Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Keeping Faith With Our Ancestors


For continuing education, I study Bowen Family Systems Theory with area clergy. Typically we gather in the library at the local Episcopal church, together with our facilitator, Doug Hester of San Antonio, Texas.

Although we focus on many aspects of theory, eventually a major part of our own reflection concerns our personal family systems. Afternoons of our day-long gatherings, one or two of us roll out family maps, our genograms, and discuss patterns of family communication.

One insight, perhaps the major insight of the class: our family system, and our place in it, matters for how we function in our church systems. If we want to work on our pastoral ministry, its essential to work on our family system.

But then a confession: I've never really sympathized with those who dig deep into their family systems. I know genealogy is incredibly meaningful to millions of people. It's like the third most popular thing done on the Internet. But it has never been a particular passion of mine, perhaps because I tend to be a bit more analytical in my approach to, well, anything.

So when I learned that Heidi Neumark, pastoral colleague in the ELCA and author of a spectacular previous book, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, was writing a book about her family tree, I was nonplussed. Why, given her move to ministry in Manhattan at Trinity Lutheran, wasn't she writing a book about that? Why go backwards rather than forward?

Then she sent me a copy of the book. I knew I had to read it right away. Heidi is an amazing writer. She draws you along. Even if her topic left me bemused, I knew I could trust her.


You learn, along with Heidi, her family surprise. That her daughter Ana, doing some research on Wikipedia, had learned that Heidi was Jewish. Heidi never heard this information from her parents, but once she learns the initial details, she invests years and considerable travel and vacation time discovering as if again for the first time her own family history, and in the process insights into the tragedy that is the Shoah.

It can be a rather shocking thing to learn your ancestors were other than you had assumed or been taught to believe. It leaves so very many questions. It's not surprising that Heidi, always an astute student of her context, takes a research approach to her own family history, nor is it surprising, given her propensity to embed what she learns in compelling narrative structure, that she's able to turn it into a page-turner.

Not every person who sets out to write a family history writes one as compelling as this. In fact, this is the wonder of this book... so many people set out to write a book about their family, but so few write one as theologically rich and historically meaningful.

This is the kind of book that shifts the genre, changes the game a bit, sets the bar for all others. In the process of telling the story of her family, Heidi assists the reader in experiencing the tragedy of the German Jews in the face of Nazi Germany. Because it narrates this one family and their journey through these years, it makes it both incredibly personal, and still broad in historical implications.

I was especially caught off-guard by Heidi's mention that her own sense of the meaning of baptism is transformed. Baptism is always a good thing, right?  But her parents were baptized into Christianity only to then be rejected by it. In the theological worldview of National Socialism, the race of a person took precedence over their baptism, and so at the height of Nazism, baptism was not sufficient to make one a part of the church. Nazism redefined Christianity as German Aryanism, with disastrous results.

So baptism, which we typically approach as an unadulterated good, here becomes its own kind of tragedy. Heidi herself goes through at least a minor existential crisis, and so too do her neighbors and parishioners, as they wonder whether she might convert to Judaism, or at least think about Germans or Christianity differently.

She does in fact discover a deeper explanation for her own lifelong attraction to the Hebrew Scriptures, the messiness of those ancient texts over against the New Testament. It is at this point that many memoirs might tip over into saccharine nostalgia, romanticizing Jewishness or conjoining in too facile a fashion the suffering of millions to the modern plight of an American pastor.

But Heidi handles these transitions with grace, deftly weaving her family history into her reflections on pastoral ministry. The book, which mostly tells the story of her family, is also the story of her discovery of her family. Trips to L├╝beck and Theresienstadt. Research in city records and libraries. Lots of searches on Ancestry.com

And then, in pauses and asides, and never heavy-handed, comparisons between the refugee crisis in Germany in the wake of Nazi atrocities, and the modern plight of refugees. Sympathy for the experience of the LGBTQ youth in her church shelter as she comes to greater awareness of the treatment those youth received, and her own family received because of their Jewish heritage.

"From a history of horror, I have received staggering gifts of truth, identity, and love. This is something we all long for and need, and we can help to make it happen, one story at a time. Listening without prejudice or pity to those who are willing to recount their narratives of pain, loss, and righteous rage is part of changing the world. Another challenge is recognizing and naming our complicity in such narratives. Those of us who belong to religious communities can join to dismantle the architecture of judgment with all of its closets and shadowy corners and resurrect our history of sanctuary--not only for those fleeing violence and poverty in other lands but for refugees closer to home seeking community where they can be their authentic selves. We cannot undo the past, but there remains plenty that calls for our outcry and action today. What we do will vary, but I pray that we will not do nothing" (204). 

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