by Rev. Stephen F. Brett, SSJ
A Growing Network of Black Pro-lifers
What does Tupperware have to do with proclaiming the Good News of Christ about life? In the life of Sheila Massey and her husband, Oliver, it turns out that there is more than a passing resemblance. As evangelical Christians, they agonized that the moral implications of abortion were not receiving due attention in the African-American community. In 1991 the Masseys founded African-Americans for Life/Save the Seed Ministries in Columbia, S.C. A frequent strategy is to invite a widening circle of friends to their home for a "life party" at which a videotape entitled "Vanessa's Story" is shown. The story—in which all of the characters are portrayed by African-Americans—recounts how a young girl is pressured to have an abortion. Not the kind of movie that calls for microwave popcorn, but the video is part of an experience that raises stark questions about the delicate interplay of racial identity and religious belief.
The Masseys are part of a surprisingly large and growing network of black pro-lifers who use every means imaginable, including radio programs and billboards, to communicate a message of life and concern. These grassroots activists are both evangelical and ecumenical. An uncanny parallel exists between the creative urgency of "Save the Seed" and the view of evangelization expressed in Evangelium Vitae: "Evangelization is an all-embracing progressive activity through which the church participates in the prophetic, priestly and royal mission of the Lord Jesus. It is therefore inextricably linked to preaching, celebration and the service of charity. Evangelization is a profoundly ecclesial act. . ."(no. 78). This conscience-based community of believers validates one insight of Evangelium Vitae, that a personal response to the Good News of Christ is intrinsically communitarian, that is, ecclesial. The moral imperative which establishes the bond between born-again believer and unborn children is strong enough even to overcome historic uneasiness about Roman Catholics. It is a case of evangelizing leading to ecumenism!
Conversations with leaders of African-American pro-life groups such as "Save the Seed," L.E.A.R.N. (Life Education and Resource Network, 804-579-2833), and Black Americans for Life (713-225-3226), which have chapters in twenty-seven states, disclose many of the same features that characterized the Civil Rights Movement—a shared vision of moral principles, a willingness to move beyond sectarian boundaries for a just cause, and an inclination to pursue a common good through imaginative, even unconventional forms of ministry. Tupperware may be the route, but it's hardly the destination.
The Explosive Interaction of Race and Abortion
By almost any standard, the two topics that make people squirm the most are abortion and race. To connect the two has predictably volatile effects; someone is bound to be offended. But anyone who shares the view of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae that "everyone has an obligation to be at the service of life" (no. 79) must walk, carefully and thoughtfully, into the presence of these two quite active volcanoes. The eruption of raw emotions must be risked if we are to reduce the staggering death that accompanies the acceptance and practice of abortion today, both in the broader population and in the ethnic and racial subcultures that acquiesce for tragic, but not irreversible, reasons in a practice violative of their heritage and core convictions.
Dr. Glenn C. Loury, an African-American professor of economics at Boston University, has emphasized the importance of religious belief in providing symbolic language that, in turn, contributes to the formulation of public policy. He notes that a religious horizon motivates the pro-life movement. It is hardly news that the biblical symbolism of the child as a sign of hope and harbinger of God's continued love is deeply embedded in the African-American community, yet the incidence of abortion is also substantially higher in the African-American culture than in the broader population. While African-Americans constitute about twelve percent of the US population, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that thirty-three percent of the abortions occurring in the United States are performed on black women.
What accounts for this disconnect between the indelible imagery of biblical awareness and the higher incidence of abortion in the African-American community? It is at this critical point that our "twin peaks" of volcanic outrage are most likely to erupt, as hypotheses purporting to connect race and abortion make an appearance. Karl Marx said with impatient sarcasm that the philosophers merely interpreted the world, whereas the point is to change it. While a wide consensus exists on the need to change the dominant patterns of abortion in minority communities, little consensus on causes and conditions accompanies the abortion data. Interpretations tend to generate far more heat than light. Perhaps because of the volatile state of race relations today, any interpretation of abortion is minutely examined for traces of unspoken racial premises, leading many to change the topic in awkward haste.
Enter here not a further interpretation but a personal disclaimer for the benefit of readers who want to know an author's experience of the topic covered. I can be described as a graying, Scotch-Irish baby boomer who happens to be a priest working in the African-American community. My religious community, the Josephites, has served for more than a century in the United States as agents of evangelization in, and in behalf of, the black community. In my twenty years as a priest I have been assigned in Washington, D.C. where, for these two eventful decades, my white skin has provided a dollop of vanilla in a city proudly described on bumper stickers as "Chocolate City." In 1883 Frederick Douglass observed that "in all the relations of life and death, we are met by the color line." The culture of death knows not the color line, but the color line is on intimate terms with the culture of death. (Incidentally, John Paul II's description of our predominant dispositions as a culture of death could not be more prophetic or more accurate.)
What this one, admittedly limited, eyewitness of African-American life can report is that many black Americans perceive the pro-life cause as a white concern for three reasons: an intense suspicion of stereotypes, the dead-end experience of the "blame game," and a general sense of desperation which tends to skew priorities and options when survival trumps all other issues. I believe some value can be achieved by examining these three important (but hardly exhaustive) factors.
Principles or stereotypes
First, racial stereotyping has a long and rancid history of polluting race relations. From movies seen to stories heard, there is a deep hurt and resultant anger about presumed reasons or explanations of behavior, especially if their origin is outside of the black community. The intense and incredible pain of racial stereotyping has left an aversion to generalizations about moral norms because the perception abounds that somehow the presentation of a moral norm (e.g., abortion is taking an innocent human life) is a rigid rule that only aggravates the already hard path of survival. The gap between a moral universal and the task of implementing it each day tends existentially to relativize the norm.
Consider this analogy: hard work will lead to success. Granted this is not a moral norm but a practical axiom with roots in Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger. Generations of African-Americans can attest to the truth of that proposition in theory, but still know from job discrimination and prejudicial treatment in the workplace that it has many exceptions. The experience of racism, coupled with the prevailing cultural relativism of our time, has built into virtually every moral proposition an exception-making clause: This applies for the most part but different experiences may call for more "choice."
Moral norms and universal principles are not stereotypes, but their communication in language that transmits solidarity rather than judgment is a task that demands acute pastoral imagination. Effective pastoral ministry means that no one, regardless of color, can be tone-deaf to the perception of fundamental moral principles. The rise of grass roots pro-life groups in the African-American community attests to the abiding validity of the human life principles. These principles now have a richer resonance and deeper application because of a cultural "translation" that puts abstract principles in concrete norms which refuse to sing "the blues" apart from "the spirituals."
The "Blame Game"
The subject of abortion inescapably leads to related matters of the most intimate nature and delicacy: the relationship between men and women in the context of a family (or, most painfully, in the absence of a two-parent family). The findings of the Moynihan Report in the 1960s were fiercely contested on the grounds that innocent parties would be blamed for social currents beyond the control of individual agents. It is only in the last two years that the epidemic problems of poverty in minority communities have been connected, primarily and explicitly, with the variable of the absent father, and not put in the terms of "the problem of the unwed mother." Mothers raising their children in the face of mounting economic hardship did not need a Ph.D. to know that while life was a struggle, they were not the problem.
The pro-life cause and the African-American community are singing from the same hymnal even if on occasion different editions are being used. When pro-lifers point to Guttmacher Institute figures that a third of all U.S. abortions are performed on African-American women, resulting in the loss of nearly half a million African-American lives per year, the intent and object is clearly to save lives, not to place blame.
But the stigma persists that bad news, as applied to the black community, leads to the blaming of those least equipped to handle criticism. Hence the same pattern of skepticism or inattention can mark responses even to a phenomenon that virtually qualifies as a textbook case of genocide.
The Stakes of Survival
A final explanation for possible crossed signals between the pro-life movement and the African-American community lies in the very trauma which grips black neighborhoods and homes. The urban poor are enslaved as surely as their ancestors. The relentless daily toll of death and disorientation is given somber recognition by life in an inner-city rectory. Church records chronicle so many spiritual wounds that may never heal: mothers with children in baptism class without Daddy, funerals planned for a young AIDS patient, police sirens and spotlights in search of the day's drug transactions, the fear in the eyes of senior citizens afraid to leave their homes after dark, the trash of empty malt liquor bottles and cigar "blunts" loaded with crack. These assaults of a violent time afflict the human spirit to the breaking point, making despair, suicide, and depression all too familiar intrusions into the sturdiest and most devout household.
Moral Vision and Community Building
There will be no radical change in the culture of death until the teaching of Humanae Vitae is accepted and proclaimed. Is it not intriguing that the contraceptive debate stands as the great fissure of Catholic moral practice in the last two decades of this century? Couples of every race, culture and ethnic subdivision have grown accustomed to the pill.
Children are perceived, subliminally and even explicitly, as a threat to well-being. Easy contraception means easy grace. It has been said that contraceptives reduce the role of women to rental cars: they are used, returned to another, "cleaned," and used again. Not until daily pastoral practice in every Catholic parish identifies the sterility of contraception with the afflictions of the family can the Church serve as an effective witness to racial reconciliation and renewal.
Janet Smith and others have studied theological argumentation in Humanae Vitae and the decades that have followed that prophetic document. It is no coincidence that nearly every proposed "solution" to today's urban crisis involves contraceptives. And each of these approaches, so short-sighted on purely empirical grounds and so self-destructive on moral grounds, verifies the wisdom of Catholic teaching on sexuality, that sex is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be cherished and cared for.
I spoke once with Reverend Johnny Hunter of Christ Covenant Church, Virginia Beach, Virginia about the beginnings in 1993 of L.E.A.R.N., a pro-life and pregnancy support group that helps to "make boys men" and to remove the fear and isolation that accompany a teenager's discovery that she is pregnant. I was somewhat surprised to discover that their chastity-based program totally rejects contraceptives. Their motivation is biblical; their reasoning, practical—contraceptives are the paraliturgical benediction of sexually irresponsible behavior that unites bodies and destroys minds. Once again, the interaction of grassroots activism and authentic ecumenism struck me as more than the working of human imagination. Whereas solid anti-abortion positions have in the past allowed for a neutrality on contraception among pro-life groups, there appears to be a growing recognition that contraceptives entail an inherent anti-life attitude which is bad—to borrow the appropriate carnival phrase—for children of all ages. I believe that the jury has returned with a verdict on Paul VI's reiteration of Catholic teaching on contraception: it is a bogus solution, akin to fighting air and water pollution by adding cosmetics to toxic chemicals instead of stopping the source of the pollutants. The secular incredulity that greets the Catholic perspective on contraception shows the distance that must be traveled between principle and practice, black and white, life and death. All of the "reasonable" solutions for racial disintegration and family breakdown have failed. The transformative effect of the Gospel will only be in evidence to the extent that Catholics muster the courage of the Pope's convictions.
When condoms are distributed in high schools, public health officials announce their own pleasure in safeguarding adolescent pleasure. When out-of-wedlock pregnancies began to skyrocket in California (now more than 30% of all live births), teenage girls were fitted with Norplant until the side effects and likely carcinogenic consequences began to be documented. Efforts to realize male responsibility range from the inspirational (e.g., Promise-Keepers) to the punitive (e.g., the return of "Quentin Quail" laws by California to enforce financial responsibility on the part of fathers). Neither inspirational bonding nor punitive state-sponsored measures can connect man and woman, family and child, black and white, life and love, in the manner needed.
I have focused on what might be considered sociological framework. Ultimately, the only effective strategy for strengthening the African-American community in its time of deepest peril is to move from a sociological to a sacramental perspective. We can identify several aspects of this transition: (1) rediscovering the mystery of human sexuality; (2) connecting social events with liturgical imagination; (3) transmitting the Good News not as a hobby but as the cost of survival; (4) building bridges and forging alliances that transcend historical differences and accentuate prophetic vision; and (5) recapturing the virtue of hope in its link with creation and providence.
As one who has spent many years studying and teaching theology from a Catholic perspective, I am humbled to report that heroic exponents of pro-life positions in the African-American community are daily living what I could merely claim to study. Confronting the courage of Dr. Haywood Robinson and Dr. Noreen Johnson of College Station, Tex., who formerly performed abortions, but who now actively support African-American youngsters in respecting one another through sexual choices, and in bringing a child to term if pregnancy occurs, one is struck by the grace of God working at a level far beyond racial difference or human reckoning.
Josephite Father Stephen Brett, Ph.D., J.D., is the author of Slavery and the Catholic Tradition: Rights in the Balance (New York, Peter Lang, 1994). In addition to serving as pastor of St. Luke's Church, Washington, D.C., he is associate professor of moral theology at DeSales School of Theology, Washington, D.C., and adjunct professor of moral theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia.
- Kelli Williams, "She's Taking Pro-Life Message to African-American Community," Christianity Today, November 14, 1995.
- Glenn C. Loury, One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (New York: The Free Press, 1995), pp. 285-287.