Thoughts on Fatherhood

Fatherless families have an unfortunate association with poverty and homelessness. Although an uncomfortable reality, popular culture tells us that poor or homeless families are not as likely to remain intact (i.e. all young children with two parents). The stereotype of the deadbeat dad permeates our understanding of the reality homeless children experience. A good portion of the Haven’s guests are single men, as in unaccompanied. The “single” does not necessarily mean they are unmarried. Many Haven guests are parents, even if their children are not, physically, in their daily lives. But just because their children are not with them at the Haven, in Charlottesville, or even Virginia, does not mean those children are not constant realities in their lives and minds.

Fatherhood is a curious topic at the Haven. We see new fathers made every month, as young men discover they have a baby on the way, and we hear stories of children left behind in another town or another life. A few recent conversations have made me think that the longing of fathers to be beloved by their children is an insatiable need that only intensifies with absence.

The warm, summer months are good for traveling and living outdoors, and the Haven has seen an upswing in the number of travelers visiting with us. The transient population is far smaller than the familiar faces of Charlottesville’s homeless I have come to know. Travelers are usually young, probably not too far from my own age, many speaking of journeying across the country to disappear. Others are eager to get home.

One of these new summer faces was R, who arrived at the Haven with his travel companion hoping to get directions and bus fare to the Social Security Administration Veteran Affairs Regional Office where he could fill out paperwork to get his veteran ID card and sign up for veterans benefits. When I thanked him for his service, he started to cry. R rolled up his sleeves to show me two matching tattoos on each forearm with the names of his children inked in newsletter script. R explained that in New Mexico, earlier this summer, someone mugged him on the road and stole his new backpack containing his laptop and most of his money. He said,

“I could have gone after him. I could have fought back. I had an eight inch Army knife with me, but I knew I couldn’t do that – couldn’t risk being in trouble, even for self defense. I need to get back to my kids in Oregon and I can’t do that locked up. I have to get my benefits, get a job, make some money that I can send back to them so they know how much I love them and that I’m not a dead beat like those other guys. You know, their mom and me, we just didn’t get along. It’s not their fault.”

Another man in his thirties, an artist, told me his whole summer plan revolved around getting back to Waynesboro to be close to his three young kids. The only reason he was in Charlottesville, thirty minutes away from home, was because his job at a construction company paid so well during the summer rush. A phone the call the night before our conversation had cut his construction plans short; an eight year old boy asking his dad not to miss his upcoming baseball game was the linchpin that convinced this particular guest that working three 14-hour days a week in Charlottesville with a weekly commute was better than working five 8-hour days and no kids. Yet another young man, M, told me his daughter’s mother got a court order against him after M threatened the new boyfriend in her life. M said he was infuriated that another guy was “pretending to be [his] daughter’s dad.” A few minutes later, M called me over to the computer to show me pictures of his daughter playing with stuffed animals. Given that M admitted that he has a violent history, maybe the mother’s protective order wasn’t completely unwarranted. But the only time I saw him smile was when I asked him about his daughter, and the eyes with the teardrop tattoos crinkled with delight.

There is an immense, perhaps desperate desire to prove their love as fathers, either with monetary support or by lashing out at others they fear will take their place. These men are heartbroken with love over separation from their children. There is, of course, the foil father figure to these anecdotes. There is the father who owes $125,000 in back child support for eight unpaid years and five children, or the one who leaves town upon discovering his girlfriend is pregnant. So, what does “family,” or at least caring for one’s children, mean in this variable context? In Shane Claiborne’s immensely exciting book, Irresistible Revolution, he calls upon Christians to construct family in the way Jesus did, by leaving behind societal and familial attachments as a demonstration of the willingness to craft a new community. Claiborne quotes Mark 10:29-31:

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life….And there is also an omission from the second list: fathers. As we are reborn, we leave our biological families. Now we have sisters and brothers and mothers all over the world. And yet the omission of fathers is consistent with Christ’s teacher in Matthew that we should call no one father but God (23:9). In an age in which fathers were seen as the lifeline of the family, the seemingly indispensable authority and providential centerpiece, this statement is God’s final triumph over patriarchy (174-5).

I always prefer to think that Jesus didn’t command his disciples to totally renounce and sever bonds with their families at home (though in a world without Skype and email, it would have been challenging to stay in touch!), but rather expand their notions of immediate family to include essentially the whole world. In another chapter, Claiborne writes, “Rebirth is about being adopted into a new family—without borders. With new eyes, we can see that our family is both local and global, including but transcending biology, tribe, or nationality, a renewed vision of the kin-dom of God” (200). I think this is the key to sustaining familial bonds across time and distance. For some guests, the Haven is their family. For others, friends made on the streets become dear brothers and sisters. The Haven family invites anyone to be a member; it doesn’t matter if they have another, biological family far away or if all they know are brothers and sisters from the Charlottesville streets. In a theological sense, we are all loved by the same Father, making us part of the same family. Claiborne writes, “we are made in the image of a God who is community, a plurality of oneness” (134). Fatherhood may be an imminent concern for some male guests, or it may be only a memory of a distant relationship, something absent from their daily vocabulary. In God’s plurality–His life in every man and child—fathers, sons, and daughters are still connected.

Shane Claiborne is all about relationality, and the radical togetherness and interdependence required of a justly Christian community.[i] Fathers separated from their children by unhappy choice or circumstance may use the Haven as a place to express grief and to cry out for forgiveness. With their explanations of why they had to leave and reiterations that they are “not that kind of deadbeat dad,” they ask the listener to affirm that they themselves are not unlovable. Other fathers may use the Haven as a place to create new family that knows nothing of the old. We are all looking for a home. We are all sons and daughters of the same community, united by kinship that may seem accidental. Truly, it is not.

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[i] I found Claiborne’s book, Irresistible Revolution, particularly inspirational in its unexpected coalescence of the work done by all the summer PLT interns. Reilly’s work at the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina and Kate’s partnership with the Catholic Worker Movement in England contribute to two specific initiatives happily discussed by Claiborne.