- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Second of four parts.

The lesson would be how to keep “the fire burning,” Nisa Muhammad told nine couples at her Tuesday night marriage class in the District.

“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 the District or Prince George’s County.

Mrs. Muhammad’s “Wedded Bliss” program, which will receive $1.3 million in federal money over the next four years, is aimed at helping 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 Times examines the changing views of marriage and what institutions — such as religious groups, government and businesses — are doing to preserve it.

Mrs. Muhammad’s program is one of many that churches and religious groups are using to strengthen marriages and foster new ones. Wedded Bliss is an eight-week class that encourages couples to marry by helping them build intimacy and teaching communication skills.

Airing grievances

At the Tuesday night meeting, Mrs. Muhammad — who converted 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, Deidra Arnold, 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.

The atmosphere in the room softened. The other couples, seated at tables 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 William Thompson, 40, also a postal 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,” he told Ms. Parks. “You’ve got 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’ll probably have 1,500 hours of sick leave, ready to sell some vacation time,” Ms. Parks said, pausing for several moments. “But I don’t see him committing to a marriage by then.”

“Ooh,” whispered Mr. Muhammad, as if he’d been stung by a bee.

Mrs. Muhammad didn’t blink.

“OK, well, we’ve got some work to do,” she said. “Thank you, 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’re trying to change the hearts and minds of people who look at marriage in a negative way and say, ‘You know, we have something to celebrate,’ ” 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, why they should go ahead and get married,” said Michael Lawrence, associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in the District. “That case has to be made.”

Peter Murphy, family life director 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.

“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 Jewish law posits that it applies only 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 fundamental part of practicing their 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 area.

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

Mr. Magid said he began offering six-session, premarital-counseling courses to couples a few years ago, when he saw a study showing that 33 percent of Muslim marriages ended in divorce. But, he said, there are few mosques in the United States that offer such counseling.

“The extended family in the countries of the immigrant [Muslims] creates a very strong support network for young couples,” Mr. Magid said. “Here in America, there is no extended family. The wisdom has to 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 little for marriages, but in many cases, they are part of the divorce problem.

“Most churches are wedding factories today,” said Mr. McManus, who created a Marriage Savers program in 1986. “They have good intentions, but their marriage preparation is not that helpful.”

About 10,000 pastors and rabbis in 215 cities across the country have signed an agreement to uphold higher standards for premarital counseling. Marriage Savers focuses 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, but we need to do a better job,” said Mr. McManus, a nationally syndicated ethics and religion columnist who attends Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda. “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 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 have been married 26 years, “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’re trying to open their eyes so they know exactly what to expect, to minimize surprises once they get married,” said Mrs. Kupelian, who stayed at home with the couple’s two daughters and now volunteers at Bible studies and in Montgomery County public schools.

The couples talked about how the Bibos would handle the demands of extended family during the holidays 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’t know how to argue.” Mrs. Kupelian said they teach young couples 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.”

Out of the 20 couples mentored by 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. Kupelian said. “I see that as one less divorce.”

Meeting in the middle

Ms. Parks married at 24. She and her high-school sweetheart divorced after 12 years, and she now has a 12-year old daughter.

Mr. Thompson has never married.

Despite her pessimistic comments at Mrs. Muhammad’s meeting, days later Ms. Parks said the program had “enhanced” her relationship with Mr. Thompson and she is hopeful about the relationship.

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 wants to,” Ms. Park said. “They were teaching us that we now are sharing our lives with others, and we can’t be selfish.”

Ms. Parks took notes during the eight-week class in a journal given to her by Mrs. Muhammad. Mr. Thompson could not read it until the 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.”

“I don’t see him wasting my time, and I don’t see him hurting me,” Ms. Parks said. “I do think he’ll commit. My problem is, when?”

Part I

U.S. out of love with marriage?

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