Theresa White

Saving Sacred Spaces and Spiritual Places

TheresaWhite 1Theresa White
Saving Sacred Spaces and Spiritual Places

Story and Photography by Laurie McCall

About a year ago I published my first novel, Sway of the Siren, with the intent of giving a portion of the proceeds to help preserve Gullah/ Geechee ancestral land. Unsure of how to go about doing so, I began researching, and discovered an organization called the Pan-African Family Empowerment and Land Preservation Network (PAFEN). That’s how I met PAFEN’s President, Theresa White.

I saw a picture of a woman standing on her front porch, holding up an oversized handmade sign that said, “Thanks for saving my home!” She had become temporarily disabled and fell behind on her property taxes. This picture captured that woman’s heart— the relief, the joy, the gratitude, and beside her stood the woman responsible, Theresa White—the face of determination and hope. That was the organization I chose to align myself with because it was doing amazing things, taking a relatively small amount of money (or large in some cases) and investing it in a way that kept someone from becoming displaced, from losing her most important possession, her home.

Theresa White founded PAFEN in June 2015. She started the organization with the goal of helping people of African descent hold onto their ancestral homes and land, and in doing so, strengthening the families it served. Part of the mission is to “empower families to be able to use their land for economic development, use it to break the generational cycle of poverty, or to sell land from a position of strength, rather than distress caused by an inability to pay property taxes.”
Theresa shared a story about how her grandfather, a freedman, had worked to acquire property. Like many who couldn’t read at that time, he was tricked into signing papers and unknowingly relinquished the rights to his land. He resorted to sharecropping to survive (only a little better than slavery). It took him nearly 20 years to work his way out of that system. This story stuck with her. She never wants anyone to suffer such a setback, again.

After slavery ended, freedmen knew land equaled survival—a place to raise a family and grow food. For the Gullah/ Geechee people, the land has always been a sacred space, a spiritual connection to the ancestors. Land was cheap during the reconstruction era, enabling people to build homes that symbolized proud promises of a future of freedom. Many of those homes still stand, sheltering the same families, but bowing under the weight of rising taxes as condos and mansions are going up all around.  Even now, the land represents a place where time slows down and technology drowns, where old folks hold on to the old ways of cast net fishing, community living, everybody giving. It’s where respect is earned and trust comes slowly, where the air is fresh and the roads aren’t paved, where there is no crime and kids can just play. Freedom. “You can’t recreate that,” Theresa says.

PAFEN raises money through a GoFundMe site, public collections outside of Wal-Mart, and through donations from local churches. In turn, they use the money to help those who are in need. Some of the people Theresa helps are elderly, living on a fixed income. Others are disabled or fighting cancer.

When asked why she does all of this to help other people, Theresa said, “I do what I do because it’s a continuation of what I’ve done all my life. Circumstances required me to do things a different way. My mom passed away when I was two years old. There were six kids, and we had to make some adjustments in where we were going to live and who would raise us. I lived with multiple people in my family. So many people outside of my family, who knew what had happened to my mom, chipped in to help us. I ended up being able to do things that kids with two parents couldn’t do.”

Theresa went on to say, “I know I’m standing on the shoulders of many people who’ve helped me along the way. Among them are my ancestors, elders and teachers; friends and neighbors; PAFEN First Vice Chair Stephen A. McHayle of Jamaica; PAFEN International Vice Co-Chair Somali Prince Dr. Mohamed H. Mukhtar; Rabbi Tzipi Radonsky; and Pastor P. Shannon Mullen of St. John’s Lutheran Church on Ladys Island. Every time I see the smiles or tears of joy of someone whose home, and/or property has been saved, I know that it’s been worth every sacrifice I’ve made to keep this organization alive. And I thank God for blessing me to be able to help save Gullah Geechee land!”


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"Encroachment" by award-winning photojournalist Pete Marovich. This candid photo features Hilton Head Island resident Eddie Grant, Jr. leaning on a hoe in his mother's collard green patch with multi-million condos being built at the end of it.





Up Close:

Long Term Goal: Get as many people as possible on the Beaufort County Installment Payment Plan so they can make six equal tax payments, instead of trying to pay it all at once.

Philosophy: “Helping others, with no expectation of receiving anything in return, is the highest form of service to God.”

First Year Accomplishment: PAFEN has raised over $26,000, which has been used to save over $1.5-million of Gullah/ Geechee land to date.