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July 14, 1999






Study of poor women finds faith sustains
___By David Briggs
___Religion News Service
___PHILADELPHIA (RNS)--A lifetime of poverty has stirred--not shaken--the faith of poor black women who maintain high self-esteem and a striking optimism about the future, a new study finds.
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BEATRICE SNEED, 71, prays during a midweek service at New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. (RNS photo by John Kuntz)
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The four-year study of the effects of income on aging began with researchers hypothesizing that poverty would be easier to accept at younger ages, when one could still dream of a better life. It ended by putting the spotlight on the extraordinary faith of a passing generation in black churches that sees the hand of God in the ability to overcome suffering.
___Others have abandoned the women--husbands have left and children have been lost to drugs or violence--but God is the one constant guiding them through a lifetime of hardship, the women told researchers from the Philadelphia Geriatric Center.
___Into their 70s and 80s, the women have not given up hope that a better life is just around the corner, if not on Earth, then assuredly in heaven.
___"The depth of the spirituality, the utter faith. I don't know if I've ever seen anything like it," said Helen Black, project manager of the Behavioral Research Department of the geriatric center. "The absolute certainty was something beautiful to behold."
___Some theologians and church critics have debated whether Christianity has stood in the way of black social and economic advancement by encouraging the acceptance of suffering. But for this generation of black women, the backbone of many churches, God is a personal friend who provides the internal strength to overcome hard times.
___Willa Morgan, 80, still works as a beautician in the back of her house. "Looks like I'm going to be working the rest of my life," she said after a recent Wednesday night Bible study meeting at Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland.
___If God had not been there to lean on, she said, she never would have made it through the years of working day and night and the death of her husband.
___"He didn't promise us he'll take care of our wants. But he did say he'll take care of our needs," she said. "I don't have everything in life a lot of people want. I haven't been to a lot o
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WILLA MORGAN, 80, stands outside Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland. ``My relationship with God is strong. It has to be in order that I might survive,'' she said. (RNS photo by Brynne Shaw)___
f places. But I've been to enough places to know God is good. That's the truth."
___Two hundred older women --50 white and 50 black women living in poverty, and 50 from each group who were well-off economically--were interviewed in their homes between 1993 and 1997 for the study, "Chronic Poverty and the Self in Later Life."
___Left without the hopes of youth, what would be the effects of a lifetime of poverty on older people, researchers wanted to know. Religion was not considered a major factor in the secular study. The subjects, women over 70 with monthly incomes of $766 or below, were recruited through senior citizen centers, housing project fliers, community outreach programs and legal assistance newsletters in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
___Most women said religion was important in their lives, but it was a critical aspect of the lives of poor black women.
___In lengthy interviews--about four hours over two days with each woman--a pattern began to emerge where eventually all 50 black women living in poverty would bring up issues concerning religion, faith and prayer before any study questions on the subject were even asked. When asked which person in life they were closest to, many simply replied, "God," Black said.
___In an upcoming article "Poverty and Prayer: Spiritual Narratives of Elderly African-American Women," to be published in the summer issue of the Review of Religious Research, Black said the study found the women believed God was personally concerned about them and their lives, no matter how difficult, were "part of a divine plan that will bring rewards both in this life and the next."
___Their high self-esteem in difficult economic circumstances derived in large part from their pride in overcoming suffering and their belief that God was beside them as a friend who would never let them down.
___"They believed their hardship had meaning because they interpreted it as a measure of their strength, imbued it with divine purpose and foresaw a just end. They were convinced ... that God experienced similar pain and would respond empathetically to their own," Black wrote in the review article.
___In an interview, Black said one woman she talked to said: "I am as sure of heaven as I am of that picture on the wall. And if I wasn't, I would go charging into the Delaware River."
___Black said the women's faith in God was more than a coping mechanism for a difficult life.
___"It was an active, very living, viable partnership," she said.
___The Philadelphia research appears to be a rich, interview-based study that is consistent with other national studies showing religion is a potent resource for both blacks and older Americans, said Kenneth Pargament, a sociologist on religion at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
___"Researchers should no longer be surprised" at such findings, he said.
___When he read the study, Marvin McMickle was brought back to the image of his own mother comforting him and his brother in the living room of their home in Chicago. His father had left them and was not coming back.
___But his mother, left not only to raise two children alone but with a mountain of debt, remained calm.
___"Rather than be angry with God, her response was the Lord was going to see us through," recalled McMickle, then a 10-year-old and now the 50-year-old pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland.
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