Headed Home for the Holidays And Need More Than Table Talk Tips?
How Grief, Gratitude, and a Triangle Sandwich Surprise Made Me Fall in Love with Family after a Decade of Difference and Division
by Kimberly Hunter
December 19, 2018
On the Irish New Year (November 1) I experienced a healing so unexpected I sometimes refer to it as miraculous, or mystical. And the people who facilitated this transformation surprised me as much as the miracle itself. Because the change was internal, I recognized it by how it felt in my gut – light, joyful, complete, irreversible, and beyond my control. Almost like falling in love. The last time I’d felt that, it signaled my heart shifting away from fundamentalist* Christianity. This time – 12 years later – it signaled my heart shifting back toward understanding, accepting, and appreciating the fundamentalists I call family.
The process began a few days before November 1. Early on October 29, I drove from Kansas City to North Newton, Kansas for another class with the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Bethel College. Since the course would last through October 31, I’d asked my aunt and uncle in Whitewater if I could stay overnight with them, and they’d agreed to host me. I felt grateful because their hospitality would be free and familiar, for as a child I’d visited cousins, chased chickens, swam in cattle tanks, and caught chiggers and lightning bugs on their farm.
But I also felt much of the family systems anxiety about which Pastor Keith Harder recently preached. I felt nervous my Whitewater family might receive me with skepticism or even hostility, since I’ve been vocal about leaving the fundamentalism upon which they’ve built their lives. I also felt much of the responsibility and little of the curiosity Pastor Harder mentioned. Since midterm elections were near, I felt duty-bound to help my aunt and uncle understand how Kobach had harmed me and people I love. So I’d intended to spend much time in prayer and reflection, preparing to be my best self during what felt like a high-stakes visit.
Alas, I did no such thing. Instead, I departed Kansas City exhausted from over-work; angry and wounded from a painful breakup; and in need of basic care. Almost like a refugee seeking solace from the violent pace of modern life. Though I felt ashamed of my ill-preparedness, arriving that way jumpstarted my healing. Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” describes why: “Ring the bells that still can ring… Forget your perfect offering… There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in… Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says something similar: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” By requesting and receiving care, I allowed my family to be Jesus to me.
During the drive, however, I did manage to prepare a little by listening to NPR’s My Fellow Kansans podcast, which Rainbow congregant Sammy Stayton recommended to me since I enjoy Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas. Both the podcast and the book recount the socio-political history of my family, of how fundamentalist Christians and the Republican party became one over the issues of abortion, gay rights and whether or not public schools permit prayer and teach evolution. But what stunned me was how Kansas Christians organized that national movement in 1991. We won widely and quickly with tools like civil disobedience, stadium rallies, and running activists as candidates on ballots across the state. Though fascinated and full of questions, after class I was so tired I determined not to discuss our most divisive disagreements. Instead, I hoped to hear what my aunt and uncle thought about the intersections between faith, farming and immigration. But they had other plans.
As I pulled into their gravel driveway, my aunt waved from atop a riding lawnmower, motioning where I should park. A few minutes later, I placed my bags in my cousin’s old bedroom. Though the beautiful quilt on the bed was new, old childhood memories filled the air, and I laughed, recalling how mad I’d been when my mother once made me nap in that room while my cousins romped outside. My aunt laughed, too, then invited me to walk with her – after she finished baking two bundt cakes for the crisis care pregnancy center. And so it began.
We walked, talked, and laughed along the gravel road — and later around pot roast dinner, over dirty dishes, on a flying four-wheeler, in deer stand darkness, and while slurping Braum’s milkshakes. As we shared these activities, our awkwardness gave way to familiarity, but also to questions and stories hidden from me as a child. We discussed politics as personal, recounting family histories ranging from when my Christian musician celebrity uncle-in-law came out as gay a month before my cousin married his daughter, to how another uncle sexually assaulted multiple female family members and how sad and hurt I felt when our family helped elect a President not only dismissive but also suspected of abusing women. But most impactful to me were the stories where I mostly listened. These included my aunt’s run for office and Mennonite journey, my uncle’s gun control convictions, and hearing how their faith intersects with their daughter’s choice to be a foster parent.
During our first conversation, my aunt surprised me with the news she had been serving as her township’s treasurer for the past three years. Slightly incredulous, I teased her about being the first politician in our family. She blushed. When I pressed her for more details, she shared a male friend had asked her to run for office and only three people had voted against her. She beamed. “But Kimberly!” she gasped, shaking her head. “When I went to the first meeting, I was shocked to see I was the only woman in a room full of men!” For a moment, I thought my aunt may have become a feminist. But she continued, “Since I’m no Women’s Lib, I was horrified, thinking I had taken a man’s job! So now I just let the men make the decisions and type up what they decide.” This time I gasped – first with shock, then with humor. I nodded my head, knowing my aunt’s sincerity and Biblical interpretation required her to respond this way.
Though I knew my aunt and uncle were Mennonite, learning the depth of my aunt’s Anabaptist roots amazed me. They stretched far beyond her peppernut recipes and intricate quiltmaking. Her ancestors founded Emmaus Mennonite Church, which she still attends today, and include Bernhard Harder, the pastor famous for defusing an angry, nationalist mob with his zestful rendition of “My Country ‘tis of Thee.” They also include her father’s conscientious objector papers, which she still treasures. Like me, her faith has also shifted over the years, but in different ways than mine. She no longer identifies as a pacifist, and after her church leaders found Mennonite seminary professors teaching inclusivity toward LGBTQIA folks, Emmaus withdrew from the General Conference and now hesitates to identify as Mennonite at all.
During most of these stories, I asked questions and listened more than I spoke. But when the conversation turned toward guns and hunting, I decided to explain my concerns about Kris Kobach’s campaign for Kansas governor, since the midterm elections were just around the corner. To begin, I said I was uncomfortable with Kobach’s habit of parading through small towns with an assault rifle mounted to his jeep. To which my uncle replied, “What do you mean by assault rifle? There is no such thing. That term is a liberal media invention. Whether a gun is used for assault depends on who holds it and how they use it.” Since I’d never thought of the term “assault rifle” that way and guns are like a foreign language to me, I invited him to explain further. So he opened his hunting catalogue, pointed to two rifles, and asked which looked scarier. I pointed to one. He then pointed to the fine print, which showed they were exactly the same. We looked up a photo of Kobach’s gun, and my uncle exclaimed, “Oh! That’s a machine gun!” He paused, then rationalized, “Well, if Kobach supports the military, I guess that could be a gesture of support.” We went on to discuss what effective gun control measures and a consistent pro-life ethic might look like. No one “won” the discussion; instead, our understandings of one another grew.
As I watched and listened, I also realized, despite our differences, we share much in common. This stretches beyond simple lifestyle choices like growing gardens, using clotheslines, and shooting hoops at sunset to issues like Christians’ responsibility toward those in need of care – especially children. For years, my aunt and uncle’s eldest daughter has been a foster mom. She did this even when she was single, teaching full time, and lacking family support. But since then, her parents have come to respect and even be inspired by her choice – so much so that at one point my aunt exclaimed, “My brother crunched some numbers and found that for every one church in the state of Kansas, there are two kids in need of a foster home. So if the Church was doing its job, there would be no foster care crisis.” My jaw dropped in shock and joy. Imagine if we could work together around something like that?!
But what most melted my heart was not how much we agree. It was how tenderly my aunt and uncle cared for me, and how they reciprocated my vulnerability. Imagining their kindness now still puts a lump in my throat. They not only opened their home to give me a place to sleep; my uncle opened his heart after a long day of work, and my aunt cooked me three meals a day. When I woke up before the sun to get ready, she was already in the kitchen cooking me breakfast. And when I left for class, she handed me a sack lunch. Again, I was speechless before I could muster words of thanks. How many years had it been since someone packed me a lunch? I fought back tears. Hours later, I opened it to discover she’d cut the sandwich into diagonals for me. When I texted and thanked her for making a lunch that was both tasty and beautiful, she wrote back, “My grandkids call those “triangle sandwiches 🙂.” I grinned.
During our final meal together, I felt safe enough to dive deep and be vulnerable, so I shared the story about my recent heartbreak asked them how they’d fallen in love and decided to get married. Their story wasn’t as simple as I’d imagined. Later my aunt also shared the story of the quilt on my bed; she had stitched her wedding blues into it – the sadness she felt after her daughter got married and left home. This melted me, too. Change is hard for all of us.
As I drove home Halloween night, my heart felt different – softer, kinder, more open. Back at work on Día de Muertos, I received heart wrenching news from a friend that his father had completed suicide to avoid going to prison for a DUI. The world stopped. Witnessing such profound sorrow on the heels of experiencing profound kindness brought the miracle full circle. Spirit moved, and my heart no longer had space for anger and resentment. Suddenly I was ready to forgive. To begin, that night I wrote kind messages to two people from whom I’d been estranged. I searched for resources to let go and start anew. Since I’m part Irish, I Googled “Irish letting go rituals.” Astonished, I discovered November 1 is the Irish New Year, during which they sweep out the old to make space for the new. I meditated on that for a moment; then, before going to bed, I emailed the ritual to an Irish congregant I’d met recently. When I awoke November 2, I had not only an email back from him – the beginning of a new friendship – but also an email from a New York friend I’d been trying to reach for years. I was dumbfounded.
So what is going on? I still don’t know exactly. Mostly, I feel grateful and amazed. But I think it has something to do with love – the huggable kind. In Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf says an embrace has three steps. First you must open your arms (be willing to embrace). Then, if the other person is also open, you wrap your arms around each other (an encounter which touches both people). And finally, you let go and return home a little different than before you left. For a long time now, I’ve known I needed to hug my family like this if I want to effectively work for social change. In The Fire This Time, James Baldwin explains why this is necessary: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and will not be today and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” But I didn’t know how to do that sincerely, with no agenda. Now I know. We are all in need of being changed by God’s love – even (especially?) those of us who want to change the world. So wherever the holidays find you, I pray for you as Pastor Ruth prayed for us on November 18: “Your love is not done with any of us… May your love meet our needs and calm our fears.”
Arriving to family gatherings vulnerable may not be safe or appropriate for all families. This story applies most to situations where “we” feel a responsibility to change “them.” You know yourself and your family best. So be safe. Be well. And if you can, be kind, honest, curious, courageous, and huggable, too.
Click here to reflect on a wonderful prayer for families, as well as a few other links.
A Prayer for All Families by Carol Penner