A Church and a Family

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Philippians 2:3b-4: "consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not [only] for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."

Sometimes it feels as though a good 90% of our family and church communities are like the partiers inside this house: Engaged, included, comfortable, lighthearted and carefree. Because of my parents' financial and health situation, however, my immediate family cannot join in the festivities. Feeling somewhat isolated and lonely, we struggle through our challenges outside as we try not to peek through the window too often for fear that our feeble excuses for their distance and separation will begin to fracture, crumble, and crush our hearts in the process. Somewhere around 10% of those in our extended family and church communities take the time visit us outside, spend time with us, and shoulder our burdens with us now and then. Some of them actually connect with us on a regular basis and contribute quite a bit to our survival and well-being. The other 90% do know that we're out here; it's just that they don't have enough of a desire to come and see how we are doing, to shoulder our burdens with us, to find a way for us to join them...

I've recently been working on a paper for school about emotional, practical, and material support that is experienced by different ethnic groups from their extended family and church communities. One article outlines the experience of the African American community:

Historically, families and churches promoted and sustained Black community life, both during and following the period of slavery. (...) Currently, both families and churches perform a number of important functions that help to address several problematic issues facing Black families and communities. Family and church networks provide informal social support to address a variety of issues, including chronic poverty (Stack, 1974), coping with the loss of a loved one, providing assistance to those who are ill and disabled (Dilworth-Anderson, 1994; Dilworth-Anderson, Williams, & Cooper, 1999), the care and supervision of grandchildren (Burton, 1992; Burton, Dilworth-Anderson, & Merriwether-de Vries, 1995; Kivett, 1993; Minkler & Roe, 1993; Strom & Strom, 1993), and specifically, caring for the children of adolescent parents (Miller, 1994; Unger & Cooley, 1992).
Source: Chatters, L. M. et al. (2002). Patters of informal support from family and church members among African Americans. Journal of Black Studies, 33 (1), p. 66-85.

There are other ethnic communities out there that are very similar to the African American one when it comes to giving and receiving support within church and family circles. Mediterranean cultures are very similar in the way family and church combine to support one another in times of need - Greek and Italian cultures come to mind as an example. The culture of the American South seems to be similar. In the same way, Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities rally around each other through church and family networks. Chinese and other Asian cultures are usually more community-oriented as well. The main strength of these societies is that they seem to rally around each other without question - not just with the odd piece of advice, but with a true dedication to help each other through, or out of, any kind of challenging situation, whatever the cost. It's the kind of support that takes time, personal resources, energy, emotion, sacrifice, and hard work.

Other areas of the world seem to be far more individualistic and isolated from one another. Northern Europe as well as much of Canada and the northern US, for instance, have always struck me as colder places, not in terms of temperature, but in terms of extended families' and church members' relationships with one another. There's some kind of overzealous, self-destructive need for privacy, the kind that shields others out in times of distress, whether you're on the potential giving- or receiving-end of the needed help.

I've gone through some major moments of pain in the past, during which time I felt as though I was terribly alone, whether I was hanging out with my extended family or sitting in church on a Sunday morning. I have to admit that on more than one occasion I've considered submerging myself in one of the 'warmer' cultures that I've often envied. It isn't that I just want to feel like I'm surrounded by open, compassionate people who are willing to go the second mile with me; I want to learn how to take up that lifestyle myself as well. I want to see what it looks like to do away with timidity and self-indulgence, to live a lifestyle of giving, caring, and always 'being there' for people in my church and family community.

One European-heritage woman shared about the close connections in her family. An extended family member had a permanent disability, and - without thinking twice - she offered to care for this family member when the current caretakers became too old and weak for the task themselves. Everybody in her family does things like this for each other, she said, and she has felt shocked to learn of other families aren't nearly as close as hers.

When I heard her story I couldn't help but think of my Dad. What if something were to happen to Mom, my husband, my brother, or to me... I wish I could say with confidence that our church and extended family networks would be just as willing to care for my Dad the way the woman above is willing to care for her cousin. But I can't. A handful would try to help, definitely, but the majority would make sure they put enough distance between themselves and my family's need in order to protect their lifestyle from unnecessary disruption.

Mom's health is fragile, always has been, but she's caring for Dad 24/7 and the circles under her eyes are sinking deeper every day. The roller-coaster of stress, anxiety, restless nights, and depression that we all go through here is more than enough proof that we can't do this on our own. Yet for the most part we are doing this on our own. To be sure, there is certainly a solid handful of people (that committed 10%) who make their love and concern known to us in ways that make a huge difference - but in the larger context of our church and extended family networks the silence from everybody else is deafening. ...Sadly we do not come from a background like the African Americans, the Mediterraneans, the Amish/Old Order Mennonites, or the Asians.

What we could really use is people - family, church members, anybody - to come over, help us cook and clean, and encourage to Mom get to bed on time. We need people to sit down with Dad to help him learn the simple things that dementia has wiped from his mind, such as how to open and use his email account (because that's something Mom ends up spending several hours on each week), how to work the VCR, or how to otherwise re-sharpen his observational and memorizing skills. We could use friends to watch movies with us, visit with us, call us more often to ask how we're doing, help us all laugh more often, help us get a break from the situation, and let us know that we don't need to feel isolated anymore. We could also use financial help so that we don't sink further into debt while we wait for Dad's pension disability application to be approved, and while we wait for my husband to receive his open work permit so that I can finish school and get a real job as soon as possible.

What we could really use is a more authentic relationship with our church and family, the kind that doesn't gloss over or shy away from the ugliness and despair that life sometimes throws at us, the kind that doesn't bury its head in the sand, doesn't put on airs or wear a mask, but a real kind of relationship that isn't afraid to roll up its sleeves and put a hand to this plough that is too difficult for us to push on our own.