The past few weeks I have been taking a new bus route to work from my friend’s house. The route passes through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood that is seen by many as a place of homelessness, poverty, and addiction. While there are many homeless people on the street who seem lonely and isolated, there is also a deeper sense of relationships and a tight-knit community where people care for and look out for one another, and share their hopes and pains with each other – like a family.
I have been thinking a lot about family and what it means to be part of a family. We live in a society where family is usually defined by biology and genetics, and grows to include people who are married into the family. For those of us who do not have a biological family or come from a broken family, I’ve learned that it is important to remember that we cannot choose the family we are born into, but we have the choice to make our own family. The opportunity to build a wider and diverse family with friends and neighbours is both a gift and a challenge, particularly in our Western culture that values individualism and a traditional nuclear family with spouses and children.
As someone who comes from a broken family and is single in the church, I am comforted and assured of God’s love and grace in providing a family for us in Psalm 68: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.” I believe that God dwells among us and brings different people into our lives to journey with us through joys and sufferings. I am thankful that God has provided me with a diverse family of friends and mentors who come from different generations, cultures, and backgrounds. As a Taiwanese Canadian, some of my closest “family members” are Dutch Canadian friends who are part of the Christian Reformed church and community.
God uses our stories and experiences to see the blessings and needs of people around us in our neighbourhood, community, workplace, and church. As an immigrant, I can sympathize with other immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have lost their home, family members, community, and cultural ties. I can journey with them to build a sense of belonging and family to celebrate the milestones and grieve the loss together in community.
I live and work in a neighbourhood that welcomes refugees and asylum seekers and provides support services and temporary housing through the Welcome Centre. Our church finds various ways to love our neighbours by extending our table with community meals, practicing English conversation with newcomers, and having art and games nights with kids. By building relationships with our newcomer neighbours, we are living into the call to extend the love of God’s family to people who are often isolated and marginalized.
Recently our church hosted for the first time, in partnership with another church, 30 youth coming from British Columbia and Alberta as part of SERVE, a youth mission trip that immerses students in transformational experiences of ways of justice, renewal, and deepening faith in local communities. In our East Vancouver neighbourhood, the youth learned about issues of justice, reconciliation, and creation care by working with refugees and First Nations people, helping neighbours, hearing people’s stories in the Downtown Eastside, and cleaning up streets and our community park. For a whole week, we reflected on the Gospel of Mark and the story of Jesus’ mother and brothers. Jesus challenges us to re-imagine and expand our concept of family to include others around us: “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).
What does Jesus’ command mean for us as we extend care for people in our neighbourhoods, communities, and churches? How do we include people around us, such as friends, neighbours, and newcomers, and make space for them to be part of our family?
My hope and prayer is that we can intentionally live out this calling to build loving and caring relationships with people in our community, lament with those who have lost their families, and open our eyes, minds and hearts to re-imagine ways to build our family.