Rev. Ward follows in the path of Martin Luther King Jr.
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
Rev. Reneé Ward never wanted to be a martyr in the sense of the sacrifices she makes in the spirit of her faith and principals.
Coming of age as a child in the 1960s, the longtime Portland activist was inspired by those closest to her, the people in her family, her elders, and her spiritual leaders. She took to heart the words and actions of one the greatest civil rights heroes in history, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ward has lived her life speaking out and taking action on the injustices people face.
As an ordained minister and social advocate, educator, mother, and motivational speaker, she has worked to help underserved communities, and men and women of color tackle the often unfair treatment of HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, domestic violence, and other health disparities.
She hopes to one day see her accomplishments manifest through a legacy that will empower future generations.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his last speech before he was assassinated, “I have seen the mountain top.” Ward has planted the seeds of change in her community.
With words soaked in experience and inspiration, she advises, “You’re going to have to serve and educate yourself, strengthen yourself and empower yourself, and dedicate yourself to passing the baton on.”
Celebrating the national Martin Luther King holiday, she said, is a time “to reflect and restore ourselves to be motivated and get involved, because there is still a lot of work to be done.”
“I never worry what people think of me,” she said. “If I were to worry about what people think from each day I step out the door, stranger to people who do, I wouldn’t get much accomplished.”
Unpopular conversations are an instigator for Rev. Ward. She references nature’s tiny dung beetle, which slowly and steadily, but surely pushes a ball of feces to its destination.
“It’s not an attractive or popular thing to be pushing,” said Ward. “I deal with the real, non-conventional, uncomfortable conversations nobody wants to have.”
Conversations like AIDs.
In the late 1990s, Ward watched her husband, Joseph Morman, suffer and eventually die from an HIV/AIDS-related illness. The emotional toll was painful enough, but seeing his ostracization, isolation and prejudice because of the AIDs stigma, pushed her to a tipping point.
When no one else was willing to speak up, she gave HIV/AIDS a voice and encouraged others to do the same.
“I sincerely hope to accomplish, not a selfish act, but more a selfless act of making sure nobody has to experience the pain and suffering, the isolation that many folks go through, not only with AIDs, but socially unacceptable labels and barriers that are totally unsolicited an no fault of their own.”
Following his death in 1998, Ward founded Chrysalis Ministries, a faith-based agency dedicated to addressing health disparities. Today, the non-profit’s many volunteers do outreach and educate communities, mainly African and African Americans who are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, on how to eliminate its spread.
Ward emphasizes the need to empower the most vulnerable in our communities—seniors, immigrants, sexual minorities. “All for one and one for all,” said Ward. “God doesn’t discriminate.”
Recently, in observance of World AIDs Day, Ward along with other advocate groups, and Chrysalis Ministries hosted “I Speak Life,” a concert showcasing many visual and performing artists in a call to support those living with HIV or who have succumbed to the AIDS illness.
The event gave voice to the mantra “Planting a S.E.E.D,” embracing the attributes of Service, Education, Empowerment and Dedication.
HIV/AIDs are not the only issues Ward has risen against. “I’m blessed to work within different movements, especially grassroots,” she said.
As a young woman in her 20s, Ward said she learned the “modus operandi” of grass roots organizing living in the San Francisco bay area where she had the fortune of knowing many inspiring civil rights leaders from the Black Panther Movement like Huey Newton and others activists like Al Sharpton and Dr. Cornell West.
In Portland, she has remained constant in giving voice to the disparities and socio- economic issues, and she has become a local and national motivational speaker and respondent.
From educating “everyday people” about predatory lending during the foreclosure crisis to helping register thousands of voters in the 2008 presidential election, to mobilizing citizens for police reform following the 2010 police shooting of unarmed Aaron Campbell, to advising the police bureau’s Northeast Crisis Response Team on domestic and gang violence, she is beckoned where injustice calls.
In her leisure time, Ward is a well-rounded artist; an actress, dancer, model, and author.
She is writing her first book, which she hopes to have completed in 2013. A project that has taken her close to 15 years, it will consist of interviews she’s done with women in and out of the church.
Ward is in the unique position to counsel women who walk through the door of the church, distressed by domestic violence, infidelity and other crises. Not free of her own oppressions, and as a female, African American woman in a still very misogynistic society, she offers a uniquely personal perspective on the issues people face.
“Yes, I’m ostracized,” she said, “The very thing I fight against, I experience.”
Ward starts each morning early and prepares herself for the unexpected challenges of the day. She reads scriptures, mediates to music, and sings her songs before setting out on her mission to be of help to somebody, whether it is paying a visit to a man ailed by stomach cancer or supporting survivors of the Clackamas mall shooting.
“I do believe everybody is a special assignment,” she said. “I cannot make any changes, but little ones.”