"You Have to Have Somebody Watching Your Back, and If That's God, Then That's Mighty Big": The Church's Role in the Resilience of Inner-City Youth

Article excerpt


This study was designed to explore Freeman's (1986) finding that the institution that made the greatest contribution to male African-American youths' socioeconomic success was the church. Thirty-two African-American, Haitian-American, and Latino male and female teenagers--16 drawn from inner-city Protestant churches and 16 comparison teenagers from the same communities--were interviewed. The interviews revealed that churched teenagers were less stressed and less likely to have psychological problems than were teenagers in the comparison group. They also appeared more likely to be living with both biological parents, less likely to have a family member on welfare, and more likely to have a job when compared with the other teenagers. They described the church as being central to their lives and as having multiple functions, many of which have been identified in the resilience literature as contributing to positive developmental outcomes. Results are interpreted in light of the transactional model, and recommend ations are made, such as expanding the role of the church within these ethnic communities.


Youth violence has been described as a public health epidemic (Prothrow-Stith, 1991). Indeed, according to Kids Count Data Book (1998), "every two hours, in America today, a child dies of a gunshot wound." Teenage pregnancy and drugs conspire with the high incidence of violence to rob inner-city teenagers of their future.

An additional source of stress for young people is poverty and unemployment (for example, nearly 16% of the children in Massachusetts live in poverty according to Kids Count Data Book, 1998). Latinos are five times more likely than whites to live in poverty, and African-Americans are almost four times more likely (Bureau of the Census, 1998). Nationwide, unemployment is down compared with earlier decades, but there is considerable disparity between ethnic groups. Unemployment among whites was at 3.7% as of the end of 1999, while African-Americans experienced 8% unemployment and the rate for Latinos was 6.4% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000). In the inner cities, unemployment may be much higher than this among those aged 16-19 (it has in the past ranged between 40% and 50% according to Gibbs, 1988).

Some urban youths, however, do well. In a comprehensive study of black male youths from inner-city poverty tracts, Freeman (1986) explored the factors correlated with "escape" from poverty and unemployment, using data from the 1979-1980 National Bureau of Economic Research survey of inner-city black youth and the 1979-1981 National Longitudinal Survey of Young Men. He investigated time allocation (i.e., youths were asked to describe their activities during a 24-hour weekday), school status, labor force participation, wage rate, social deviance, weeks worked in a year, annual income, and weekly consumption expenditures. He concluded that, in poor inner-city areas, the institution that contributed the most to socioeconomic success was the church.

Freeman argued that church involvement influenced how these urban youths used their time, whether they went to school, whether they worked, and how socially deviant they were. Those who went to church were more likely to have jobs (even though they did not necessarily have greater access to opportunities in the labor market) and less likely to be socially deviant. Freeman concluded that the mechanisms by which the church helped teenagers escape inner-city stresses included factors specific to their going to church, factors that he did not explore. The present study attempted to examine some of those factors.

Transactional Model

Sameroff (1993) has suggested that the transactional model best recognizes the bidirectionality of influence that shapes individual development. According to this model, the individual actively shapes his or her own experiences, and the individual's experiences in turn shape the nature and development of the individual. …