“A Model of Life”: Gabrielle Daniels, Theology, Medicine, and Culture Fellow ’17, Seeks Health Care Justice for Women and Children of Color

by Danielle Davey Stulac

“As health professionals, we need to get ahold of the ministry of healing as ordained through Christ Jesus,” says Gabrielle Daniels, an alumna of the Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) Fellowship at Duke Divinity School. Daniels, who also holds an MPH from Yale, is now a Project Manager at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and has her own practice as a birth and postpartum doula in Montgomery, Alabama called, Your Doula Cares.

“It’s a gift,” she says, to be working at EJI, a legal non-profit that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality. EJI’s story is told in the recently released feature film, Just Mercy, which is based on an award-winning book by the initiative’s founder, Bryan Stevenson. Daniels says she finds her work at EJI “deeply meaningful, especially as a believer, because so much of what we do is highlighted all throughout the Gospels.” Daniels engages with local communities as part of EJI’s Community Remembrance Project, a campaign designed to help communities engage with their own histories of racial injustice. In November, Daniels traveled to Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Chapel Hill for a ceremony to remember the life of a black man named Manly McCauley, who was lynched in Orange County in 1898. During the ceremony, church members collected a memorial jar of soil from a site proximate to the area where Mr. McCauley was killed, and the jar of soil will be placed in EJI’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery as part of an exhibit remembering the over 4,400 documented victims of racial terror lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Daniels said of the soil collection ceremony, “This event highlights an opportunity to talk honestly about our local history, how our communities are shaped…. We have seen the legacy of history that has gone unaddressed, laws that have been unenforced, and a lack of collective social will to truly love one another despite class and race. This is our time to commit to that work.”[1]

Daniels attributes the growth in her passion for social justice in part to the year she spent at Duke Divinity School. During that time, she says, “the Lord really opened my eyes to the issue of racialization in our nation and created a hunger in me to learn more.” Courses such as Christena Cleveland’s “Power, Inequality, and Reconciliation” were particularly formative. Alongside the coursework experiences she had as a fellow, she also valued TMC’s dedication to integrating work with faith. “Even before I came to TMC, I had the conviction by the Holy Spirit that our faith is always meant to inform all that we do. Vocation is always meant to be integrated—really, faith-derived.” She appreciates TMC for being “dedicated to that integrative conversation.”

“Part of my interest in coming to the TMC program was [that] I was looking to have an intentional year of discernment with the Lord.” Daniels was particularly interested in discerning whether she was being called to medical school. But, during her year at TMC, she sensed the Lord leading her into a path focused on “supporting women and children in the space of labor and birth” as a nurse midwife.

She was drawn to midwifery because she “had a lot of challenges with the medical model toward sickness from a spiritual perspective.” She “consistently questioned what it would mean to operate as a health care provider without being able to bring the fullness of spiritual authority to bear upon disease and sickness as the Lord did.”  During this time, she recalls, “one thing the Lord highlighted to me that was just instantly fitting and peaceful was how birth, and the processes involved in pregnancy and labor, are not a model of sickness. They’re a model of life.”

The TMC Fellows’ spiritual formation group was pivotal for the confirmation of this path. After sharing her testimony with the group, her TMC Fellowship peers were very encouraging and thoughtful. Three people independently came to her afterwards and asked, “Have you considered midwifery?” Because of their encouragement, she moved closer to this possibility by shadowing Dr. Martha Carlough, who is both a family physician at UNC and spiritual director for the TMC Fellowship. With Dr. Carlough, Daniels observed her first birth in person. “Even in the background, my pre-doula self encouraged the mama, ‘You can do it!’ I remember once the baby was born, I could see myself doing this daily. I left TMC with a lot thankfulness for how the Lord used it to close a chapter of my journey that had been going on for years.”

Alongside her work at EJI, Daniels has trained to become a birth and postpartum doula, and started a private practice in Montgomery. She sees this as an important step in her path toward serving women, children, and families during their birth experience. Daniels is particularly sensitive to the needs of women and families of color as they navigate a health system still suffering from our country’s legacy of racial discrimination, leading to high rates of maternal and infant morbidity and mortality. In a lecture at the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative’s Practice and Presence conference in 2018, Daniels urged health professionals to engage with the devastating ways a “racialized imagination” still informs our health practices. Black women “have the highest infant mortality rates and nearly three to four times higher maternal mortality rates compared to white women in the United States, and this is despite class or educational background.” To demonstrate the history and continuing legacy of medical racism in the birth experience of black women in the United States, Daniels tells the stories of two women–a 22-year old named Zelda, who gave birth in 1962, and Serena Williams, who gave birth in 2017–whose medical teams refused to listen to their requests and health concerns.

In her role as a doula, Daniels seeks to be a listening and attentive presence for women during their birth experience. “At TMC, we talked a lot about the role of presence. The doula inhabits that role in a lot of ways—that consistent presence in the room, along with the birth partner.”  One of the ways she practiced this presence during her first delivery experience was by helping the family speak birth affirmations over the mother during her labor, as family members read several of the affirmation cards strung on a line over the bed. “It was beautiful to watch them take turns saying the birth affirmations, and it was really meaningful to the mom. It just speaks to the way that as a doula, we’re asked to be present and we’re asked to help others make the most of their presence as much as they can. That was just an honor for me to be part of that, but to see the beauty of that play out for them—speaking words of life—that echoes back to me. The power of life and death is in the tongue.”

Daniels is eager to see how her dream of becoming a nurse midwife unfolds, and how it will be informed by her justice work at EJI: “The Lord is a God of synthesis in so many ways, and so it’s been rich, and I’m still learning a lot; I think next year will really see a fuller expression of what it’s like to have a [doula] practice in Montgomery; it’s really leading me to grow in faith.”

View Daniels’ full lecture:

[1] Petty, Charles, 20 Nov, 2018, “Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition holds ceremony to honor Manly McCauley,” The News of Orange County, http://www.newsoforange.com/community/article_34a70d38-0bbf-11ea-8aa2-f30f41852a75.html