"The Maasai Tribes of Kenya and Tanzania are revered as some of the most intelligent and accomplished cultures on the African culture. Their warriors were among the most fearsome, and their traditions meaningful and enduring. Since the very beginning, elders and villagers from neighboring tribes have greeted each other with 'Kasserian Ingeria': 'How are the children?' The well being of their children is most prized over all. It is still the tribe's greeting and their gravest concern. We must, likewise, understand the urgency of that inquiry, 'How are the children?' Our village is broken, and we must – all of us – take ownership of it's healing. This is our greatest concern: healing our broken village."
–Dr. William M. Young Sr.
From the streets and hard times in prison, out of molestation and domestic abuse, up from murder and incompleted suicide, living in the shadows of HIV and more – they came to tell their stories. These would be silent no more.
Nearly 200 filled the University of Tennessee Student Alumni Center last Thursday, Oct. 4, for the daylong conference. Social service agency administrators offered statistical perspective of Memphis and Shelby County on rising numbers of teen pregnancy, new HIV cases, domestic abuse, increasing suicide numbers among African-American youth, and "rampant violence and crime in a community turned against itself."
"So many of our problems have their genesis in absence of the father in the home," said Dr. William M. Young Sr., conference facilitator and UT collaborator. "Our children are destroying themselves and each other because that father was not in the home to cover and guide – to protect and provide leadership in the household. Angry, resentful, single and deserted mothers are raising angry, resentful children with all this 'baby mama drama.'
"We must intercede," said Young. "The village is broken, and destruction is impending unless we get serious about healing the village. Thus, our theme: 'Enough Is Enough!'"
UT agreed to partner with Dr. Young and the Emotional Healing Centers of Tennessee via a sponsorship, which included venue, free lunch and no admission cost.
'Breaking the silence'
Tammy Walker-Smith has always been a beauty. You have only to look at her young photos to realize that. It belies the incredible story of survival that she shared with conference attendees. She was brought up in a church-going family, and the church is where her horrific ordeal begins.
"When I was 14 years old, my pastor began molesting me. He would have sex with me several times a week sometimes. And I didn't tell anyone for a long time because I was told not to tell. It was a secret, but my secret was killing me. It wasn't until I was 17 that I stood up to him and said 'no more,'" said Walker-Smith.
"One day at school, I shared my secret with a real close guy friend of mine at the time. He told me, 'You have to tell someone. You can't keep this secret any longer.' Well, I did try to tell my mother and grandmother, but I was told not to say another word about it. I could not cause trouble for our pastor. My mother did not move me from that church. She did not protect me."
For 20 long years, Walker-Smith kept her secret and told no one. Her mother ended up marrying the pastor, and the couple remains together today.
"I went into a downward spiral of depression, failed suicide attempts," said Walker-Smith. "I knew I needed to get some help. I took medication for my depression, and Pastor Dianne Young and Bishop Young counseled me. And the Lord brought me out and made me whole again. I married a wonderful man, a pastor and a loving man of God who appreciates me and accepts my past."
Children must be encouraged to speak out, she said. "We must believe them when they tell us that someone is abusing them. We must not force them to keep secrets. Secrets have broken the village."
Vanita Bailey's story
"My life was broken from the day I was born. My mother did not want me. She and my dad kept my brothers and sisters, but they did not want me," said Vanita Bailey.
She was given to a lady down the street – close enough to see her house and her family as they sat on the doorstep. It was her father, she said, who told her mother to give her away. She was left to wonder what was so bad about her that made her unwanted by her parents.
"I became a teen and started looking for someone to love me. I really wanted to be loved. I needed the love my father denied me. And so, there were men, lots of men. I became pregnant at 16," said Bailey.
"I had my daughter, but I still wanted a man to love me. I met the man who would later become my husband. He was handsome, charming, brought me flowers and gifts. I knew I had found 'the one,' or so I thought. We had a nice house. He was a good provider for our children."
She was completely blindsided when the physical abuse began.
"He had me up against the wall, choking me, and I thought I was going to die right there with my children watching. The violence continued and escalated. But I didn't leave. My children saw their mother beat up and kicked by a man who was supposed to love her. It was hurtful, but I stayed in that abusive situation, trying to keep my marriage together."
The day her husband pulled a loaded gun on her daughter was the day she knew she had to leave. No one was going to hurt her children.
"Some of you women sitting here today know you live in an abusive household," Bailey told the conference attendees. "So many women have waited too late to leave and were killed because they didn't think their abuser would kill them. But they were wrong.
"Please, please, please break away today. Don't go back home. Don't return. Don't let your children return. Leave today. Decide right now that this is over. I beg you, don't go back."
'A real chance to make a fresh start'
Agency administrators appealed to conference attendees to go beyond established limitations and offer special assistance to men and women trying to begin their lives again after incarceration.
"When someone is released from prison, there is a stigma that follows them," said Stanley Lipford, administrator of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Reentry. "They can't get work because ex-felons are not usually given the opportunity to work. They can't take care of their families if they can't get jobs. And a man doesn't feel like a man when he can't take care of his family. I'm asking those who can help to give these men and women real chance to make a fresh start.
Shelby County Sheriff's Gang Specialist Terrell Johnson sought to encourag ex-felons in attendance with his own life story.
"My mother hung around with Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson – that crowd up in Detroit. She was very beautiful, and there were a lot of men in her life. There were five of us. We never knew who our fathers were. They could be anybody," said Johnson.
"My mother dropped us offer in North Memphis and never looked back. I got out in those streets. Became a multi-millionaire at age 14. Drove a $100,000 vehicle with no driver's license. Sold drugs and carried guns on me at all times. There was death on my life.
"I talk to young guys 13-14. They don't expect to live to be 17. Death on their lives, out there in the street. I was given a 35-year sentence, but Jesus gave me another chance."
'More than a moment'
Dr. Young called the conference more than just a single event.
"We must deal openly and urgently with the things that are breaking our village," he said.
"Kasserian Ingeria – How are the children? How do the children fare? Is it well with our children? We must answer a resounding 'NO,' because it is not well with our children. When the village is broken, the children are not well. This conference is more than a moment. It is a movement. And we must be about the business of healing the village so our children can be healed.
The next conference event is slated for January.