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What Black Churches Can Learn from the Pope

I hope I don’t get banned from the next TD Jakes movie for saying this but I think black churches can learn a thing or two from the Pope.

Not in a theological ideology kind of way, but a few weeks ago Pope Francis did something extremely powerful for the health of all infants in the Catholic community. He publicly stated during a service at the Vatican that mothers are welcome to breastfeed right in the Sistine Chapel. “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice, because they are the most important people here,” the Pope said. Those words came about a month after he linked breastfeeding to recycling food and wastefulness in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa, after a mother seemed shy about feeding her child in his presence.

This was pretty significant because, while we all figure that Jesus Christ was breastfed, our skewed cultural norms have made women to feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in church–and sadly, many other public places, for that matter. Since breasts have become oversexualized—acceptably pushed up and out to sell chicken wings or beer—people forget what God actually made those mammary glands for –feeding babies–so nursing in public is viewed by far too many as indecent. Unfortunately, these fears prevent many women from continuing to breastfeed their babies, even though mother’s milk is the optimal nutrition for any infant, reducing the risk of many health conditions from asthma and Type 1 diabetes to childhood obesity.

Breastfeeding is even more critical in the black community, where infant mortality rates among black babies are more than double that of white babies. The CDC states that more breastfeeding among black mothers could decrease this disparity by as much as 50%. That’s because black women have higher rates of having babies who are born too small, too sick or too soon and who are at a greater risk of infant death. These newborns need the immunological and nutritional benefits of breast milk the most. For them, breast milk can be life-saving and its properties can’t be found in infant formula.

And this is where black churches could play a large part. First, publicly supporting breastfeeding sends a powerful message to our community and lets all mothers know they have the respect of the church, regardless of how they choose to feed their baby. We also know that spirituality is very important to black women and that church is often also a social outlet. These days, motherhood is isolating enough without having to feel like you have to miss church or stay in the basement if you choose to breastfeed. Bottle feeding mothers don’t have to do this. Let’s not even mention that black church can be all near all day event so an infant will definitely need to eat during this time.

Could the black church make a comment similar to what the Pope did and publicly acknowledge that breastfeeding is welcomed at churches? A de facto “endorsement” by spiritual leaders could do wonders to change cultural norms about how we feed our babies. Or will our own cultural barriers and breast issues prevent black churches from stepping up to help improve the health of infants and mothers?

Many conservative churches may never allow nursing in the sanctuary, admits Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Churches Initiative, which represents 34,000 black churches to address health and social issues in our communities. Also older women in the church may push back based on generational differences, he adds.

“While we will never take cues from the Pope, the black church has an obligation to put forward critical health information to our members and we have a spiritual obligation for every child in the church, so there is no room to not make accommodations for breastfeeding,” Evans says.

The National Baptist Convention did not return any email requests for a comment or interview.

Evans says his organization will look into making a statement endorsing accommodating nursing mothers as part of the NBCI’s Health Emergency Declaration, a seven year initiative to educate African Americans on proven preventative health strategies. “Given that infant mortality and breast cancer reduction are in our core areas of concern, we need to look into adopting breastfeeding as part of our best practices,” he says. Studies prove that mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Evans notes that simple fixes like using the back bench, piping in audio and video to an overflow room, or using privacy screens in small churches can easily accommodate for breastfeeding without much expense and encourages all mothers to speak with their pastor about what can be done.

My question is, why should women who choose to nurse not have the same freedoms in church as women who bottle feed? It’s almost like being penalized for doing what God intended, which seems absolutely absurd in a church. Mothers deserve better from their religious institutions. Sounds like a good time to ask, what would Jesus do?


In motherhood,

Kimberly Seals Allers 

Kimberly Seals Allers is the founder of Black Breastfeeding 360 and a Food & Community Fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 
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