Reflections: Why fathers are needed more than ever

By Bishop Woodie W. White, Special Contributor…

It is an alarming phenomenon—the absence of fathers in so many households across the country. One wonders when the trend began.

Recent statistics have caught my attention. Some 40 percent of all infants born today in the U.S. are born to unwed mothers, and among certain groups that figure is over 60 percent. The Census Bureau reports that 24 million children in America—one out of three—live in “biological father-absent homes.” Two out of three African American children live in such households.

If these trends continue, more and more women will carry alone the responsibility for child rearing and support of families. Not only will fathers be physically absent in homes, but many children will never know in any sense a father’s touch, guidance or special caring. Indeed, many will never hear themselves utter the words “father” or “dad.”

These are sobering thoughts as we approach Father’s Day. The observance dates back as far as 1910, or perhaps earlier, in some form. It met with resistance in the U.S. Congress when it was first proposed as a national holiday in 1916, but people found a way to honor and recognize the fathers of the nation, without governmental sanction.

Actually, it was not until 1966 that the first presidential proclamation was issued, honoring fathers and designating the third Sunday in June as “Father’s Day.” It was not signed into law and made a permanent observance until 1972.

Forty years later, given the sociological changes in the nature of the family, and the shifting role and presence of fathers in households, the observance of Father’s Day seems even more important.

The task of parenting is a major responsibility. Even in homes where two parents are present, it is not easy! Imagine one breadwinner, one parent taking full responsibility for all the work that is entailed—it must be overwhelming at times. It is not an impossible task, but the difficulties are greater now than ever, and the negative forces that endanger family life and threaten healthy child development have increased.

To be sure, many children who are raised in one-parent homes do become responsible and productive adults. And many single mothers—and fathers—are exemplary parents. Interestingly, one of the stories about the origin of Father’s Day is that it began when a young woman in Spokane, Wash., wanted to honor her father, a single parent who had reared six children!

It required both my wife and I, each assuming different roles at different times, to provide a Christian foundation, nurturing and guidance for our five children. Of course, having both parents in a home does not ensure success in how children eventually turn out, but it does help for the mother and father to share in this vital task.

Indeed, I have always believed that to be a father is a gift and a sacred responsibility. Frankly, I wish I had been better at it, but my shortcomings made it clear to me why we both needed to be there. In many situations we played different but equally crucial roles.

On June 17 our country will salute fathers who brought life into the world and nurtured that life, providing all they could to lead their offspring into mature adulthood. Then there are “fathers” who assumed that role, giving safe journey to children and youth they had not brought into the world. They are fathers, no less than all the others!

To those who have accepted the gift of fatherhood and made sacred the words “dad” and “father”: Happy Father’s Day!

Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

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