Fr. James Goode, OFM initiated the National Day of Prayer for African American Families in 1989, setting the first Sunday of February as a Day of Prayer for African American Families. To start Black Heritage Month with prayer for the African American family is a fitting and good practice. Fr. Goode must have had historical and contemporary issues in mind to initiate such a Family Day of Prayer.

Fessahaye Mebrahtu

Historically, the African American family had been the subject of research and negative stereotypes. Yet little has been said of its historical struggle and resilience. A special day of prayer recognizes and elevates the African American family as the  “domestic church.”

Pope Francis affirmed, “Families are the domestic Church, where Jesus grows; he grows in the love of spouses, he grows in the lives of children. That is why the enemy so often attacks the family. The devil does not want the family; he tries to destroy it, to make sure that there is no love there. Families are this domestic Church.” The family nurtures faith and instills positive social values in children.

The challenges the African American family faces today has historical roots in slavery. Enslaved Africans were forbidden to form a family unit. This scheme was practiced in the USA more than the rest of the Americas. The Catholic Church had a general policy to keep enslaved families together. However, the US Catholic Church neither had the political clout nor interest to advocate for such policy. The US Catholic Church was also the beneficiary of the slave, with many of its institutions owning slaves. The US Catholic Church also performed the sacraments for slaves, evidenced in its baptismal, marriage and death records. Such record keeping has been the primary source for genealogy and family-tree researchers today.

Historical narratives highlight the sacrifices enslaved Africans made to keep their family unit together. Despite prohibitive laws, African Africans never lost sight of family value as the foundation of their existence. Extended family in the African American family was a vestige from Africa, helping to withstand the assault on the family unit. The challenges African American families face today should be understood against such historical backdrop. The Great Migration from rural south to urban north weakened the African American family, which was in steady recovery after emancipation. Social scientists and policy makers have blamed the weakness of the African American family as inherent to black identity, creating racialized stereotypes. Such stereotypes are not true. Traditionally, the African family system is coherent and solid, supported and nurtured by the extended family and community.

Fr. Goode’s initiative, dedicating the first Sunday of February as Day of Prayer for the African American Family, invites us to reflect on and appreciate the struggle and resilience of the African American family. Today, the loss of family-supporting industrial jobs and illegal drugs have added a new layer of challenge to African American families on top of the historical legacy designed to weaken or kill it. Regardless of their ethnic origin, race or economic status, American families face the challenges African American families underwent for centuries. If one part is harmed, sooner or later the whole Body of Christ is affected. Let us pray for the domestic Church to overcome its contemporary challenges.