A Transcendent Canopy

The Positive Role of the Church in Our Second Cities

by W. Bradford Wilcox, appearing in Volume 12

Typical American cities—Boston, New York, and Chicago come to mind — often contain within them two very different cities. The first city, usually found in or near the downtown, is prosperous and progressive, racially diverse, childless, and well-maintained. The second city, often found in neighborhoods some distance from the downtown, is poor, black, and Latino, ?lled with children, and all too often run-down. America’s first cities are “bobo” havens; America’s second cities are distinctly unheavenly.

One other, if little remarked upon, way in which they differ from one another is faith. First cities are remarkably secular. Sunday is a day best spent sleeping in, sipping lattes, reading the New York Times, and catching up with friends. Second cities, by contrast, have large minorities of residents who can be found walking, driving, or taking public transportation to the nearest church on Sunday morning.

The conventional wisdom holds that second cities are in crisis. The conventional wisdom is largely right—crime, drug use, and illegitimacy, for instance, are much higher in second cities than the nation at large. But the faith found in these second cities plays an important role in keeping them from heading into the abyss. In fact, in second cities, churches are virtually the only civic institutions still standing strong.

Churches play a positive role in at least three areas: crime, drug use, and family life. Take crime. Work by Byron Johnson of Baylor University indicates that urban adolescents who are religious are significantly less likely to sell drugs. In one study of poor urban neighborhoods, he found that 33 percent of teenage boys who did not attend church were involved in the drug trade compared to 17 percent of teenage boys who did attend church on a weekly basis. In another study of men who had been to prison and been released, Byron found that 44 percent of these men who did not attend bible study on a regular basis in prison were rearrested within two years, compared to 27 percent of men who had attended bible study on a regular basis while in prison. In both studies, then, religious attendance was linked to a marked reduction in criminal activity.

Or take substance abuse. Another study by Johnson shows that highly religious youth living in poor urban neighborhoods are 17 percent less likely to smoke marijuana than their peers. Lisa Miller, a psychologist at Columbia University, has found that teenagers whose parents were drug addicts but regularly attend church are 83 percent less likely to abuse alcohol than children with similar family histories who do not attend church.

Or take family life. My own research indicates that urban mothers are 100 percent more likely to have their child in wedlock if they attend church several times a month or more, compared to mothers who attend infrequently or not at all. Churchgoing couples in urban America also report significantly higher levels of happiness in their marriages, compared to couples who are not regular churchgoers. Indeed, in poor urban communities, churches are virtually the only bulwarks of marriage.

Why do churches play a constructive role in urban America—especially our nation’s second cities? Churches offer family-oriented, decent social networks that provide a clear alternative to the lifestyle of the street. Churches also promote moral norms—what Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, calls “righteousness.” Finally, churches cast a transcendent canopy over the lives of their members; this canopy provides hope and meaning to people who often struggle with poverty, discrimination, and other

Let me be clear. Religion is by no means a silver bullet in urban America. Urban churchgoers, just like their suburban peers, often fail to live righteous lives—as evidenced by the minority of regular churchgoers who end up dealing drugs in Johnson’s studies. But things would be a lot worse in America’s second cities were it not for the presence of churches, offering a message of hope and an oasis of care and concern in neighborhoods that often seem devoid of hope and mutual concern.