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Mental, physical and spiritual health are interrelated


African American ministry holds first of three forums in celebration of Black History Month

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Terrlyn L. Curry Avery

LOUISVILLE ­— In the first of three forums in recognition of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s celebration of Black History Month, the Rev. Dr. Terrlyn L. Curry Avery, the pastor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, addressed the subject of service, sacrifice or self-care.

The conversation with the Rev. Michael Moore, associate for African American Intercultural Congregational Support in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, began with Moore asking Curry Avery, “When you think about holistic health, what in your view does it mean to be spiritually, emotionally and physically awake?”

Curry Avery replied, “I want to say is that we, especially in the Black church, we’re always good talking about the emotional piece” of the spiritual component.

“I think that sometimes we get that spiritual piece confused with what we need to do emotionally and physically. Because you use the term ‘awake’ and I think that we have a lot more waking up to do in the first place in order to understand that there is a deep connection between the emotional and the physical.”

“One of the things that has happened for Blacks historically is that if you look at the disparities that are there with health, if you go even further back to when we were enslaved, we were not taught to care for our bodies. We were not taught to care for our emotions. As a matter of fact, we were taught to ‘suck it up.’”

Curry Avery says Blacks could not afford to be sick, no matter how sick they were. “We had to still go on out there and we had to work,” she said.  “We were taught to lean on God to help us get through. And of course, God is awesome for helping us to get through, but there is something that we need to do as well.”

“I go back to how, when Moses was at the Red Sea, God said, ‘Well, why are you crying out to me? Use the rod and staff in your hand.’ For us [Blacks], that rod and staff may be going to get some treatment psychologically for the issues that we deal with and understanding that we don’t have to wear this badge of sacrifice.”

According to Curry Avery, this badge of sacrifice is particularly worn by Black women. “As a Black woman, we wear this badge of strength and courage and it’s OK to say that,” she said. “But then when we do that, we don’t get the help that we need, because we think that there’s something wrong with us. We don’t get the help we need if we are experiencing depression or anxiety, or we’re feeling a little overwhelmed and emotional. I think when you use that term ‘awake,’ it’s important for us to understand the ways in which we send ourselves messages that it’s not OK to get help.”

In the conversation that’s been viewed more than 600 times (see it here), Curry Avery addressed the unrealistic expectation of pastors having an answer for everything. “We have to first admit that we don’t have all the answers and not carry that on our shoulders,” she said. “When a parishioner comes to us, we’re supposed to have the answers sometimes — it’s OK to say, I don’t know the answer to that. One of the best things we can do for people is to simply hold space for them — not try to figure it out for them.”


“There are two things that I want to say,” said Curry Avery. “One is around this issue of self-care. Audre Lorde said that caring for myself ‘is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.’ I hope that if we leave with nothing else from this conversation today, I want you to know that self-preservation is for our own good.

“The second is this: We don’t have to solve everybody’s problems because when we try to solve them, it doesn’t open the window for them to understand how to solve their own problems. There’s an African proverb that I often use with people when they’re coming and they’re talking about their issues. I will say, ‘I honor your ability to find the resolution to that problem.’ In that way, it creates an empowerment within them.”

Public trauma

The Rev. Michael Moore

Moore referred next to the public trauma that Blacks are experiencing. “From the murder of Trayvon Martin to Charlottesville to the mass killings at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Black Lives Matter protests and then the January 6 attack on the nation’s capital, these things, while we may not think about them in that way, but these are acts of public trauma,” he said. “We’re all seeing this but we’re not talking about it and how it affects us privately.”

“I think that’s really an important conversation for us to have because there’s something called racial battle fatigue,” said Curry Avery. “With racial battle fatigue, it’s really all about the trauma that we experience every day. It’s beyond seeing a George Floyd murdered when we experience trauma. Every time a cop pulls me over, that’s traumatizing for me and traumatizing, of course, for my kids. If they’re in the background, when I hear about something that’s happened to you or when I’m sitting in a meeting and people are ignoring me when I’m trying to speak — people, those things are traumatic for us because we are thinking about the ways in which our ancestors were treated. And we know that if it happens to the other person who, as [a person] of color, it could just as easily happen to me.”

Mental, physical and spiritual health

According to Curry Avery, these traumatic events can not only affect Black people mentally, but they impact the physical health of Black people.

“There are issues that we experience that cause stress for us and we don’t when we don’t realize it when we go through that,” said Curry Avery. “So as a result, we have heart conditions, we have high blood pressure, and we have some other issues that are related to the stress that we feel. If I’m experiencing stress and my blood pressure goes up, the stress is psychological. The blood pressure is physical. And if I’m not careful, my doctor will assume that I have high blood pressure because I am genetically predisposed, without considering the social and political things, that impact me, that increase my stress, which increases my high blood pressure. So, it’s all interrelated. And when we talk about spiritually, it impacts us spiritually. God again is saying, ‘You have to take care of yourself in this process.’”

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