A refreshing look at the impact of extended kinship networks on families and communities
This post was written by Dianne Reistroffer.
The Rev. Dr. Dianne Reistroffer is Director of Field Education and Methodist Studies and Professor of Ministry at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
As another summer draws to a close, fond memories of family reunions – large and small – come to mind. This summer’s family reunion of the Reistroffer clan was centered around the safe return of my nephew, Tony, from a year’s deployment as part of the international peace-keeping force in the Sinai. It was a grand occasion. My favorite reunion took place years ago in Miles City, Montana, when five generations of the Crosby clan (my maternal grandmother’s people) assembled. I accompanied my grandfather to the event, which took place just months after Grandma Hart’s passing. Despite his deep grief, Grandpa Hart was determined to go, and I am glad that I went. It was a special time for us as I met people who were a vital part of my grandmother’s formation and spirit. The poignancy of meeting all of these Crosbys was underscored by the fact that Grandpa was beginning to show signs of memory loss, and now I was becoming the repository of family narratives and connection.
Reunions remind me of the beauty of extended kinship networks and their impact on families and communities. Sadly, we in the church speak little of the roles and practices of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other kin folk. The sway of the nuclear family (husband, wife, children) in our preaching, teaching, and programming seems peculiar in light of the biblical witness to extended families. Indeed, my favorite family reunion story is the account of the missing twelve-year-old Jesus, assumed to be with other members of the extended family as they all journeyed from their hometowns to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of Passover (Luke 2:39-52). In the traveling company of relatives and friends, Mary and Joseph believed that Jesus would be safe and protected (v. 44). As someone who relishes her role as an aunt, I find myself in this Gospel story, in this single verse.
Any mention of the place of aunts and uncles in our families and communities catches my attention. Perhaps that is why a book my colleague, Frances S. Adeney, shared with me this summer brought an immediate sense of joy. Written by two professors of communication, Aunting: Cultural Practices that Sustain Family and Community Life is a study of aunts in contemporary families and the important role they play in families and communities. I smiled when Frances’s gift arrived in my office because my faculty colleagues have grown accustomed to this auntie’s frequent e-mails celebrating the achievements and lamenting the struggles of two generations of my nephews and nieces. I relish my role and active “aunting” of now two dozen nephews, nieces, great-nephews, and great-nieces. And while my three siblings have done a marvelous job of parenting, this book gives me validation and permission to rejoice in my vocation of aunting the next two, perhaps three, generations of my family, and to understand the ways “aunts continue to supplement and fill gaps in nurturance inevitably left by nuclear families, which cannot possibly meet all members’ needs without support” (p. 16).
Aunts and uncles care for nieces and nephews, provide them mentoring and modeling, offer them distance and perspective as trusted confidantes, and are prepared to step in to help them and their parents during times of stress and crisis. Interestingly, the authors’ seven-year research about aunts uncovered the phenomenon of “constructed kin” among immigrant and other communities when biological kin are not available. “Neighbor and community aunts” are common in Latino/a, Asian, GLBTQ, and other communities (pp. 39-63), and there is mounting evidence that as biological families become distant, geographically speaking, young adults’ construction of an extended network of neighborhood/community kin has become more common. These findings in Aunting remind us that singles are a growing segment of our society. The number of unmarried Americans 18 and older in 2009 stood at 96.6 million, or 43% of all U.S. residents in this same age group. We in the church would do well by capitalizing on this development and the often unacknowledged resources of extended kin networks. A good first step would be to recognize and honor all those “kin” who play vital roles in our families, in our churches, and in our communities, starting with our weekly family reunions on Sunday!