WMU domestic violence minister draws from childhood

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RICHMOND, Va. – How do an abusive childhood, Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) involvement and harp music merge into a ministry aimed at addressing domestic violence issues?

For Jocelyn Henry-Whitehead, it’s the story of her turbulent childhood being transformed into practical ministry geared toward others who suffer the trauma of domestic violence.

“I literally was born into domestic violence,” Henry-Whitehead quietly reflected. “My father was a pastor; my mother was a pastor’s wife. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and our home was just total chaos.

“Every day, I always walked on eggshells as a child,” she acknowledged, “being anxious, ashamed and feeling embarrassed.”

Noting that her family “lived right in the church parsonage,” Henry-Whitehead said, “Domestic violence was right next door to the church. We would come out of the house and then go into the church and hear my father preach the Word of God. It was very challenging growing up in that environment.”

As a child, she recalls playing the piano to help comfort her mother who was often sad and depressed. She said her mother taught her and her brother to sing “O How I Love Jesus” amid the struggles of their family life.

Affirming that her mother “was able enough to plant that seed in our spirit that Jesus loves us,” she said, “Now as an adult, that song really feeds me in times of distress or in times of joy.”

Henry-Whitehead later learned to play the harp, even converting her mother’s sewing chair that her father purchased in the 1950s into her stool for harp performances – a vivid reminder of her past struggles and eventual victory through Christ.

“Over the years, I have played the harp in hospitals, at the bedside and in the halls because it becomes comforting,” she said. She currently plays her harp at a geriatric hospital in Virginia and on the behavioral health floor of a local hospital, noting that those ministry opportunities have brought additional comfort.

She attended Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) because it was the furthest place from home she could go for undergraduate work. Afterwards, she didn’t return home.

Full circle

Her plans abruptly changed during her senior year at VCU when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and she decided to move back to Baltimore to be with her mother. Another unexpected change came when for Henry-Whitehead when a friend told her that the Baltimore City Police Department was looking for minorities and females to fill available police officer positions.

“When I got on the street as a police officer, the calls that I was handling were domestic violence calls,” she said. “So it went from the police coming to my house to the part where I was the police officer coming to someone’s house for domestic violence. It just seemed like it was going full circle.

While she was in college, she met her future husband who was planning to go to law school. But a year after they got married, her husband received a call to ministry.

“Fear struck me because I knew that my dad was a pastor, a minister and what I had come out of,” she said. “It was just hard for me to think that I could possibly be going back into that cycle with him.”

As she and her husband Robert approach 40 years of marriage, God has turned her role as a pastor’s wife into ongoing ministry opportunities.

“We have to become who God calls us to be,” she emphasized. “We have to be the light of the world and we have to meet people where they are in order to even spread the Word of God to them.”

Pursuing ministry

Over the years as a police officer, educator, administrator and pastor’s wife, Henry-Whitehead said she has seen how domestic violence impacts the community and students. She shares information about domestic violence and practical ministry responses.

Through her involvement in Sisters Who Care, a resource for African American congregations through WMU of Virginia (WMUV), Henry-Whitehead serves on WMUV’s Hope Team: Domestic Violence.

“Domestic violence is not only a woman’s issue but it’s a man’s issue too. It’s a children’s issue; it’s a family issue,” Henry-Whitehead noted. In her role with WMUV’s Hope Team, she has the opportunity to speak about domestic violence awareness in churches and conferences across Virginia.

“Now as a pastor’s wife, I even see that I have a role and a platform not only in the African-American community but I have a voice to share,” Henry-Whitehead said. She has served alongside her husband at New Zion Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va., for the past 28 years.

Considering her childhood, Henry-Whitehead said her parents would have done better had they known better.

“If they knew the impact to my brother and myself, they would have done differently,” she said. “It’s really a matter of heightened awareness, it’s a call to knowledge. I really do think that God has called us this way to influence the world and to look at missions from the standpoint of actually what’s happening in the world that surrounds us.”

For Henry-Whitehead, that means pursuing every available opportunity “to have a voice for those who might not have a voice.”

Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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