I was listening to a podcast the other day and (as they often do) it got me thinking about some experiences in my own life that were very formative. In this particular podcast*, one of the speakers was talking about how she has been ostracized in churches because of her marital status, her gender, her education, and her ethnicity. This is very disturbing to me, not only because of how often it happens in the American Church, but also because I have seen how beneficial it has been in my own life when people have not been ostracized but have rather been accepted for whoever they are.
I grew up in a family of five: two parents and three children. Due to the fact that we lived further away from our extended family on one side and were wisely shielded from abuse on the other, we didn’t have as much time with biological family as others might experience. Yet we did have something that I didn’t realize was unique until I became an adult.
Throughout my life, I have had a lot of “adopted” Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and Cousins. In everyday life and even during holidays, there were always people who weren’t related to us celebrating, living, crying, and laughing with us. Walking alongside and loving someone who didn’t look like me was (and still is) as normal to me as loving my own flesh and blood.
Like I said before, I didn’t realize that this might not be a common experience for a long time. I didn’t question why my parents chose to do family this way. If anything, I thought that people who didn’t welcome others into their lives as family were the weird ones. I would actually get angry when things like holidays got in the way of spending time with the people whom I wanted to see. I didn’t really get that the world (and often the Church) didn’t see things this way until I started caregiving for one of the people my parents had welcomed as family.
My Godmother (who was an adopted aunt), came into our lives when I was around five years old. At first, she was close friends with my Mom, but as time went on she became a sister to my Dad, and an Aunt to my brothers and I.
Along with unconventional approaches to family, my parents also did something unique when it came to us kids and our baptisms. When I was around seven years old, we started going to an Episcopal church. Having missed being baptized in the church as babies, my parents told my brothers and I that it was our decision as to when we wanted to be baptized. They also told us that we could choose who we wanted our Godparents to be.
I chose to be baptized not too long after we started going to this church. And as for my Godparents, I chose my Mom’s best friend and her mother (who had become our adopted Grandmother). As a little white girl who was accustomed to her adopted family, I had no idea that choosing two single black women as my Godparents was in any way out of the ordinary.
Now let me stop and say that just because I was used to having adopted family members, that did not mean that I “didn’t see color”. I definitely did and my parents were always open about the reality of racism in this country. My Mom, in particular, was always teaching us kids about history and the cultural issues in the U.S. that were most times ignored in school. However, I didn’t think that because I was white and my Aunt and Grandmom were black, that we couldn’t be family.
So, given the normalization by my parents of having a multi-ethnic family life, I operated as if having two black, single Godmothers was another important but not unusual part of my life. I introduced my friends (and later my boyfriends) to them. I took my Grandmother to Grandparents days at school. I listened to my Grandmother’s many interesting stories about her life and about how my Aunt was when she was little. And as I got a bit older, I started paying more attention to my Aunt’s perceptive wisdom about all kinds of things including God and theology.
I think both my Aunt and I would agree that the depth of our relationship changed when I began to caregive for her at age twenty-one. She always had a special place in my life, but I don’t think I understood her fully as a person until I (like many young people) matured enough to look beyond myself as the center of the universe. And I certainly didn’t get that having a single black woman in such a prominent place in my life could be a problem until I became a part of her daily life.
I didn’t notice the stares from people when we’d go out together until maybe the fifth or sixth time. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t notice it until my Godmother (Aunt) pointed it out. I would be carrying her purse, helping her make decisions about groceries, or joking around with her, all the while being pretty oblivious to our surroundings. But of course, she saw every stare, noticed the bewilderment or disdain on every face. Even though I treated her like family, I was still pretty white and still pretty naive.
Over the last eleven years of caregiving for my Godmother (Aunt), we have had hundreds of hours together to get real about a lot of things. We talk about everything, and I mean everything; life, God, the Church, relationships, science, politics, racism, history, you name it, we’ve discussed it. We’ve laughed together, cried together, yelled together, suffered together, prayed together, and struggled through our relationship together. I have learned an immeasurable amount from her about all aspects of life. I know that I will probably never be able to fully comprehend her patience, long-suffering, and determination to love me in the midst of so much ignorance that has come with me being a white person living in the U.S.
But I will endeavor to parse out two of the most important lessons I’ve learned from having my Godmother as part of my family. One, I am intimately acquainted with the reality the Jesus coming and dying on the cross has made all who follow Him into a family. And two, I have come much further along with seeing how much the American Church has actually used the dividing lines of race, class, and gender to make excuses for ignoring what Jesus intends for His Body to be.
I often think about the passage in Matthew where someone tried to alert Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him. His response is the hinge upon which I now base my approach to family:
“He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50)
There are many parts of the Bible that support the reality that when we become followers of Christ, we gain a huge, diverse, and eternal family. Yet for some reason, this short statement from Jesus has been the one that’s stuck with me. Jesus’ biological family was right there wanting to speak to him out of concern for him, yet he took that opportunity to welcome everyone who was listening (and everyone who would read his words over the years) into the family of God if they would do the will of the Father. It is a quick moment, a few lines in the Bible, yet so immensely profound.
I know that there are many Christians in the U.S. who have read this passage, understood it at the moment, yet haven’t put it into real practice in their lives. Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe they’ve faced pressure from their biological family to conform to their standards instead of what the Bible says about family. Whatever the reasons, God does call us to make decisions about whom we prioritize in our lives. Many of us may be blessed to be able to call our biological families the same as our Christian family. Yet Jesus himself acknowledged that that wasn’t always going to be the case.
I can’t tell you how God might be calling you specifically to incorporate His family into your lives. I can only share how He’s led my parents to act and therefore myself to follow their example. I can also say that choosing to ignore this reality could not only cause you to be going against God’s plans for His people, it more than likely would also be shunning the blessing of having people in your life who don’t look like you, think like you, or live like you.
This might seem counter-intuitive to our idea of what family should look like and how it should make us feel. The family of God does comfort us and accept us, but it also does so much more. We actually grow in the knowledge of God when we welcome our brothers and sisters in Christ into our lives in a more intimate way than just saying ‘Hi’ or ‘How are you?’ at church on Sundays. And we become more like Jesus every time we go deeper into a relationship with those who challenge us, encourage us, and spur us on in our faith. Our eternal family is a priceless gift that should be cultivated and treasured.
I guess what I want to say in closing is simply this: if you’re a Christian and you haven’t treated your fellow Christians like family, you’re missing out on something God has purposed and designed for all of our good. Is that really what you want? Or do you want to know what it’s like to make your family much bigger and more enriching than you could ever have imagined?
* In case anyone is interested in listening, this is the podcast episode I mentioned at the start of this blog. I highly recommend the whole podcast: https://soundcloud.com/truthstable/hidden-in-plain-sight-single-black-women