INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Maybe it was the chewing gum.

That's what Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Nathaniel Linsey would send Mae C. Mills to “sweeten” his letters. She lived in Durham, N.C., and he was studying for the ministry in Washington, D.C.

Bishop Linsey convinced Miss Mills to become Mrs. Linsey 50 years ago on April 5. They planned to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in an unusual way — at a ceremony in Indianapolis honoring all the couples in Bishop Linsey's diocese who have been married 50 years or more. Each couple will receive a certificate from the Alliance for Marriage, and will be honored by the guests.

There will be 700 of those guests, including all of the church's U.S. bishops. More than 50 couples were to be honored, although only 17 would be able to make it to the actual ceremony.

The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church is a historically black denomination. In a time when newspapers are filled with stories of turbulence in the black family, Bishop Linsey and the Alliance for Marriage offer hope to struggling couples who wonder whether lifelong marriage is even possible.

Celebrating Black Families

Bishop Linsey said that he hoped the Indianapolis ceremony would “inspire young people who are thinking about getting married or who are having problems in their homes to hold fast, to put their trust in God, and to seek counseling to help keep their marriages together.”

He said that black families face the same stresses as do all American families today.

But Matt Daniels, founder of the Virginia-based Alliance for Marriage, told the Register, “You will encounter among some of the people in the welfare establishment a profound prejudice, a view that the African-American community is a community where it is socially impossible to form lifelong marriages. That's absolutely false — in fact, quite insulting to the African-American community.”

Many of the problems facing marriage, Daniels said, are the products of a culture that believes in “the disposable marriage.” He said the couples honored at the Indianapolis golden wedding anniversary are “living proof” that lifelong marriage is an attainable goal.

Daniels cited Marriage Savers and the Catholic program Retrouvaille as groups that help couples weather stormy periods. If there are no such groups in a couple's immediate area, he suggested that they either speak with their pastor or contact Marriage Savers on the Web at http://www.marriagesavers.org.

Daniels also advised employers to be sensitive to the needs of families, commenting that, “Employees with healthy marriages are always better employees.” He suggested offering flextime, job-sharing arrangements and options to work from the home.

Bishop Linsey advised couples to “seek counsel before they get married.” He added that struggling couples — even divorced couples — can rebuild happy, lifelong marriages: “I have had the privilege of marrying people who have been divorced and came back after 25 years and renewed their vows.”

These couples had learned that the fault was not always with their spouses. And, Bishop Linsey said, they had learned how to forgive one another.

Some critics have charged that the pro-marriage movement unfairly stigmatizes single mothers, divorced couples, and children born into such families. “That couldn't be more false,” Daniels replied. “I was raised by a single mother on welfare in New York City. To uphold the married two-parent family as an ideal is not to point a finger at any individual or group.”

He added that single mothers are usually “working valiantly to raise a child alone.”

Take Our Advice

Iula Carter of Dayton, Ohio, who became the wife of William B. Carter 53 years ago, said she and her husband decided to attend the golden wedding anniversary because “God has blessed us with love, understanding and prayer. I thought, let us share, let them know how long we've been together and what has kept us together.”

The Carters have six children, 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Like the other couples involved in the golden wedding anniversary, Iula Carter stressed prayer as the foundation of family life.

Sociological studies back her up, showing that families who pray together and attend church together are much more likely to stay together.

Like the Linseys, the Carters had a long period of “courting.” Iula and William grew up three streets apart. When he came down the street selling coal or ice, she would grab a broom and pretend that the front steps needed sweeping so that she could see him.

The Carters have both regular private time — she in her bedroom, often reading the Bible, and he in his office — and communal time. They eat breakfast together, and go on car trips.

She said, “A whole lot of things make you think, ‘Oh, this is it, I can't take it any more!’” But prayer got her through. She reminded herself, “He was the working man, he kept us eating and he was a good father. This I could not ever forget.”

“The most important thing that has made my marriage work is that God is first in our house, my husband is second and then me,” she said with a laugh. Like many of the spouses who will be attending the Indianapolis celebration, she is quick to laugh.

Bishop Linsey said that couples should “not just pray, but pray together.” The Linseys pray out loud, he said, so that their prayer helps them “realize the seriousness of our concern for staying together. And therefore, we get up off of our knees and start working on it.”

And then, like Iula Carter, he laughed.