By Patti Samar
As a woman of color, Jessica Totty has moved through the world very differently than her Caucasian/ white counterparts.
She has raised her children differently; she has had to teach them different lessons about the world around them and the way they will be perceived.
Every time she walks into a store, she understands she might be watched as a result of racial profiling.
She knows that every time she meets someone, they might judge her before they even get to know anything about her.
She knows that every encounter she has with new people will be based on their personal perceptions and biases.
She knows she will always, first, be judged by the color of her skin.
A Mexican-American, Totty and her husband, Kevin, moved to the Blue Water Area 25 years ago and decided to stay and raise their family.
Totty is a licensed practical nurse who has worked at Lake Huron Medical Center for the past 23 years. Her husband, who brought his family here to open the then-new Applebee’s restaurant, is now a program director at the Community Foundation of St. Clair County.
“How can you not love it here, what with the water and all,” she said. “Our kids, they all call Port Huron their home. And, God has opened our eyes to the opportunities available here.”
The Blue Water Area has been good to them, and they have contributed much to the community they have adopted as their home.
During the Coronavirus 19 pandemic, Totty has served the community as a frontline, essential worker in her role at the hospital.
Pre-pandemic, Totty spent half of her work life as a medical staff assistant, auditing and compiling data. The other half of her work life was spent coordinating the Lake Huron Medical Center Breather’s Club, a support group that assists those with pulmonary issues.
When the pandemic hit, the club was disbanded, ironically, just when a virus that is known to attack those with compromised lung capacity was hitting.Totty has remained in touch with her Breather’s Club clients, and is happy to report, to date, no illness due to COVID 19.
“I thank God none of them have contracted it,” she said. “They are practicing what I taught them, and that time and investment that they put in has really helped them through this.”
Totty now spends a part of her work day serving as in-take personnel for people entering the hospital, signing them in, and running through COVID 19 procedures, such as taking temperatures.
Living a Life of Faith
A number of years ago, Totty and her husband both became licensed and ordained ministers. Together, they minister to a congregation in Port Huron that is diverse.
Like other churches across the country, they have had to turn their ministry toward the internet, but that has gone well, she said.
“God has us gearing toward this virtual church, and we’re really, really enjoying it,” she said. Their church, which is called #c4yourselfchurch, is not as structured as other religious services, and that is what draws people to their offerings.
“We believe that you need to see God yourself,” she said. “There’s such freedom in knowing you don’t need that structure and ritual. We’ve really been walking in this freedom. We really encourage an open, immense amount of trust, and finding God for themselves.”
In light of the racial unrest that has unfolded across the country, they have spent more time recently discussing racial and cultural differences with the congregation.
“We’ve had dialogue during our Bible studies,” she said. “We do bring it up and have a conversation. Some people have said to me, ‘I had no idea that was still happening.’”
Living Life as a Family of Color
Totty and her husband – who is African American – have, like every family of color in the United States, needed to share with their five, now-grown children, lessons different than those of their white counterparts.
“It has always been important to us to teach the children that our culture and races are very important,” she said. “We taught them God doesn’t make mistakes, and He made us.”
She also taught her children that, no matter what anyone else said to them, they were entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else.
One of the most difficult lessons to teach, overall, though, was helping them understand that, no matter how wrong it was, they needed to consider the following: “Are we going to be profiled when we walk into a store? This is something people of color face on a daily basis.
“I had to be concerned about how my kids dressed and how that would be perceived. These were things we talked about in our household.
“It is not the same for us.
“I think of it like this: white people exist; people of color survive.”
Working with the Police
Totty and her husband are chaplains for the Port Huron Police Department, and she noted that the department is very well trained.
However, with regard to the department in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where George Floyd was killed, such brutal actions from an officer come as a result of a deeply flawed department.
“There is a culture of that particular police department that made that acceptable,” she said. “How evil is this world? God tells us not to take a life…how can we be so inhumane that we think it’s okay to take a life?”
So how does a community – a nation, in fact – begin to heal from such atrocities?
“By racial reconciliation,” she said. “We need to have these real conversations and they are going to be hard to have.
“If we keep hiding or not talking to one another, then we are not going to get past this hate. I would ask, ‘Are you willing to listen? Are you willing to change?’
“I’m hoping, also, that this whole movement does not become a bucket list item,” she said. “’I participated in a march…I’m talking to people of color now…’ and that six months from now, we are back at square one.
“I hope that this is about change, peace and sensitivity.”
Real Change and Moving Forward
“People do ask, ‘What can we do to change it?’” Totty said. “We can begin by visiting other churches and reading about other cultures. It’s good that we can come together and talk about what we are struggling with.
“How can we call ourselves followers of Christ if we are not willing to look beyond our differences?
“The only way we are going to have a change of heart is through God,” she said. “He gives us that free will, when He shows up, and we see the power and grace and mercy of God, that’s when He receives the Glory. He’s there for us. He loves us so much.
“We have to decide who do we want to be when we wake up?”