February is Black History Month. Some say Black Heritage Month. In this shortest month of the year we usually give emphasis to accomplishments of Black historical figures in the United States. Sometimes, though, it seems that instead of our heritage we celebrate and commemorate the month. There is nothing of deep historical significance about February that we should reverence it. And the heritage and history of African slaves in America and their descendants should not be articulated only in the shortest month but throughout the year, every year. Therefore, in this blog I want to focus on something of our heritage that demands constant focus throughout each year: resilience.
The institution of marriage among African-Americans in 2014 has collapsed. The decline has been steady since 1960 when around 30% of children were born into families without the benefits of the marriage of their biological parents. 50 years ago this was considered a crisis. Today those statistics have inverted to more than 70% and nothing is stemming the tide. Some cite our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism as causal to the conditions that shape family life today. Perhaps so. But I aver that while the ghosts of those negative elements of our history may haunt us today, we inherit a legacy of survival that gives us reason for hope.
It is ironic that a Black child born in slavery 160 years ago was more likely to be born into a family with and raised by biological parents than one born today. What resilience held families together then? Despite slavery, Jim Crow, and racism that characterize our history, there is resilience in us that give us hope. Another irony is that our Catholic faith, with our sacramental imagination that gives true substance to our invisible God, has no strategy for addressing this crisis in Black family life . . . until now.
The National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM) and the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators (NABCA) are beginning to strategize on effective outreach to African-American families. Guided by the longstanding work of ArusiNetwork, a not-for-profit that focuses on strengthening, encouraging, and supporting healthy marriage among African-Americans, these national Catholic organizations will advance a “new paradigm” that will engage our sacramental imagination around marriage.
This new paradigm emphasizes marriage within a community context. Indeed, it takes a village not only to raise a child, but to sustain a marriage. The witness of covenantal love feeds the community and the sacramental union of marriage makes God more tangible. The stakeholding community supports and protects the union and the couple sees their role as bigger than themselves and more important than any transient sense of happiness.
In our Catholic community earnest catechesis on marriage begins at engagement. African-Americans have the lowest marriage rate among all measured groups. Even marriage preparation programs by and for African-Americans, if following convention, will miss the mark. The focus of marriage preparation must be broader than the engaged and target those couples forming families with or without marriage in their sights.
Our catechesis on marriage must articulate the community’s stakeholding role and not just the interpersonal dynamics of the couple. We must prepare couples for a role that is “bigger than them.” Henri Nouwen expresses this in his book Clowning In Rome1:
Marriage is not a lifelong attraction of two individuals to each other but a call for two people to witness together to God's love. The basis of marriage is not mutual affection, or feelings, or emotions and passions that we associate with love, but a calling, a vocation. It is to understand that we are elected to build together a house for God in this world.
The real mystery of marriage is not that husband and wife love each other so much that they can recognize God in each other's lives, but more because God loves them so much that they can discover each other more and more as living reminders of God's presence.
We must also prepare families, parishes, and communities to be stakeholders of marriage. Upon this “new paradigm” we will strategize how to bring our Catholic sacramental imagination to serve and strengthen African-American families. Through this fresh lens we will tap into the resilience that is our legacy, the “faith that the dark past has taught us” and the “hope that the present has brought us.2”
The fruits of NACFLM and NABCA’s collaboration are yet to be realized. Our hope is that it will reshape Catholic Family Life outreach to African-Americans and set higher standards for Catholic evangelization in the margins. It will require the resilience that is the legacy of African slaves in America, who made a way out of no way to sustain the bonds of kinship even while in bondage. In this Strategic Plan year that focuses on “Strong Catholic Families”, this is something to celebrate in and beyond the month of February.
1 Nouwen, Henri, Clowning In Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer, and Contemplation Doubleday, New York, 1979.
2 From James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing”, a poem acclaimed as the “Negro National Anthem.”