There’s a shortage of enduring love stories in the black community. And if the dismal statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Barna Group, and others hold steady, the decline of African American marriages will only continue. Currently, African Americans have the lowest marriage rate of any group in the United States (41 percent), and research has found that among those few that do marry, as many as 36 percent end their relationships in divorce. The numbers are bleak, but Christian marriage experts Drs. Clarence and Ja’Ola Walker believe there are steps Christian couples can take to ensure they build strong healthy marriages.
“We started a marriage enrichment group while we were engaged,” Ja’Ola Walker explains. “We got together with a group of friends who were all getting married around the same time and we started meeting once a month in each other’s homes, just looking at Scripture and what the Word had to say about marriage.”
Those meetings ultimately became the foundation for the Walkers’ new For Christian Lovers Only curriculum.
The program, a DVD-based series, empowers African American couples of all ages to beat the odds against them through a highly interactive and contemporary approach to marriage counseling, incorporating quality Bible-teaching and culturally relevant topics and dramatic vignettes. In one of several skits included on the DVD, a husband and wife clash over financial issues in a context and tone that will be familiar to many urban couples. Other video segments feature the Walkers walking a group of couples — and viewers — through exercises and affirmations to strengthen their daily relationships.
(Full Disclosure: The For Christian Lovers Only program is produced by UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries, Inc.)
UrbanFaith spoke with the Walkers to find out how they’ve sustained their own marriage for 33 years, why they think Christian marriages are no more successful than secular marriages, and what they feel are the unique challenges facing African American relationships.
How did you meet?
DR. JA’OLA WALKER: We met in college. He was a junior when I was a freshman. There were 600 students and about 30 blacks, so it was kind of hard to miss the other black students. He was starting a gang ministry, and I decided to be a part of that ministry. From that we developed a friendship, and we started dating.
DR. CLARENCE WALKER: What I say about her now was true of her then: she combines the anointing of God with beauty and class. I picked that up, and I was smitten by her as a person. I proposed to her over the counter — she had a part-time job in the dining room. Everybody knew we should totally be together and get married, but I was dragging my feet because I had just come out of a relationship and needed time to get my head together. But her friend urged me to do it and I did it. I proposed to her right over dinner. Everybody was saying, “Please say yes so we can eat.”
What are some practical things you did early on to establish a solid foundation for your marriage and avoid temptation?
Ja’Ola: I traveled with him most of the time. He was an evangelist and would go from church to church. So I made it my business to be with him, and I made it my business to look good. He always introduced me and made a big deal about me, so it kind of put women on notice. And we also vowed that if there was any time he felt tempted, he was supposed to talk about it. I was always very aware of the women that were around him in a work situation and just watchful, prayerful. I did not live in the fantasy of “Oh, he’s a Christian; he would never do that.” He’s human. We were very realistic and up front with our feelings. And we made sure we had a flourishing, happy sex life. All those things helped to thwart temptations.
Clarence: The other thing that was helpful for me was to personally resolve that I would have a good marriage. I came from a broken family. I experienced the pain from that as a child and saw what happens when people violate the principles of marriage.
What has sustained your relationship from dating through marriage?
Ja’Ola: As a young woman I was very concerned about having God’s perfect will for my life. I wasn’t willing to just date anybody or sleep with anybody. We were both virgins when we got married, so we were serious at a young age. I think that made a difference. We both believed we got the person we were called and assigned to. There was no looking around.
Clarence: Also, the most important relationship a husband and wife can have with each other is best friends. You see that with the Obamas, for example. They love being around one another. We’re like that. The physical intimacy and all that stuff is the cherry on top, but the foundation is really becoming best friends.
Where do you see yourselves now as a couple?
Clarence: At this stage, we find ourselves now trying to teach others what we’ve learned and to model that for other couples. We’re very aware of how many people are watching us. It’s a lot of pressure in some ways, but they say we are their role models. So we’re in a mentoring stage of our life. We’re also dealing with some of the challenges that come with life-cycle changes. I’m realizing that I’m approaching another decade in my life, and I don’t have the energy I used to have. Marriage success is all about being able to be flexible with change and adjust to what life brings over the period of the marriage. Studies show that the more inflexible a marriage is, the more unlikely it is to last. So we’ve had all the financial situations, issues with kids, health issues, and we’ve had to make adjustments and God has enabled us to do that and continue on.
Why do you think Christian marriages are no more successful than secular marriages?
Ja’Ola: The main reason is because Christians have not used the word of God as their manual for marriage. We’re basically following the same models on television as everyone else. We’re watching the same soap operas and movies and movie stars and following the world. We’ve completely forgotten that marriage and sex were God’s idea. We’re following the world so we’re getting the world’s results.
Clarence: We’ve had a value shift, so we’ve become a product of the culture we’re in. We’ve been afraid to be counter-cultural and present a different model. That’s one of the reasons we called the curriculum For Christian Lovers Only. We are unapologetic about the title because we’re making it very clear that it is a Christian stand.
What are some unique challenges to marriage facing the African American community?
Ja’Ola: There are some cultural differences. For the first 20 years, we put our curriculum on tape because many in the African American community are more auditory in their learning style. Now we’ve converted it to CDs and DVDs. Also, we use a lot of humor and are keep things very practical and down to earth, to reach people where they are. We’ve added music and drama. We also deal with some of the issues we see specifically in the black community.
One of the things I teach on is how to talk to a black man, because there is a whole stereotype of black women and their communication — for example, the hand on the hip and the swiveling of the neck. We want to break through the stereotypes. We teach how to deal with strongholds in the African American community, because there are some things that have been passed from one generation to the next.
Have you noticed any gender-specific obstacles to marriage within black culture?
Clarence: The historical role of the African American woman for example, is very different from non-minority woman in this country given the history of African Americans in this country. What was done to destroy the family allowed the African American woman to emerge as the primary breadwinner, as the stronger force because of the process of breaking down the masculinity of African American men. That has lasted for generations, and there’s an extent to which it still exists today. One of the things we found out about the feminist movement, for example, was that it never attracted a lot of black women. You would think that would be the case by virtue of how strong black women have been perceived to be. But the issues for black women were never entirely the issues of their white counterparts. They wanted their men to step up to the plate. They were tired of being everything.
One of the challenges for African American males is overcoming the fallout of institutional prejudice and how it affects their relationships. Because they were denied access in the boardrooms, they tried to prove their manhood in the bedroom. So a lot of men tried to prove their manhood by having many kids — often when they couldn’t take care of those kids.
Generally, black families are more multi-generational. The African American grandmother plays a far more important role in the rearing of children than you might see in some of their racial counterparts. Being aware of those, we have tried to incorporate that into how we relate to our audiences.
What do you have to say to those who are single or divorced?
Ja’Ola: There is a place in all of our hearts that the Lord made for Him. We as women have a tendency to make men our gods. You see women who are brilliant, educated, beautiful, have money, and they’ll go find some guy out of jail who is beating on them and cheating on them. We’ll make these foolish decisions because we’re trying to fill that empty place in us with a man and he can’t fill it. Once you get married you realize even more so [a husband’s] not filling it. Whatever situation we’re in, we have to first start from a place of wholeness and understanding that ultimately it’s me and God; I have to allow Him to fill that emptiness.
Clarence: It is so important for single people to seek a relationship with God and seek His purpose. We have to know what the will of God is before God will send anybody; otherwise we’ll make that person an idol. That’s how I got to meet my wife. I was working with gangs. We developed a relationship based upon a mutual purpose God gave us — our mutual desire to please Him. And there is nothing more unifying in marriage than two people who are both seeking to do the will of God that He has assigned to them.
Dr. Ja’Ola Walker is certified in couples’ communication and parenting, and Dr. Clarence Walker is a certified marriage, family, and sex therapist. He also holds a doctorate in Biblical Counseling. The For Christian Lovers Only curriculum is designed to provide guidance in facilitating ministry for married couples. The program includes guidance on retreat sessions led by Drs. Clarence and Ja’Ola Walker via DVD and participant workbooks for ongoing home study.