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Read more of Lucky Severson’s interview with the Reverend Darrell Armstrong of Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey:
My passion for working with families emanates out of my own childhood experiences. I was a ward of the court for 13 years in Los Angeles, where I was born and raised. My mother had me — she was 15 years old. Dad was 18; didn’t know him until I was 22. Through an unfortunate set of circumstances, my mother’s companion was abusive towards me and my 18-month-old brother. Put him in a tub of hot water. It came to the attention of L.A. Department of Children’s Services, and we were removed from her custody. I was in foster homes for about two years out of my life and then placed in long-term kinship care, even though we didn’t call it that in the mid-1970s. It was my maternal grandfather who opened his home and took me in.
In October of 1998 my mother died of a drug overdose at the young age of 45. It was really at her death, when I did her eulogy standing in front of her casket at the L.A. cemetery, that I really recommitted myself to strengthening families, particularly African-American families, particularly those in urban communities.
I think anyone of African descent who would disagree that the African-American family is in crisis is not living in this world, is not being realistic. We may disagree on what are the causes of the crisis. But I think everyone has to accept that when statistics tell us that at least up to 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock, when statistics tell me that in some states, prison populations are comprised of greater than 50 percent African-American men where we only make up 6 percent of the United States population — who are women going to marry if that percentage of them are in jail and incarcerated, and they can’t vote once they get out of jail? We’re in a crisis. There’s no doubt about it. Is it genocidal? I wouldn’t say that, but we are in crisis.
I’m a Democrat, but I’m not led by party solely. I value distinct perspectives on issues. But I would agree with many of my evangelical brothers and sisters, many of my conservative Christian brothers and sisters who would say that when there is an absence of family model, structure of mother and father, and single parenting notwithstanding — I pastor a black church in urban America. I see the black women who are raising their children by themselves. I see the grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren by themselves. But that does not negate that if it took two to make that child, it should take two to raise that child. The absence of a nuclear family model — I think that is the genesis of a lot of the issues that are going on. If young black boys don’t see a positive black male role model, they will seek it somewhere else. I see a lot of that going on in our communities.
Anyone who talks about race in America — you can’t disconnect that issue from the intentional, deliberate onslaught of black families during slavery. I think it’s a direct result of the vestiges and the remnants of slavery. I think if there was an intentional policy by government, regardless of what level of government, to destroy families and to not allow them [to stay] together for the cause of keeping the slave enterprise, you know, profitable, then those remnants take a long time to work through. One has to remember [it was] only in the ’60s that we got rid of the vestiges of Jim Crow, which was as destructive as slavery was. I think some of that stems from those systemic issues of policies that were created. To get welfare in this country, once upon a time, you couldn’t have a man. We know that. So the government has had a part.
I would consider myself more of an independent, to then independently assess the politics of either side. But ideologically and philosophically I tend to agree [more] with the Democratic platform than a Republican platform. But that’s not the issue. The destruction of families — I won’t say it’s not a political issue, but as a pastor I have to address the systemic issues but also address the self-help issues, you know. As Dr. King said, folks can’t ride your back if it’s not bent over.
The new face of racism is not black and white or brown or yellow. I think it’s green. I think where jobs are located has an impact on who gets those jobs, who works in those jobs. I’m part of a coalition in the state of New Jersey, and we’re trying to assess issues from a regional perspective. Jobs are being [created] in New Jersey where the working poor are not living — in suburban communities. Developments are being built in suburban communities, but the working poor are living in Trenton, Camden, Paterson. That’s not where the job growth is. It’s in the suburbs. So how do those families get there? Will they carpool to public transportation? Here in New Jersey we have the historic Mount Laurel law. Development is supposed to build affordable housing in those suburban communities. But we have a loophole in New Jersey that allows suburban communities to sell off their obligation to build affordable housing in the suburban community to urban communities. And in the absence of a statewide housing plan, urban mayors like Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer are left in a quandary. They want the money to build affordable housing in their city, but it’s at the expense of not building it in the suburban communities. So it’s economic. There’s no doubt about it.
I have been on the front lines of the community Healthy Marriage Initiative in the state of New Jersey since its inception in 2001, 2002. I went down and knocked on doors in DC until I found out where Wade Horn’s office was and Bill Coffin’s offices were. Wade Horn is the undersecretary for children and families in the Bush administration and Bill Coffin is his marriage expert. There’s a national marriage movement that’s going on. Diane Sollee is riding the crest of it right now, and she is a marriage expert based out of Washington, DC. You know, 3,000 folk get together for the last several years in places around the country called Smart Marriages. But do you know less than probably one percent of those who are attending Smart Marriages are of African descent and from African-American churches? I was intentional. I went, and then I was so moved by it I sent a team from my church and commissioned them to not only go and get training in Christian prep for prevention relationship-enhancement programs, but to bring that back, institute it in our church, and figure out how we go about helping to strengthen families, but with marriage as the cornerstone.
In 1996, when Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) was reformed, it replaced the old AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the old welfare. A new model of welfare came into existence in 1996 under the Clinton administration. One of the purpose statements in TANF is the government finds that marriage is the foundation to a healthy society. The government says that. In the four purpose statements of TANF, one of them is to promote two-parent households. Another one is to promote strengthened families through job preparation and marriage. That’s in federal legislation. Bush just came and acted upon it. It was there under Clinton. A Democratic president and his administration enacted federal policy that puts marriage right at the center, at the vortex of a conversation about strengthening family, strengthening communities. I’d buy into it regardless of who put it in place.
I’m a man of African descent. Extended family has been something that I think predates slavery. Even in West Africa, you look at tribal, indigenous social systems and it may not have replicated the nuclear two-parent model that we see in Western Europe, but it did have an extended family. Now the old adage that Hillary made so famous, “It takes a village to raise a child,” that is part of African-American and African culture. African-American culture, because of slavery, has had to rely on extended family as well, to the degree that the church has become the extended family. So a single mother can bring her children to church and see deacons, see a pastor, see positive models of black manhood that challenge and offset the negative stereotypes they may see in and around their community.
This congregation — even though we’re set in the heart of urban-American Trenton — I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a relatively affluent congregation. There are a lot of well-degreed, high-income-earning individuals and families in our congregation. But that is also not to say that we don’t have the families of the economically challenged — the welfare mothers. To the degree that there is divorce, yes, the national statistic is the national statistic — 50 percent of couples. I would say I see divorce all the time in the church. And I’d say this — that of the 20 marriages I do every year, about 15 of them are cohabitating with each other. That gives way to another conversation about the success of that marriage, right? But we’re trying to help that by giving them prevention and relationship-enhancement programs and other training so that when they get married, their marriages will be more successful.
I would say that the economic stress is less in middle-income families than it is in poverty-stricken families. We all know the statistics, and social science has proven that where there’s economic stress, there’s also mental and emotional stress as well that leads to abuse, that leads to displacement, that leads to generational patterns.
President Bush has been unabashed about his belief in marriage. President Clinton wasn’t as much, but he’s the one who put it in [the law]. The M word has been such a negative word because of, and let’s be real, because of the conversation, the debate about same-sex marriages. So when you start talking about marriage and family, it leads to a very interesting slope that has become so controversial. As you saw in this recent election, I mean, folks were very concerned.
Some other colleagues of mine in the state have come together and we’ve formed a couple of coalitions. One is the New Jersey African-American Healthy Marriage Initiative. We call it NJAAHMI. And there is a second more global, statewide initiative called the New Jersey Healthy Marriages Coalition, both of which are arms in New Jersey to bring faith-based and community-based organizations together to figure out how do we take advantage of potential funding from the federal government. But even in the absence of that, how do we take our communities back? You know, right here in Trenton, we’ve hosted marriage-saving workshops to train marriage mentors in churches. We’ve hosted Christian prep workshops. I’ve talked to the mayor of Trenton, who’s ready to commit publicly, to say, “I won’t marry anyone as a mayor without sending them first to you or someone like you, Reverend Armstrong, so they can at least get training.”
I’m just trying to win the battles that I can. If mayors and judges, who also do marriages, even though we know 70 percent of marriages are performed by clergy — even if they would say, “Wait. I’m not going to marry you until you’ve shown me that you’ve completed at least one training session with one trained individual” — our mayor and mayors around the state, they do five-minute ceremonies with folks they’ve never met before. How do you marry someone if marriage is the foundation of society, and yet we roll them off like cookie cutters on a conveyor belt? What is that saying for the success of those marriages and those relationships and those children? I’m working on a public policy level as well as on a faith level within the congregation to say, “Listen, ladies and gentlemen. Family’s important. It is the cornerstone of our society. And if we continue to go the way we are going in the African-American community, it may very well be genocide.”
We are selecting and training 10 couples per year to actually have them trained as marriage mentors. And they will then be fanned out to deal with three different types of couples in our congregation: those who have blended families, those who are in crisis, and those who are engaged and ready to marry. There will be trained personnel, if you would, in our congregation whose expertise is how to work with these blended families and deal with the issues of different children coming from different marriages and different backgrounds. Or another set would be trained how to counsel and get them ready for marriage. Another set will be just dealing with crises in marriages and how to strengthen them to utilize all the national training models that we can to bring it home to ground zero. If every church took responsibility for a quarter-mile radius of their church, we can then begin to make a difference — a multiplier effect.
Ask any African-American pastor of any African-American church, historically black church, in any urban community or anywhere around the country, do they have some kind of marriage ministry? I guarantee you about 90 percent of them will say yes, they do. What kind of training has been given to those working in their marriage ministry? I’ve said to my associate at Shiloh, “We’re going to send you to get the training requisite, and we’re going to tap into the trained Ph.D. counselors in our congregation and bring a counseling center together, build a marriage ministry.” The congregations are not drilling down to the level that I think they need to, to be successful in their marriage ministry. Most churches are going to say, “Of course we do something for the family. It’s endemic to who we are, you know, as a faith-based institution. We marry folk. We are in the business of bringing families together, keeping them together, counseling them and preaching and teaching to them every Sunday.” But how much training has that pastor had? If I can get more clergy trained, those who are doing the marriages, if I can get them certified in prep and other national models, they will become more effective in their ability to counsel those families.
In my concern it is priority number one. We have seven ministries in our church: Christian education, liturgy and worship, congregational care, missions, and evangelism — all that. Marriage and family is the ministry to which we’ve probably given the greatest budget, to work this with the men’s ministries of our church, the women’s ministries of our church, the seniors’ ministries of our church, and bring family, the emphasis on family — because in the absence of family we’re living an individualistic life, and in America that is our temptation — rugged individualism. But we need to bring the family and have it center. And that’s not a Republican issue, you know. That’s not a Democratic issue. That’s a religious issue.
I am slow to constantly put the African-American community as the most severe. Even though statistics bear out that we are leading in many indices that I rather us not lead in, I know that divorce and marital breakdown are real in suburban communities. I’ve lived in some of the most affluent suburban communities that one might imagine, in Stanford and Palo Alto and Princeton in New Jersey. I’ve seen my friends in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. I’ve watched those families also suffer from marriage breakdown, from abuse. Somehow I think stereotypically the media has portrayed African-American families in a certain way. It is only recently that we’ve seen this positive image of family through Bill Cosby and his wonderful, long-running television show. But count how may public images in media and in music we hear and see. I think it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hollywood projects certain things. I think certain families live up to certain things. And I think churches have to take it one church at a time and one community at a time. But I full well agree it’s a problem across the board. If you ask those who are divorcing and making up the divorce rate — we’re only 12 percent of the population, so, you know, if the divorce rate in America is 50 percent, a whole bunch of other folk getting divorced as well and a whole bunch of other families are being affected.