Real Families: Meditations on family life
Zora Neale Hurston is one of my favorite writers. Hurston, whom many encounter in high school when assigned her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, studied, talked to and wrote about the people she loved—regular black people. Trained in anthropology, Hurston was a consummate folklorist, and the black community was where she did her fieldwork. To the chagrin of some of her contemporaries, Hurston’s characters are genuine, honest and brash. Another favorite is Raymond Carver, whose characters, many of them marginalized, often suffer devastating losses.
Hurston and Carver, although separated by gender, race and generation, similarly wrote in an unvarnished way about real people and their struggles to be in relationship with each other. The most vulnerable, messed up people have the reader pulling for them because they are so achingly real. Real people, trying to get it right. Trying as best they can to be in relationship with each other.
When I was a child, our family regularly made trips south to visit family. These informal family reunions gave me the opportunity to spend time with relatives I didn’t know well and, frankly, sometimes didn’t know what to make of. I was shy among all these gregarious cousins, aunts and uncles. Many of these extended family members lived in the same neighborhood and seemed to move indiscriminately from house to house. It took me a while to sort out who actually lived where, who “belonged” to whom. For me, the outsider, the norms and rules were a code I had to crack so that I could understand how the whole thing worked. It usually took a couple of days for me to get in sync with the rhythm of this large family, with their loud laughter and easy familiarity with one another. I struggled to figure out ways of fitting in. Eventually I learned that it was OK to be me at these family gatherings. Yes, I was quieter than my cousins, probably had my nose stuck in a book too much, but I was part of the family nonetheless. And eventually I learned that it was not so much a matter of me not fitting in but that families are units made up of people trying as best they can to be in relationship with each other. Sometimes the struggles are trivial and easily overlooked. Sometimes they fracture. Sometimes they sever.
Families are made by more than mere bloodlines; they are bound by shared history, the stories we tell and the stories we make when we come together. They are made when we say we belong to one another, in all of our mess and vulnerability.
Week after week in our churches, we gather together, sharing a common story, making new stories, building a history. Every couple of years, we have a big family reunion, where many gather to do the business of the church. Much more than business happens, though. People reconnect with people not seen in a while or make new connections. Stories are shared, milestones are celebrated, losses are mourned. The gathered church considers and names the reasons we come together, the reasons we belong to one another.
In Pittsburgh, our church celebrated We Are the Church Day. It was a special day set aside to think about the ways Mennonite Church USA is becoming more and more racially and ethnically diverse. We had the opportunity to learn the name of Maggie Leonard, a 17-year-old half-Arapaho who in 1888 became the first non-Anglo in the United States to become a Mennonite, how African-American growth in the Mennonite church mushroomed during the late 1950s and how 60 Hispanic Mennonite women founded Sociedad de Damas Cristianos en Acción in 1973. We learned in many ways how we have become who we are today.
There is still much to learn, and along with our celebrations we also mourn our losses. And we keep figuring out how to do this thing called family. It is not simply that we have come together. It is also the way we welcome and acknowledge one another. It is the way we discover the ways we are similar and the ways we are different. It is learning how to make room and tell our stories, as genuinely, honestly and brashly as possible.
Regina Shands Stoltzfus is working on a doctorate in theology and ethics at Chicago Theological Seminary.