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Published Date: September 27, 2014

Published Date: September 27, 2014

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Ecclesial Care of Single Mothers

Single parents constitute a fair portion of the global population at this point, an overwhelming majority of whom are women. In the US there is a steady increase in the percentage of mothers who raise their children alone and the odds are certainly not stacked in their favor. I have scoured the statistical websites that document in detail the social circumstances and societal assistance, or general lack thereof, which surround the lives of single mothers. While I do not wish to reproduce these findings here I do encourage anyone to take a good look at the observations, they certainly are revealing. I suppose my question is, how much support do we in our Christian communities actually offer to single mothers in need? How many churches have a ‘single mothers ministry’? Are we doing enough to make single mothers feel welcome in our church environs? It is estimated that around 65% of single mothers do not attend church for fear of stigmatization, for fear of being judged due to their situation.

While the Biblical record seems somewhat scant on any specific reference to single mothers, there are some rather intriguing texts that appear to take up their plight, in some form. There are two specifically I wish to briefly engage with. The first is the Genesis account of Hagar. Perhaps one of the most tragic figures of any woman within scripture, Hagar occupies a rather unique place within the history of Israel. I would sincerely agree with Phyllis Trible that the given narrative of this enslaved Egyptian woman secures it as a ‘text of terror’. Hagar suffers at the abuse of a patriarchal society where women vie for positions of prominence to secure their peripheral future through the furtherance of the male line. In her abandonment she is offered divine promises upon the vein of continued abuse that shift in their fulfillment. Ultimately she becomes a shadow living out her life to selflessly provide a future for her son. His is a genealogy that will express itself via Egyptian descent in some convoluted reversal which eventually bears the mark of Israel’s own enslavement.

Recovering Hagar’s story is certainly an obligation we as readers must adhere to. Indeed, she becomes a great signifier to many of us, especially to discarded women who may find their own stories in hers. She is the symbol of abuse and abandonment. To quote Trible, she is “the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother . . . the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child.” [1] She is the mother who weeps for her dying child. Yet her story goes beyond this. She is singular in her outright naming of God and she is the first biblical figure to be afforded a divine messenger. These are prominent signifiers. But perhaps even more striking is the notion that her abuse, so painfully endured, finds synchronistic recompense in the fulfillment of Israel’s own bondage, exile and exodus. In the greater scheme of things, I would argue, she is a perfect representative of the infringed, the ostracized, like the widow and the orphan, who the prophetic voice emphatically claims to occupy the very deepest reaches of God’s own heart.

It is this deep, divine care that I feel becomes truly expressive of Jesus’ own ministry. Luke 7:12-17 is presented to us as a tangible, restorative act of widowhood. The widowed demographic is of course representative of single motherhood and is certainly, in some instances, far more disastrous. The widow of Nain has just lost her only son. While on a personal and emotional level this devastation may seem obvious we are also drawn to realize that her social position has drastically worsened. After such tragedy there were none who could provide for her. Her very survival rested within the hands of social welfare, that which evidently seemed lacking at the time. In silent and morose observance of her dire situation a large crowd gathered around the funeral procession. They stood there as representation of the communal despair at the widow’s loss and the repercussions weighing upon her future.

Jesus, upon seeing the weeping woman, is ‘moved with compassion’. Here then is the Kingdom in action, the heart of God revealed through a divine act. Jesus’ interruption of the funeral procession was a blatant breach of Jewish tradition and his touching a corpse would have left him in a state of un-cleanliness for a week. That the widow allowed Jesus to do these things was an act of faith in itself, no doubt. By resurrecting the widow’s son, Jesus does not elevate her to the upper rungs of societal order. Rather, he returns to her the most prized possession of her life in the midst of a communal setting that would surely acknowledge and never forget such an act of unconditional redemption. This is an example of restoration with profound consequence and one that seeks to strain against societal expectation, one that calls all observers to a greater purpose. God wholeheartedly loves the disenfranchised and if we are to call ourselves Christ-followers then we should seek to mirror such love and care.

I grew up the son of a single mother; she raised me on her own my first eleven years along with the fervent help of my grandmother. Speaking with my mother recently about those years I only expected to hear tale of how she was shunned by church and society, how she was left to fend for herself. While there may have been some of that I was greatly surprised by her account of all the love she and I received via ecclesial support. In reflection I can recall many a kind face and open arm waiting under steepled roof. I do think that her story is somewhat unique and it is a reminder that the church should be a sanctuary for the outcast. We desperately need narratives such as Hagar’s to pain us into this realization. We need accounts of Jesus’ infallible and redemptive love to encourage us with earnest desire to offer the widowed, the single mothers, and all the marginalized some sense of security without judgment.

My wife currently works with YoungLives, an off-branch of Young Life (an international ministry for high school students), that assists teen mothers. I am in constant awe of the work they do. YoungLives is modeled after Jesus’ ministry to offer unconditional love and support to these mothers without stipulating a pronouncement of faith. Undoubtedly more time and money should to be invested in programs such as these. Does your church or Christian community offer support to single mothers? If not, what’s the best way to get them started?

[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 28.