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Today’s post is based on an interview with Rev. Darrell Armstrong, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church of Trenton, NJ for the past 20 years. He is considered a national leader on issues pertaining to child welfare and family strengthening. Most questions contain links to video excerpts of the original interview. To watch, click the link on the corresponding question.

Introduce yourself to our blog readers?

My name is Darrell Armstrong. I’m in my 20th year pastoring the Shiloh Baptist Church of Trenton, NJ, a multicultural, multi-generational, and multiracial community of Christian faith in the capital city [of New Jersey]. Our church is the oldest Black Baptist Church in Trenton, 140 years old, so we’ve got a rich history and foundation upon which to build and make families stronger.

Originally from Los Angeles, California, I moved to the Bay area in 1987 to do my undergraduate work at Stanford University and came east to New Jersey in 1995 to do my graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary. I got an opportunity to serve under a very renowned pastor, the late Reverend Dr. S. Howard Woodson Jr., who was the first African American to ever be elected speaker of a state legislature since reconstruction. He spent 53 years as pastor here at our church. His predecessor spent 42. I’m the third pastor in 116 years.

During this time of Covid-19, what do you see in the lives of your congregation that gives you hope?

We created something called Operation James 1:27. We believe James was the brother of Jesus, and that James writes, “True and undefiled religion,” it doesn’t just say the Christian religion, “is taking care of the widows and the orphans.” The “widows” is code for seniors and the “orphans” code for youth. If we don’t take care of our youth on one hand and our seniors on the other, we leave our society particularly vulnerable. I’ve watched as members of our congregation have done everything they possibly can to ensure that our widows and our orphans are cared for. That includes phone calls, text messages, sometimes knocking on doors, delivering packages, leaving them outside so that we don’t cause any vulnerability to them. That has inspired me, to watch lay members, lay leaders of the church, not just the officers, go above and beyond in reaching out to the juniors and seniors.

Pre-Covid, how did you approach Strengthening Families?

In my official capacities as the first Director of the Division of [Child Abuse] Prevention and Community Partnerships, I got a chance to implement the Strengthening Families Initiative here in New Jersey. Since leaving State government service, I’ve sought to integrate the protective factors into my Pastoral work, like bible studies, into sermons, etc. We’ve also created what’s called a Strengthening Families Covenant, a 12-point covenant that I ask leaders of houses of worship to sign. One of the things it encourages is that you don’t have to recreate the wheel. Every April is child abuse prevention month, May is foster care awareness month, October is domestic violence awareness month, November is adoption awareness month. Pastor, Imam, Rabbi, Father, Priest, during those four months, invite someone in. The best way to prevent child abuse is to equip families with the resources they need before they get into crisis. Part of my work has been bridging chasms of language, semantics, and practice.

My most exciting moment in this work of Strengthening Families came when I had an “Aha!” moment. The unique space of baby rituals, child rituals, is within the power of religious leaders. I said, “Hey, that’s my window into the early child development world.” We created something here at our church called Congregational Home Visiting. I ask religious leaders that before they bless, christen, or baptize that child, take the family through 7 sessions of pre-ritual training on early child development. I want families to understand key topics such as “ages and stages” of child development, neuroscience of brain development, etc., so that you as a parent hear it not only from a home visitor.

I believe religious leaders can be on the front lines of positive child development. Babies are not born with books and manuals. We have to work with parents, stand alongside and equip them with the knowledge and resources they need.

How have these approaches changed with Covid-19?

I believe we have a responsibility to do three things in this Covid experience. Namely, to bridge three deserts:

  1. There’s a food desert; Covid has clearly exacerbated the realities of poverty. Food injustice, food insecurity, they already existed before Covid. They’ve only become worse.
  2. The technology desert. As kids in urban areas have had to go onto virtual platforms, they didn’t have the equipment nor the right bandwidth for their internet services. [Digital learning] has long happened in wealthier school districts, public and private. These schools long had virtual platforms. Urban kids have often not had access to those same resources.
  3. The third desert we’ve tried to address is the mental health desert. Depending on what zip code you live and grow up in, there can be a 20 year lifespan differential. Kids who grow up in Trenton, New Jersey, urban America, could have a 20 year lifespan difference from kids who grow up in Princeton, New Jersey, suburban America. That happens all over America. Why? The realities and challenges with which families are dealing compounded stress and risk factors that were already there before COVID-19, and they have only gotten worse after COVID-19.

We’re intent on and determined to bridge those three deserts. We are using some of our licensed, trained Christian counselors to make sure that we call certain families. At the risk of targeting them, I want to make sure that they’re doing ok. A phone call, a text message, an email can go a long way and have a positive impact. We’re having to think more proactively about how we reach families in this Covid era, because every touch makes a difference in the life of a child and their family.

What role does your church play in creating positive experiences for children?

I believe every house of worship should become trauma-informed, strengths-based centers of family engagement. I don’t care whether you’re religious or not, Houses of Worship and spiritual leaders can play and should play a critical role in child abuse prevention and family strengthening. They can be perfectly positioned, with their faith message, and equipped and informed by science, to help families navigate through traumatic experiences.

My kids are now a part of a unique generation, the Covid generation. Their academic years, as an 8th grader, and as a 5th grader, have been completely interrupted! They are asking questions like: “Why are 90,000 people dying? Why do I have to stay in the house now, for 90 days straight? Why can’t I play with my friends? I don’t understand why.” It’s traumatic. One senior saint in our church [died] on March 11th. What would have normally been 200 to 300 people attending [the service] had to be radically downsized to 50, and that was before we got the new order to no more than 10. I had a 49-year-old mother of five whose husband said, “I took my wife to the hospital one night because her breathing was disturbed. I didn’t see her for the next 50 days, and then she died!”

Religious leaders are by definition mental health professionals. How do we take the science and help mitigate the trauma in houses of worship? We have to be creative, because the world is never going to be the same after Covid-19. Not only do we have to reach our worshipping community in our congregations differently, we also have to reach the community differently. But what a perfect opportunity. I can reach thousands of more people virtually. I’m absolutely burdened right now—for example, 40 families in my church have experienced death in their families, and we must walk with them through the valley of death, grief, and bereavement. On the other hand, I can use this technology to reach so many more families, to equip them before they experience crisis, trauma, and childhood adversity. Faith leaders must always see themselves as positive agents of HOPE and change. We constantly walk between joy and pain. But we must always see the glass as half full, as it relates to children and their caregiving families.

Do you have any other advice for families, communities, or systems at this time?

True systemic and structural change happens when organizations collaborate with each other. And true collaboration is when individuals, agencies, and organizations communicate, cooperate, and coordinate resources. I believe that organizations and systems need to get out of their silos. We all can collaborate with each other. Do we want to do it is the question? When we learn how to collaborate better and more effectively, families will be better off. At the heart of systems is family, for me, and at the heart of family engagement is true collaboration. The sum total of communication, cooperation, coordination of my resources, all in the best interests of the local family unit.

We often think of poverty as the lack of physical resources. But there’s also something called poverty of the mind. I want to eradicate the negativity and the pessimism by which we approach families. Families are not broken things that we are going to put back together again. Families are living organisms that have innate resources within them, and the job of the therapist, the counselor, the pastor, is to figure out how to “join” (an important pyschological word) with the family, the most important institution in society. The stronger we make families, the stronger communities will become, the stronger cities will become, the stronger states will become, the stronger America will become.

Any of us who do this work of family engagement should never do it paternalistically, talking down to families. We should always do it from a humble position. True empowerment is when folk can exist, subsist, and thrive long after you’ve gone.

Is there anything else youd like to mention?

I tell Bob, Dr. Sege, all the time, I love his acronym, HOPE. We spend so much time talking about Adverse Childhood Experiences, but the most germane question is how do we promote Positive Childhood Experiences? We’re all going to face adversity. Again, the operative question is, how do we face it? In sum, I just believe that faith leaders are great ambassadors and emissaries of promoting resilience. I hope that we can continue to promote not only what your ACE score is, but what’s your resilience score? Because that’s just as important.

This interview was conducted, transcribed, and compiled by Chloe Yang. Videos were cut and produced by Chloe Yang.

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