First Things First

Alex and Karen Holt—not their real names—decided that their marriage had become so bad that ending it was the best option. Since the Holts live in Chattanooga, a judge required them to undergo counseling to learn how divorce would affect their three young children. The result? The Holts decided to work at putting their marriage back together. As Karen says, "We had no idea what divorce would do to our kids." This reaction is exactly what Chattanooga civic leaders had in mind when they put together an initiative called First Things First, a community-wide plan of action to strengthen families. Rae Young Bond, president of First Things First, said that last year community leaders became alarmed at news that showed that while Chattanooga was prospering economically, its families were foundering. For example, they found that Tennessee ranks fourth in the nation for divorce. Chattanooga ranks fifth in a survey of 128 cities for unwed births.And the state ranks fifth in the nation for the percentage of children who live in poverty: 26 percent. These are statistics the whole community should worry about, because they ultimately affect everyone. Hugh Maclellan, Jr., chairman of the board of First Things First, says that "research has shown conclusively that divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and lack of fathering contribute to poverty, poor achievement in school… greater crime, greater drug abuse, [and a] shorter life span." The leaders of First Things First brainstormed over how Chattanooga could be more proactive in halting family breakdown. As Rae Young Bond, president of First Things First,explains: "We wanted to make the case for marriage, [and] counteract the popular but mistaken belief that divorce—rather than reconciliation—is best for all concerned." Last August the group spearheaded a host of initiatives. They launched a program called Marriage Savers in local churches to strengthen pre-marital counseling, to train older couples to mentor young marrieds, and to help stepfamilies cope. They're preparing a television ad campaign called "Catch the Lie," which teaches twenty-somethings that, contrary to what many sitcoms preach, abstinence is normal and healthy for the unmarried. They're organizing a fathering summit to help dads become more engaged with their children—especially when the fathers are not living with their kids. And couples who plan to divorce must now take part in a pilot program that requires them to undergo counseling to reduce tensions and help them understand why divorce devastates children. I recently spoke at a banquet for First Things First. I wanted to encourage the good people of Chattanooga, which is a wonderful community. And I did it because I think this is one town that has decided to tackle the problem of family breakdown the right way: They're getting the whole community involved. First Things First hopes to reduce the number of divorce filings and out-of-wedlock births in Chattanooga by at least 30 percent over three years—and I think they're going to do it. This is a wonderful example of what we ought to be doing across the country. It's time to fight back. We shouldn't be sitting idly around watching this epidemic of family breakdown. In the next few commentaries I'll be talking more about how Christians can save the families of their own communities. Keep reading—and learn ways you can help your own town put First Things First.


Chuck Colson


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