Tag Archives: Family

WHAT DOES YOUR FAMILY LOOK LIKE? By Rhia Fry Wilkin Strohm, Final Year M.Div.

There are words that are common among all yet can bring about many different images and definitions.  Words such as “single,” “married,” or “family” are common enough but I am reflecting on how these roles or categories are changing and the inclusiveness of who identifies with them, and the importance of hearing the stories behind them.

I have identified myself with all of these labels:  single, married, family but maybe in different ways than one might expect. Sharing my own story may help others pause and think differently, and possibly celebrate their own identities.

When I began my seminary experience some three and half years ago, I believe I was the only person on campus who was a single parent.  My three children were ages fifteen, twelve, and ten.  We had gone through a painful divorce four years before.  It is a strange, almost in-between identity.  Single but yet divorced. When I would fill out the forms at the doctor, the options were: single, married or divorced.  I would often stop and wonder, “Why the difference?”  I mean if one is single he or she is not married? And if one is married, he or she is not single—so why the option of divorced?  What about widowed?  Why are only some “sub categories” included?  Is this being negative or inclusive?  This place of single, divorced parent—there really wasn’t a place that I felt I fit.  I was invited to attend FWS (Fellowship of Wartburg Spouses) which I did, and I met some lovely people, but I clearly still felt I didn’t fit into the “normal” categories.

I remember a time when my sister who lives in San Diego and her family came to visit us in Colorado for Christmas.  We all piled into the vehicles to go to Christmas Eve service, my three kids and me, my sister, her two boys and her husband and our parents.  After worship, my sister was asked if her children were adopted.  This may seem harmless in itself, but it was painful for my sister.  You see, my sister’s husband is Chinese-American and their two boys are of Eurasian descent.  So many times well intentioned people express themselves in ways that are exclusive, primarily based on cultural stereotypes.  It is painful for the one who is labeled.

I had instances where well-intentioned people would ask about my absent husband.  At the school parent-teacher conferences, teachers politely asked if we should wait a few more minutes for my husband.   I replied politely, “There is no husband.”  Financial aid advisors asked what my husband’s gross income was. Again I would politely say, “There is no husband.”  Sadly enough, there was a time at church when my children were young and quite energetic, when, although no direct words were spoken, looks of frustration and judgment seemed to be saying, “Those kids need a father to keep them in line. . .”  All were very painful times for me, because you see, I worked very hard to raise my family on my own.  I supported “my family” all by myself. There was no help from this mysterious husband and to imply that this single parent could survive only through someone else was painful.  My family looked different, but I would have to think that once one heard our story, we really were not much different from any other family.

Now three and half years later, my family has changed again.  I have been blessed by God to be married again.  Now I have three biological children, two step children and a step grandson.  My children have three sets of grandparents.  My children have different last names than I do.

The most important point I want to convey is how important it is to take the time to listen to the stories of other people.  Situations are not always what they may look like on the outside. I guarantee there is always a story.  Not everyone will fit into the same “normal.” Not everyone fits into the categories that society creates, but it does not make their identity any less.

Single, married and family these days come in all kinds.  As in all relationships, what is important is how we care for one another, how we love each other, who we are because of each other.  I invite and challenge people to open, to broaden formerly stereotypical categories of families and single and married people.  Invite all.  Include all. Welcome all.   Take the time to know the person and hear their story.

THE OPPOSITE OF INVISIBLE by Tera Lowe, 2nd year M.Div

How many times did I hear “Oh, you’re getting married in Jamaica? How exciting!” No, not exciting at all. Not the way you think. Exciting because I was  marrying a man I fell in love with eleven years ago, with whom I had lost contact but never forgot.  Now he has three children and I’m excited because I have no children and now I am able to be a step-mother. But not exciting, because I was able to spend only six weeks with them before I came back to school alone. We won’t all be together permanently for about five years. Not exciting because I was not having a “destination wedding.” I, a privileged white American, while I was there,  would be staying in the bush with no indoor plumbing with people who know what it is like to go to bed hungry.

In my world, I usually don’t receive a second glance when I’m out shopping, in a restaurant, or just walking around. I can go around as if I am invisible, only attracting attention and initiating conversations when I want to. But in Jamaica, I was the opposite of invisible.

In the span of six weeks, from the time I left the airport upon my arrival to the time I hopped in the taxi to return to the airport for my departure, I saw about five other white people. When I walked from shop to shop in the middle of Montego Bay, everyone looked at me because I wasn’t supposed to be there. When I stood still long enough, the store security guard usually came to stand next to me. When I paid for our purchases, the cashiers looked to my husband before looking at me, as if waiting for him, a Jamaican, to say that it was ok to interact with me. I was a female, white, American, and everyone knew that someone like me didn’t shop there.

No one was rude to me, but no one talked to me. People would stare at me, but nobody really made eye contact. This was the way it was not just in the inner city, but also in the bush where we lived. The house was not located on a major road that would lead from one tourist area to another, so there was no reason for a white person to pass by, even in a vehicle.

Children wanted to touch me and hug me, but adults would not speak to me unless I was introduced. I walked the same road a few times each week, and every time I would have to wave and say hello before anyone would acknowledge me. I was a sight to behold, I gathered by the response of people walking by to reach the river. If I was outside, heads would turn to look at me in the yard. If I was hollering to the kids I really drew the attention of a passersby, and even more so if I was outside hanging up laundry. I was doing the things a woman there would do, but I wasn’t a woman from there.

Jamaicans speak Patois, and they speak fast. Not knowing all of what the words mean, I could pick up on some of the conversation because it is mixed with a lot of English words. People having conversations with my husband would sometimes be particularly kind to me and speak English so I could be included.  But more often, as if I wasn’t there, they would speak in a way that I could not understand. I don’t think they meant to be rude; however, it made for some very lonely times when I would be standing in full view of the person speaking to my husband and not be able to participate in the conversation.

I thought long and I thought often of those who say things like, “If you are going to come to America, you have to learn the language.” I was in a country where, for the most part, I could speak the language, yet could not understand what was being said. The same can be said for those who speak English as a second language. In America we use words that do not carry the original meaning or have multiple meanings, and we have made up words by melding some words together. Speaking English doesn’t necessarily mean that you will understand me just because we are both in America.

Language wasn’t the only thing that caused me to feel invisible while in full view of all of Jamaica. My white privilege definitely caused me to stick out while also causing some distance between me and others. When I arrived, we had to buy a shower curtain for the outdoor bathing room so that the neighbors couldn’t see me out there. When the water stopped running in the drought conditions, I was not expected to go bathe in the river because I wasn’t used to being naked in front of strangers. Plates were purchased shortly after I arrived, but I was the only one served on a plate. These are just a few examples of ways that I was set apart from others because of who I am.

I would like to tell you that I would happily agree to give up all my modern conveniences and move to Jamaica to be with my husband and kids, but I don’t think I could. It was ok when I knew it was temporary, but the idea of living that way all the time is frightening. There would have to be some changes in their lives before I could move there, changes that would bring them out of their way of life and start to move them into mine. Like into a place with indoor plumbing, which would mean moving out of their home. They would do that for me, and in fact have agreed to move to the U.S. when they can, which means giving up everything they know and love. Could I do the same?

No matter if I give up everything I know or not, when I am there I could give up all but one thing: I cannot stop being a female, white, American. Even if I changed my citizenship, people would hear me speak and know where I’m from. They would see my skin and there would be expectations: they would think I expected certain actions and behaviors from them, and they would expect certain actions and behaviors from me in return. No matter how long I were to live there, no matter if everyone in the bush got to know me, no matter if I learned all the Patois and could keep up with and be a part of all conversations, I would still be the opposite of invisible. But maybe that’s just the way I would feel because when I’m there I am always going to be different.

DADS AND DAUGHTERS by Shawn Brooks, M. Div. Junior

DADS AND DAUGHTERS: Role Model Marketing

I have a daughter who just turned seven. Before she was born, I thought I had some idea of the issues involved in trying to raise her to be a strong, smart, capable, independent woman who could think for herself and make her own choices. I knew that body image could eventually be an issue, and that the sexualization of our culture would need to be dealt with at some point. I would need to help her learn that she need not be limited by others’ ideas of what is “proper” for her to do or be. I was not prepared for the thoroughness of gender-based marketing.

I should have been, I suppose. Looking back, even in my childhood, Saturday mornings featured commercials for “action” toys that starred only boys and other toys for “domestic play” that starred only girls. I owned one of the original 12″ G.I. Joe “action figures”–a phrase coined because boys  supposedly don’t play with “dolls.”  But I didn’t think much about all that at age eight. When I played with girls, I often played house. When I played with boys, I often played cowboys or war. It didn’t matter; we just played something that everyone agreed on.

I started to recognize the pervasiveness of gender-based marketing to kids when we were trying to buy baby clothes before my daughter was born. We deliberately chose not to know our baby’s gender before birth, and we tried to find clothes in gender-neutral colors. It was almost impossible. Every item of clothing for newborns is either pink or blue or, occasionally, white; I think we found one green and one yellow outfit in all our searching. Little did I know this was just the tip of the iceberg.

As our daughter grew older, she inevitably discovered Disney movies, both the classics such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and their modern peers: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and others. I have to admit that I was an accessory-before-the-fact: I enjoyed the music and animation in the newer Disney movies. As a single man I had never thought much about the messages their heroines might be sending to young girls. By the time I started to think about that, it was much too late–my daughter was into everything princess.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Disney realized the power of packaging their various princesses together in videos, books, toys, and almost anything else you can think of that children use. In her essay “Princess Dreams,”* Katherine Turpin explains her own history with Disney Princesses and her daughter, and discusses not only the pervasiveness of the brand in children’s lives, but how the messages of both consumerism and gender stereotyping can affect a child’s developing spirituality. One of the many interesting points Turpin makes is about the falsity of the relationship a child develops with a fictional character:

Children put enormous amounts of energy and investment in the lives and happenings of nonexistent persons. However, when children are in need of assistance or support, these relationships provide neither support (of a material or emotional variety) nor, in most cases, an example of agency to inspire young girls.

The constant stimulation provided by the ubiquitous nature of products such as the Disney Princesses leads to another problem: if something is not entertaining, it’s boring. I have seen this with my own daughter. Some days it is a struggle to get her to read, even if she is not interested in her toys. As Turpin says, “This emphasis on excitement … limits the perceived value of non-entertainment activities with children, many of which are critical for children’s spiritual development.” Things that help one grow, especially spiritually, quite often are not “fun,” but they are necessary, and it is our job as parents to provide such experiences for our children.

How do we combat the messages consumer products are giving to our children, and replace them with solid spiritual values? In particular, how do I, as a dad, show my daughter that she does not have to conform to the gender stereotypes conveyed by the stories behind her favorite toys, even though I have often in my life been guilty of perpetuating those very stereotypes? Turpin examines several possible strategies:

■            Fight Fire With Fire – “Here, watch some VeggieTales.” Products such as VeggieTales may have better messages and teach the Gospel, but they do nothing to fight the “it has to be entertaining” issue.

■            Abstinence – “Such-and-such product will never be found in this house.” The problem here is that such control ends at one’s front door, and the messages of consumer culture are everywhere. If children are attracted to it, they will find it, whether it can be found in their own house or not.

■            Contestation – “How could Character X make better choices for her life?” Talk to your children about what they are seeing. As Turpin notes: “This parental work is not in vain. Children’s interactions with the stories and iconic characters proffered by the media are deeply impacted by the values and responses of those who surround them.”

■            Forge Authentic, Noncommercial Connections – Make sure your child has the opportunity to create relationships with adults or adolescents who can be good role models themselves. These relationships can be found many places, but if they are found among the congregation they have the added benefit of having a spiritual component already present. Speaking of her daughter, Turpin says, “she knows the value of these relationships; they are connections with real people who call her by name and love her as she is.”

■            Change Social Policy Through Collective Action – Fight back. Work to create changes in the relentless marketing to children. Join groups that put pressure on companies to be accountable for the messages they send.

In my case, it’s too late to put the genie back into the bottle. Now I have to work to counteract my daughter’s devotion to all things Princess. There is hope: she recently announced that she wasn’t interested in the Disney movies so much anymore, that now she likes movies with “real people in them.” But the pull of the princess storyline remains strong. We constantly remind her that she doesn’t need anyone else to be what she wants to be as a person. I can only hope that if I tell her that often enough, with enough love behind it each time, she’ll remember it when the cultural pressure of marketing lures her with its siren song.

*Katherine Turpin, “Princess Dreams,” in Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World, edited by Mary Elizabeth Moore and Almeda M. Wright, pp. 45-61, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008.

ISSUES OF JUSTICE, FAMILY, AND THE SINGLE PERSON By Jenn Collins, M.Div. Senior

“Now that I’m good at staying in the lines—I’m staying in the lines for you.”

My nephew, Ben, who is six years old, told me these words while he colored a picture that he called “grassy pickle.” What he drew looked nothing like a pickle, and the colors he chose were purple and orange. But I didn’t care. When he was done coloring the “grassy pickle,” he cut the picture in half and said, “you write your name on half and I’ll write my name on half.”

I don’t know what it is to be part of a couple. But I do know what it is to have relationships that are sustaining and meaningful. Ben stayed in the lines for me. My nephew Ben and I met when he was born—May 25, 2005. I held him and told him that I loved him. This was the first time I remember an instant connection with another human being. When I left for internship, Ben had just turned five and had started kindergarten. I told him that I was going to school in Colorado, so I wouldn’t see him until the first grade. Leaving him was one of the hardest things I had ever done. Over the year, I would talk to him on the phone and he knew exactly where I was. “How are you doing in Colorado?” he would ask. When I came home from internship, Ben called out my name and leapt into my arms for a huge hug.

Why do I tell you this? 

Throughout my seminary experience and into the ministry of the congregation, I have experienced a new kind of definition for family. I get the impression that the definition of family in the church is the family that is created through marriage. Specifically, a man and a woman who marry and have children. Here are some examples of statements I have heard and read.

  1. In the entrance form for candidacy there is an entire page labeled, “family information.” The only thing I needed to do on that page was mark the bubble for “single.” 
  2. When we say, “families are included” at Wartburg, what is implied is, “families who are here”—which in most cases includes only partners, spouses and children.
  3. In our society there is primacy in the spousal relationship. If you are not a spouse, your relationship with any given person is not priority. (This makes sense to me, completely. But it also means, for me, that I am no one’s priority).
  4. In my previous lay ministry experience, I worked the holidays because, “I didn’t have family.”
  5. I have been told/asked, “I don’t understand why you’re single. Don’t worry, you’ll find someone,” “You need to just jump back into dating—have you thought about meeting someone on-line?” And then the question that all single people in ministry are faced with, “Are you sure you’re not gay?”
  6. People assume that I’m lonely.

I feel like I need to apologize for even writing this because I don’t want to be perceived as another single person who is unhappy in life.

Seminary is hard for anyone—and there are different challenges to being married, being parents, or being single. But the single voice isn’t one that is often heard, understood, or given much real concern. I wonder where is the injustice in the church that comes about based on marital (or single) status? Where is the actual injustice that takes place for the single person? In the call process? With regard to financial aid, internship income, insurance, etc? And perhaps the macro question is, “How does marital status impact our life together here at seminary and in the church at large?” I’m hoping to spend January thinking about this in an independent study. 

But here is a call for now, beloved church: Please remember that just because I am not married—this does not mean that I am without family. After all, Ben colors in the lines—for me.