The church has been a dynamic support to the African American community, but I believe it can do better. With churches on seemingly every corner in some communities, they have been successful at delivering services and support to African American women and children. But they have fallen short-far short-in reaching out to and engaging African American men. And without these men, they are missing a key contributor to the overall health of the African American family and community.
This is a vital concern, because many African American men-especially young men-are very bitter, angry, and desperate. Many of them have grown up without involved fathers in a world that continues to hammer on their manhood. At several churches where I have spoken, the pastors have advised me, “Don’t beat up on my men,” or, “Go easy on these brothers.” They know the fragile state that many men are in, having grown weak and faint toward their responsibilities to themselves and their families.
Fathers matter, and these men need to be convinced of that in a life-changing way. Caring, loving, involved fathers are linked to children’s destiny. While children know they are loved by their mothers, they yearn for the other half of the devotion God designed for them. They will look for that absent father-love with an overwhelming intensity, but often in the wrong places, and it often leads to perverse addictions or other inappropriate behavior.
The prevalence of fatherlessness for African American males is astonishing. It’s as high as 70% according to one report. I know of housing projects in Kansas City and other cities where there are no fathers living as residents. Many children won’t have contact with any appropriate male role models in a given week.
All of us have heard about the bedlam engulfing the streets, the pre-teen and teenage gangs, and the agonizing violence and brutality.
In a culture where being a man or father is laden with expectations, many young African American males grow up wanting to be like sports stars and street hustlers, not their fathers.
On a recent research trip to West Africa, I was struck by the gentle ways of African men. The air of anger and toughness was not there. One highlight of my trip was an interview with Dr. Kwame Bediako, considered the leading contemporary African theologian.
Dr. Bediako had a clear challenge for African American men:”[You] should be our voice of hope,” he said. “You should be telling us in Africa that God will deliver our war-torn, impoverished continent and that if He delivered you from slavery and racism, He can deliver us from our plagues. You should be instructing African men to remain true to their families and their God…. But in your condition, you can’t tell us anything!”
Healing Urban Fathers
To be successful, African American family renewal must include the church. All previous movements to support the African American community have included God and the church. The slave revolts, the underground slave railroad, the abolitionist movement, and the civil rights movement all involved the church in their struggles.
The church must be included in our family renewal efforts. In his book Reclaiming The Urban Family (see page 6), Dr. Willie Richardson says that the church cannot build strong families without reaching out to fathers and sons. The church can help men overcome their anger and bitterness. It can help men face their unresolved issues, which is necessary for them to become good fathers.
Churches must make deliberate and intentional efforts to reach African American men. They will not come because we put up a banner announcing “All Men Welcome!” Reaching them will require leaders to be open about their own failings as men and fathers. Many men, because of their poor track record with male authority figures, are suspicious and distrustful of pastors and ministers. And trust is a key factor in keeping broken men coming to church. A broken man cannot relate to “sinless perfection.”
The church can become a place where men can forgive the sins of their fathers, both their biological fathers and their white forefathers.
Twenty-five years from now, it won’t matter that a church choir received an award, or that a particular pastor was a dynamic preacher, or that such and such church had a spirited worship service. I believe what will matter is how well the church supported the African American family by reaching out to all members of the family-women, children and men.