“Ohana” means “family” – not always a nuclear, traditional one though.

In the Disney movie “Lilo and Stitch,” young Lilo is being raised by her older sister Nani, who struggles daily with holding down a job and caring for mischievous but lovable Lilo. Lilo frequently quotes a family saying, “‘Ohana’ means ‘family’ – family means no one gets left behind.” During this season of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day observances, we are reminded that not all families look the same these days.

My first confirmation class illustrates the diversity of today’s families. In that class, two siblings were being raised mostly by their grandparents. The other two confirmands were cousins being raised by the father of one of them (he was raising two of his own kids and two nieces). My next confirmation class had more “traditional” families represented (one mom and one dad in the household), but there were also several “blended families” with step-parents in the household.

Today’s families look much different than families did in the 1950s or 1960s. Even in families with one mom and one dad, the gender roles and family responsibilities might be very different than was once assumed. Stay-at-home dads and working moms are more common than ever before. Same-gender relationships mean that some children are raised by two moms or two dads. As young adults postpone marriage later and later, some adults are parenting together before marriage. My own family looks pretty traditional (one mom, one dad, three children), but all three of our children are adopted, which brings its own set of concerns, questions and blessings. A popular website called “We are the Fifteen Percent” reminds us that, according to the 2008 census, 15 percent of new marriages are interracial. Adding all the families who become interracial families through adoption, that’s a whole lot of families who look different than the majority of U.S. families.

What does this mean for us in the church? It means we have a lot of catching up to do. We are often slow to catch on to new trends, and we tend to tout the biblical family as the norm. Whenever someone brings up the biblical image of family, I remind them of Lot offering his daughters to the visitors of Sodom (Genesis 19 – look it up), of Jacob and his wives (Genesis 29 – taking sibling rivalry to a whole new level), and Abraham and Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16 – extra-marital slave sexual abuse?). Maybe the biblical family is not our best role model for the love, care and support required in a family!

All are welcome in our church. We say this so often. But then we ask Jimmy in the children’s sermon to tell us how he knows that his mom loves him, not remembering that Jimmy’s mom died and he’s being raised by his Aunt Joan. We tell people we want them to join our church, but then we use baptismal certificates that have one line for mother and one line for father, without taking into consideration that Jenny and Samantha may be the parents for the baby being baptized.

If we want to illustrate that all are welcome in our church, then we have to watch our language and the way we speak. Can we use sermon, teaching or devotional examples of single parents raising children? Can we withhold judgment when a gay or lesbian couple seeks to join our church with their children? Can we change language used with kids in children’s sermons and Sunday school so that we talk about “parents” rather than mom and dad, or even more generally “the adults who care for you.” It may feel fake or stilted to some of us, but hopefully these adjustments will open doors of welcome to our visitors (especially our young visitors who may already be accustomed to having their family devalued or judged). Hopefully we too will be able to hold onto the concept of “ohana,” family, in which no one gets left behind – or forgotten.

Carla Thompson Powell
Carla Thompson Powell is an ELCA pastor. She and her husband, Darryl (also an ELCA pastor), live and work in the Chicago area; they have three children who are in middle and high school.

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