Two weeks in a row I have had the privilege of sitting with a group of men who are a part of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Men of Faith Group. These are men who have struggled with being unemployed, who have been caught in the net of addiction and who have been ensnared in illegal activity that has led them to spend time in prison.
They are also men who have survived and who are trying to turn their lives around. So many of these men find this group to be a lifeline for them, it is a safe place where they can come and be themselves and tell each other the truth because they trust each other.
I remember a young African American man in his early 20s who came to the church before the office opened; when I arrived he was waiting.
I remembered him; I had seen him the day before. He had been looking for a job. He struck me as a young man who was trying to do the right thing. He told me that he had two children. He also told me that his younger brother was killed when he was 15 years old and that he himself had been shot.
When I saw him the following morning he looked desperate. He told me that when he left the day before he had the thought of going back to the streets. It was an urge that grew stronger as the night went on, so he said, “I just began to walk determined that the first place that I needed to come was the church.”
I wish that I could tell you that this story had a successful ending. In truth, I don’t know what happened to that young man because he never came back for the appointment with our jobs specialist. I can only hope that wherever he is he is doing OK. My gut tells me that he was a young man who had run out of hope.
What does poverty do to people and particularly to black men who have suffered the hardest? The economic realities that befall this community have hit black men with a vengeance. And as I listened to the ups and downs of these men I heard them talk about how the lack of opportunities has created in them a sense of not being worthy and feeling emasculated because they were not able to provide for their families or take care of their children.
Today a man in his early 40s shared how he and his brother had grown up in the church but fell away, got involved in gangs and selling drugs, made a lot of money. “I used to,” he said, “abuse women until my sister got into a relationship where she was beaten by the man that she was involved with. That hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Somehow he was able to walk away but his brother is still deeply involved in that life. He makes a lot of money. He drives a fancy car. But he can’t go anywhere without looking over his shoulder, afraid that someone may try to encroach upon his business. He talks to his brother every day. He hopes that he will give up the lifestyle.
Another man talked about his anger and struggle to keep his anger under control, “but you need to understand,” he said, “that the anger is tied to economics. That’s true for a lot of guys out here.”
Then there are the stories that come from those men who have been addicted to drugs, a few are still struggling, some are courageously fighting for their sobriety.
Today 20 men gathered in that sacred place. The topic was self-control. Before they began they prayed. And what followed for the next two hours was amazing honesty and truth telling. But there was also great respect, deep love and an incredible sense of humor.
There is little disagreement that the problems of inner-city neighborhoods go far beyond the simple lack of material wealth. Many people in these communities need values and moral structure to hang onto. They need reasons to believe that there are things worth living for — the understanding of value in life itself over the long term. They need nurturing. Few institutions other than the faith community and the family can provide this kind of support.
— Henry Cisneros
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.
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