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Family, however you define it, should be celebrate for what it is, not what it's supposed to be

By Terry Dawson
Special to the American-Statesman
Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.

During the two plus years between my graduation from seminary and my first call to pastor a congregation, I rotated between five jobs.

Unexpectedly expensive Silicone Valley, my newly adopted home, required such juggling. Two of these positions involved living with the people I served. My wife and I managed a residence for so-called "sub-acute elderly women," who'd recently left state psychiatric facilities. On weekends, however, I managed another type of "half-way house — one in East San Jose for teenage boys previously in juvenile hall or trying to avoid such incarceration.

During the school year before I assumed both these positions, I taught math and English to teens at a boarding school — an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva, where the boys and girls studied and lived on separate campuses.

I eventually moved on from all these positions to serve as a full-time activities director for a large convalescent hospital during the week, while functioning in a similar role at a retirement home come Saturday and Sunday. 

I know this sounds crazy, and it was. I awakened once at 3 a.m. to the unmistakable sound of the "700 club” and found one of our elderly female residents bowing in worship before the living room TV. I simply turned it off, and Flora, without a word, got up and went back to bed.

While playing Ping-Pong out back with a couple boys at my weekend residence, two others decided to propel eggs at passing cars, including the coveted low riders of local Latino gang members, which required some fast talking on my part. On another occasion I had to administer CPR to one of these boys, after he went into shock and passed out. Ricardo had punched a stop sign and broken his hand, after discovering, when home on weekend leave, that his mother had left town.

I also more than once rescued Consuela, a woman, struggling with dementia — one who walked all day long around our hospital — when she exited our front doors toward the busy street, sometimes with only an open-backed hospital gown covering her.

These vastly different populations had one thing in common. All ended up in their respective facilities because their families found it too difficult to care for them at home. 

During the past few weeks, we've celebrated both Mother's Day and Father's Day. Just prior to both these holidays South Korea and Japan commemorated what’s called "Children’s Day." On its second year as a national holiday, Juneteenth, commemorating the day when Texas latently learned of the end of slavery, fell on Fathers' Day.

My work experiences prior to my ordination reinforced a sense most of us share:  All the institutional and personal problems occurring in families do not dissolve with sentiments expressed on a Hallmark card presented one day out of the year.

Familial love requires day-to-day devotion and broad societal support; yet both often rub against the grain of contemporary life. The African proverb remains truer than ever: "it takes a village" to raise our children. The same applies when it comes to caring for aging parents. 

As a Catholic kid, faithfully entering the confessional every other week, the commandment I made most reference to was the one directing us to "honor" or "obey" our father and mother. You can find this admonition mentioned twice in the Hebrew Torah and once in the New Testament epistle to Ephesians. The Quran offers a similar direction to be "good and dutiful" to parents and the second ashrama of Hindu faith makes having a family and giving its interest priority a universal mandate. 

Most recognize this emphasis as a good thing. My principle takeaway from my years of working multiple jobs after seminary left me with this simple conviction: families need a lot of help.  We get into trouble, however, in adhering strictly to our faith mandates regarding family when we yank them out of context — out of the context of our sacred texts and out of the context of contemporary life.

In the case of the Bible, for example, we often fail to mention the clause following the command to honor parents, i.e. "so that your days may be long upon the Earth." 

The work I became involved in before becoming a pastor proved necessary because families can occasionally become unhealthy for some of its constituents. Some families can no longer effectively care for their elderly parents. Some parents fail to demonstrate that they can properly care for their children, particularly when parents or children show signs of deteriorating mental health. In such cases, the shape of a family must by necessity change. 

Often our religiously prescribed notions of what constitutes a family remain too rigid. There are many ways to be a family and every iteration needs an equal measure of loving support. When our fixed vision of familial existence becomes a cudgel used to attack how some folks choose to co-exist because this fails to match our own choices then it loses religious legitimacy.

I find Jesus' corrective comment helpful here. When he faced those of his own faith, who used the "jot and tittle" of that belief system to control behavior, suggesting that those who didn't so ascribe were "unkosher," he made a simple valid point: "The Sabbath was made for humans not humans for the Sabbath." 

On which side of the equation do we Texans then land when we second guess parents and support prosecuting them for decisions which they believe will make their children's days "long upon the Earth" or when we support drastically limiting these parents' ability to decide how many children they can realistically guarantee this for? When we separate the families of those attempting to enter this country so that their children may have a better chance to "live long upon the Earth." When we consider taking away a person's right to partner with whom he/she/they love in order to create a family, do we not risk playing God in lieu of trusting God? Do we not risk dividing families as we did during the days of slavery? 

Might we not better exhibit divine trust by expanding our understanding of what constitutes a unit of nurture and support — what we once referred to as "a building block of society" — by taking an honest look at the world around us?

Almost every "nuclear family" I knew growing up included a single aunt, uncle or grandparent — some included folks not related by blood. Many of the families I worked with before and during my ministry had neither a mother nor a father. Sometimes a grandparent became the primary caregiver; sometimes the grandparent required such caring. Some had two moms; some two dads. Sometimes one's roommates become one's family. The only universal among these variations I've been able to find has been the need for support from the outside and nurture from the inside. 

Mother's Day and Father's Day are fine but our cookie-cutter Norman Rockwell image of family associated with them can lead us to overlook what families actually need.

For a demonstration of adjusted familial love we need look no further than the cross. It's from here that Jesus declares to one of his disciples and to the woman who bore him: "Son behold your mother; mother behold your son." 

If still then tempted to use the creation story of Adam and Eve to suggest the essential structure of a family, we do well to remember Genesis' stated motivational observation of God in fashioning more than one of our species: "It is not good for the human to be alone."

If one then sees fit in any way to interrupt such union, one risks violating divine intent. Indeed, it is well to celebrate mothers and fathers, but why stop there? I've always found the words of Kahlil Gibran liberating when he speaks of what all such unions may be blessed to produce, and find it humbling for one who has functioned as a father in one way or another for nearly 50 years: 

"Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, they belong not to you ... you are the bows from which your children as  living arrows are sent forth." 

Here's to being and creating living arrows out of faith rather than restriction. 

Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.