Bahai News -- Ann Arbor News - Guidance, support are a matter of faith

Guidance, support are a matter of faith

Religion still plays important role for many African Americans

Monday, October 6, 2003

BY LISA KLIONSKY
News Staff Reporter


Maxine Collins, 85, admits she can't do as much as she used to - she's given up driving and no longer volunteers as much in the community.

But she still does as much as she can for Ann Arbor's Bethel AME Church, including making monthly phone calls to some fellow church members to see how they're doing physically and spiritually.

After all, Bethel is "really my family here," she said, and, since 1939, the church has helped her cope with life's transitions. "If I don't go to church on Sunday, I feel like something's wrong. I also go on Wednesday nights to prayer meeting. I need that, too."

Collins' experience illustrates a recent study by University of Michigan researchers that shows how important religion is to African Americans.

"We were struck time and time again by the ways that religious institutions were important in meeting the support needs of older African Americans," said Linda Chatters, an associate professor of public health and social work.

That was early on in her research with her husband, Robert Taylor, a social work professor and associate dean for research. They went on to look at African Americans of all ages, and, after 20 years of research, have concluded that religion significantly shapes African Americans' lives, and is a great determinant in well-being.

"We found that when you look at life satisfaction, religion plays an important role in the way you see the world, whether the glass is half empty or half full," Taylor said.

They've written about their findings in a new book, "Religion in the Lives of African Americans: Social, Psychological and Health Perspectives," co-authored with Jeff Levin, an independent researcher.

Religion is particularly important to certain groups of African Americans, including women, elderly and Southerners, the researchers said. In addition, praying and support from church members and pastors are indispensable in coping with major life problems, and clergy provide significant help in finding solutions.

Chatters said Taylor conducted some of their research close to home. They organized focus groups about religion and coping in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area, posting fliers at churches and beauty salons, among other places.

People in those groups "really spoke about their religion as something that helped to shape their behaviors almost on a minute-to-minute basis," Chatters said. "Like if they were in a store and the clerk had a bad day, they would reflect on what's required as a religious person, which is not to respond in kind."

The Rev. Laverne Gill, an African-American woman and pastor of Webster United Church of Christ in Webster Township, said she sees the role the church plays in the black community, but finds it diminishing.

"While many still turn to the church for spiritual guidance, there is still an element there that is not as dependent on the church ... as in the past," Gill said. "It is not as integrated into lives as in the past."

Gill said that during slavery, church was both a spiritual and political place and "surely was the center of African-American life." But as the years passed, churches have become for black Americans what they are many times for whites: social places.

The traditional black church also is not as progressive in social issues, such as AIDS and women as clergy, as it used to be, Gill said. "You're dealing with entrenched social dynamics in the community as it was early on."

Margaret Crawford, the managing director of Under the Rainbow Of Love Learning Center in Pittsfield Township, is among those with a strong connection to her church. She said she regards Christianity as a way of life.

"It is much more than doctrine or a set of rules. It is more the foundational piece for my life," she said.

Crawford, 66, lives in Sumpter Township and belongs to Christian Love Fellowship Church where she is the church's dean of education.

"The fact that my life has been one of service grows out of the fact that I embraced Christian teachings very early in life," she said. "It's not something you throw out there and say I'm a Christian. It's how you interact with people, what you think about them."

Crawford said because racism or gender discrimination might be a factor in the lives of African-American women, it is likely they would feel a deeper call to embrace the values of scripture passages. "They remind you to forgive people and that you have to work with people no matter all the differences."

Terrence Quinn, 27, of Superior Township, who also attends Christian Love Fellowship, said his Christian faith is a daily motivation to do well.

"It causes me to try to work extremely hard at my job and always produce my best because I'm representing Him," Quinn said.

And during tough times, Quinn said, "I definitely and immediately go to God. And I also go to those in the church I trust and I know will meet me there and help me go in the direction I need to go in."

The importance of religion to African Americans extends beyond the Christian community. Telisha Harrison, 32, who is working on a master's degree in social work at U-M, said her Bahai faith is "paramount" in her life.

"I find that my day is not as easy to deal with if I forget to say the prayers," Harrison said. "I handle it better if I have that spiritual connection. ... When I pray, I feel less stressed, and it reminds me that I have spiritual support."

Her Bahai network in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti also provides tangible help for her, a single parent, and her daughter. "They have done wonders in terms of supporting me. If there's an activity going and I can't get there, my daughter gets there, someone comes and picks her up.

"I couldn't have done it without the community support."

Lisa Klionsky can be reached at lklionsky@annarbornews.com or (734) 994-6852.

©Copyright 2003, The Ann Arbor News (MI, USA)

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