To avoid suspense, let me state at the very outset that the author of these questions was Jesus Christ, and you can find the narrative of which they are part in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 3. His mother and family were so worried about the news they had been receiving of their unusual son that they had set off from their home town of Nazareth to Galilee to rescue him. In short, they feared that he had gone mad.
They located him in a crowded house and sent a message to him. His reply was not to come out to speak with and reassure his mother, but this startling response incorporating two questions. If anything was likely to confirm their worst fears it was surely utterances like this. He went on to point to the crowd and say, “Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother, sister and mother”. Mary returned home and the next recorded time that she was with her son was at the Cross on Good Friday.
Aunts and Uncles
The incident came to mind recently when I was chatting with a woman whose mother had lived at Mill Grove as a child. We were looking at old photos and trying to do all we could to help fill in some of the family background. It was going well until the woman began to speak of Auntie Cath. The existence of a person with this name did not fit any of the facts that had been established based on the family records thus far. So I went back to the source documents and pointed out my problem. “She was not a blood relative: I mean the best friend of my mother while she was living at Mill Grove”, she said. “She was a very special auntie to me until she died.” The riddle was thus quickly solved.
It so happened that one of the boys who was living at Mill Grove at the same time as Auntie Cath (we are talking about the first two decades of the twentieth century) was called Will. When I was a boy growing up at Mill Grove this approachable, clever inventor with a fine head of white hair and a pipe filled with home-grown tobacco was often around. I came to know him quite unselfconsciously as “Uncle Will”. Although he was not a blood relative of mine he was, I now realise, one of my favourite uncles.
Brothers and Sisters
This is the route by which I have traveled as I ponder the relationships that develop between those who get to know each other in childhood, perhaps through school, a club or a children’s home, that become so close that they can only be described at all fairly or adequately by using familial terms.
Today there were two youngsters playing snooker together in the dining room at Mill Grove. It is half-term and they have been ‘chilling out’ around the place for a couple of hours. They enjoy each others’ company and seem to draw the best out of each other. Their relationship has grown over a period of about two years. Although it’s not possible to predict the future, it’s not fanciful to ask whether there is the possibility that they will see each other as brothers.
Meanwhile one hundred miles north in the East Midlands another young person who lives at Mill Grove is spending half-term with a family of six. One of the children refers to him as my fourth brother (she has three blood brothers). And he likes to be known in this way: in fact he likes it a lot. He feels very much at home with them. How did they get to know each other? The mother of the family lived at Mill Grove as a child, and the family spends Christmas, holidays and other times with us. The relationship has grown up spontaneously over many years.
And thinking still further afield in Uganda there are a number of people who lived at Mill Grove as young adults over the years. They come from different parts of the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and from different ethnic groups, but they sometimes humorously refer to one another as part of the ‘Mill Grove tribe’. (For the record this tribe seems to be growing rather fast!)
So, coming back to the original questions, we realise how pertinent they are: who is my family, if I am not to see it bounded simply by kinship relations?
In the UK, our tradition of social work and residential care has been based primarily on a model of individual casework and care planning. The role of peer groups as friends and even therapeutic support is barely acknowledged in legislation, guidance and professional training.
In fact it tends to go the other way: peer groups can be seen as a threat because they can put a child’s safety at risk. If we had the money available, the best fit for a child would seem to be to hire an apartment in a hotel! There he or she would be safe and it would be possible to deliver a personalised package of care to them (to use some of the prevailing jargon).
Obviously there needs to be care about who lives with whom (whether we are talking about caring adults, or children in the same environment), but clearly we have missed out on a potential resource that is willingly acknowledged in other parts of the world such as Israel, Nepal, Latin America and the USA, for example.
It would be interesting to hear how many such relationships developed among those in residential care settings despite the lack of professional encouragement of them. What I can say is that I have come to know of dozens of such caring and supportive relationships that have grown up among the extended family of Mill Grove (and Barnardo’s, for that matter). And if in future the world is increasingly interconnected (a global village of sorts), we will need to find appropriate ways of relating to those beyond our own kith and kin. For this we need models: and residential child care settings may well help enlighten and refine them.
As it happens I don’t have a blood brother (although I do have one sister), but there was one person who lived as a boy at Mill Grove with whom I played more than any other. We didn’t see each other for over fifty years. Then we met again, and discovered how much we meant to each other. It’s great fun recounting stories of shared summer holidays and the like, but also relating to each other in the present as mature adults. My wife and I had a great day with this person and his wife in their welcoming home.
This line of thought is not intended to denigrate or sideline blood relationships: merely to see, along with Jesus, that there are other bases for family and community which can provide for lasting ties and mutual support.
Can we find a way of incorporating this insight, experience and wisdom into our social policy and planning I wonder?