Black America: gaining ground, losing traction

WASHINGTON – Three themes run through black America, according to the Rev. Robert Franklin: celebration of heroic individual and collective achievement; closure of persistent racial gaps in such areas as education and health; and anxiety about losing ground and “mobilizing to reverse negative trend lines.”

Rev. Franklin, author of the new book “Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities,” believes there is much about which to be anxious.

“Segments of the African-American population are indeed losing ground,” he said, while other blacks argue whether individual responsibility is the best way to address this or whether government policy should be reshaped to address “systemic problems.”

Some of the issues, taken broadly, are so substantial as to be overwhelming, said Rev. Franklin, a Church of God in Christ minister who teaches social ethics at Emory University in Atlanta.

Each year, he said, 650,000 prisoners are released to what are uncertain futures. At the other end of the spectrum, black Americans need to “take the nurture of children more seriously.” But after having attended the national conventions of America’s largest black denominational groups and civic organizations, “I am stunned now by their silence on (families’) relationship health,” he added.

Rev. Franklin, during a Feb. 20 forum on black America held at the National Press Club, called for black churches to use their “distinctly moral capital” to address the challenges facing black Americans.

In the Washington Archdiocese, Monsignor Raymond East, who is pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington and head of the archdiocesan Office of Black Catholics, cited archdiocesan priests working with parishes in forming a viable program for those newly released from prison. Among them is Father Mike Bryant, who has been a chaplain in District of Columbia jails.

“In D.C. … 2,400 men are released every year. That’s 200 a month. That’s a lot of men” for a 9-square-mile area, Monsignor East told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.

Two majority-black parishes in the district, including St. Teresa, will provide mentors to released prisoners.

“We’re getting ready to receive the folks when they get out,” Monsignor East said.

Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, a forum panelist, recalled a time 16 years ago when 22 black leaders got together for two one-week sessions to identify priorities for black America. “We decided the African-American family was in the greatest crisis since slavery,” she said.
“That’s where those wonderful words ‘leave no child behind’ came from.”
Aiding children has had some success, but far from total success. The number of children killed by guns has been cut in half, but “we’re still losing almost 3,000 children each year to gun violence,” and the numbers are creeping upward again, Edelman said.

Education can be a ticket out. A pilot federal voucher program in the District of Columbia, called “opportunity scholarships,” has attracted plenty of takers. But the scholarships top out at $3,500. “And it takes a lot more than that to educate a child today,” Monsignor East said. The archdiocese is looking at the possibility of closing two schools in the District because of the costs of keeping them open.

The black church also needs to reconnect with young people, Edelman said. “You look in the church and mostly what you see is old women,” Edelman said. The solution may be to “put vacation Bible schools out in the street” to compete with drug markets, which, she added, are “out on the street 24 hours a day.”

Edelman said that, while many blacks have achieved middle-class status, there has been a failure to “connect the black middle class to the black poor.”

“Economics and the ability to have a lifestyle that can support you and support your family is always an issue,” said Beverly Carroll, who has headed the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for African-American Catholics since 1988.

“Scripture tells us the poor will always be with us, although here in America you wouldn’t think it would have such a major impact” in areas such as health care “and to some extent even food,” she said.

Without going into specifics, Carroll told CNS, “Certainly government plays a role. … We expect to have adequate resources for education and to be able to take care of those needs that we would have to have (met) to live a reasonable, good life. However, due to many factors, everyone cannot make it on their own and would need that lift up.”

The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, said tensions have to be overcome with blacks who are poorer than her flock and with whites who move in, driving up property values.
“You’ve got to have some good news. Otherwise, there’s no sense in preaching the good news of reconciliation,” she said at the press club forum.
Her church has an “urban prayer breakfast” each weekday where the homeless are invited to sit at the table and worship with her congregation. The church also advises congregants to resist the pitches of real estate speculators to sell their homes and cash in on the gentrification craze in some Washington neighborhoods.

After living in such distressed conditions for so long, Rev. Sanders said, they should reply to those entreaties with: “Maybe I should stick around to see how good it’s going to be!”

Hugh Price, former head of the Urban League, cautioned during the forum against waiting for another iconic figure like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come along and galvanize African-Americans to act. “If we wait for the next accident of history” for a Rev. King, Price said, “then it’s going to be a long wait.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.