I have the privilege of sitting with the Men of Faith Group, which is a part of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry at Cross Lutheran Church, Milwaukee. These are men who have struggled with being unemployed; some have fought addictions, others have taken part in illegal activity.
On Jan. 23 there were 21 men who gathered in the conference room at Cross to talk about what it meant to be an African American man.
One man began by saying that he did not have a lot of good examples in his life that could teach him how to be a man. He said that his father taught him all the wrong things. He grew up believing that to be a man meant that you had to fight for what you wanted. You had to be hard and tough.
For a long while he did everything wrong. He abused himself and he abused others. It was not until later in life when he was deep in the throes of addiction that God allowed a counselor to enter his life who began to model for him what it meant to be a real man. Today, he said, “I am still on the path of learning what it means to be a man. That is still my journey and every day I start my day reading the Bible because I know that this is the source of my strength.”
Another individual, a 53-year-old man, was in the group with his 19-year-old son. He said that when he was his son’s age he too was wild. No one could tell him anything. “I was blessed,” he said, to come from a two-parent home. “My father and mother were hard workers. They were Christians. I was raised in the church. But I wanted to find my own way. And I rejected everything good that I had ever been taught.”
“I got married but didn’t know how to be a husband. I had children but didn’t know how to be a father. I was not there for most of their growing-up years and so as a result my children and I were distant. The relationship was strained.” But like the young man before, God gave this brother another chance. He found his way to the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry and became a faithful participant in the Men of Faith.
As he concluded his story, he said these words: “In order to be a man you’ve got to take off your masks and humble yourself.” Real men do cry. “The son that I thought that I had lost forever is back in my life. My son is here with me and I am seeking to be the man that I never was, the father that I never was.”
For 1½ hours these 21 men opened up to themselves and to each other. Jeff Barrow, our synod bishop stopped by and sat in with these men. As he was invited to reflect he began by thanking the men for the gift they had given him. He went on to say that he had never been a part of group where there was so much truth-telling. What made this gathering so powerful was truth being spoken without any constraint.
All of these men understand that truth-telling is important if they are to regain their lives, if they are to live into a manhood that is about living responsibly and with integrity. Jesus reminds us that there is freedom in truth-telling. On that cold day in January the room was bursting with men who were getting comfortable with themselves, with each other and with their new-found manhood.
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.