The White’s Light
REV. MAURICE WHITE AND HIS WIFE, TIFFANY, HAVE WORKED TIRELESSLY TO ESTABLISH THE ZION TRAVELER COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION AND THE HOPE CENTER FOR AUTISM IN RUSTON.
article by GEORGIANN POTTS
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Every February marks the celebration of love, specifically on the 14th. It is entirely fitting then that our February Bayou Icons are a loving couple whose lives have been marked not only by their love for each other, and their love for their families, but also by love for their God and their fellow man.
Rev. Maurice White is widely-respected in Louisiana for his work as pastor for the Zion Traveler Baptist Church in Ruston. With other like-minded leaders, he has worked to establish the Zion Traveler Community Development Corporation, a non-profit created to combat poverty in his community by paving the way for people to become homeowners and entrepreneurs. By his side every step of the way has been his wife of 16 years, Tiffany Owens White. The two have worked tirelessly on a number of projects, but perhaps none more important to them personally than the establishment of the Hope Center for Autism in Ruston. Life has not always been easy for them, but they have persevered. As Rev. White puts it, “We learned that pain can become purpose, obstacles can become opportunity, and sorrow can be transformed into strength.”
Maurice White grew up in the Greenbrook subdivision in South Shreveport in a neighborhood called Cedar Grove. His parents, Charlie White and the late Loraine White, provided him with a nurturing homelife that emphasized love not only within the immediate family, but also within the extended family in Shreveport and Grand Cane. Both parents were reared in Desoto Parish, and both worked for the Caddo Parish School Board until their retirement. Maurice remembers family gatherings with joy, saying that there was always lots of laughter, storytelling, and food. One thing that he misses during the COVID-19 pandemic are the large family reunions where everyone could catch up on news and renew their family bonds.
Christianity was central to Maurice’s life from an early age. When he was 8, he became a member of the Shady Grove Baptist Church in Shreveport. Just 2 years later, he “. . . answered the call that God placed upon my life to preach the gospel to a lost and dying world.” He loved singing in the choir, preaching at youth revivals, and traveling to the National Baptist Convention where he met many others of his faith from all over the United States.
Tiffany Owens White grew up in a similarly close family. She was born and reared in Terry, Mississippi, a small town she describes as having “. . . one red light and a population of about 1,200.” Her parents, the late S. Levon Owens and wife, Pearlie B. Owens, were active in their community. Tiffany’s grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins were neighbors so holidays and summertime were always happy times with lots of family involved. Tiffany’s father took over his family’s cattle business when he was 16 years old. Her mother handled the accounting. Among Tiffany’s fondest childhood memories was attending cattle auctions and spending time in the pastures on her family’s ranch.
Like Maurice, Tiffany also became a Christian early in life and loved attending her small family church, Little Bethel CME. The church only held services on the first and third Sundays of each month, so she would often visit other churches on the other Sundays. “Oftentimes I would go alone, and always to Baptist churches,” she remembers. “Jesus knew I’d be marrying a Baptist preacher, so I guess He was preparing me!”
From her entrepreneurial parents and their work in real estate and the cattle industry, Tiffany learned to understand how business works – invaluable lessons that she would use later in life. She watched them as they developed 15 beautiful subdivisions “. . . so that families who wanted to leave the inner city would have a place to safely rear their families.”
She also learned from both parents to be active and concerned about politics. “My father was passionate about politics and committed his time, knowledge, and resources to candidates, campaigns, and causes aimed at improving the community he loved,” Tiffany explains. “This also led to my mother running for and being elected as a Hinds County Justice Court Judge – she’s now in her third term.”
Education in the Classroom and Out
Maurice attended Southern Hills Elementary, Caddo Middle Magnet, and C.E. Byrd High and enjoyed his school years in Shreveport. In middle school and high school, he played sports (a continuing passion of his, though now more as a fan). Although he participated in several sports, football was his favorite. It was his history teacher and basketball coach, Mr. Billy Wayne, who became an important mentor for Maurice as he was growing up. “Mr. Wayne taught me never to settle for good when you can be great,” Maurice remembers. “He also helped me to nurture my love for history and language.”
Other mentors during these formative years were his father and his pastor (and cousin) Rev. A.G. Sudds. From his father, Maurice learned invaluable lessons – that if you worked hard, you could achieve anything in life, and that a good name is better than money. His father set the example of how to love and care for one’s family. Rev. Sudds was key to Maurice’s early Christian development by protecting the young evangelist from harm’s way. “Pastor Sudds watched over me as I lived the life of a boy preacher,” Maurice says. “He protected me from the wolves that are often in sheep’s clothing, and he taught me everything I know about preaching.”
Maurice was a strong math student and was in the gifted and talented math and science programs in middle school and high school. Two of his brothers were in the United States military, and Maurice set as his goal attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and becoming an officer in the United States Marine Corp. That dream ended, however, when a football injury his senior year in high school changed his education path.
Tiffany attended elementary and junior high in the Hinds Country School System, but a summer camp experience changed her education trajectory. She attended summer camp at the Piney Woods Country Life School, a historically African-American boarding school. It was unlike any school she had ever experienced, and she was eager to transfer there. Since her mother worked at the school, Tiffany was able to transfer and commute each day for class. She was there for grades 10 through 12, and graduated class valedictorian. “That experience allowed me to learn about, and with, students who lived all over the United States and some who were from many African countries,” she remembers.
Just like her future husband, math was her favorite subject. However, early on she set her goal to become an attorney. Both parents encouraged her, pointing out that it was always a challenge to win an argument with her. Her uncle, Bob Owens, set up special summer jobs in his law firm for Tiffany and several others to let them learn how law practices work. Although Tiffany appreciated that opportunity, that was not the plan God had for her.
Instead of the Naval Academy, Maurice earned his university education at Dillard University in New Orleans. There he graduated with a degree in English in 2002. Although he had excellent skills in math and science, his love of the language and awareness of the power of it proved even greater. While at Dillard, a chance meeting on the Avenue of the Oaks during the first two weeks of their freshman year brought Tiffany into his life. Although they were only good friends for the first three years, that friendship would to grow into something more when they were older.
Maurice remembers David Page and Patrick Jefferson as defining role models during his Dillard years. Both were administrators, and both became fraternity brothers through Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. Maurice credits Mr. Page for “. . . helping me to navigate life as a college student and representing to me what I wanted to be as a man when college was over.” Mr. Jefferson (currently serving as a Louisiana State Representative) was an important guide in helping Maurice to “. . . grow as a person, mentally and spiritually.”
Bagging and stacking groceries for Brookshire’s was Maurice’s first job during high school. It was that experience that he says made him begin to value and appreciate that hard work is necessary to earn a living. While in college, he wrote and worked for the National Baptist Convention of America Publishing Board. Following graduation, Maurice entered the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and earned a Masters of Divinity graduate degree. While there, Maurice says that Dr. Gerald Stevens at New Orleans Baptist was a true inspiration. “He inspired me to be a serious student of the Word of God by engulfing myself in the study of the Greek language,” Maurice recalls.
Tiffany enrolled at Dillard as a Business Management major. In her study there, her favorite course was “Organizational Behavior.” In that class she and others explored the corporate culture that is defined as “the way we do business around here.” Today she says knowledge has guided her each time she has begun a new job, or entered a new business or place of worship. “I immediately start to ponder – ‘How do they treat people here? What values do they hold? What’s important to them?’ and then I make my decisions and act accordingly,” Tiffany says.
When she was a junior at Dillard, Tiffany applied for scholarships and internships through the United Negro College Fund. She was accepted into two programs, both in Chicago. One was with the William Wrigley Company and the other was with Bank One Corporation (now JP Morgan Chase). “At the time, all I knew about Wrigley was chewing gum, so I chose Bank One!” she recalls with a laugh. “This included a scholarship and 10-week internship that allowed me to work on special projects in the Compliance Department with the guidance of senior executives who serves as mentors. At the time, I really enjoyed the fast-paced life of corporate America.” After she graduated, Tiffany was offered a position at the Bank One headquarters in Chicago. Because of her love for Maurice, she took a similar job with Bank One in New Orleans instead. Not long after, she enrolled in the University of New Orleans and began work on her MBA.
Maurice served on two church staffs while he was attending seminary. At the New Hope Baptist Church in New Orleans, Maurice was special assistant to the pastor. There he came under the influence of the late Pastor John Raphael, an important figure in his spiritual life. “Under the mentoring of Pastor Raphael, I developed my passion for ministry,” Maurice says. “Witnessing and soul winning on the streets of New Orleans where murders were occurring almost on a daily basis is something I will never forget.”
It was Pastor Raphael who married Maurice and Tiffany in her hometown of Terry, Mississippi, in 2004. “It was love at first sight for me,” Maurice says, “but it took me a few years to convince Tiffany that I was the one.” Maurice laughingly remembers how shocked Tiffany’s family was at their wedding reception. “They were surprised to see a preacher have such great dance moves,” he says. “We danced all night long!”
Katrina Forces a Move and Presents Opportunities
In 2006 their first child, Reece, was born. Tiffany was 2 months pregnant with him when the Whites moved to Shreveport where Maurice served on the staff at Galilee Baptist Church. The late Dr. E. Edward Jones was Maurice’s pastor and mentor and helped Maurice to develop a love and passion for helping people through non-profits. “The short time I spent on Dr. Jones’ staff taught me so much about following in the footsteps of Jesus and helping the least of these,” says Maurice.
When Reece was 6 months old, the Whites moved to Ruston when Maurice became pastor at Zion Traveler Baptist Church there. Shortly after, their second child, daughter Mariah, was born. Maurice says that serving as pastor for Zion Traveler has been his most rewarding experience, personally and professionally. Tiffany joined Maurice in founding the Hope Center of Autism in 2011. They saw a need in the Ruston area to help children with autism like their son, Reece. Tiffany served as director for the After-School SNACK (Special Needs Activity Center for Kids) and summer programs for 7 years.
Volunteerism in their community is important to both, as this is a way to learn more about their region, community, and neighbors. It also serves as an important outreach for their church work. Both Maurice and Tiffany became volunteer readers for the Read.Learn.Succeed program, a United Way of NELA initiative. They both loved reading to the second graders at Lincoln Prep, and later Tiffany accepted a position with United Way in their Ruston office.
Maurice serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of North Central Louisiana as well as The Community Foundation-Lincoln Parish Fund. They support the Red Cross, DART, the Methodist Children’s Home, the Lincoln Parish Drug Court, and the United Way of Northeast Louisiana. Maurice is the director for the Young Pastor’s Division of the Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention and President of the Interdenominational Alliance of Ministers of Ruston & Vicinity.
Working Toward Real Change
Among many activities that they have been involved with, perhaps none is more important than the development of the Zion Traveler Community Development Corporation. This non-profit was created by the Zion Traveler church. The group is currently partnering with the City of Ruston, Origin Bank, and Grambling State University in an effort called “Real Change in Ruston.” This spring, groundbreaking is scheduled to take place for 20 new homes on the old fair grounds in Ruston. As in everything, the Whites are partners together in this effort as well. Tiffany will serve as a facilitator for the faith and finance classes that will help position class participants to become first time homeowners.
Both Maurice and Tiffany look to their son, Reece, as their inspiration for working in the world of non-profits. At an early age, their son was diagnosed with autism. They are thankful for both of their children, and delight in them every day. Tiffany describes them as “. . . both kind, funny, and both love the Lord. I like to think that they are made up of the best parts of both of us.” Maurice agrees, and adds that Reece, though non-verbal, still expresses his love for God and his family daily. Of Mariah, Maurice says that she is very smart and athletic, and is “. . . special because of the love and support that she gives to her best friend, her older brother Reece.”
The Pandemic and the Future
COVID-19 has challenged the Whites, just as it has everyone. They miss the fellowship that has had to be diminished as the pandemic rages. Maurice says, “I miss the hugs and the handshakes. I miss the choir singing. I miss the people of God coming together in great numbers to worship our God in spirit and in truth.”
Both recognize that technology has been a blessing because it has allowed the church to remain central to the congregants’ lives through virtual delivery of the message. This has allowed the congregation and the larger community to remain “connected.” “I believe the biggest challenge for ministers today is getting through this pandemic and continuing to chip away at the wall of racism in our country that continues to divide us,” Maurice says. “It is hard to help one another and have fellowship if we don’t truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
When times are better, they hope to travel again to their very favorite place, Destin, Florida. It was here that they honeymooned, and here that they have returned to for years to celebrate special family occasions or “just because.” Tiffany, however, would also like to visit Hilton Head Beach Island in South Carolina. It is on her travel “bucket list” because Maurice went there as a child and often talks about how much he loved it there. She would like to share that with him.
No matter what the future holds, the White family will face it together with faith and the special strength that comes from that faith. Their willingness to partner in all facets of their life together has meant that every organization, business, non-profit, or religious group they have affiliated with has truly received the blessing of the old adage, “Two for the price of one.” The citizens of north Louisiana are blessed to have them in their midst.