The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 11, 2013

Pastor promotes power of pulpits

Clergy can help children, speaker asserts

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

OAK HILL — A pastor who recently spoke to a group of child advocates in Oak Hill wants to help other clergy understand the power of their pulpits in working to better the lives of children and families.

In a place like West Virginia, where child poverty and broken homes proliferate, it’s an especially urgent call.

The Rev. Darrell Armstrong provided a keynote address, titled “Snapshot of a Foster Child: Training clergy to engage in early development of infants, toddlers and children,” to about 45 attendees of the third annual Family Awareness Conference hosted by Just for Kids Inc.

“Imams, rabbis, pastors and priests stand before hundreds and thousands and aggregate millions of people who are families in their own congregations. Not many get such a captive audience every Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” he said.

“How do we help them to not just preach at them, not just give them religion-based education? How do we help them understand a holistic approach to mind, body, soul and spirit?”

Jeff Allen is director of the West Virginia Council of Churches and a participant in the conference.

“Church is deeply embedded in our communities,” he said. “Often schools have closed and post offices are gone, so a lot of community bases of support are no longer there. Church often is the one remaining institution in a community that is in touch with the day-to-day lives of people living there.”

Though his first call is to serve a congregation, Armstrong takes care not to divorce himself from other areas of society where he can engage families and children.

Armstrong is pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, N.J. He uses sermons, evidence-based programs, home visits and baby blessing rituals to partner with parents in the development of their babies.

He advocates for congregational home visits by clergy. He asks them not to baptize, bless or dedicate a baby until parents or caregivers complete sessions on child development. And he trains religious leaders to be more effective in promoting healthy families.

Just for Kids Executive Director Scott Miller invited Armstrong to speak.

“Religion is fairly important in southern West Virginia, and a high percentage of people go to church. It feels like there’s an opportunity there to make a difference in kids’ lives,” he said.

Miller hopes the conference will start a deeper dialogue between community pastors and child advocates working in southern West Virginia.

Armstrong studied at Stanford University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and The College of New Jersey. After working for New Jersey government on various programs to prevent child abuse and strengthen families, he founded the Institute for Clergy Training in 2009.

The organization trains clergy of all faiths to better understand the intersection of child welfare, domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health.

Faith communities that take the opportunity to play a greater role in raising their congregation’s children can provide a real service to society, he said.

The West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition is focusing some of its work on engaging with faith communities and is looking for congregation leaders who are willing to start piloting some of Armstrong’s models in their own communities. Contact Stephen Smith at 304-610-6512.

The conference also included sessions on trauma-informed practice, adolescent suicide prevention, meth labs, Internet safety, religion and brain development, parenting the parent, fetal alcohol syndrome, and child sexual abuse awareness and prevention.

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