A “Christian” Defense of Marriage Act?

Finally, a defense of marriage act that may be even timelier for today’s church.

You’ve probably heard of Jacksonville-based preachers H.B. Charles, Jr., and Rudolph McKissick Jr. whose sermons against “shackin’ up” led to mass weddings at their churches.

Three of the nine couples who participated in the mass wedding. (Photo Credit: News 4 Jacksonville)

Pastor Charles of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church told his members that “Anyone who wanted to actually take the commitment of marriage seriously, we would do whatever we could to help them by sponsoring this mass wedding.” After six weeks of group counseling 14 couples tied the knot.

Bishop McKissick of Bethel Institutional Baptist Church told his flock, “You’re saying we love the Lord too much to keep living out of His will as a couple. I want you to come to the altar right now.” After weeks of counseling and with the help of volunteers such as, makeup stylists and florists, nine couples said, “I do.”

Recent talks about marriage have focused on debating the rights of same-sex couples. But these sermons are more impactful because the preachers, instead harping on what people should not do, passionately and graciously emphasized to their members, what they SHOULD do according to the Bible. The preachers then left it to the couples to decide for themselves whether to do the right thing. They also delivered resources to help make the weddings happen. But is tying the knot instead of cohabitating truly necessary for Christians these days?

Culturally, it certainly seems that cohabitation is here to stay. U.S. Census data shows that in the 1960s some 450,000 unmarried couples (Christian and non-Christian) lived together, compared to more than 7.5 million now. Why do people choose shackin’ over jumpin’ the broom? The sexual revolution and improved birth control are typical explanations, but also finances.  In previous generations, particularly for women whose career options were limited primarily to working in the home, marriage was a financial safety net. Many now see cohabitating as a money issue. If two people are dating and find themselves spending most of their time together at each other’s homes, the idea of cutting two rents and cable bills down to one seems logical. Cohabitating is like being roommates with extra benefits. Couples don’t necessarily plan to shack, they slide into it.

Another reason is that couples say they’re giving their relationship a trial run. By living together you supposedly get to see what the other person is truly like, and whether you want to deal with them “until death do us part.” However, studies indicate that women tend to see shackin’ as a stepping stone to marriage, while men often see it as a way of enjoying the benefits without the commitment. Meanwhile, many who have shacked first and gotten married know first-hand that people STILL change once the rings are exchanged. Unrealistic expectations can still rise among husbands and wives. And unfortunately for many, divorce still happens even after shackin’.

Yes there are many couples who cohabitate successfully. The label of marriage CAN also increase pressure that can boil an otherwise peaceful home. These couples say that if the partnership ain’t broke don’t fix it with two rings and a certificate because that’s what friends, family and the church say to do. Since God is omnipresent, God knows whether our hearts are committed, they say.

Both Pastor Charles and Bishop McKissick stressed the importance of counseling, which is the key. Their couples underwent weeks of sessions to help them truly understand what they were getting themselves into; that marriage is not an adult version of playing house; that marriage is not merely a financial arrangement, though money is often a major issue. For the Christian, marriage should be a spiritual journey, a covenant that enlightens us to the divine nature and unity of God, Jesus, The Holy spirit and the church.

Sadly, many of us Christians lack successful marriages in this holy image because we too often did not receive quality pre-marital counseling. We fail to grasp this deeper understanding of what we’re truly engaged in. We often jump in and swim based on the models we saw from our parents (if we had two in the home) that were likely flawed. We go into marriage thinking of what we observed from other families or on TV. We get hitched for the children born out of wedlock, not realizing that we’re unequally yoked. The cliché “If you keep the Lord in the middle, everything will be alright” becomes our guide. But how do you accomplish this? Quality pre-marital counseling can help light the way.

There are several Bible verses that illustrate God’s stance on marriage and particularly Hebrews 13:4 touches on cohabitation too: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all sexually immoral.”

So why were these couples shackin’ despite knowing what the Word says? The answer is in our own homes. We are ALL flawed. We have ALL sinned and fallen short of God’s standards. We are ALL human wrestling with the “law of sin” as articulated by Paul in Romans 7 – doing what we know we shouldn’t do. Many of the couples in the mass weddings said that they where planning to get married, but lacked money for the big ceremony that our culture says a wedding should be. For the Christian, though, the primary concern for marriage should be spiritual not carnal.

Adrian Thatcher, a religion professor at the University of Exeter, UK, urges the Christian church to return to the theological and doctrinal roots of marriage, in order to defend it as “indispensable for the regulation of sexual expression, the raising of children and the pleasing of God…”

Shout out to Pastor Charles, Bishop McKissick and the many other leaders out there who are preaching just that.

Bad Economic Times, Good for Hope

With the U.S. unemployment rate still high at 7.3 percent (13 percent for blacks), financial struggles continue for many. The Great Recession that began in 2007 may technically be over, but the federal government sequestration and the shutdown that furloughed hundreds of workers, has many people losing hope in the slow economic recovery. But it is times like these that you have to trust God even more for a better future. Getting your mind right is the key.

Like a friend who is now a very successful store owner. She shared with me that financial troubles almost caused her to give up on her business before the breakthrough came. She opened her retail store after the 9/11 tragedy, which triggered economic gloom in 2001. That downturn caused the company that she was working for at that time to eliminate her position after nearly 20 years of loyal service. Though it was shocking to be called to the human resources office, handed a manila folder, and told that she no longer had a job, it was also a relief. For years, God had been showing her in dreams that she would be running not one, but many successful thrift stores. In the dreams, she clearly saw the store’s light purple and blue walls with gold trim, she said. She saw clothing on the racks and the furniture where customers would sit in between browsing and trying on clothing. She used the severance package from her former job as seed money to plant the business she would nurture for God. Friends and family told her she was crazy to attempt to open a door during an economic downturn. Sometimes it’s good to be hard-headed.

After opening the thrift store in the city’s downtown section, foot traffic was excellent for the first few weeks. But then fewer people came into the store. This went on for months. She began to worry about paying bills and salaries. Then, one day in a moment of particular weakness, she shared her concerns with her assistant manager. The assistant manager prayed with her and then went back to work. Then while routinely checking the pockets of clothing before putting them on the racks, the assistant manager found two dimes. She took the dimes to the store owner and said, “You see, God will provide. We just have to trust him.” They both laughed, but they also knew that the statement was true.  My friend is now planning to open a second store.

Troubling times can feed hopelessness, but trouble can also be ripe for opportunities, whether it’s opening your own business or starting a new career. For example, the Affordable Care Act was lauchned amid the headlines about the financial impact of Washington’s gridlock over the federal budget. The ACA, also known as Obamacare, began open enrollment on Oct. 1 at www.healthcare.gov and on websites of states that have their own health insurance marketplaces. I did a presentation at a Celebrate Healthcare event in Hampton, Va., where individuals were able to enroll with help. I talked about repositioning yourself for healthcare jobs.

Healthcare jobs are among the top fasted growing industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When people think of working in healthcare, they typically see the clinical side – being a doctor or nurse and the number of years and costs of schooling required. But there are several non-clinical jobs or careers in the area of healthcare management because healthcare is ultimately a business. For example, there will be a growing need for people who have skills in communications, or data entry, or accounting. Positions in sales and management are growing. As evidenced by the massive technical problems with the enrollment website, information technology experts will become more vital. People who are unemployed or looking to make a career change can transfer skills from their current fields to fill health care industry jobs.  They just have to be willing to see the opportunities and do what it takes to reposition – whether it’s additional training, or researching health insurance companies or networking with people who are already where you want to be.

Tough financial times also mean opportunities for breakthroughs. It’s all in how you choose to look at it. You can choose hope and to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Church “Mans Up” to Address Black Youth Crisis

On an early Saturday morning, Bishop L.W. Francisco stood before a group of about 50 men and male teens of his Calvary Community Church and reflected on how long it had taken for the scene to materialize.

Seven years ago he received the vision that his predominantly black congregation in Hampton, Va. needed to do a better job mentoring African-American males. Presiding over too many young men’s funerals and consoling their loved ones, Francisco had seen from the frontlines the high homicides and incarceration rates of young urban black men. Over the years, men at his church who meant well would begin to work with the teens, but then, for one reason or another, the effort would fizzle. But in late 2012, Francisco issued a special call from the pulpit for committed men to step up. He sensed that something was different, that the chemistry was finally right.

“This is a vision that the Lord has given me and I’ve been carrying it and carrying it and carrying it,” Francisco said to the group, which had gathered at 8 a.m. “These 12 men (the core leaders) are sold out to this program. They are running with it. They have a passion for it.”

Calvary (known as C3) launched its Man Training program in February 2013, its theme being “Ambition to Transition.” The 10-week program helps boys become men through the training of their minds, bodies and souls. I am a member of C3, but attended the gathering as a writer. The program kicked off with a weekend “boot camp” at the Williamsburg Christian Retreat Center, where each man worked with two teens—there were 24 teens in all. The teens, all members of the church, had physical training activities and classes on issues such as prayer, peer pressure and having a quality relationship with God. The young men graduated in June.

Throughout the week in between meetings, the men would contact the boys and try to recap things that they learned to keep them encouraged, said Sylvester Taylor who heads the program. Moral and spiritual values, respect for authority, academic excellence, camaraderie and being an extension of the family are what the program emphasizes. “Repetition produces retention. This is a discipline program,” Sylvester said. “We’re really trying to instill that in them with the word of God and applying it throughout their lives.”

Located in Southeast Virginia, Hampton Roads has 11 military facilities, the highest concentration in the nation. As a result, many of the men are connected with the military in some way. The men did not aim to necessarily steer the teens toward joining the armed forces, but the teens benefited from the military-style discipline, such as being prompt and working as a unit. “We’re trying to teach them life-long lessons that they can apply across the board,” said Taylor, who is married and has young child. “We can connect and use our experience, but we’re not a replacement for the family.”

Taylor said that the more than 100 applications from families outside of the church confirmed Francisco’s vision that the training program should serve the wider community. They opted to start in-house first to get the program’s structure solid.

Young black males too often lack fathers in the home, leaving teens to be raised often by struggling single moms. This is typically cited as a key reason too many young black males are killing each other. They’re sucked in by the “street mentality.” But for teens such as Steven Scales and Joshua Moore, whose fathers are very involved in their lives, hearing from other strong men makes a huge impression too.

Steven said he was “a little nervous” at first, but then began enjoying the camaraderie of the other teens and the men. Joshua said the mentors reinforced his father’s voice. “When it’s the same things that my father is saying, it impacts me more,” he said.

As the focus on the young black male crisis has increased in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, many have been asking what can be done. Others have questioned whether the black church is doing enough. Many black churches across the country have long had successful mentoring programs, but are often not given credit, i.e. The Black Male mentoring program in South Florida and a mentoring program in Silver Springs, MD which has mentored black male teens for the last decade.

Youth mentoring is difficult to do well. Men who are considered morally upright and successful in their careers are typically ideal mentors but these men got that way by being hard-working, dedicated and thus, very, very busy. They are also often tending to their own families. As a married father who has reared two sons and a daughter, while navigating a demanding career, I can relate. I’ve mentored as a member of 100 Black Men, my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, my churches and as a sports coach. I could only pull it off by having my children involved in the programs. Still, it was a tough juggling act. Rearing your own kids can be more than a notion.

I still mentor. Doing nothing as a generation of young men ends up in prison or in the grave is not an option. Men like those at C3 understand this. They looked in the mirror and manned up.


Rangel, the Congressional Black Caucus and Their Part in the War on Drugs

Every five to 15 years we go through a ritual of focusing on the young black male crisis. In 2008 it was the Jena Six case. Before that, it was the Rodney King beating and the uprising in 1992 after LA police officers were acquitted. This time it’s the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy.

Watching the Congressional Black Caucus’ recent Emergency Summit on Urban Violence on C-SPAN, I saw something that made me wanna holla. As Trayvon’s father, Tracey Martin, spoke, the camera briefly turned to U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, one of the founders of this group of legislators focused on “positively influencing the course of events pertinent to African-Americans and others of similar experience and situation.” Rangel looked as though he were dozing. This quick camera shot wasn’t as bad as the embarrassing photo of a supine Rangel on the front page of the New York Post asleep on a beach chair at his former Punta Cana Resort property in the Dominican Republic. But seeing Rangel, currently the longest serving black member of the U.S. House of Representatives, apparently dozing off raised my blood pressure.

The Black Caucus was holding this summit at Chicago State University in reaction to the alarming homicides particularly in Chicago. The killings where my wife and I reared our children are often linked to gang battles and turf beefs over drugs, but a key supplier of the misery is actually Capitol Hill.

The government’s so-called War on Drugs, which dates back to 1870, has exacerbated deaths in the ‘hood. This failed modern version that began under the Nixon Administration and heightened under Republican and Democratic presidents, has wreaked havoc. Its mandatory minimum sentences and overall unjust guidelines for crack (used primarily by blacks, Latinos and the poor) compared to powder cocaine (used mostly by whites and the rich) has devastated communities of color. So what does this have to do with Rangel?

The decorated Korean War veteran, who fully understands the high cost of combat, was among the main legislators beating the war drums. A former prosecutor in New York, Rangel built his congressional career riding the “tough on crime” bandwagon of the 1980s. He was so out front that in a 1989 feature article, Ebony, then the organ of black America, titled Rangel “The Front-Line General” of the war. Rangel even accused President Reagan of being soft on drugs and praised Nancy’s “just say no” campaign. Yes, like many people, Rangel was outraged over drugs and increased violence in the community, but he and other legislators knew of the failed Prohibition Era policies of the 1920s that unleashed organized crime and homicides symbolized by – you guessed it – Chicago gangsters. Like the politicians, Christian conservatives were also misguided in the 1920s and again in the 1980s as fear and personal ambition fueled fervor. So, Rangel, a son of Harlem who has been in office since defeating the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1970, led the charge in a so-called moral war that has ravaged his own community. Many of his black colleagues have been sitting along side in a haze as the body count mounts.

The carnage has been well documented by the NAACP:

  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Blacks and Latinos represent about 1.3 million
  • About two thirds of the blacks and Latinos in prison are non-violent drug offenders
  • Blacks are 14% of drug users, but represent 37% of drug arrests
  • Five times as many Whites are using drugs as Blacks, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites
  • Americans are only five percent of the world’s population, but represent 25% of the world’s prisoners

Many of these prisoners are first time offenders who were locked up for possessing or using small amounts of drugs. Many parents are snatched from their homes for making terrible choices, or for being in the wrong place at the right time. Their children have paid too, left behind to be raised by the mentality of the streets. Many are low-level drug dealers lured by a culture that glorifies kingpins. Young black males often kill each other as a consequence of the street justice that comes with the drug trade. Without consistent parental guidance, particularly absent fathers to show them an honest work ethic, they are motivated to “get rich or die trying.” Others are motivated to put food on the table or to buy diapers for their babies. The failed policy has further pitted cops against a community they are supposed to serve, fracturing an already tense, tenuous relationship. Rewarded financially for high arrest statistics, police have become more like occupying soldiers raiding homes in search of (and often planting) drugs, treating U.S. citizens as if they are foreign combatants.

Two documentaries, The House We Live In and How to Make Money Selling Drugs are must see films to understand the drug war’s misery. Rangel and his colleagues should schedule another summit to view these films together.

Rangel has skillfully mounted his career on this so-called war. He has played both the “tough on crime” and “speak truth to power” roles. He backed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the mandatory minimum sentences that hiked the incarceration rate. This is the act whose damage U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced he would attempt to mitigate. Holder’s changes include directing U.S. attorneys across the country to establish local guidelines to determine when federal charges should and shouldn’t be filed. Meanwhile, realizing the destruction and high costs of mandatory minimums for non violent offenders, several states have already adjusted their laws.

Rangel has also shifted some with the political winds. He supported The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced crack and powder cocaine disparities from 100-1 to 18-1. He even supported the proposed Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011 to end federal criminal penalties tied to the drug. But Rangel’s strategic pivot happened well after establishing his personal career and financial security, including his congressional pension. Meanwhile the damage to his people in Harlem and across the nation has been done and continues.

More than $1 trillion has been spent the past 40-plus years in the so-called War on Drugs. As the Black Caucus holds these “talks” for solutions to urban violence, it should start with itself. Some other veteran members – among them U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California – have been outspoken against this attack on the black community. However, the Black Caucus ought to admit, that in terms of the drug war, they have failed tragically to fulfill their goal of “positively influencing the course of events pertinent to African-Americans…” If the Civil Rights Movement is the second Civil War and Affirmative Action is the second Reconstruction, the War on Drugs has triggered what author Michelle Alexander has termed “The New Jim Crow,”–a must read book on America’s mass incarceration of people of color. This so-called war – Rangel’s War – has set the community back in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Will this be the Black Caucus’ legacy?

From poverty to terror, the phrase “the war on” is basically a sign that Congress is engaged in another reactionary, poorly thought out and expensive doomed policy with tragic consequences. The Black Caucus should lead the correction of this failure by publicly repenting on behalf of the U.S. Congress for its sin against black America. The Black Caucus should call for an immediate end to the War on Drugs and replace it with an urban Marshall Plan to infuse training and jobs through infrastructure rehabilitation projects. The plan should include addiction counseling funds, support and the automatic expungement of the criminal records of non-violent drug offenders. Give these folks a shot at getting good jobs and becoming productive taxpaying citizens – people who could restore their families and urban communities.

A good place and time for the Black Caucus to do this is during its foundation’s upcoming 43rd Annual Legislative Conference, Sept. 18-21 in Washington. There will be plenty of ministers willing to help them repent and C-SPAN can capture the moment for the entire world to see. And leading this prayer of atonement (and to save his legacy) should be U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my claims? If you agree, will you bring the issue before your congregation? Post your thoughts and let’s start a conversation.

High Court Rules Marriage Benefits Not Just for A Man and A Woman

The Supreme Court’s recent decision has caused a lot of Christians to view it as a threat to traditional marriage. But is that what we should be concerned about? (Photo courtesy of thinkstockphotos.com)

The saying often heard in churches that God intended marriage for “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” may soon be just another cliché as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in support of same-sex marriage, particularly the extension of benefits within same-sex marriages.

In separate 5-4 decisions, the justices struck down a part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and let stand a lower court decision overturning California’s Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Holding that the issue is a question of equal protection under the law, the justices established that federal services and benefits must be applied equally to all married couples recognized by states. It also reaffirmed that the federal government must respect state laws.

“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages,” read the majority opinion. “It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their state, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same state.”

In the Prop 8 case, the court declined to hear the appeal to reverse the California state court’s decision to overturn the same-sex ban. The justices said those who brought the suit before the high court were not entitled to do so. The court, in effect, dismissed the 8 million Californians that voted for Prop 8, which passed in 2008 with 52% of the vote after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages.

“I have directed the California Department of Public Health to advise the state’s counties that they must begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in California as soon as the Ninth Circuit confirms the stay is lifted,” California’s Gov. Jerry Brown said.

The justices did not issue a broad opinion about the morality of same-sex marriage, which remains banned in 38 states.

The court’s decisions have shaken many faith communities in America. For conservatives, particularly those who  believe that America is a Christian nation whose laws should comply with the Bible, the court’s ruling is a travesty. They say the justices overstepped their bounds by redefining marriage, which is the domain of God alone.

For many other Christians, besides those brothers and sisters in Christ who are gay, the decision is not as cut and dry. It’s neither tragic nor a reason to hope for a wedding party where water is turned to wine. As a man who has been married to the same woman for more than 20 years, I consider myself among this number.

Though I believe the Bible affirms that marriage is a holy union between a man and woman only, I also believe that consenting adults have a right to live the way they want. Over the course of world history, people have gotten married for various reasons that often had nothing to do with religion or God. Many tax paying citizens see marriage not as a holy covenant, but as a contract. America is a pluralistic society where the government is constitutionally prevented from aligning with any particular faith. American citizens have a right to practice their faith – be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. – as well as to be agnostics or atheists. If two consenting adults love each other and want to spend their lives together, the government has no right to get in their way – period. The government’s role is to protect us from each other to insure that our individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not infringed upon. The government has no right to dictate what we can and cannot do with our bodies, including whom we live with or who we choose to be intimate with. The same goes for the church.

Many Christians may reject same-sex marriage on biblical grounds, but we still have no right to dictate to others through state or federal laws how they should live their personal intimate lives. True, the church is the only institution in society that, as God’s representative on Earth, is ordained with the responsibility to define how we should morally behave toward each other, including even our private intimate relationships. Christians believe our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. However, God still grants individuals the “free will” to govern their own bodies. Whether pastors, ministers or lay members, Christians are called of God to state what we believe the Bible says. But after that, we are ultimately called to live lives as examples of Christ’s love daily.  We are to inspire and influence people with our godly light, not condemn and force them into submission. Certainly Jesus is heartbroken over Christians who are aligned with those who verbally or physically assault members of the LGBT community, or who drive many of them to committ suicide. Certainly we have no business cursing them to a hell that we do not own, as if we are sinless. This is what Jesus meant by “Judge not, that ye not be judged.” We will all have to face God’s judgment seat alone regarding our individual sins. But God reserves that final decision exclusively.

So rather than be upset about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, I simply prefer to trust the Lord. The God who tossed the stars into the sky and who keeps the Earth revolving around the sun without crashing into the other planets is certainly big enough to handle “Adam and Steve” or “Alice and Eve.”

Besides, with divorce (which the Bible says is a sin) being high among heterosexuals, including among Christians, I’d rather stay focused on keeping my own marriage together.