D.A.D.S. Making a Difference
Individual and societal collaboration as a response to fatherlessness and urban despair
By Max Hunter, The John Perkins Center Teaching Fellow
I realized how deeply fatherlessness had shaped his life when listening to President Barack Obama's speech during the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Describing the influence that his mother and maternal grandparents had on his character formation, his rhetoric exposed a void. Speaking about his grandmother, he declared, “She's the one who taught me about hard work.”
His ability to subtly deal with personal pain was underscored by one of his closing claims:
"Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can't replace parents, that government can't turn off the television and make a child do her homework, that fathers must take more responsibility to provide love and guidance to their children. Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility, that's the essence of America's promise."
At that moment, fatherlessness, in my mind, was exerting a profound influence on one of the most significant speeches in our nation’s history. My own father’s act of abandonment had heightened my sensitivity to this issue. I was born under the shadow of U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, and my life’s trajectory eventually fulfilled Moynihan’s prophetic vision. I was among the masses of urban youth who grew up in female-headed households to face crime, drugs, poverty, and violence.
In fact, based on my personal experience and research, I would contend that it is an exceptional individual who can overcome the vacuum created when a male abandons his young children.
The D.A.D.S. Story
The topic emerged again in July when Marvin and Jeanette Charles launched the John Perkins Center Summer Speaker Series. For 90 minutes, the architects of Divine Alternatives for Dads Services (D.A.D.S.) shared their amazing life stories. In the process, we discovered how an unassuming couple had given birth to a cutting-edge ministry based on their own painful experiences.
Over lunch, Marvin described an abusive childhood with an adopted family that resulted in his running away. As a young man on his own, he tried to anesthetize the inner pain and became dependent on street drugs. But then transformation came in the midst of a cocaine-fueled binge one evening. While getting high, Marvin found himself gazing on the face of his and Jeanette’s seventh child. Recognizing previous parental failure, and loss of custody for the other children, elicited a moment of clarity. In that instant, Marvin decided to get his life together.
Abdicating guardianship of yet another infant, Marvin planned to lead Jeanette — his long-time partner — out of their bondage to crack cocaine. An easy plan, theoretically. In reality, Marvin had begun a tedious journey in which he had to relinquish his desire for Jeanette’s wellbeing to God — and learn to navigate a convoluted network of social systems.
The long journey
Despair, suicide, and relapse stalked him. And Jeanette had no intention of getting clean, at first. Then once she did get into treatment, the couple found themselves dealing with contentious social systems. At every step, individuals encouraged Marvin to leave Jeanette as a means to regain custody of their children. Over time, though, with the help of God, Marvin prevailed over drug addiction, family disorganization, and the web of institutions seemingly designed to defeat those unfamiliar with large social and governmental systems.
Another miracle waited in the wings. On the day that Marvin and Jeanette regained custody of their seven children, his birth mother, whom he had never met, called their home. After Marvin met his mother and then located his father, the family discovered a common experience: Both of his birth parents had grown up without the presence of their fathers in the home as well.
An intimidating task
The Charles’ unbelievable journey shaped their vision and equipped them in their mission to help others. Today, D.A.D.S. seeks to “support fathers in their quest to overcome barriers preventing their participation in their children's lives.”
According to the organization's website:
- D.A.D.S. provides case management, parent education, resolution of child support issues, parenting plans, and referrals to community resources for fathers and father figures.
- It also works with dads transitioning from incarceration back into the community.
This mission is an intimidating task for city, state, and federal agencies. However, D.A.D.S. has seen miracle after miracle. Unlikely candidates for the work, Marvin and Jeanette are fulfilling the mandate prophesied by Malachi when he wrote, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
The third path
THough Marvin and Jeanette were forced to abbreviate their story to fit our lunch schedule, not leaving a dry eye was left in the house. And while most parties interested in the plight of urban communities agree that fatherless households are a critical issue, there are diverging opinions about how to deal with the plight of urban youth.
Some critics have rejected the family disorganization thesis described in the aforementioned Moynihan report. These parties have responded vociferously against the reports so-called bias for the nuclear family and its emphasis on black pathology. “Blaming the victim,” they assert, diminishes the impact of issues such as historical racism, social injustice, and de-industrialization — as well as negating the female headed household as an African cultural retention.
According to sociologists, de-industrialization has created ghettoes that are poorer and more isolated. Recent studies have exposed a self-sustaining culture influenced by a value system based on the codes of the streets. Yet, fear of stigmatization leads some scholars and politicians to adamantly condemn theories that emphasize pathology because they overlook the more positive dimensions of the African-American experience. Such scholars argue that emphasizing the black pathology model allows our government to abdicate its responsibility to produce substantive improvements.
On the other hand, Marvin’s life narrative suggests a third path: individual and societal collaboration as a response to fatherlessness and urban despair. To begin with, Christian community developers could find ways to partner with organizations such as D.A.D.S., which are concerned with addressing parenting issues that affect fathers. These organizations understand that the way forward is found in adherence to an approach described by President Obama as "individual responsibility and mutual responsibility … the essence of America's promise.”
In doing so, we can assist those who understand how coupling individual action with the dismantling of systemic barriers to black fatherhood will allow us to remove the challenges to parenting faced by African-American and other minority males in our urban settings.
Max Hunter joined the staff of the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University in 2008. While at Harvard University, he studied in the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Medical School. He has an A.M., Ed.M., and the certificate in bioethics from Harvard Medical School.
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