Re­li­gious groups pro­vide tools to cre­ate, fos­ter strong unions

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jon Ward

Sec­ond of four parts.

The les­son would be how to keep“the­fire­burn­ing,”Nisa Muham­mad told nine cou­ples at her Tues­day night mar­riage class in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “I need this ses­sion,” said Ros­salyn Parks, whose boyfriend had yet to ar­rive or call with an ex­pla­na­tion. She was on fire, all right.

All nine cou­ples were black, and most live in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods in Wash­ing­ton or Prince Ge­orge’s County, Md.

Mrs. Muham­mad’s “Wed­ded Bliss” pro­gram, which will re­ceive $1.3 mil­lion in fed­eral money over thenextfouryears,isaime­dathelp­ing black cou­ples.

“We’ve kind of bought into the hype that mar­riage doesn’t mat­ter [. . . ] in the cul­ture, the mu­sic, the movie, on TV,” said Mrs. Muham­mad, a 49-year-old mother of five who was di­vorced af­ter 12 years and re­mar­ried last year.

Mrs. Muham­mad said that TV pro­vides an un­re­al­is­tic por­trayal of sin­gle par­ents and that life is “very dif­fer­ent if you’re [. . . ] Tamika in South­east D.C.”

In this se­ries, The Wash­ing­ton Time­sex­am­ines­thechang­ingviews of­mar­riage­and­whatin­sti­tu­tions— such as re­li­gious groups, gov­ern­men­tand­busi­nesses—are­do­ingto pre­serve it.

Mrs. Muham­mad’s pro­gram is one of many that churches and re­li­gious­group­sareusing­tostrengthen mar­riages and fos­ter new ones. Wed­ded Bliss is an eight-week class tha­ten­cour­agescou­plestom­ar­ryby help­ing them build in­ti­macy and teach­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills.

Air­ing griev­ances

At the Tues­day night meet­ing, Mrs.Muham­mad—who­con­verted to Is­lam in 1980 and writes for the Na­tion of Is­lam’s na­tional news­pa­per, the “Fi­nal Call” — gave a short talk to the cou­ples.

She then asked each wo­man to share her “vi­sion” of their hus­band or boyfriend.

Ms.Parks’cousin,Dei­draArnold, a 40-year-old di­vorced U.S. postal worker, said her boyfriend, Don­ald Aikens, a 45-year-old con­struc­tion worker and life­long bach­e­lor, loves to serve oth­ers.

“We can go to the store, Home De­pot or what­ever, and he helps ev­ery­body,” said Ms. Arnold, who got mar­ried when she was 21 and has a 21-year-old daugh­ter.

Theat­mo­sphere­inthe­room­soft­ened.Theother­cou­ples,seate­dat­ta­bles ar­ranged in a horse­shoe, thought about what they would say.

“Great,” said Mrs. Muham­mad, wear­ing a dark green suit and a match­ing head scarf. “Ros­salyn?”

Ms. Parks, 40, hes­i­tated. She and Wil­liamThomp­son,40,al­soa­pos­tal worker, be­gan dat­ing in Au­gust.

“I’m go­ing to be hon­est with y’all. I am kind of an­gry with William, so I don’t even have a vi­sion,” she said.

Jamil Muham­mad, a na­tional spokesman for the Na­tion of Is­lam who helps Mrs. Muham­mad fa­cil­i­tate the class, jumped in.

“You’re an­gry on the ba­sis of sight,”het­oldMs.Parks.“You’ve­got to look into the fu­ture on the ba­sis of vi­sion.” Ms. Parks sighed. “It’s kind of hard to say,” she said be­fore open­ing up about Mr. Thompson’s work ethic.

“He wants to be at work ev­ery day.He’ll­prob­a­bly­have1,500hours of sick leave, ready to sell some vacation time,” Ms. Parks said, paus­ing­for­se­veral­mo­ments.“ButI­don’t see­him­com­mit­ting­toa­mar­riageby then.”

“Ooh,” whis­pered Mr. Muham­mad, as if he’d been stung by a bee. Mrs. Muham­mad didn’t blink. “OK,well,we’ve­g­ot­some­workto do,”sh­e­said.“Thankyou,Ros­salyn.”

Then she was on to the next cou­ple.

Later, Mrs. Muham­mad said she has seen growth in Ms. Parks and Mr. Thompson, who ar­rived at her class “with no sense of vi­sion.”

“We’retry­ing­tochangeth­e­hearts and minds of peo­ple who look at mar­riage in a neg­a­tive way and say, ‘Youknow,we­have­some­thing­to­cel­e­brate,’ ” she said.

Re­mem­ber­ing re­li­gion

Churches and re­li­gious groups have al­ways played a cru­cial role in sanc­tion­ing mar­riages, en­cour­ag­ing them and pro­vid­ing cou­ples coun­sel­ing. Mar­riage is an es­sen­tial part of the three Abra­hamic faiths — Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam.

But mod­ern cul­ture con­tin­ues to ques­tion the def­i­ni­tion and va­lid­ity of mar­riage.

“In­creas­ingly, it is not ob­vi­ous to our young peo­ple, the sin­gles, the twen­tysome­things,whytheyshould go ahead and get mar­ried,” said MichaelLawrence,as­so­ci­atepas­tor at Capi­tol Hill Bap­tist Church in Wash­ing­ton. “That case has to be made.”

PeterMur­phy,fam­i­lylifedi­rec­tor for the Arch­dio­cese of Wash­ing­ton, agreed.

“The images of mar­riage are very neg­a­tive,” he said. “Cou­ples think it’s go­ing to re­strict their free­dom. [. . . ] There is fear of com­mit­ment to some­thing long term in a cul­ture that is so short term and non­com­mit­tal.”

In re­sponse, some churches are teach­ing more of­ten and more ro­bustly about mar­riage and chal­leng­ing teens and sin­gles on their at­ti­tudes about mar­riage.

“We try to show that mar­riage is ac­tu­ally free­ing and will bring life,” Mr. Mur­phy said.

Churches also are cre­at­ing small groups for newly mar­ried cou­ples, led by older cou­ples, and adapt­ing coun­sel­ing to meet chal­lenges unique to sec­ond mar­riages.

Mar­riage, Chris­tians be­lieve, is pri­mar­ily a way to im­i­tate the Tri­une God. Hus­bands are to love and lead their wives sac­ri­fi­cially, in the same way that Je­sus Christ died to save His church. Wives, equal in value but with dif­fer­ent roles, are to sup­port their hus­bands.

“Mar­riage is a pic­ture of the Gospel,” Mr. Lawrence said. “Mar­riage was cre­ated by God to help us un­der­stand that he loves us in Je­sus Christ.”

Mar­riage is also a “cru­cible” in which each per­son’s weak­ness and sin­ful­ness is ex­posed, lead­ing to re­pen­tance and change by God’s power.

“God puts us with an­other per­son that is some­times very dif­fer­ent be­cause it forces us to put aside self­ish­ness and pride,” said Pas­tor Paul Petry, who over­sees fam­ily min­istries at Mars Hill Church in Seat­tle. “If we fix our eyes on Christ and make it a goal to love that other per­son in a sac­ri­fi­cial way, there is some­thing mys­te­ri­ous that hap­pens, and that mar­riage be­comes a won­der­ful thing.”

Ju­daism views mar­riage as “a re­la­tion­ship that is set apart from all oth­ers,” said Rabbi Jack Mo­line of the Agu­das Achim Con­gre­ga­tion in Alexan­dria, Va.

“It is uniquely in­ti­mate and exclusive, and as such, it is a re­flec­tion of the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Jewish peo­ple and God,” he said.

For Mr. Mo­line and other rab­bis, a Jewish wed­ding can be per­formed only if the bride and groom are Jewish.

“All of the things that de­fine mar­riage are mat­ters of Jewish law, and Jewish­law­posit­sthati­tap­pliesonly to Jews, and not to non-Jews,” he said.

Many Chris­tian pas­tors coun­sel against mar­ry­ing non-Chris­tians as well.

Mus­lims also see mar­riage as a fun­da­men­tal­partof­prac­tic­ingth­eir faith.

“Mar­riage is the most im­por­tant as­pect of a Mus­lim life,” said Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Mus­lim So­ci­ety, one of the largest mosques in the D.C. area.

“The whole Ko­ran talks a lot about mar­riage and the re­la­tion­ship­be­tween­hus­ban­dand­wife­and the fam­ily,” he said. “There is so much em­pha­sis in the Ko­ran on teach­ing about this is­sue.”

Mr.Magid­said­he­beganof­fer­ing six-ses­sion, pre­mar­i­tal-coun­sel­ing cour­ses to cou­ples a few years ago, when­he­sawastudyshow­ingthat33 per­centofMus­lim­mar­riage­sended in­di­vorce.But,he­said,there­arefew mosques in the United States that of­fer such coun­sel­ing.

“The­ex­tend­ed­fam­i­lyinthe­coun­tries of the im­mi­grant [Mus­lims] cre­ates a very strong sup­port net­work­fory­oung­cou­ples,”Mr.Magid said. “Here in Amer­ica, there is no ex­tend­ed­fam­ily.Thewis­domhasto come through a struc­tured coun­sel­ing that tells them about com­mu­ni­ca­tion, con­flict res­o­lu­tion, de­ci­sion-mak­ing [. . . ] and also to talk about the is­sue of in­ti­macy.”

Sav­ing mar­riage

Michael J. McManus thinks churches are not only do­ing too lit­tle­for­mar­riages,butin­many­cases, the­yarepartofthe­di­vor­ceprob­lem.

“Mostchurch­esarewed­ding­fac­to­ries to­day,” said Mr. McManus, whocre­atedaMar­riageSaver­spro­gram in 1986. “They have good in-

ten­tions, but their mar­riage prepa­ra­tion is not that help­ful.”

About 10,000 pas­tors and rab­bis in­215c­itiesacross­the­coun­try­have signed an agree­ment to up­hold higher stan­dards for pre­mar­i­tal coun­sel­ing.Mar­riageSavers­fo­cuses on mar­riage prepa­ra­tion, en­rich­ment, restora­tion, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of sep­a­rated cou­ples and coun­sel­ing for step­fam­i­lies.

Mr. McManus said his pro­gram has proven re­sults. In cities where re­li­gious lead­ers have signed “com­mu­nity mar­riage poli­cies,” di­vorce rates and co­hab­i­ta­tion rates are de­creas­ing and mar­riage rates are in­creas­ing, he said.

“The churches need to do this work,butwe­needtodoa­bet­ter­job,” saidMr.McManus,ana­tion­allysyn­di­cat­ede­thic­san­dreli­gion­colum­nist who at­tends Fourth Pres­by­te­rian Church in Bethesda, Md. “The dis­in­te­gra­tion of mar­riage is the most im­por­tant do­mes­tic prob­lem of our time. It lies be­hind so many other prob­lems.”

Ted and Peg Ku­pelian of Rockville, Md. have men­tored 20 cou­ples through the Mar­riage Savers pro­gram.

“I saw a lot of di­vorces at work,” said Mr. Ku­pelian, 60, a pub­lic-af­fairs spe­cial­ist in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. “This was one thing we could do to­gether to re­ally make a dif­fer­ence.”

Tim and Kris­ten Bibo of Bal­ti­more had never met the Ku­pelians but trav­eled to their home for eight weeks be­fore get­ting mar­ried Oct. 28.

“When you have peo­ple you’re friends with [. . . ] there are cer­tain bar­ri­ers,” said Mr. Bibo, 28, an an­a­lyst with the state gov­ern­ment. “Meet­ing new peo­ple that you de­velop a new re­la­tion­ship with, and you start it off with this open­ness, is some­thing you re­ally can’t do with peo­ple that you know.”

Mr. Bibo said the Ku­pelians, who have­been­mar­ried26years,“re­ally chal­lenged [us] about things that are go­ing to be chal­lenges.”

The Ku­pelians took the Bi­bos through a 156-ques­tion in­ven­tory, go­ing over the an­swers to ques­tions about all as­pects of their life.

“We’retry­ing­toopentheireyesso they­knowex­act­ly­what­to­ex­pect,to min­i­mize sur­prises once they get mar­ried,” said Mrs. Ku­pelian, who stayedath­ome­with­the­cou­ple’stwo daugh­ters and now vol­un­teers at Bi­ble stud­ies and in Mont­gomery County, Md. pub­lic schools.

The­cou­plestalked­abouthowthe Bi­bos would han­dle the de­mands of ex­tend­ed­fam­i­ly­dur­ingth­e­hol­i­days and helped them work on a bud­get.

“We want the trou­ble in our kitchen rather than in their bed­room or their kitchen,” Mrs. Ku­pelian said. “We don’t want peo­ple to be afraid to have con­flict.”

Mr. McManus said most mar­riages fall apart be­cause peo­ple “don’tknowhow­toar­gue.”Mrs.Ku­pelian­saidtheyteachy­oung­cou­ples to “at­tack the prob­lem, not each other.”

Mrs. Bibo, 31, who works in phi­lan­thropy, said she ap­pre­ci­ated the struc­ture.

“It’s a lot about be­ing re­ally in­ten­tional and hav­ing the space to do it,” she said. “I loved the space of talk­ing about mar­riage in its se­ri­ous­ness and its dif­fi­culty. That gives you a sense of se­cu­rity, that it’s OK if you are fight­ing.”

Out­ofthe20­cou­ples­men­toredby the Ku­pelians, one has di­vorced, and one is strug­gling. Three of the cou­ples they men­tored de­cided not to get mar­ried.

“I don’t see that as fail­ure,” Mr. Ku­pelian­said.“Iseethata­sone­less di­vorce.”

Meet­ing in the mid­dle

Ms.Parks­mar­riedat24.She­and herhigh-school­sweet­heart­di­vorced af­ter12years,and­shenowhasa12year old daugh­ter. Mr.Thomp­son­has­n­ev­er­mar­ried. De­spite her pes­simistic com­ments at Mrs. Muham­mad’s meet­ing, days later Ms. Parks said the pro­gram had “en­hanced” her re­la­tion­ship with Mr. Thompson and sheish­ope­fu­la­bout­there­la­tion­ship.

Specif­i­cally, she said, the class helped Ms. Parks and her daugh­ter, An­gel, to adapt to Mr. Thompson’s three nieces and neph­ews, ages 20, 18 and 2, who live with him and are of­ten visit­ing.

“My daugh­ter was used to go­ing in the re­frig­er­a­tor, get­ting what she wants, do­ing her laun­dry when she wantsto,”Ms.Park­said.“They­were teachin­gusthatwenoware­shar­ing ourliveswithothers,andwe­can’tbe self­ish.”

Ms. Parks took notes dur­ing the eight-week class in a jour­nal given to her by Mrs. Muham­mad. Mr. Thomp­son­could­notrea­d­i­tun­tilthe end of the class.

The jour­nal — and the con­ver­sa­tions be­tween her and Mr. Thompson dur­ing the classes — helped them grow much closer, she said.

“Now we’re bet­ter equipped to com­mu­ni­cate,” Ms. Parks said. “I don’t just stay an­gry. We talk about it and we get through it. It’s also good to know that peo­ple are go­ing through the same prob­lems.”

Ms. Parks es­ti­mates her chances of mar­ry­ing Mr. Thompson are about 70 per­cent.

“I’m not say­ing we have to get mar­ried to­mor­row, but you have to be open to that idea,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m run­ning out of time, but I don’t feel like I have time to be wast­ing on a re­la­tion­ship that’s not go­ing any­where.”

“Idon’tsee­himwast­ingmy­time, andI­don’tsee­himhurt­ingme,”Ms. Parks said. “I do think he’ll com­mit. My prob­lem is, when?”

Next week: Parts 3 and 4

Michael Con­nor / The Wash­ing­ton Times

A first step: Ros­salyn Parks laughed af­ter William Thompson ap­peared to be about to pro­pose at a Wed­ded Bliss class. Mr. Thompson was ready to talk about the fu­ture, if not mar­riage yet.

Michael Con­nor / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Nisa Muham­mad led a class for her Wed­ded Bliss pro­gram with help from Na­tion of Is­lam spokesman Jamil Muham­mad. The Wash­ing­ton, D.C.based pro­gram is aimed at teach­ing black cou­ples the com­mu­ni­ca­tion and com­mit­ment skills needed to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful mar­riage.

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