“Who are your people?” is a question I am often asked here, in the Deep South. It is a way of establishing a connection–you never know, we might be fifth cousins twice removed. This is also a very important question as a single woman in the South, because given the lack of a spouse or children, family connections give others a sense of my place in the world. Unfortunately, in the past few years, “Who are your people” has become a difficult question for me to answer without feeling like I’m lying or creatively telling the truth. As a strong and independent woman, “my people” do not want me.
I am estranged from a majority of my family, both immediate and extended. The estrangement was caused by a generational cycle of abuse and domestic violence. As both a minister and social worker, I pushed back against the cycle. My sister and I were experiencing the damaging consequences of the family violence, and it needed to stop. We begged. We prayed. We tried to cultivate healthier relationships, but we were rejected and pushed from the family.
In her blog, E-Stranged, Fiona McColl writes that family estrangement is a disruption of familial attachments. In her experience, estrangement from one’s family system occurs for a multitude of reasons but is often treated as a “dirty secret . . . we cannot speak openly for fear of judgment or misunderstanding.” She contends that estrangement often produces feelings of shame that may further prevent an individual from believing they are free to share their lived experience with others.
There is truth to her words, especially for a young, single woman minister. Initially, I hesitated to share my story with others because of the shame I felt due to my lack of family. However, as I processed the grief with counseling and supportive friends, my sense of shame lessened. Yet, I still hesitate to share my story with those in my Baptist world.
Why? I have learned there is a double standard in how many Baptists process family abuse. Not that Baptists have the best track record in responding to abuse in general, but we do not know what to do if the abuser is an older parent or adult sibling. In the past few months, I have tried to share, appropriately and when asked, the reality of my life with a few Baptist colleagues and friends, and it has rarely gone well.
One colleague scoffed at the idea that I might never speak again with my parents. That person exclaimed, “Of course you’ll speak to them again–they’re your parents! You can’t never speak with them again. You’re too young for that.” Another mentor, knowing that no change had occurred in my family culture, stated, “Life’s too short not to have family connection. You should work things out with your parents and siblings.” Then a friend said, “Don’t worry. Family stuff like that always blows over. You’re overreacting.”
Baptist churches and leaders have helped shape me into the person and minister I am today, just as my biological family did. Feeling shamed by Baptist colleagues and friends stings because it feels like a second rejection. My hope and request is that my Baptist family would seek to understand and not criticize a young, single woman minster who does not have an expected answer to “who are your people?” Your affirmation and support as “my people” are more important than you know.
Jenny Hodge is the director/missionary of Together for Hope-Louisiana through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana. Jenny lives in Lake Providence, Louisiana, where she loves watching individuals and/or groups exceed their own expectations when serving with others.