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What My Church Taught Me about Family
My childhood household consisted of my maternal grandmother, my aunt, my mother and me. These women fed me their memories of two male relatives who died too soon for me to remember—my father and my uncle. My childish conclusion that female relatives lived and male relatives died was only the beginning of my faulty concept of family.
Thanks to my biological and church families for teaching me among other things, that family extends beyond household members!
During my teen years in the 1960s, church folk visited as often as biological relatives. Their lives were interwoven to the extent that parents shared letters from their children who lived abroad. This sense of community gave “minding your sister’s business” a positive meaning. In this close family setting, my church impacted my life with some essential family values, including those listed below.
Childhood Church in a New Location
Seventh-day Adventists are weird by comparison with other Christian groups. They worship on the seventh day (like the fourth of the Ten Commandments says) instead of the first. Their days begin at sunset and end at the following sunset. They teach from the Bible (Leviticus 11) that some foods are, and some are not clean and healthy. Our strangeness, however, is an asset to our sense of connectedness.
As children at school, we stood beside those who were teased about their faith. Our parents helped each other find jobs which did not require work on Saturdays. At church, we identified with the struggles associated with being Adventists in otherwise non-Adventist families. Our commitment to our beliefs helped forged a love and connectedness which sunk deep and stretched wide to other church-family members we would meet in other places at other times. We learned that even among nations at war, family united in faith can find and love each other.
Church was an all-day affair until sunset, and many members who lived more than a mile away did not go home for lunch. The main reason was that if they lived with family members who did not observe the Sabbath, they preferred to spend the Sabbath hours with people who did. So, Sabbath lunch was usually a big family gathering, with more emphasis on fellowship than on food.
The Queen of Hospitality in our congregation was nicknamed Fanny Fast. She was fast about discovering the names and needs of church visitors, fast in finding solutions, fast in becoming the solution when there were no other options. One Sabbath, a large family visited, and my grandmother landed the honor of inviting them for lunch. On our way home, Sister Fanny who had left before us could be seen in the distance carrying a basket resembling Little Red Riding Hood’s.
When we reached her, she spoke to my grandmother. “Take this,” she said as she handed over the basket. “You couldn’t be prepared to handle so many people today, so I brought you some bread to help out.”
That demonstration of hospitality has been eternally wedged in my memory. Hospitality is not limited to one’s sphere of obligation; it offers kindness wherever and however it can be shared, especially in the interest of family.
How disappointed I was to realize that there were sinners in my church. My youthful innocent mind thought that everyone lived up to the principles that were being taught. So whenever the elder stood to “disfellowship” a fallen member, I was bewildered that the power of the gospel did not keep him or her from yielding to temptation.
There was no discussion, and consequently no outlet for my frustration, but I learned to maintain respect toward people who transgressed. I also learned that family ties are not broken by misconduct. The fallen were re-instated when they repented and sought restoration; and forgiveness and grace were applied.
As I matured, the more understanding and compassionate I became toward others and toward myself.
Faith and Prayer
The weekly prayer meeting was never as well attended as the Sabbath service, but the prayers and testimonies of the faithful few were fervent and empowering. The saints prayed for the academic success of students, for everyone's safe travel, for salvation of delinquent children, for any and all desires of our church family members; and the best part was the boost of personal faith that came with the report of answered prayers.
The impact of praying together; praying for each other; and praying about everything – yes, everything—was not lost on the youth. Still we found entertainment in the midst of these serious routines. My buddy and I looked at each other and lip synced the lines that became standard in a mother’s testimony about gratitude for “my six wonderful children.” We joined in confession with another member about “my mistakes and shortcomings.” We even knew that the elder’s closing prayer would begin with: “Heav-en-ly Father, ere we sever one from another, we must pause (big pause) to thank You . . .”
Through it all, we were learning and growing.
To this day, I think that something is missing in the prayer meeting if there is so much preaching that there is not enough time for praying; if specific requests are not made for specific people; if nothing attests to the sense of family unity. Nothing builds families like togetherness in prayer.
The Circle of Life
The Legacy Continues
Not everyone enjoys the privilege of returning to his or her starting point. Having served in the same church organization on three Caribbean islands, in one South American country and three North American States, I feel blessed to return to my original church on my native island. Throughout my journey so far, everything I have learned about church and biological families, service to my fellowmen, and maturity in my personal faith has been mounted on the foundation built in my childhood church.
Have I said that my faith has always been strong? That church family everywhere has been as accepting and nurturing as expected? No. There have been frustrations and disappointments.
I declare however, that the best pilgrimage for weary souls is the return journey home. The older family members are no longer here to embrace me, but the younger ones stand where I once stood assuring me that the legacy of family love in my childhood church continues.
What has been your experience of church life?
© 2017 Dora Isaac Weithers