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A salute to women who embrace the role of community ‘mother’

Bernice Musgrove, 90, is a church mother at Liberal Trinity Church of God in Christ in Jackson, Miss. (Matthew Donaldson)
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At age 90, Bernice Musgrove is still mothering — and not just the children she birthed, or her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is what one feminist calls an “othermother,” women who are committed to caring for young people in their community, whether or not they are blood relatives.

In her book “Black Feminist Thought,” Patricia Hill Collins holds up “othermothers” as crucial members of their communities. They provide whatever they can, from words of encouragement to financial support, to families and children in need. In central Mississippi, where I have lived for four decades, Black women exemplify this tradition.

“Church mothers” fit that role in several Christian denominations. The Church of God in Christ, founded in Mississippi in 1895, embeds the church mother in its structure. “Church mothers became a vehicle for women to remake their religious and social worlds within a framework of piety, devotion, and civic life,” writes Anthea Butler in “Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World.” She adds: “The church mother in the COGIC tradition evolved from an honorary women’s role into something more.”

Musgrove has served as church mother for several decades at Liberal Trinity Church of God in Christ in Jackson, where her late husband was a longtime pastor and bishop.

Musgrove and I spoke recently in the church’s parlor. At Liberal Trinity, church mothers traditionally wear white to services on second and fourth Sundays. When we talked, Musgrove wore a white linen eyelet-collared blouse and skirt. It was impossible to miss the deference she drew from the half-dozen junior church leaders in the building as we walked around the property after our conversation. People respectfully step back for Musgrove.

She continues to lead a Tuesday night women’s Bible study for the church, as she has done for two decades. During the pandemic, she has taught the sessions from home via a telephone conference line.

“I would tell all elderly people: If you can help a young person, whether it’s financial or a word of encouragement, or whether it’s letting them use something that you have that they need, do it,” Musgrove advised. “Sometimes it’s just being kind, just being considerate.”

Pastors suggest members in need of a church mother’s assistance, she explained. Listening is a big part of the job, according to Musgrove. “Let them talk, and they’ll tell you what’s in their heart if you listen,” she said.

Musgrove, who has three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, does not keep count of how many people she’s supported over the years. “We just do what we are able to do for people out of a pure heart, and we’re happy to share what we have with a person in need,” she said.

Community mothers can be found outside church, too. Head Start’s history is interwoven with the work of female community elders. When the early education program for low-income children launched in 1965, a majority of its Mississippi staff were older women. Many were grandmothers who regarded Head Start’s mission as an extension of the civil rights movement, according to Crystal R. Sanders, author of “A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle.”

As a federal program, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Head Start offered employees regular pay as well as insulation from local White retaliation for civil rights activism.

But for the women who worked in the program, the idea of lifting up children meant more than the paycheck. When a Vicksburg summer pilot program ended, 12 local women resolved to keep Head Start alive, even though only five of them had children in the program. “Asked why they freely gave of their time to run a preschool program for other people’s children, they explained that they were ‘interested in the welfare of all children, especially in our hometown,’” Sanders wrote.

“It’s one thing to say ‘I’m going to do something for my child.’ It’s another thing to say ‘I’m going to do something for someone else’s child,’” Sanders said in a recent telephone interview.

The women also have inspired individuals in the next generation to become community minded. That’s the case for Aisha Nyandoro, granddaughter of celebrated Mississippi activist L.C. Dorsey, who died in 2013.

Born in the Delta, Dorsey, a mother of six and former farmworker, got her GED at age 30 and later earned a doctoral degree from Howard University. She returned to Mississippi to take leadership roles in family and community advocacy, and worked for more humane, rehabilitation-centered treatment of state prison inmates.

Beginning at age 50, she operated the Delta Health Center, delivering care to underserved children and their families. Later she became associate professor in the Family Medicine Department of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“She was the blueprint for me,” Nyandoro said. “Everything I believe about how you show up and engage in community I learned directly from her.”

$1,000 a month, no strings attached

Nyandoro now leads the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a cutting-edge effort to support struggling mothers and children. The project, part of the Jackson-based nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities, is one of the first guaranteed-income pilot project in the United States. Low-income Black mothers in Jackson public housing are given $1,000 monthly for 12 months to use as they think best. So far, 230 mothers have participated in the project, with many of the women showing improvement in paying down debt and setting up emergency savings funds.

Nyandoro, like her grandmother, Dorsey, and church mother Musgrove, operate in Collins’s “othermother” framework. So, too, did the women Sanders wrote about in her history of Mississippi’s Head Start program. In our phone conversation, Sanders said the women were making a statement that “there are certain things we want for these kids. We’re going to pour into them. We’re going to invest in them. We’re going to sacrifice for them. They don’t have to be our children biologically, but we understand that they deserve something better.”