A young African-American man wearing baggy pants and a sullen expression might look like trouble, but the Rev. Donald Hunter sees someone who needs compassion.
“I’d rather put my arms around him,” said Hunter, 58, pastor of the 150-member New Beginning Baptist Church.
“You see a young black boy walking down the street with no shirt on and his pants are down at his knees, in the middle of the day,” Hunter said. “That child is screaming as loud as he can, saying, 'Help me!’ But we see him just as someone in defiance - as a truant, as a danger.
“What he’s really saying is 'I don’t have an education. I’ve dropped out of school. I don’t have a job. I want decent things in life like you do. I can’t help my Momma. My Daddy is gone. Help me.”
That’s why the pastor has organized the Black Family Initiative, a coalition of 10 African-American churches to address the absent-father, single-mother family situation. The goal is to restore the traditional and biblical family headed by a responsible father and husband.
“People say, 'You’re crazy,’” Hunter said. “But the truth of the matter is, Jesus said, 'As you’ve done to the least of these you have done to me.’ That’s what our churches are mandated to do - help him.”
During the past several months Hunter, a professional researcher with decades of service in state government, has sought information from residents of East Baton Rouge, Zion City and Glen Oaks about the black family situation and ways for improving it.
He and volunteers went door to door in several high-crime neighborhoods and surveyed members of the 10 participating churches, where the percentages of single-moms range from 40 percent to 60 percent.
“Actually, on any given Sunday, in any of our churches, 60 to 65 percent of those in attendance are women,” Hunter said, calling that a symptom of troubled family structures.
“We don’t get over 35 percent of males in our churches no matter what the size or affluence of the church,” he said.
Of 517 respondents to Hunter’s surveying, 82 percent said they believe the family is defined as a unit of a father, a mother and children.
By contrast, according to the Census Bureau, only 38 percent of African-American families were two-parent families in 2010, compared with 77.7 percent in 1950.
Hunter interprets that as families holding onto a traditional value even as they fail to live up to it.
“They understand that where we are is not what they define as being a family,” he said.
In Hunter’s survey, 33.6 percent of respondents said fathers are absent from their families by “free choice,” while 41.3 percent are absent due to “crime.”
“In my humble opinion, I believe there should not be any conditions - any conditions -that are brought about by government policies, circumstances in the community or in the life of an individual that would relieve a father from his responsibility to take care of his family,” Hunter said.
Survey respondents also wanted fatherhood training for boys and young men to break what Hunter calls “a generational curse” of fathers abandoning their children.
“We have to retool our ministries to teach fatherhood from age 5 all the way up so that when he becomes a young man there is something inside of him that will not allow him to father a child and not marry that young lady and look after his family,” Hunter said. “If you bring a child into this world, God holds you responsible for taking care of those children.”
The initiative also plans to help the mothers by training them in “moral reasoning” to teach their own children the differences between right and wrong.
“If you are 13 to 16 years old and come into my yard and take something without asking me, that’s theft,” Hunter said. “You have morally made a decision that it is all right for you to take something that doesn’t belong to you. We have to fix that - and not in the schools because the schools are not designed to teach moral reasoning - you have to teach that in the home and in the church.”
Starting in September, fatherhood classes for boys and young men, “moral reasoning” classes for single mothers and free family counseling services will be available in all 10 of the Initiative member churches as well as at Glen Oaks Middle School.
“Our overall goal is to support our fragile families in such a way that these mothers and children can be nourished into being sociologically, religiously, and economically healthy,” Hunter said, “and to prevent young men who are now at risk from becoming delinquents.”
Hunter said 15 lay professionals and 55 lay counselors already have signed up, but many more pastors, counselors and social workers are needed as volunteers. Also donations are needed to pay for materials and other costs.
“I’m calling on and challenging every black educated and licensed counselors, male and female, to help us,” Hunter said. “I’m challenging the entire black community.”
Growing up a pastor’s son
Hunter recognized that his own family life has been much different from the families he is trying to reach.
He grew up as the son of a Baptist minister, along with his five brothers and sisters, on a farm near Monroe.
“My father taught me what was right and wrong and how to be a good man and a husband and a father,” Hunter said. “Seeing my father, as strong a man as he was, on his knees praying was something substantial to me.”
Hunter said he accepted Christ as his Savior at the age of 6 “at home with my parents,” and was baptized in Muchwater Bayou.
Hunter ran track and played football, graduating from Richwood High in 1970. He married his childhood sweetheart, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Southern University, and attended two years of graduate school before going to work as a research and development evaluator in state government.
His wife of 39 years, Genita Moore Hunter, has also spent a career in civil service. They have five children and seven grandchildren. Eldest daughter Leah Raby serves in the Governor’s Office, Donald Jr., is in the Louisiana Primary Care Association, daughter Nina is a state tax attorney, daughter Abriel is attending Southern University, and youngest son David graduated from Scotlandville Magnet and plans to attend Southern.
For many years Hunter was satisfied with his “good works,” staying involved in church work as a deacon and Sunday School teacher, he said. In his professional work he won awards and recognition, including an honorary doctorate, for the programs he designed to help underprivileged children succeed.
“I didn’t want to accept my calling,” he said. “I had a $4.5 million budget in a program called church-based tutorial, that received national recognition in the Clinton administration.”
“One day I came home, and I sat down in my bedroom and I saw (in a vision) my whole family in a millisecond destroyed,” Hunter said, his strong voice dropping to nearly a whisper. “God showed me everything gone, and I said to Him, 'You didn’t need to do that in order for me to accept my calling.’ I thought I was doing enough, and he made it clear to me that I wasn’t.
“I picked up the phone crying and called my father and I told him that I’d been called to preach. He said, 'whatever God tells you to do you better do it.’”
Hunter had been attending Shiloh Baptist Church and he told the Rev. Charles T. Smith, his mentor, about his vision and calling.
“If I tried to emulate anyone I’ve tried very hard to hold to the teachings of Rev. Charles T. Smith,” Hunter said, adding he was also greatly influenced by the late pastor of Beach Grove Baptist Church, the Rev. Emmitt Spurlock. “He was a very humble man.”
He was ordained in 1996 at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church and served at St. John in Clinton for awhile before accepting the call to his current ministry.
“My fundamental principle of Christianity is that the battleground for Christian discipleship is fought on the field of humility,” Hunter said. “When Jesus said, 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself’ he didn’t identify any other opposition to Christian discipleship other than self.
“That means you have to deny your feelings, desires, appetites emotions and cravings,” Hunter said. “Jesus says, I need you to put me there; humble yourself to me in those places. The more you do that the brighter the light will shine in your life. It gets brighter as you grow in humility.”
Mark Hunter, a frequent free lance contributor to The Advocate, is not a relative of the Rev. Donald Hunter.