The easy answer to the question, “Who is family?” is our parents, siblings, children and others we live with who likely share the same surname. In religious terms, consider the Holy Family, the Trinity and all the ways we are introduced into God’s family through the sacraments, church rituals and other sacred moments that remind us that we are children of God.
Sadly, we all know that the people we grew up with, those who share our last name, are not always the people we want to spend time with. Many of them don’t even feel like family. So, asked to define family, these people might mention a smattering of details but have few family stories to share that are fit for public consumption. In addition, many people have left the church of their childhood and cannot honestly say that any church community is their family.
So, where does that leave us? Often feeling isolated and disconnected from any ideas of the ideal family as depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings or images from old TV sitcoms such as “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” These images portray happy, well-adjusted families.
But it is absolutely true that family also refers to those people who are not related to you or don’t necessarily have any religious connection to your life. When you find yourself saying, “They feel like family to me” or “I feel at home with them” or “I’d sacrifice my last piece of bread for them,” you’ve broadened your definition of family in very real terms.
Jesus often referred to family in nontraditional ways: “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). Similarly, “They said to Him, ‘Behold, your mother and your brothers are outside looking for You.’ . . . ‘Who are My mother and My brothers?’ Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, ‘Behold My mother and My brothers’” (Mark 3:32-34).
I recently watched a “CBS Sunday Morning” story by correspondent Steve Hartman about a newborn intensive care nurse, Katrina, who took care of a 14-year-old mother, Shariah, and her triplets. After visiting the young mom and bringing her needed baby supplies, it became obvious that Shariah could not care for her children alone. That’s when Katrina and her five children stepped in and invited Shariah and her babies to live with them. Eventually Katrina adopted all four of them. Shariah plans to go to college because she had loving support from a woman that she met in the hospital whom she could truly call “Mom.”
Author Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Nothing I can say can have any effect, except to say to somebody else, ‘You’re not alone.’” This is family. When Abraham was visited by three supernatural beings (Gen 18:1-8), he prepared a feast for them. Some scholars say they were angels and other say they represented the Holy Trinity. But to prepare a feast for three strangers and welcome them into your home as family took trust on Abraham’s part. It is exactly this trust that we embody when we create the kind of relationships that eventually lead to us referring to people as our “extended family.”
Here are four ways that help us create a sense of family: 1) we accompany others; 2) we listen to others and value them; 3) we unify people rather than divide them; and 4) we become aware of the possibility of real solidarity with others.
Our own family table may include members of the human family who become friends if ours is a table of welcome, which is not all that different from the eucharistic table where we welcome all of God’s children. Because, after all, Jesus would not turn anyone away from his table.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)