbeknownst to us. Many BIPOC folks, however, have experienced this sense of knowing through the body. It is something many contemplative activists are also reclaiming as part of an abolitionist heritage.

The Howard Thurman Question That Changed My Faith

by José Humphreys III 03-23-2022
How the theologian and mystic called the American church back to Jesus.
Illustration of round, flat stones in the shape of a question mark

Illustration by Matt Chase

SEVENTY-FOUR YEARS AGO, scholar, mystic, and pastor Howard Thurman gave a lecture series at Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin, Texas. The series would become the basis for his seminal book Jesus and the Disinherited. One of Thurman’s students, Martin Luther King Jr., reportedly traveled with a copy of Thurman’s book. Through his writings and teachings, Thurman was a mentor and chaplain for many activists during the civil rights movement.

Jesus and the Disinherited continues to inspire many contemplatives and activists and has profoundly shaped my own approach to ministry. The main inspiration comes through a question Thurman posed to American Christianity: “What, then, is the word of the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs against the wall?” Thurman’s question confronted the fact that American Christianity was, as historian Vincent Harding put it, a “strange mutation” away from the teachings and ethics of Jesus. Jesus, who was raised in the poor village of Nazareth out of the mainstream of Roman culture. Jesus, who was Galilean, which meant that even among the Jews, Jesus and his people were considered outcasts. Jesus, who spent many of his days moving from town to town touching lepers, transgressing boundaries, befriending Samaritans, and turning over the tables on corrupt economic practices in the temple. In light of Jesus’ ministry, Thurman was challenging an American Christianity that was rampantly materialistic and segregationist, looming above the daily experiences of the disinherited. Thurman’s writings demonstrated how a path-altering question can help inoculate our faith from harmful (American) mutations and point us back to the integrity of Jesus’ Way.

Yet Here We Are Together

by José Humphreys III 12-29-2021
Every story and every person is sacred. And this is no small thing.
Illustration of a seed sprouting inside a pink and orange heart

Illustration by Jennifer Heuer

STROLLING THROUGH MY neighborhood in East Harlem recently, I noticed whole blocks that felt almost desolate. Along 3rd Avenue I saw stretches of sidewalk once bustling with small businesses, street vendors, the smell of incense, and the sound of West African music, now abandoned amid the echoes of what was.

As a citizen of these barrio streets, the feeling I get is a form of ecological despair. And while some of these places of disinheritance were there before, it seems to have gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. The glitz of gentrification fails to mask increased homelessness, open substance use, and the fatigue many parents and caretakers have experienced, even after the mandated quarantine ended.

At the height of the pandemic, I remember someone telling me, “We’re all in the same water but not the same boat.” Yes, it’s true, the privileged and those who are poor have been hit by the pandemic in multiple ways, but the impact is always felt differently among the most vulnerable. Yet here we are together—a part of the same ecosystem. I’ve done funerals for the poor and the privileged alike; grief has a way of making us feel more tender and more human.

Cooking Up Meaning

by José Humphreys III 10-07-2014
"Chef," written and directed by Jon Favreau

CHEF IS A small-budget film with an all-star cast and artful storytelling. Jon Favreau, who also directed Iron Man, stars in his own film as a head chef named Carl Casper at an acclaimed restaurant in Los Angeles. Casper is left in a vocational tailspin after a scathing review and a public meltdown. He loses his inspiration and finds himself in an existential crisis.

In Chef Casper’s quest to recover his culinary mojo, he takes a trip to Miami and buys a used food truck. The film plays on the power of relationships in a messy, winding, but authentic path. Chef Casper’s community—his ex-wife, his son, and his best friend—are invited into the one thing Casper loves to do, demonstrating how community, at its best, can propel us on the way we should go.

Each truck stop on the journey back to California fills Chef Casper with new vision and adds distinctive ingredients. He makes his way to once again bring beauty and flourishing back to his street corner of the world.

My small group at church watched Chef together and bonded over it. We explored themes of vocation—how we can contribute to flourishing through the distinctive things “we’re good at.” And how activism isn’t just about waving the proverbial picket sign; it also can be about loving what we do with great friends.