When Mercy Meets Forgiveness
“Dad went to the store.” In any other context and in any other family such words would pass without notice. But to a young girl used to seeing her mother suffer at the hand of first words and then physical violence, the implications were more profound. “After a few weeks, I knew he wasn’t coming back”, she remembers. However, as the oldest of three and a child adept at reading and adapting to her surroundings, Alethea knew the abuse was over the day she heard those words.
The daughter of college sweethearts and social workers from Mt. Vernon, New York, community service is in her blood and goes back to her grandmother’s community organizing in North Carolina. “She could have been mayor. They wanted her to run at least”, Alethea said. We were nearly half-way through our interview before Alethea mentioned her grandmother, but it’s evident her presence looms large and is still very much a part of who she is today. As the matriarch to eight children, one can’t help but see some parallels between the woman who help tie her community together so many years ago and the woman who is now concentrating on changing Columbus for the better.
While the desire to give back and help others is what guides Alethea now, it was not necessarily what drove her in the beginning. “I was trying to make friends!”, she remembers. As spouse of a corporate turn-around expert, moving has always been part of her life, and as a consummate outsider, she knows what it’s like to be alone. Whether it was Atlanta, Richmond, or now Columbus, Alethea has always drawn upon her community to anchor her family for however short a time they were there. As a mother to a toddler in Virginia, one of her first forays into giving back was through African-American Moms Network, a tight group of mothers that Alethea formed after moving to Richmond. Drawn together by a shared need of community, the group shared “tips and ideas,” and organized a variety of events and outings. However, most surprising to her was the criticism she received for not organizing more “African-American” centric events for the group, “Whatever that means.” To Alethea, it’s never been about what group you belong to or what you look like, rather, just like her grandmother, it’s about who you are as a person.
The first time she publicly came to terms with the abuse her mother suffered was in 2002 when she and her husband were in the process of adopting their third child. “They wanted to know everything. My entire family history. I was in tears,” she recounted. Nonetheless, it allowed her to come to terms with why her father acted the way he did. “He had a vision for what he believed a successful black man was. He could have been a lawyer, or a doctor. He was clearly smart enough to do it but was never afforded the same opportunities others had.” Still, she is proud of her relationship with him and what they shared together as he got older. “My best memories are just being his daughter. Fishing, visiting him in Florida and just sitting and talking”, she said. It’s an idyllic picture, and one almost forgets the pain he caused early on in her life. Still, she refuses to allow his past actions to label him and admits he changed for the better after the divorce and had by all accounts a successful marriage with his second wife. “Mercy meets forgiveness” is from the eulogy Alethea preached at her Dad’s funeral. She remembers that when she was a child, she broke an expensive television and was afraid that her father would beat her severely. Her father showed her mercy and didn’t beat her and in turn Alethea was able to forgive him later in life.
Unfortunately, the abuse she witnessed as a child would not be the last time Alethea suffered loss. Her brother was murdered several years ago while driving from a party and police were never able to find the assailant. His death is evidence that things can change in an instant, a reminder of the struggles others face and confirmation of the importance of helping those in need, something she has embraced throughout her life.
“Love God, love yourself, love people.” Alethea recounts these words from her mother, but it’s evident they guide her in every facet of life. Whether it’s the YWCA, the Victory Ministries food pantry and clothing ministry, the Faith Life Church nursing home outreach or the African American Male Wellness Initiative, Alethea is focusing on her legacy of giving now that her “hair is getting whiter.” “I will probably pick one main ministry focus, I just haven’t figured out which one yet”, she says. Nonetheless, whether it’s Envision, or her own Hand to Heart Ministries, she has no intention of slowing down, and like her grandmother, she will no doubt instill her resilience and passion for community in her own children. Besides, you never know when they might ask her to be mayor.