Claudia and I have always had as a goal for our family something we might call permeable boundaries. Permeable boundaries is a concept that attempts the best of two worlds: clear boundary expectations with a sense of inclusive hospitality. What I mean is that we have some clear family guidelines about what we expect from people who live in our home, but we want our family to be an "open" system, not a "closed" system. Many families with clear expectations, it seems, become mini-fortresses unto themselves, where those who are "in" are "in" and those who are "out" are "out."
Claudia grew up in a family where her brothers' and her friends were always welcome in the family home. She tells me that on more than one occasion her parents "took in" friends of her brothers who were unable, for whatever reason, to live with their families of origin for a period of time. It was simply the way her parents practiced their faith. They were (and are) hospitable people, generous in giving of themselves and whatever they have.
I was also raised in a family where inclusion was a strong value. Although we never had anyone live with us for any length of time, my mother from my earliest days instilled in me a concern for those who were different (due to physical or mental handicaps), forgotten (foster children in the community) or outcasts. She herself was raised in a family with interesting dynamics; her mother was always clear that there were no "step"-whatevers in our family. There were only children and (as they grew up) people who were to be treated with dignity and respect.
It is no surprise, then, that our home has continued to follow in these noble directions. Even during some of our most challenging times three years ago we did our best to be hospitable to friends of our kids. I have served food at our table on more than one occasion to our son Mike and his friends in moments when it was obvious they were inebriated or high. Frankly those moments tested my Christian conviction, because the behaviors I cite violate our family guidelines, and I was not all that interested in being kind to older teenagers living in ways that rejected our values. I decided, with gritted teeth, that my Christian witness would be stronger in providing compassionate hospitality than in asserting a moral code ... at least in those moments.
In any case, we have always considered it a privilege that many of our kids like to invite their friends to our home. Usually that has been for a short period of time -- an overnight or a weekend -- but this summer that invitation has extended to what appears to be an entire summer kind of thing. Our fourteen-year-old boys (we have three of them) have a shared friend who is a really nice kid. He is respectful, appropriate and cooperative.
Just before school was letting out in May, Leon asked if this friend could "move in for the summer." Claudia and I thought the request might be a bit exaggerated for emphasis, but we had no problem in saying, almost immediately, "Sure, as long as it's OK with his parent(s)." The request, it turns out, was quite literal, with no exaggeration. When it became apparent to us that he would be staying with us the summer, Claudia sat him down to explain our expectations. He would need to comply with our family's behavioral guidelines. He would need to assume a household chore. He would need to keep in contact with his mother on a regular basis. Their friend has been here nearly every night and day since that time, and it has worked out beautifully.
Last night as we watched Leon's late baseball game (it started at 8:00 PM and wasn't over until past 10:00 PM), I glanced past Claudia to see him sitting in one of our family's chairs, as bonded to us (or moreso) than our own children. Fortunately for him in this very white community he has "siblings" who belong to us who look nothing like us, so it's as natural as can be for him to assume a family connection with us.
I was up earlier than anyone else today, and I decided I would make pancakes for breakfast. On my day off (which Friday is) I usually make something that I eat right away and then serve others as they awaken (until about 10 AM, which is our family cut-off time for breakfast). It was quiet in the house, I had just sat down to eat my pancakes and sausage, when out of the corner of my eye I saw our kids' friend walking quietly up the stairs. Not wanting to shatter his or my solitude, I waved good morning to him. A few minutes later he appeared in the kitchen, and I asked him if he'd like me to make him some pancakes.
"Please," he said, a response, that from my kids or their friends, will motivate me to do a lot. A few minutes later we were sitting down at the table together eating quietly, as he prepared for his morning at summer school. In those moments words aren't really necessary. It makes me feel good to know that we are providing this young man with some stability and connection during the summer. I hope it teaches him something about the lived values of a Christian family. And I hope it teaches my kids something of Jesus' ethic of inclusion and hospitality.
Years ago I might have felt a bit awkward eating breakfast with my kids' friend without my children being there, but these days I simply count it a blessing and thank God for helping us create the kind of family that has permeable boundaries.