The Role of the Black Church in Working with Black Adolescents

Article excerpt

The Black Church Family Project is a study of family-oriented community outreach programs provided by black churches. The survey data discussed in this paper reflects programming for youth development as reported in the two northern regions of the project.

This is a timely issue because the dangers facing contemporary American adolescents are formidable. The concept of teenagers being "at risk" is increasingly used (Dryfoos, 1990). It describes an age cohort vulnerable to many negative forces in its developmental movement toward adulthood. The irony is that for most people, adolescence is the healthiest period of their lives (Family Impact Seminars, 1991). Unlike their predecessors, who suffered more frequently from untreated and untreatable diseases, today's adolescents risk harm primarily from social illnesses. This should provide reason for optimism since such ills are often preventable and amenable to intervention. Yet, concern arises from the reality that as physical health successes derived from medical and technological advances are made, the list of social problems plaguing adolescents continues to grow. This is especially true for minority youth who are the most likely to live in circumstances that increase the possibility that they will succumb to destructive influences.

Among the most salient of the problems facing adolescents today are the following: Adolescent pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births may carry negative consequences such as poverty and a truncated educational and occupational future (Edelman, 1987). These pregnancies become a life-defining event, and among American citizens low-income black adolescents have the highest rate (Dash, 1990; Franklin, 1988; Marsiglio, 1989; Mayfield-Brown, 1989). The issues of pre- and postnatal care, maternal and infant mortality rates (Taborn, 1988), and adolescent parenthood, including the generally ignored teenage father (Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, 1989), are all subscripts of these events. So are concerns regarding sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS (Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, 1989). These all stem from adolescent sexual activity and contraceptive usage (Evans & Evans, 1988; Franklin, 1988; Pleck, 1989; Taborn, 1987). These in turn are related to peer pressure issues and biological changes.

The emotional, physical, and sexual neglect and abuse of children and adults has been exposed as never before (Powers & Eckenrode, 1988). Dysfunctional families deprive adolescents of parental support, often creating a lack of positive male role models, especially for black adolescents (Juhasz, 1989; Lee, 1983). Substance abuse in the form of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes is a serious problem (Gay, 1981; Okwumabua, Okwumabua & Winston, 1989; Thompson & Simmons-Cooper, 1988) even if less so for minority youth (Atkins, Klein, & Mosley, 1987; Bachman et. al., 1991; Harper, 1988). Psychoses, accidental injuries, and physical disorders such as obesity and thyroid problems may afflict some black youth more than others (Brown, Powell & Earls, 1989; Family Impact Seminars, 1991; Fitzpatrick, Fujii, Shragg, & Rice, 1990). Depression and suicide are additional concerns (Baker, 1990; Gibbs, 1988a; Gibbs & Hines, 1989).

Crime, delinquency, and homicide rates are increasing among adolescents (Gibbs, 1988b; Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, 1989). Limited career aspirations and occupational range are coupled with delayed educational advancement, behavioral and learning problems, nonattendance, and dropping out of high school (Miller, 1988). Harsher school discipline compounds the situation for minority youth (McCarthy & Hoge, 1987; Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, 1989). Unemployment and underemployment are common, with the threat of homelessness increasing.

Some of these negative trends are pronounced among African-American adolescents and youth, as has been documented over the past two decades (Gibbs, 1988b). …