The Power of Love
By Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner
© 1989 BridgeBuilder. This is a reprint of an article originally featured in BridgeBuilder Magazine, published in Washington, DC. It is made available through this site solely as a research tool and not for purchase.
I NEVER, IN MY WILDEST IMAGINATIONS, thought there was power in this world greater than political power. The only thing greater, in my thinking, was money power. But then I discovered another power, and a greater kind of success. The only way I can tell you about this power and success is to relate a little story. My own.
My story starts, oddly enough, almost 368 years ago in Jamestown , Virginia . A ship arrived in that port one day with twenty new settlers. Among them were two people of African descent, according to historians. They were Isabella and Anthony- not slaves, but a couple who were coming, like everybody else, to find freedom.
Isabella and Anthony were not my physical ancestors but in a way I count them as spiritual ancestors. They wanted freedom and, at that time at least, they had arrived at the right shore. In that period, from 1619 to 1660, slavery did not exist in this country. It was not until the Industrial Revolution began, when textiles became a major export and cotton a big cash crop, that a cheap labor force was needed. This was a disastrous turning point for blacks, because whites don’t do too well as indentured servants. They can run off and assimilate into the population. Indians got sick. My people, the blacks, were strong and visible.
There were three American institutions which built slavery: the economic system, the political system and the religious system. This new economy needed bodies, a lot of them. Then it had to be justified, so white landowners had to make slavery work under the law. You don’t enslave “people” so if it’s written into your Constitution that slaves are not persons then it’s no problem. So we legalized it saying that slaves were three-fifths of a person. Then America had to adjust its religious system. There developed a theology that stated there is something wrong with people who are colored.
So this system rolled on until 1865 when the slaves were freed, yet a system of segregation remained at the turn of this century. In World War I, my grandfather along with many other men of color, went to war for this country. They went to European cities and found that they were treated differently. When they returned, many of them refused to settle back in Mississippi or Louisiana, where we were from, but in northern cities. They sent word south that there was a better life up north. People were treated like people, and migration began.
It was in 1940 that my parents left Louisiana for California , to find work in the shipping industry. The problem was, after World War II, white guys came back to claim the jobs of those colored folks who were getting work in California . So, many blacks lost their jobs. Some of them had to go on welfare.
In that kind of system, you couldn’t be married and be on welfare, so my father left the family, left my mother and five of us kids. Ours was a life of poverty. I never really knew my father.
But I knew a mother who had this amazing faith I guess that with five kids and a third grade education you have to believe in something. She believed God was going to make a way where there was no way. As a little girl, I couldn’t understand. When you’re a child and you’re hungry, faith simply does not make sense.
I said, “If God is gonna make a way out for us, could he start with breakfast?”
But my mother never stopped believing. She never ceased telling us that things would be better.
Now my eyes began to open to the environment we lived in: drugs, poverty, people going nowhere. My escape was in books. In books I could dream, travel, be in a whole family. I’d take a flashlight to bed at night and read and travel all over the world.
My attitude about God was that he was something that old, sick, tired, failing people needed. I was an A student; I didn’t need God. My mother did and so she went to church. As soon as I could get out of going to mother’s Pentecostal church I did. At thirteen, I told her, “I’ve had enough. I cannot deal with a church that is so emotional. I’m going to the library.”
By the time I got to college in the 1960’s, I believed I had shaped a way out for myself. I was the only one in my neighborhood, let alone in my house, who went to college. I became educated and shaped in the philosophy by Berkeley, California. I was surrounded by those in the free speech movement and the budding of the anti-Vietnam war movement. Angela Davis was one of my heroines. I personally knew members of the Black Panther Party.
And, of course, the civil rights movement shaped my philosophy as did the women’s movement. If you need a label, I would have been considered a progressive, left-leaning Democrat.
My two mottos in life were simple. The first was: Do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody.
The second motto had to do with God. God and I had an agreement: He doesn’t bother me and I don’t bother him (unless I’m really in trouble).
Because I was raised with a strong sense of right and wrong, I believed you had to give something back to the community. To me, every black who “made it” was a kind of representative for those who didn’t make it. I believed there were a lot of people counting on me. I never lost the sense that I was in college, getting a better education, headed to what I considered a life of freedom and power, because I was representing a lot of people like me. So I gave back a great deal in my commitment to causes.
The flaw in my philosophy was that I loved causes, but I hated people. When Dr. King was assassinated, whatever hatred I’d felt up to that point for white people was clearly justified.
Now I was a civilized human being- and whatever exposure I had to the church suggested that you really couldn’t go around openly hating people. But underneath I had a seething rage. Outwardly, l was congenial, charming; I could get in anywhere, open any door I wanted because I knew how to influence people. I held one of the most powerful jobs that a woman could have in Washington at that time. Basically, I was on my way to attaining power.
Power, for me, meant not having people in front of me who could say no. I would be my own boss. I would know people who were influential, who got the work done. I was going to make sure that people who came from backgrounds like mine had advocates, people to fight for them.
The attitude compelled me to run in and out of the White House, in and out of the Senate, doing whatever it took to get the Congressional Black Caucus and the members of Congress as connected as they needed to be to get support for their positions. That’s why I was there.
So, like a lot of people, I looked like the essence of success on the outside. I knew what I was doing. I was articulate, and I could talk to anybody, from the premier of a country to a garbage collector. But soon, people became a means to an end.
I didn’t want friends because when you’re on your way somewhere friends are a drag. You don’t really want to get hung up in a lot of accountability and all that stuff. I didn’t really need family, because- well, in my position, I was the one sending home money. I was the one who had made it with little material help from my family.
The sad thing was, I also did not want to spend a lot time with myself; busyness is so absorbing. I had a black book of telephone numbers that people would envy personal numbers of some very powerful people. But if I was alone at night and I wanted to talk about how I was feeling, there was no one. And there was really nobody to call.
I had boxed myself in so tight that I didn’t want to be known. And I was deeply lonely.
Unlike my grandfather and people like him who were sharecroppers, I really had arrived. I was making over $50,000 a year in 1981, and I was just 34. Then why was I so miserable?
Once I faced my inner emptiness, a real inner battle began. I couldn’t call home. I couldn’t call friends, because I didn’t have time for any. I couldn’t even call myself, because I didn’t really know myself. I’d work so many hours that I’d fall in bed so exhausted I didn’t have to think.
At the pinnacle of success, I was totally disconnected from everything, everything that would represent a base of support, affirmation, encouragement. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live either.
Over a period of four to six months, I gradually eliminated the possibility of suicide. But I was in a gray despair. I had to do something soon.
One night I woke up in a cold sweat. I said, “God, if you’re there, and I’m really not sure youare anymore I need help. I don’t even know what the problem is. I feel like I’ve got everything, but I have nothing. I’ve got money in the bank, I’m single, I’ve got circles of power relationships. And everybody is coming to me for something. Help me…”
The episode I’m about to tell sounds like superstition, and if it wasn’t my life I’d say it was total fiction.
Shortly after that prayer, something inside me began to change. I could now see that many of the people who were involved in “causes” were anti-people, just like me. The people you thought of as kindred spirits were reaching out for the power, but were not giving anything back. Many people in top positions around the country had forgotten why they were there. And these were the people I was busting my behind for!
One afternoon, I returned to my office and picked up the usual stack of phone messages. Normally, you shuffle through and find the most important ones. For whatever reason, I chose to return a call to a man whose name I did not even know and who had no organization.
The man’s name was Gene Browning. And when I introduced myself, he said, “God is building a family.” I said, “So what? Is that what you called me about?” He kept on talking and he said, “God is building a family made of people who love each other and who love him above every other love of their lives. All kinds of people are in this family- athletes, politicians, entertainers, educators, doctors.”
I said, “They do what?”
He said, “They love one another.”
I said, “Well, then I’ll give you the names of most of the members of Congress ’cause they could use it.”
He kept talking, and I really didn’t have time, but I didn’t want to hang up on him. Now I’m not above that. But for some odd reason I could not put the phone down.
So I said to him, “I’ve got to go but…”, he’d said he was from California , “… who do you know in the Bay area who I might know?”
He gave the name of one of the few people I trusted, the wife of a man who is now in Congress. I put him on hold and called this woman to see if she really knew a Gene Browning. She says, “Oh, Gene Browning! Whenever my husband and I are in trouble he always seems to call us.”
From then on, Gene kept calling me and calling me. His wife would send me cookies. He’d stop by. I finally met his family and they just showered me with love. In several months I became so struck by this very unusual kind of real love and caring.
I couldn’t understand their motivation. Gene and his family read the Bible, but didn’t push it on me. They didn’t wear “Try God” buttons. Gene and his wife were good looking, business types, articulate, bright and very sensitive. I couldn’t categorize them.
At about that time, I took a two-month leave of absence. I needed to figure out what was going on. This was the first time anybody other than my family loved me and didn’t want anything.
I spent a lot of time with Gene’s family. I studied the Bible with them, because I wanted to know, “Who is their God?” The God I knew didn’t put food on the table for hungry children. But I didn’t understand what was compelling these people to love a total stranger.
In the process of studying the Bible, I asked all kinds of questions. I found myself reading about a relationship, about God’s son, Jesus Christ, dying that I would be free. The Bible did not seem to focus on individual sins: adultery, stealing, lying- but about the nature of human persons- that we are born in separation from God. Jesus became an opportunity for me, for all of us, in a personal relationship, to know God.
As I started exploring the person Jesus, there was a spiritual connection that took me beyond intellectual curiosity. I saw a Christ who says, “Come to me if you’re thirsty.” I was thirsty. And here was a person who accepted me just as I was.
So I said to myself, “What God is calling me to do in his word is not trust him willy-nilly but to check out the evidence. Is Jesus who he says he is? Is he all he says he is?
But first, I had an even bigger problem. I had such rage, such hatred. I was mad at God, mad at my mother that we were poor, mad because my father left us to fend for ourselves in a dog-eat-dog environment. I was mad at all men, and swore I’d never get married or be dependent on a man. And I couldn’t stand white people, period- but white women, southern women…I thought every lynching that took place was because of a white woman.
So I was carrying all this seething anger like a cancer that fed on itself. Hatred eats up the person who hates. I said, “How do I deal with my hatred?”
The interesting thing about getting in touch with God is that you don’t instantly become different from what you are. In other words, if you’re a nasty person, you’re still nasty you just love God. If you are intellectual, you pursue your focus on theology with great intellectual curiosity. You are whatever you are.
So I was connecting personally to Christ, but I was still angry. And I didn’t know what to do. So I decided to look at things Christ said.
I saw that I had to confess my need for him. He said that he died for me that I’d be free- that is, that I would never have to be in continual bondage to hatred, rage, madness, anxiety, fear. He offered me an opportunity to be free, to be connected, if I would allow him to control my life. Jesus’ words told me that, by faith, by trusting my life to him, he would become in me what I could not otherwise be.
That’s basically the way I prayed.
I don’t remember any dazzling lights going off. There was no thunderclap. Nothing exceptional happened. But for the first time in years, I could sleep, feeling a peace I had never known.
In many ways I still had to come to grips with my life. Back at work, for instance, I was still known as the “B#%*H of Washington” because of my quick temper. But now I had arelationship! What was I going to do? I now understood I had a different value system.
So I struggled with that. But I soon found out one thing: God takes whatever you are, and he uses you.
It wasn’t long before God put a man in my life, Tom Skinner. Probably any other man would have left me by now, because I’m still who I am. I still can’t stand men, and I’m married to a man who adores women. So for years we had a problem.
But God knows exactly what you need. He put Tom and me together. We now work together on a mission that allows me to use every skill, every contact, every bit of background that I’ve ever had- except it’s for God’s purpose now.
In the years since I opened my heart to Christ, I’ve continued to struggle with questions. How can I learn to love a black man- who might leave? Or white, southern women? Or Republicans? How do I love me? I’ve found that walking in the midst of conflict is where my faith has kept a growing edge.
Last summer, I went to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, because I honestly believe that some people have to take the role of reconcilers and healers in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We must be bridges to both sides.
Today, however, I realize that no matter who gets in the White House, the lives of poor people will not change. That is to say, God calls us to a kingdom and to principles that are alien and in conflict with the political order, the social order and our cultural beliefs.
In other words, if you obey the word of God, you’re really not left-wing, or right-wing, you’re not liberal, or conservative. He has offered me an opportunity to reach out to people just as they are, to be a healing presence among warring factions. To love.
In a very troubled world, there is no other power as great.
© 1989 BridgeBuilder. This is a reprint of an article originally featured in BridgeBuilder Magazine, published in Washington, DC.