By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Do role models shape your future long before you enter kindergarten, receive a driver’s license, or start college?
The Rev. Dr. Kirk Houston says yes. Rather than point to numerous studies, or his academic credentials which include a master’s degree in divinity from Virginia Union, and a doctorate from the United Theological Seminary of Dayton, or his position on the Norfolk School Board as former school board chairman, Houston points to sacred examples from his own childhood.
“I firmly believe that my family was the most important contributing factor in my life,” said Houston, who grew up in a single parent home in South Florida.
His grandfather, a Baptist minister, had a profound impact on his life. In 1992, Houston launched Gethsemane Community Fellowship in Norfolk with about 200 members. Currently, the church has more than 2000 members.
“At age 10 and 11, I would lie on the floor and read sermons by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Houston said. “The calling of God was on my life at an early age. Sitting on the front row of my grandfather’s church as a young child, I loved preaching and going to church. At home, I would sit at the kitchen table and listen, over and over, to sermons by Dr. Martin L. King Jr. By the time I was in high school, I had dozens of sermons memorized in my head.”
“Certainly, I could have rejected the example that my role models set,” said Houston who received the 2013 Dr. Martin L. King Award from Tidewater Community College.
“But we choose,” Houston continued. “Life is about choices. That is my guiding philosophy. We have the ability to choose our responses. While we cannot choose everything that happens to us, we can choose how we respond.”
Scores of studies echo his beliefs especially a 2015 landmark report by Harvard University. As real estate prices hinge and swing on location, location, location.
A child’s future can hinge and swing on the place he calls home.
“Where children grow up affects their outcomes in adulthood in proportion to the time they spend in the place,” Harvard researchers concluded after sorting through anonymous tax records from 5 million families who lived in low-income and upscale neighborhoods from 1996 to 2012.
“It is exposure during childhood that appears to matter most, up to the early twenties,” the Harvard report concluded. In other words, those who live closest set a good or a bad example that steers you to an end point.
And this is where sacred memories come in. The problem is sacred memories can motivate you. But they can also kill you because they can launch positive or deviant behavior. Either type silently gains traction in childhood, accelerates in the teen years, and becomes a habit in adulthood.
“Children who initially display high rates of antisocial behavior are more likely to persist in this behavior than children who initially show lower rates of antisocial behavior,” Robert J. Sampson and John H. Laub wrote in a 1992 issue of Annual Review of Sociology. “Adult antisocial behavior virtually requires childhood antisocial behavior.”
“Adult behaviors falling in this category might include excessive drinking, traffic violations, marital conflict or abuse, and harsh discipline of children,” Sampson and Laub noted “The tendency toward explosive, uncontrolled behavior in childhood was recreated over time.”
“For example, children who display temper tantrums in childhood are more likely to abort their involvement with education, which in turn is related to a wide range of adult outcomes such as unemployment, job instability, and low income.”
The point is what you call sacred is powerful. The problem comes sharply into focus in volumes of research by criminologists Sheldon Glueck and his wife Eleanor, the first to study chronic juvenile delinquency. The couple also developed the historic Social Prediction Tables which predict the likelihood of delinquent behavior in youth.
Specifically, the Gleucks compiled archives that show how deviant behavior in childhood launches adult criminality, joblessness, divorce, welfare dependence, and educational failure – independent of childhood economic status and IQ.
Obviously Houston’s experiences and various experts illustrate the point. Childhood role models are powerful, sacred, yet largely invisible memories. For example, Houston pointed to how his son, the Rev. Kirk Houston Jr. is the fourth generation in his family to enter the ministry. Meanwhile, his grandson Marc, age 2, is “fascinated with preaching.”
Houston said, laughing, “My grandson wipes his face with a towel, and he bows his head to pray. He is being indoctrinated in the faith and will have firm beliefs to fight with later in life as a member of the family of God.”
“Without a doubt my family was my foundation,” Houston continued. “The values I received in the home from birth to high school. These principles today guide my thinking, behavior and philosophy of life. The family is the key to an individual’s success and to building healthy communities.”
Obviously, Houston did not know his son would follow in his footsteps when he launched Gethsemane Community Fellowship in Norfolk after he was discharged from the U.S. Navy several decades ago. He is the father of one son and one daughter, Sharonja Houston. He and his wife Sharon have four grandchildren ranging from 15 to 2.
But this is the point. Houston’s success story and several landmark studies answer the fundamental question: When do sacred memories motivate us, or kill us?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, sacred describes a person or thing worthy of worship or declared holy. It usually appears in a religious context, but is also an object or place set aside for a particular purpose.
This means you can exalt your own (sacred) memories, to the point that you build your own success story like Houston. Or you can move from throwing temper tantrums in the grocery store to dropping out of high school, like subjects did in the Glueck study. Or you can consider highly seasoned “soul food” sacred to the point that you develop four chronic health problems.
Blacks are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, HIV infection/AIDS, or stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Coronary artery disease is caused by plaque buildup in the walls. Plaque is made up of deposits of cholesterol and other substances in the artery.
Cancer, meanwhile, is the No. 2 killer. It is caused by changes (mutations) to the DNA within cells The DNA in a cell is packaged into a large number of individual genes, each of which contains a set of instructions telling the cell what functions to perform, as well as how to grow and divide. Errors in the instructions can cause the cell to stop its normal function and may allow a cell to become cancerous.
“But most of us don’t actually get cancer when we finally see it,” said Dr. Raymond Samuel, project director of the Minority Men’s Health Initiative at Hampton University.
“By the time we see the end point of chronic disease we’ve had it for 20 years or longer,” Samuel said. “It takes that long to grow from a cancer stem cell to the size where it begins to disrupt organ function. That is why we are interested in early diagnosis.”
“The current science is that all cancers originate from a single disruption of a cancer stem cell,” Samuel said. “One cell has to stay there long enough to grow, develop, and multiply.”
In a sense, this is how sacred memories kill or motivate. While Houston followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and became a pastor. And his son and grandson are following in his footsteps.
Blacks develop heart disease, cancer, HIV, or stroke long before they even notice it. Samuel said, “For example, you started blocking an artery when you ate burgers as a kid and continued to eat in a manner that produced that health problem,” Samuel explained. “You became hypertensive because of a lack of exercise and a high salt diet. In other words, they (chronic health problems) start early in life.”
Sacred memories operate along the same lines. What you consider sacred, blindly worship, and rarely question can guide you to a rewarding future. Or the same logic can guide you to a heart attack, or a stroke. In other words, let’s say you consider greasy, starchy, sugary soul food sacred. And it leads to a heart attack or a stroke.
The key is to question your lifestyle. “Strike a balance, Samuel said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with it (soul food). It depends on how much you consume. Excessive consumption of anything does not lead to a balanced diet or a balanced lifestyle. We want balance. If we eat too much – but we don’t exercise or eat a balanced meal – that is the problem.”
“It’s the same as listening to a specific type of music – say R&B,” Samuel said. “If I listen only to R&B I won’t be very well-educated in other areas although I would be an expert in R&B.”