The PC(USA) and its partners are transforming lives and livelihoods in New York, California and Zimbabwe
by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Engagement & Support | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Mama O is a wounded healer.
Her moment of greatest need intersected with the critical healing and support services provided by Black Women’s Blueprint, a civil and human rights organization specifically focused on the needs of Black women and girls since 2008. At 65 years of age, she is among the eldest survivors of sexual violence in the organization.
And now, she’s returning the gift.
Despite facing not only the lifelong physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual trauma that results from sexual violence but also the impact of cancer and a host of other health concerns that ravage her body, Mama O continues to show up at — and for — Black Women’s Blueprint as a pillar of strength for other survivors, both young and old.
Gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing are helping Black Women’s Blueprint in its vital and singular mission to take action on economic justice issues and other forms of oppression against Black women and girls, provide tools for social justice organizing, and deliver educational resources and support services to women like Mama O. Through the work leaders seek to address the unique struggles of Black women and girls within the context of the larger racial justice concerns of Black communities.
“Through all of Mama O’s ups and downs, she returns to community, holistically and ever-present,” said Sevonna M. Brown, the organization’s associate executive director. “From being an outreach member to going back into crisis, she has continued to contribute creative healing arts and spiritual intercessory prayer on behalf of our survivor communities, carrying us through transitions, challenges and triumphs.”
Because Mama O is also a gifted craftswoman — well known and respected in the community — Black Women’s Blueprint was also able to meet her and other women’s need for a space where craftswomen can work, showcase and sell their various traditional and contemporary craft forms, such as pottery, jewelry, wood, metals, glass, weaving, quilting, dollmaking and religious crafts.
But above all, Mama O is a survivor who uses her art to heal both herself and other members of the community.
“We strengthen communities through centers and programs that focus on defending the rights of women and girls and securing access to reproductive health,” said Brown. “We create and transfer knowledge and expand and democratize theory and pedagogy towards ending gender-based violence. Our work, across generations, gender and borders, is rooted in cultural traditions that affirm the dignity and rationale of human life.”
Headquartered since 2010 in Brooklyn, New York, Black Women’s Blueprint currently operates a number of community-based initiatives, among them a mobile healing unit called Sistas Van that has worked mostly in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Sistas Van, which the organization created and currently manages, is a trauma-informed, survivor-centered, wheelchair-accessible and all-gender-affirming space that hosts regular healing circles for local neighborhood residents, provides comprehensive individual counseling services, and fills the need for support services across the broad spectrum of the sexual and reproductive health concerns of Black women and girls.
“It is precisely because of what Black Women’s Blueprint is doing in the community to address the specific needs of Black women and girls that we were attracted to their work,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the organization’s partner. “One of the powerful things for us is that they are incredibly tactile. They are hands-on in the street, lifting up issues that we in the Church are not talking about. We in the PC(USA) have just had an issue with listening to the concerns of Black women and girls. These are folks that recognize those issues.”
Johnson’s reference was to a report that was prepared by the PC(USA)’s Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force, organized by Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, which included 11 items the group recommended for approval by the 224th General Assembly (2020). Because this year’s General Assembly was held online, thereby dramatically reducing the business that could be considered, the task force’s report was postponed until the assembly next meets with the group’s terms having been extended until it is dismissed by the 225th General Assembly (2022).
In its report, the task force identified five specific areas of concern, namely the “adultification” of Black girls, gender equality for Black women in ministry/toxic theology, reproductive justice/human rights, LGBTQIA+ equality and cash bail relief. “Adultification” is defined as the criminalization of behavior by Black girls and youth that would otherwise be considered adolescent behavior in other youth, a symptom of overpolicing of Black communities.
“Black Women’s Blueprint speaks directly to many of the issues in the task force’s report, especially in its efforts to bring to the forefront the injustices that Black women and girls receive from the police,” Johnson said. “And despite the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, they continue to be out in the community during COVID-19, recognizing the great needs that are out there. They’re not just addressing issues of trauma but they’re also providing things like food and housing assistance that people need in order to be whole. They are just an incredibly amazing organization.”
Black Women’s Blueprint used its One Great Hour of Sharing grant to enhance its membership’s ongoing pursuit of healing, positive structural change with political education, and individual as well as collective capacity-building for and by Black communities to prevent sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape and other hate crimes. With this project, the organization specifically worked to combat the intensifying effects of hate crimes and other forms of gendered and racialized discrimination on the health and well-being of the Black women and girls across the five boroughs of New York City.
“As a 100% survivor-led organization, our current and prospective client-members were able to regularly navigate a whole host of unpredictable and seemingly dangerous sociopolitical threats,” said Brown. “The grant also enabled us to sustain our status as a key site of refuge and safety within New York City for Black survivors of violence, even in the face of unprecedented federal budget cuts that could dramatically curtail the quality and reach of our services.”
Johnson said that the mission of Black Women’s Blueprint is also consonant with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation.
“One intersection that we see with Matthew 25 is Black Women’s Blueprint’s engagement with those who are considered ‘the least of these,’” said Johnson. “Not that Black women and girls are ‘the least of these,’ but they are often treated as such. As far as dismantling structural racism is concerned, they are living that reality every day. They also recognize that uneven power relationships are connected to poverty, and, in their mission, they deeply understand, live and embody what it means to ‘clothe the naked.’”
Mama O is just one example among the many women who, having become empowered by Black Women’s Blueprint, now bless and lift up others, an ongoing benefit of the organization’s partnership with the PC(USA), for which Brown is especially grateful.
“We want to share with you our gratitude for the work you have done and the continued leadership that the One Great Hour of Sharing and Self-Development of People partnerships have shown over the years,” said Brown. “Although continued progress is needed in the community and the field to think innovatively and to use not only local but national strategies to address the issues of poverty and violence as it impacts women at the margins and those who continue to do the work of bringing our sisters, comrades and allies towards the center to imagine a more liberatory present and future, we are pleased to share that we had incredibly successful outcomes serving survivors in New York. We are hopeful that times will grow brighter, and that we will come out on the other side of this with more wisdom, care, compassion and strategies for healing our communities and walking hand in hand towards a future of greater possibilities and opportunities to center survivors as the key to community thriving and justice.”
Elsewhere in the world, One Great Hour of Sharing gifts are similarly helping to empower women in Zimbabwe during the age of COVID-19 and beyond.
When in May 2020, the president of Zimbabwe announced a two-week extension of the nation’s lockdown, accompanied by the requirement that all of its citizens wear masks in public places, the Presbytery of Zimbabwe of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa reached out to One Great Hour of Sharing partner Presbyterian Disaster Assistance with a proposal for COVID-19 assistance funding.
Because face masks have been prohibitively expensive in Zimbabwe, the presbytery proposed the sewing of face masks as the foundation of a women’s entrepreneurial stimulation program. Among the benefits of the initiative are empowerment, hope, a source of income and a sustainable business model for the women; a meaningful contribution to the fight against the spread of the coronavirus; and affordable masks for all in the community.
Thanks to a grant through One Great Hour of Sharing, the church was able to go from serving 120 families to over 1,700 families per week within a span of three weeks for an average of 6,000 to 6,500 people per week. Immanuel’s program serves mainly homeless, low-income, immigrant families, senior adults, and — since COVID-19 — those who have been laid off or furloughed.
“This church does great justice work,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for National Hunger Concerns for PHP, who witnessed Immanuel’s feeding program firsthand a few years ago. “In the midst of COVID-19, the church’s session decided to increase their food pantry from one morning a week to a six-days-a-week operation to meet the tremendous need in the neighborhood.”
One Great Hour of Sharing benefits the ministries of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Self-Development of People and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Most congregations receive the offering on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday.
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Categories: Matthew 25, Ministry Engagement & Support 2, Peace & Justice, Special Offerings
Tags: black women's blueprint, covid-19, Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force, immanuel presbyterian church, mama o, matthew 25 invitation, One Great Hour of Sharing, pandemic, presbyterian disaster assistance, presbyterian hunger program, Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, sevonna m. brown, sistas van, Special Offerings
Ministries: Special Offerings, Mission Engagement and Support, Gifts & Financial Support, Compassion, Peace and Justice, Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People