Family in the city

Redefining what family can look like in the urban context

Mary Glenn Image Mary Glenn | Jan 13, 2014

Photo by Roman Kruglov.

I was 6 years old and it was a typical Sunday afternoon. We had all attended morning Mass at our family church, spent the day together, and shared dinner at the restaurant we frequented on Sunday nights. When I say family, I mean my mother, her brother and sister, their spouses and children, my grandparents, and me. The dinner would usually be uneventful (as uneventful as it can be with an Irish grandmother, Portuguese grandfather and five rambunctious grandchildren). Sometimes extended family and friends joined us.

I do remember the evening occasionally ending in colorful family fights including yelling, name-calling, and children being whisked away to their respective family vehicles. Sometimes it would be weeks before we would reassemble as a family, usually the result of my grandmother’s pleading and sweet-talking.

This is what my family looked like. It’s all I knew.

My mother became a single parent when I was only two years old and worked tirelessly to support us. During this time, my grandmother was entrusted with my daily care. My grandmother’s investment was not only invaluable, but is also the reason that I am a grounded individual today. She provided me the necessary attachment and sense of belonging that every child needs. My grandmother held our family together. I was seven years old when she died, and that was the day that “family” as I knew it disappeared.

In my teens, I began to search scripture to understand God’s heart for the widowed, orphaned, and marginalized. Although I wasn’t widowed and I wasn’t orphaned, I wondered if I fit into that category of people God was talking about. Does his heart weep for me, too? Do I belong to his family, any family, or have I been forgotten? I wanted to understand God’s heart for those of us who struggle to find belonging, identity, and family. I wondered, what is the church’s role in creating this family environment, making sure that all feel valued and loved?

As a teenager, the church became family. But as I grew into young adulthood, I realized that the church often felt like a place for biological families. There was an unspoken expectation that once you turn eighteen, you either get married or join the singles ministry.

A few years ago, I visited Ellis Island in New York, where a century ago immigrants came across the Atlantic in hopes of finding a better life. Many left tight-knit communities for the new world of the crowded city. The church often played a key role in helping these immigrants assimilate by inviting them into their homes to share life together.

Could the church in the city look like this again today?

What Is Family?

In the movie Up, young boy scout Russell asks Carl, an elderly widower, to help him earn a scouting patch. In the process, they discover that they not only need each other, but they also fill the void of family that has been left by others’ absence. Children without families (whether through abandonment or becoming orphaned) are more at risk for a plethora of issues including attachment disorder, developmental delay, and neural atrophy in the developing brain.

I served as a youth pastor in an urban context for over fifteen years, and many of my students lived in challenging home environments. Due to parents’ economic, emotional, or mental instability, at times I found myself offering basic care or even my home to students. Just like the students in our ministry, many youth find themselves without one or both parents. According to UNICEF and Childinfo, “Around the world, there are an estimated 153 million orphans who have lost one parent. There are 17,900,000 orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets and lack the care and attention required for healthy development. These children are at risk for disease, malnutrition, and death.”

While orphaned children have an obvious need for community, each of us also has that need. Pastor and author Erwin McManus shares this about our need for family-like relationships as children and as adults:

"The more isolated and disconnected we are, the more shattered and distorted our self-identity. We are not healthy when we are alone. We find ourselves when we connect to others. Without community we don't know who we are... When we live outside of healthy community, we not only lose others. We lose ourselves...Who we understand ourselves to be is dramatically affected for better or worse by those we hold closest to us." [Erwin Raphael McManus, Soul Cravings: An Exploration of the Human Spirit (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 17.]

Our identity is found in community, as is our sense of peace and hope. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” (Mother Teresa). As my friend Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson says, “We belong to each other, and together we belong to God.” Our sense of self comes from God as experienced in family (biological, adoptive, emotional, and spiritual). But sometimes these families can be places of great pain and loneliness.

Labels Can Hurt

A few years ago, I spent a holiday with a dear friend of mine and his family, who I have known for many years. I know these people care deeply for me. During a prayer time, the patriarch of the family thanked God for their amazing family and for me, their guest. Even though I know they deeply love me, it was painful to hear them call me their “guest”.

Sometimes we unintentionally say things that reinforce a sense of isolation and lack of belonging. It is not just how we label ourselves or how other people label us that hurts; it is about how people define family. Is a family only defined as a mother, father, 2.5 kids and a dog? What do you do when you don’t have a family, or you have a family that doesn’t look like other families?

The Family of God

The church has the potential to be the expression and experience of home and family in the city. The communal identity formed in a church environment can provide each member with a greater sense of shared and individual value, connectedness, and purpose. In each other we can see the presence of God most vividly. I am grateful to a family who spiritually adopted me many years ago and included me as one of them, even going as far as calling me their “daughter.” I was living in a new city and felt very much like I was on my own. This family was a gift from God to me. They included me in family traditions and holidays, were sacrificially generous to me, and we shared major life milestones. They helped me to remember what it was like to belong to a family.

How do we become the family of God? One of the ways we can do this is through spiritual adoption. Spiritual adoption happens when two or more people commit to share life together. Spiritual adoption might involve a spoken covenant, or might be less formal. This kind of adoption invites the new family member into the traditions and rhythms that make the family unique.

In the New Testament, Jesus introduces spiritual adoption to his dear friend John (who is about to lose a friend) and to his mother (who is about to lose a son). In preparing them for the void his death will cause in their lives, he leads them into a spiritual adoptive relationship. On the cross, Jesus explains this concept in John 19:25-27:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

The language that Jesus uses in this text is also legal adoptive language. He is directing Mary to take John as her son, and John to take Mary as his mother. Jesus urges them to adopt each other, caring for one another’s needs.[[Additional scripture passages that describe family include Mark 3:31-35, Ephesians 2:19, Galatians 6:10, Paul’s letter to Philemon.]]

I have experienced this in many ways in my own life as a spiritual mom and older sister to many students in ministry, and as a spiritual sister to dear friends. I have been adopted by adults who have filled a spiritual parental role in my life, which has contributed to my sense of well-being and confidence in Christ. Both youth and adults need to be part of families. As family ministry expert and researcher Diana Garland observes, “Followers of Christ are not to be bound by the structures of legally recognized or biologically based relationships. Rather, family relationships are defined by relationship process—loving one another, being faithful to the same Lord, and adopting one another as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.” [Diana Garland, Family Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 50. Also see David Fraze’s article for FYI, “Something is Not Right: Revisiting our Definition of Family.”]

How do we begin to create family-like contexts in the church? It can start with conversation and breaking bread together. Dinnertime can be one of the best times of the day; it can also be one of the loneliest. What a blessing it is to share the experiences of the day over a meal together. It’s a gift to extend your family boundaries to include those who may have no one to share meals with, including them as your own. For youth and adults who eat many of their meals alone, an invitation to share a meal is a gesture of kindness and inclusion. This can be an important first step to experience family life together.

Legal Adoption

The legal adoption of children and youth is another way the church can provide family. Adoption requires an incredible amount of support within and outside the adoptive family, and churches can offer an extended family web of relationships to all involved.

In the Greater Los Angeles Area, there are too few foster homes for children in need. [Sandy Banks, “Too Few Foster Homes for Children in Need,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2013.] This is a problem in many urban environments throughout the U.S. and the world. According to the AFCARS Report (No. 19), “In the U.S. 400,540 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. 115,000 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 40% of these children will wait over three years in foster care before being adopted.” Could the church be the answer to the problem facing many of our cities? Could the church provide the needed belonging to many of these vulnerable young people? If not adoption, perhaps we can become mentors and spiritual caregivers to kids in foster care.

Adoption is not just a tool to help a child belong, but this creation of a new family greatly increases their chances of success in life. What are the implications of young people (particularly those in the foster care system) growing up without a family? According to one source, “Each year, over 27,000 youth ‘age out’ of foster care without the emotional and financial support necessary to succeed. This number has steadily risen over the past decade. Nearly 40% had been homeless or couch surfed, nearly 60% of young men had been convicted of a crime, and only 48% were employed. 75% of women and 33% of men receive government benefits to meet basic needs. 50% of all youth who aged out were involved in substance use and 17% of the females were pregnant.” (Fostering Connections). Lack of care can lead these young adults down a discouraging and hopeless path. According to the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, “Nearly 25% of youth aging out did not have a high school diploma or GED, and a mere 6% had finished a two- or four-year degree after aging out of foster care. One study shows 70% of all youth in foster care have the desire to attend college.” For some, a lack of family can lead to failing academic performance, financial instability, inactive citizenship and struggling emotional health. This should concern us. There are children, teens and adults who are surviving without a sense of family.

Doing Family in the City

For all of us, no matter the shape of our families, this is not “us and them,” those with family and those without. This is about all of us who are part of the family of God being more intentional, inclusive, and conscientious of the community we create. We are all strangers to this land, but not without a home. We belong to God and our home is in him. God calls us his sons and daughters. We are kin, and this kinship is not one of unequal relationship but one of mutuality. As Father Greg Boyle shares in Tattoos on the Heart, “Kinship—not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.” [Father Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 188.]

What are some of the ministry implications for those of us who live and serve in the city? Could we potentially see healthier cities and healthier youth as a result of more intentionally building family? Might we see an increase in test scores, mental and emotional health, and economic stability as people feel more secure in who they are because of the family community experience? I believe the answer is yes. The Search Institute has conducted extensive research, identifying 40 developmental assets (positive experiences and characteristics) that are the critical building blocks needed for youth to grow into healthy adults. The positive family experience plays an important role in the asset-building experience. Asset building is a practical way to begin nurturing familial environments with urban youth. [Learn more about asset building in urban kids in this article by Kara Powell and Pam King, “Your Kids: Half Full or Half Empty?”]

I believe the greatest outcome is that this way of sharing life pleases the heart of God. God wants us to share the journey in the city. My favorite African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Let’s invite others to go together with us and be “family in the city.”

Action Points

  1. Reflect on the ways that you define family. What might be some ways you can grow your boundaries and experience of family to be more inclusive of others? For example, invite youth and/or adults to join your family/community during a meal time, seasonal activity, or tradition. Perhaps create new traditions together.
  2. Gather other leaders and identify the issues and concerns that families in your context struggle with. Perhaps there is a large percentage of fatherless households, or substance abuse is particularly prevalent. Brainstorm practical ways your ministry can offer family-like support to the various types of families you serve.
  3. Become a mentor or a spiritual parent to a young person.
  4. Consider how your congregation is supporting kids in the foster system and the people and families who care for them. Are there ways you can more intentionally create a sense of family within your congregation for these kids?

Mary Glenn Image
Mary Glenn

Dr. Mary Glenn, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Chaplaincy and Community Development with Fuller Theological Seminary, previously served as an Urban Youth Ministry professor with the Fuller Youth Institute. Mary has more than 20 years of youth/college/community pastoral experience and she has served as a law enforcement chaplain for twenty-plus years. Mary loves cities, particularly Los Angeles (where she calls home), and she regularly leads Downtown Los Angeles urban immersions and city walks.

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