Through faith, hope and fellowship, the Freemans are helping to save Black marriages. Before their marriage in June 1985, Michael and Dee Dee Freeman didn't talk much about their expectations of each other as husband and wife. Mike, then 23 and an aspiring pastor, figured he would be just like his father: a good provider and family man, but clearly the boss and king of his traditional Christian family. He assumed that his new bride, then 21, would know her place as a good Christian wife-which, by his definition, meant being subservient to him.
But Dee Dee had taken her cues about marriage from a different script. "My mother was very opinionated and always said what she wanted to say," she recalls. "You weren't going to control her. My dad helped clean, cook and take care of the children."
It's no wonder that the young couple's marriage was a struggle. He made demands. She resisted. Once they cursed each other out on the way to church. But they masked the anger with fake smiles, sashaying into the sanctuary like blissful newlyweds.
It took deep soul-searching, a willingness to change, and years of baby steps in the right direction for the couple to climb out of chaos and into the peace they enjoy today. Now Mike, 43, is pastor of the Spirit of Faith Christian Center in Temple Hills, Maryland. He and Dee Dee, 40, share what they have learned to help troubled couples in their congregation of 7,000 find their way back to joy.
CALLED TO SERVE
Dee Dee was 14 and Mike was 16 the first time they met at a neighborhood swimming pool. Despite an initial crush, they remained just friends. He became her confidant, and she often shared with him intimate details of her life. He urged her to accept Jesus into her life, and in 1983 she made that commitment at a New Year's Eve church service. When Dee Dee arrived home from church on New Year's Day, Mike was there, chatting with her mother. She relayed her good news and, in that moment, knew that her relationship with Mike was about to change. "I'm going to marry him," she recalls telling her girlfriend that morning. They wed in 1985.
Mike felt called to follow his father and grandfathers into the ministry. His desire to help heal families-he calls it a God-given assignment-was so strong that in 1991 he left the Free World Baptist denomination and his father's church, where he had been expected to become pastor. His goal, he explains, was to develop a ministry that would focus on "family, finances and faith through fellowship."
The couple started with Bible study for a dozen close friends and relatives, and the group met in their home. They began Spirit of Faith with Mike as the pastor two years later, and the church quickly grew to 350 members. The congregation met in the auditorium of a Washington, D.C., high school until 1995, when Mike discovered an abandoned shopping center in Temple Hills, Maryland.
The church bought the property for $825,000, and pumped in another $3.3 million to transform the run-down strip mall into a spiritual and commercial center now known as Faith Plaza. The church sits at one end of the property, with a bookstore, hair salon, child-care center and family-life center on the other.
Part of the couple's appeal to their mostly young African-American congregation is their hip, down-to-earth manner. To the members they are simply Pastor Mike and Dee Dee. During Sunday-morning sermons and Bible-study sessions, they often share stories from the painful early days of their marriage. "People love to hear that you can relate to where they are," Mike says. "We tell everything," Dee Dee adds. "We tell all our business."
THROUGH THE FIRE
The first five years of marriage were horrible, the Freemans say. "He wanted me to fit into this mold," Dee Dee explains. "Do what he said to do. Speak when I was spoken to. Cook. Clean." At the time, Dee Dee was a cosmetologist and owner of a beauty salon. For many years she earned more money than her husband, who worked as an electrical inspector for the traffic-control system in Washington, D.C. Once she bought a car without telling Mike. "I thought it was a decision we should have made together," he says. In addition to money battles, there were blowups about Mike's refusal to help with household chores. Both felt unappreciated.
The Freemans' lives together shifted in a happier direction when Mike made a move that seemed completely out of character. "One day he just got on his knees and told me he was committed to making things better," Dee Dee recalls. "He said he was serious about his relationship with God and with me, and apologized for all we'd been through."
Mike explains that he was weary by then and had become more introspective. He had begun to search the scriptures for solutions to his marital problems. A passage from the fifth chapter of Ephesians, which instructs men to love their wives as Christ loved the church, stood out. "Most people don't read verse 21: ‘Submit yourselves one to the other in the fear of God,' " he says. "They read verse 22: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.' I did not know that I was to submit to her, too. In my mind, she needed to listen, and everything would be okay. God revealed to me that I had a problem listening. And so I shut up. I began to hear her."
Mike's turnaround affected how Dee Dee saw her marriage. "I stopped reacting to what he didn't do," she says. "Love is a choice, and I chose to love him whether or not he bought me roses or said something nice."
SHARING THE MESSAGE
At Spirit of Faith, engaged couples must attend six months of premarital counseling, or Pastor Mike won't marry them. The sessions focus on spiritual, emotional and practical aspects of the relationship. The first Friday of every month, Pastor Mike and Dee Dee host what they call communication labs, which include informal group conversations and sometimes role-playing to help married couples address difficult topics.
Mike and Dee Dee say they try so hard to help couples because they have seen too many wait too long to mend old hurts. "I've seen husbands and wives who literally tried to snatch their spouse out of the casket to undo wrongs committed when they were alive," Mike says. "And they can't get that time back. We get one shot at life, and I don't care if you live to be 80, 90 or 100-it is very short. We don't have any seconds, minutes, hours, days, months or years to waste."