Sermon: The Family Photo: Exposed by Meagan Henry

2018 September 30
by First U Bklyn

What image comes to your mind when you hear the phrase, “family photo?” Imagine your family photo. Who is in the photo? How many people are there? Are animals included in your family photo? Is everyone wearing matching outfits? Where is the photo taken and what is the backdrop?


I recently read about something called “stock family syndrome” in a book called, Parenting Beyond Your Capacity (Joiner & Nieuwhof, 2010). This syndrome affects most of us regardless of the size, shape, color, and social location of our family. We have an image of family. We are confronted with images of the family all around us. Stock family syndrome is the pressure we feel to present ourselves and our families as though we are that perfectly put together, smiling, family wearing complimentary outfits; just like the stock family you often see when you buy a photo frame.


When we take a look behind that photo and we expose it to reality, what we learn is that the idea of perfection is a farce, of course. No family is perfect and we know there are families where there is ongoing pain. There are families suffering from the effects of addiction and abuse, families struggling with mental illness and physical illness. We know this to be true and yet we continue to hold ourselves to certain unattainable socially constructed standards. There is a feeling that we have to hide the bad things, the ways in which we don’t fit the mold of perfection. The perfect, “stock” family imagery and narrative in our culture perpetuates a stereotype of perfection that we cannot achieve. Yet many of us feel the pressure to try to live up to that standard and when we do not, we feel a need to pretend that we are something we are not.


This holds true for single people and older folks who do not have young children as well. We feel a pressure to present a certain image to the world. So whether its is a hipster or hippie image, a yogi or a professional, or the pressure to dress appropriately for one’s age, we are inundated by our culture with images of how to “look the part” to the outside world.


Now in my 6th year here as Director of Education and Family Ministry, I find it increasingly important to explore what exactly Family Ministry means, who are the families, and how do we serve them?


Here at First Unitarian, we have a wide diversity of family configurations. We have several families made up of adoptive white parents and children of color. We have multi-racial couples with children. We have single parents and those who co-parent, adult children who are caregivers to their parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, newly divorced, and never been married parents. We have families consisting of a human and their furry dog companion. Some of our members live with their blood relatives and some live with their chosen family of kindred spirits and siblings. We have members who live with several others in a feminist queer collective and those who live alone in studios apartments. And we have pretty much every other cohabitation and living configuration imaginable. Many of our families are also multi-faith, often bringing together the different religions and spiritual practices of their families of origin. We have incredible diversity among our members.


One First U parent I spoke with told me that because their family doesn’t fit the image of the stock family photo, there are days when they choose to stay home rather than go out into public because it just feels like too much. The pressure they feel to put on a front is sometimes overwhelming because they are not a typical family. There is pressure to behave a certain way as a parent and judgement of the children’s behavior. Curious strangers stare at the family on the subway. Well-meaning passers-by give unsolicited criticism or a judgmental look. This is a non-traditional family and the unwanted attention and extra commentary is heightened because the family doesn’t fit cultural norms. This parent also told me that when their family comes here to First Unitarian, they don’t feel this acute pressure to be perfect or be subject to the judgment of others. This community offers them a place and time to retreat and replenish.


So here we are in 2018 with 185 years of history underpinning this religious community and its family ministry. We are a congregation that was founded based on the need for a Unitarian place of worship in Brooklyn so that families with young children wouldn’t have to travel by boat across the river to Manhattan each Sunday. Just as the families of Brooklyn had specific needs in 1833, so do families with young children today. Modern families report that it’s become more and more difficult to spend quality time together. The pervasiveness of electronic media means that it’s even more challenging to find time to connect with one another. Feelings of isolation and depression are at an all time high with teenagers. People of all ages say that they are desperately seeking connection with others.


In her book Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (2007), Juana Bordas shares the concept of a New Social Covenant which includes 1) learning from the past, 2) moving from individualism to collectivism, and 3) embracing a spirit of generosity. She gives an account of eight principles practiced within Latino, Black, and American Indian communities that can be replicated within other communities. In her discussion about moving from I Culture to We Culture, she describes the concept of collectivist community. In my experience, family ministry is basically another way of saying collectivist community.


Family ministry truly begins when parents know that they do not have to parent alone. It is when parents know that when they come here with their child who is cranky or loud  or wiggly, or all of the above, this community will support them and love them and give them encouragement. Someone here may even offer to sit with their child or take them to get a drink of water to give the parent a break.


Family ministry is also when we facilitate connection between individuals so that they know they are not alone in their particular struggle. It is when parents trust this community to support and encourage them as they raise their children. This happens when our members volunteer to serve as coming of age mentors, and teach religious education classes, and serve as youth advisors for the high school youth group. However, family ministry is not just for people with young children. It is when you know that we see you and we love you when you need to leave town suddenly in order to attend to your aging father’s needs or be with your sister who is going through a divorce. We recognize that the caregiver needs care too. We strive to hold one another in our pain, too. Let this be a place where people are held and believed and loved when they share their stories.


The need to be authentic in community and still be loved is real and this goes for everyone at all ages. It is so tiring to put on a front everywhere we go and people need a place to retreat and replenish. Let this be that place. As Reverend Ana proposed last week, “…if we want to build a world based in love and generosity, where we take care of each other in community, we can start right here at First U. We can cultivate it. We can support one another, cook for each other, share meals, take care of each other’s children.…” We all participate in family ministry. It’s something we all provide.


What this congregation offers at its best is a place where we can come and be our true authentic selves. Are we perfect? No of course not, and knowing that that is very good thing because as soon as we think, “we’re done; we’ve got this down,” we run the danger of slipping into complacency. I know this all too well right now as I struggle with my own grief at recently losing one of our  families because they encountered a situation here in which they felt uncomfortable and unwelcome and as hard as I try, it seems that I alone cannot fix this.


Building community, living in community, maintaining community is messy and imperfect and there is always room to grow. We change, we grow, and we have different needs at different times. This is true of us as individuals, as families, and as a whole community. Lucky for us, we have a theology to match this continual change, growth, and lifelong learning. From James Luther Adams’ Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism, we have the teaching that revelation is ongoing. Just as our lifelong learning is ongoing and ever changing, so shall our community be.


So let us sing,

“Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving

Our is no caravan of despair

Come, yet again come.”


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