The story of Henrietta Lacks, a Virginia mother whose cells have transformed medical research for over 60 years, is both amazing and heartbreaking. Cells taken from her body without her consent during her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950’s have proven to be the most medically viable cell line. A 2010 book and recent HBO movie about Lacks have once again stirred interest in her story and that of the family that she left behind when she died of cervical cancer in 1951.
Her cells have a unique biological makeup that allows them to reproduce and grow indefinitely. This allows them to be more likely to withstand various scientific experiments that look for the cause and possible cures of countless diseases including polio and HIV.
Henrietta Lacks shows through medical research what we as Christians know: we are capable of reproducing over time. The question is what are we reproducing? Is it Christ-like compassion or is it fear, negativity and strife? Like the HeLa cells produce indefinitely, we should strive to have a long term and transformative impact on our family, friends and co-workers. Romans 14:19 provides a hint of how this can be done, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” I admit that striving for peace can sometimes be hard but an experience I had recently reminded me that the way of peace is always the best way.
About a year and a half ago, I returned some jewelry to Macy’s… Because it was the busy Christmas holiday sales season, the sales clerks were helping other customers. Rather than huff impatiently, I was surprised by how peaceful I was despite the long wait. The salesclerk who processed the return was friendly and made the usual polite conversation about the busy holiday season. In the midst of our conversation, I noticed that he had on a yarmulke (skull cap) so I asked him if he was Jewish. He confirmed that he was and then shared how he’d moved to Texas to attend school and learn more about his Hebraic heritage. By the time he finished the transaction, he also shared about his place of worship and invited me to visit sometime. I politely accepted the invitation but didn’t think twice about it until recently when I ran into this same man at an awards ceremony at my job.
All I saw was the man in black yarmulke from a distance congratulating his son on getting an award. “Was that the guy from Macy’s?” I wondered. After all, I asked myself, how many heavy set African American middle men wear yarmulkes? Figuring it would not hurt to ask if he’d ever worked at Macy’s, I walked over and asked him. With a smile he confirmed that he had. Though our conversation was brief, I walked away thankful that when we’d met over a year ago that I’d been pleasant.
Sometimes we think having an impact on people has to involve big gestures. But like the initial small amount of HeLa cells has changed modern medical research, the biggest impact can sometimes be what we reproduce in others through small gestures of peace and compassion.
Shewanda Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @shewanda.