Sister Sledge clearly knew they were on to a good thing. Connecting with family – past and present is a big and booming business all over the world. In the USA, genealogy is the second most popular hobby after gardening. Here in the UK, connecting with family, past and present generates multiple internet sites, books, TV shows and sell out national events in the NEC and Alexandra Palace, such as 'Family Tree Live – an amazing family history experience'. Clearly our culture cares about connecting.
AJ Jacob, author of It's all relative, attempted to pull together the world's largest family reunion and world's largest family photo recently – ambitiously hoping to reunite 4,500 family members past and present. The idea of the world family tree, he says, gives him a profound sense of belonging to something larger than himself. 'It's the ultimate social network and it has to be worth making these connections – it may even hasten world peace.'
Why are people across the globe so into connecting with family, past and present?
Anne-Marie Kramer, a sociologist from Warwick University and author of Genealogy and Kinship says genealogy allows people to 'personalise the past' while connecting with the wider family in the present is important to most people's sense of self. 'The crux of it is a need to feel rooted and connected.'
The hugely popular BBC1 show Who do you think you are? allows celebrities to delve into their family history to uncover secrets and surprises from their past. The show has provided some golden moments, such as Jeremy Paxman dissolving into tears as he learnt of the Salvation Army providing shelter and a lifeline for his destitute grandmother; Boris Johnson clocking he is related to the royal families of Europe; Sunetra Sarker discovering she is related to Ghandi, and probably the most surprising of all – Danny Dyer realising he was a direct descendant of Edward the Third. His was one of my favourite responses by a mile. He shook his head in stunned disbelief and repeated the words 'I can't be...I can't be...me, a boy from Canning Town, Custom House, and THIS is my blood line. I think I need a moment.'
It made me think. I've heard it said that 'Church is not somewhere you go to, it's a family you belong to.' Have you or I ever experienced that WOW moment as we realise the mind-blowing, world changing spiritual family we are part of?
We know family terminology runs throughout the Bible. We are familiar with the idea that God calls us his children and every follower of Jesus is part of one big globe-embracing, history-spanning spiritual family, with Jesus himself saying, 'Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother' (Mark 3:35).
But if we are honest, do we really feel, and more importantly, act like we are one big family? And how strong is our sense of 'belonging' to it, in all its global breadth and historic depth?
My brother bought my kids the brilliant book 'Everyone a child should know.' It shares the life-stories of 52 inspiring Christians – one for every week of the year. There are the usual suspects – Charles Wesley, Spurgeon, Martin Luther and Billy Graham. But there are also social activists Rosa Parks, William Wilberforce and George Muller. Artists and creatives Rembrandt, CS Lewis and Bach. Argula von Grumbach, an advocate for struggling Christians, and George Washington Carver, a genius inventor who used peanuts to help the poor.
With the passing of Billy Graham it struck me that not one of the 52 are still living. I looked for the follow up book 'Everyone a child should know – who are still alive and kicking', but couldn't find it.
I thought of the incredible Christians, some on our doorstep, some further afield, who are alive and well and still in the world-changing family business right now. I started to feel a real sense of urgency to share their stories with my own children, and kind of accidentally started an blog which was a Living Advent Calendar, where each day of Advent you could open a door to uncover an inspiring life of a person opening doors of love, hope and transformation for others. It amazed me how easy it was to fill every day of Advent with ordinary people who, fuelled by their faith, are doing extraordinary things. I loved that my children were excited as they discovered the new life story each day.
Today in Cambodia, our brother Chom No and his inspiring family are helping vulnerable families escape trafficking and exploitation. Today in Tegucigalpa our sister Jesse is helping to break the cycle of poverty for families living and working in the toxic squalor city of the city rubbish dump. Today in Kampala, our sister Immy is caring for vulnerable children in the pre-school she set up and runs with her brilliant team. Today in Belfast, Joanne is running the Lagan Dragons Boat Club for Breast Cancer Survivors. Ordinary people just like us, but living extraordinary lives.
Our global family is amazing. What a spiritual family tree we have. Wouldn't it be amazing if we and our children could have that Danny Dyer WOW moment on a regular basis as we explore and engage with the incredible, world-changing, light-into-darkness, hope-into-despair family we belong to.?
Ann Voskampf's brilliant resource The Jesse Tree illuminates the significance and wonder of the family tree of Jesus in a totally fresh way. My kids' realisation that the prostitute Rahab, the adulterer and murderer David, the disobedient Solomon and the liar Jacob are part of the family line of Jesus, and that they too are part of his spiritual family was an incredible epiphany for them. God chooses and uses real people with real flaws, real needs, real quirks to carry out his amazing purposes. Let's share their stories, their struggles and sacrifice, their faith and their flaws, to create a deeper sense of belonging to an amazing global family which spans the generations. So that we, and our children could know that we follow in the footsteps not only of the biblical heroes of faith, but of ordinary men, women and children who were poets, painters, musicians, carpenters, entrepreneurs, creative writers, dancers, artists, hymn writers, evangelists, reformers, politicians, and preachers.
Could we shift the next generation's aspirational horizons by creating a strong sense of belonging to a global family tree connecting us with Wilberforce, with Bonhoffer, with Carver, with Aylward, with Liddell, but also with the hidden heroes of our world today like Chom No, Immy, Jesse and Joanne?
Knowing who we are connected to reminds us that no matter how insignificant we feel, we have an important place in the world, giving us the 'roots and wings' we long for.
Esther Stansfield is a freelance writer and blogger who has worked for Tearfund and Scripture Union.