I’m originally from Louisiana, bayou boy, grew up in Washington Parish. People often ask where I’m from and I will say, “Right between nowhere and nothing.” My father’s family are Methodists and my biological mother’s family were Pentecostal and apostolic—so, two extreme realities. I kind of find myself in the middle. I went to Ohio University for my first year of college, and from Ohio to the University of Pennsylvania, to do my undergraduate degree in economics. It was in Philadelphia that I began to deal with this identity of calling, or purpose, and really began to wrestle with it. I could just not fathom how God would have need of me.
I think we are driven into faith traditions based on our families of origin. Christianity was my choice. I embraced it, and I went off to study religion and wrestle with the call. I found myself at Harvard Divinity School.
In the summer of ’99 I had the opportunity to go to Ghana for six weeks, part of a study with a group that was doing work on HIV and AIDS. I landed in Kumasi, at the children’s hospital, and the six weeks in Ghana changed my life. I went from scholar to humanitarian. I looked in the face of death. I looked into the face of the poor. I saw my calling: that my work is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Not that I am some radical. There are some people who really need help and they need support and they don’t know how to get it. There are people who have resources and support that could give it. So how do we bring these two realities together? What can I do?
I came back and I took my first pastorate in Boston at Mt. Olive Church a year later as an interim pastor. I became engaged with a gentleman by the name of Deval Patrick, who decided to run for governor of Massachusetts. I headed all of his faith outreach. My work with the governor gave me exposure to the Obama campaign, and in ’08 I was asked if I could do some work with the campaign. I said sure. We needed to dip into the faith community and deliver that the president is a very strong man of faith. His faith does not separate him from his office of president, it strengthens him. We delivered a message that he is the president of the United States and not the pastor of the United States. Those are two very different roles.
This museum has been around in concept for 15 years. Deverra Beverly still lives in the Robert Brooks Homes, and serves on the board of commissioners on the Chicago Housing Authority. She and [public housing resident] Beatrice Jones were talking about Chicago’s Plan for Transformation, and that they were tearing down traditional public housing. She said, what are we gonna do? How are our grandchildren and great-grandchildren going to know that we existed as a community?
They had a vision. Four years ago, right after the campaign, I found myself meeting with them to see whether or not it’s a marriage. They sold me, and I guess I sold them, and here we are building something remarkable.
I went and I saw the building and I closed my eyes. I could hear the children in the playgrounds and I thought about all of the stories and all of the lives. That building—the Jane Addams Homes opened in ’38—was predominantly occupied by people of European descent, and by 2002 it was predominantly occupied by people of African descent. I thought about what it looked like from Jewish to Polish to Italian to African-American, every race and ethnic group having some kind of footprint in this space. And I got it.
Shortly after taking this job—still wrestling about how I was going to be able to get this done, how am I going to raise $20 million, and all of these incredible promises that have been made—I’d gone to speak to a fifth-grade social studies class. We were going through one of the books and we were looking at the Native Americans. The reservations where they lived were no longer in the books. They were all supplemental material. They were no longer in the actual text. And it hit me: If this story is no longer told, it is a possibility that one day this story will no longer be in the text. It will be supplemental material. I want to make sure it is included in the text and in the narrative of America.