According to the developmental psychologist Erik
Erikson, healthy and fulfilled adults all have an important characteristic
in common: They work to ensure that the world will be a better place
for all of our children, and they make sacrifices to nurture and
guide the next generation. Erikson labeled such individuals “generative”
men and women.
His words came to mind while reflecting on the recent death of former
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. Jackson was the product of a relatively
comfortable family, received an elite education and moved in high-powered
financial and political circles. But instead of ignoring the plight
of less-privileged people, he took action on their behalf.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s devotion was more the exception than
the rule. Too many well-known African American public intellectuals,
civil rights leaders and media personalities have done little to
jump-start the internal conversation that African Americans should
be having about the future of black families. For a fitting legacy
to Jackson and other selfless leaders, I nominate African American
congregations and their leaders to be the coordinators and catalysts
for an ongoing conversation—and resulting actions—that
address this troubling issue.
The statistics beg action:
• Seventy percent of African American children are born to
• At least 80 percent of all African American children now
can expect to spend at least a significant part of their childhood
years living apart from their fathers.
• The number of African American youths living in extreme
poverty is at its highest level in more than two decades.
The 70,000 black churches and mosques in the United States possess
a long list of assets necessary for sponsoring a series of conversations:
meeting space, talented leaders, armies of potential volunteers,
track records of service and effectiveness, community credibility
and trust, financial assets, and the moral authority to instruct,
admonish and empathetically guide people in regard to that which
is right and wrong, good and bad, blameworthy and praiseworthy.
The appeal to African American congregations resonates with something
Columbia University’s esteemed economist Ronald Mincy said
to me recently: “I don’t believe the marriage and fatherhood
agenda will go very far without a religious foundation. The black
community expects that moralizing will have religious roots. But
the failure of the black church to get out front and speak up hampers
the efforts of other professionals who wish to help black kids.”
How would such a conversation begin? Congregations need training
and user-friendly materials to inform their perspectives on the
complex issues of marriage and family-formation in contemporary
society. The village dialogue will cover material that is emotionally
charged, intellectually demanding and theologically complex. This
work will demand study and the discipline of listening carefully.
Congregations will need a curriculum or discussion materials in
order to focus the dialogue and ensure it is properly informed.
I suggest a version of the 1998 Morehouse College report titled
“Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America,”
with expanded analysis of religious and moral dimensions of sexuality,
marriage, parenting and childhood.
Congregations should consider using a collaborative leadership model
and cosponsor community-based dialogues. The burdens of such community
service could and should be shared by many resource people.
Congregations should take seriously the opportunity for healing
the community and do everything possible to practice an ethic of
hospitality, patience and reconciliation. They must restrain themselves
in love not to simply re-impose traditional stigmas or moral judgments
on those who have experienced moral failure of various sorts. A
great deal of healing could come from church leaders and members
courageously admitting their own shortcomings and failures in this
arena of life.
Finally, congregations would benefit from role models who demonstrate
how and why the dialogue is important and valuable. Media personalities,
sports stars, Hollywood glitterati and artists could dramatize and
celebrate the process of having a conversation about difficult topics.
For example, during the Million Man March in October 1995, a great
number of such “stars” were present to lend credibility
to the ongoing work of “atonement” that was the selected
focus of the day. Their blessing helped to inspire local “stars”
and grassroots leaders to sustain the good work initiated in the
I recommend that discussion, preparation and planning start now
to prepare for a series of conversations that might begin within
18 months. I recommend further that either Black History Month or
the season of Lent be employed as a symbolically appropriate time
to engage the conversation over a several-week period. Congre-gations
could organize and localize the conversation to reflect their unique
histories and circumstances. Organized philanthropy could be called
upon to assist in supporting this critical process.
By leading this conversation, the black church has the opportunity
to generate the enlightenment necessary to change the status quo—and
begin the hard work of saving the African American family.
I believe there are sufficient resources within and outside the
African American community to reverse the current trend of declining
marriage, rising divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births. If the
most respected and influential leaders of the most powerful institution
in the black community can be persuaded that this is God’s
work for this time and place, miracles can happen. Let us see if
they will heed the call.