José Humphreys III, author of Seeing Jesus in East Harlem: What Happens When Churches Show Up and Stay Put, is a native New-Yorker, ordained minister, and co-founder of Metro Hope Church in New York City.
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Black to the Future
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.