“Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary,” sings the Rev. William Mathis, a warm baritone, as he prepares for a meeting at his Springs of Life-Giving Water Church in New Haven, Connecticut.
Mathis serves an important role in the community: surrogate father for many young, black men, especially those with troubled pasts. Mathis’ work was highlighted in a recent mini-documentary on the blog Color Lines. The site pointed out that even with a discouraging 72 percent of black babies born out of wedlock, there are also many positive, strong male role models that help guide African-American youth along pathways toward success.
Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican and the first African-American elected to the Senate in the South since Reconstruction, recently attributed his success to a male mentor who inculcated the values of hard work and educational pursuit. Rev. Mathis followed a similar pattern while raised as by a single mother.
“What I relied on was my uncles and my male neighbors at my church to teach me male stuff and how to be a man,” Mathis told Opportunity Lives. “And that’s critically important, I think. When the male figure is not in the home, the young men are raising themselves or by role models that are not showing them how to live well.”
Mathis said the recent community tensions surrounding grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, belie deeper problems within the African-American community, including the need for a more proactive agenda toward criminal justice (an issue gaining traction on both right and left) to keep fathers in the home.
“People don’t understand the impact the criminal justice system has had in particular on males from the African diaspora,” said Mathis, who said public policies disqualifying families from housing assistance if the father with a criminal background lives at home causes serious economic strain.
Mathis also said in some cases, fathers purposefully cut or reduce some interaction with family as a means of shielding them from drawn-out court battles.
“In some cases it’s almost intentional for the well being of the family that it is done,” he said. “Intentional in the sense because you don’t want to subject your family to going in and out of court. Sometimes it’s just too much and so they make conscious choices, even though the father wants to be a father and the mother wants him to be involved.”
Mathis said positive visibility of black fathers is overshadowed by the media stereotype of men with criminal behavior. This stereotype is countered by a touching Tumblr site called The Fatherhood Project: everyday fatherhood among black men. The site was recently featuredby MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry on her eponymous show.
Founder Marcus Franklin, who wrote that his father was killed by a police officer when Franklin was just 14 years old, said one of his goals in creating the Tumblr is to put more accurate images of everyday black fatherhood in the media.
“Images are powerful,” Franklin said on MSNBC. “The written word is powerful, too, but images, when you can see yourself reflected in a particular image, I think it has resonance with people … many African-Americans, we have these kind of photos in our photo albums, but … you don’t see them, you don’t see black men, black fathers in ordinary, everyday, mundane situations with their kids in mainstream media.”
Mathis, who supports the Tumblr project, agrees.
“I do think we need to see more of that,” Mathis said. “It was just so moving. and you have to ask yourself, have I seen this before? Why haven’t I seen this before?”
“When the male figure is not in the home, the young men are raising themselves or by role models that are not showing them how to live well.”
Through his ministry, Mathis, an attorney who is Harvard-educated and a former Brown University chaplain, mentors incarcerated individuals. He also works to find mentors who have emerged from deep struggles.
“I do think there’s nothing like having someone you can sit down and talk to and who doesn’t judge you and perhaps has walked in the same shoes that you have walked in to keep you going in the right way,” Mathis said.
Earlier this year, President Obama—sharing a room with supporters as diverse as Rev. Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly—launched My Brother’s Keeper, a privately-funded mentoring initiative modeled after the Chicago-based Becoming A Man program to engage at-risk African-American, Hispanic and Native American young men and bolster their chances of success. Mathis has been involved with the initiative in New Haven. He said the focus on data and outcomes is promising, though initial meetings seemed to divert resources to demographics outside the intended target.
Following dismantling of Jim Crow laws, Mathis said African-Americans engaged in assimilation rather than integration, and this had a deleterious effect on black families left behind in urban core areas even as wealthier and better-educated African-Americans moved to more suburban regions. He said this contributed to a decline in civic engagement and organized religion as a space for community members to convene and solve societal problems.
Data from the Pew Forum shows African-Americans are more religious than the general population, though religiosity has declined among members of the younger generation from all races.
“Everybody went to church,” Mathis said of his community growing up. “It was also a forum in which we also related to one another and addressed the issues and challenged people to the issues, civil rights issues.”
But now, he said “Instead of church we’re on the golf course or we’re at brunch. Our kids are playing at baseball leagues and football games that are happening on Sunday … we don’t have physical spaces, consistent spaces anymore in which we have an opportunity just to be together and talk and be honest with one another.”
Yet, he said in the wake of the recent grand jury decisions, “we sense a movement happening … because of the crisis of the moment it is challenging us to create those spaces, it is challenging us to have those conversations…it is reconnecting us to a communal spirit,” he said. “In all tragedy, there is a silver lining.”
Beginning next week in our “Comeback” series, Opportunity Lives will highlight people like Mathis who are rebuilding lives and communities through self-sacrificing leadership. We are excited to share these stories with our readers.
Read the original article here on Opportunity Lives…
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for American Enterprise Institute scholar Edward Conard. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.