With the approach of Thanksgiving we anticipate time with our families. For some of us that will include time with estranged family members, rebellious relatives, broken ones, and the just plain difficult. Much as I love to sidle up to a groaning board with loved ones, I don't actually know any Norman Rockwell families, do you?
The war that Western culture wages against our families is well rehearsed: mounting acceptance of divorce, infidelity to one another, infidelity to God in following His design for families, and treating children as accessories (or last year's accessories).
At our best, we can be our own families' worst enemies too. We let jobs and other callings carry us far from parents, grandparents, and siblings. We let "priorities" crowd out just spending time together. Career and material pursuits sap our time and energy, and once-traditional family tasks-caring for the sick, tending the family property, even fixing dinner-we delegate to strangers.
On a windy, rainy night recently I went to just spend time with a family that knows the meaning of family breakup as few do, and the value of families made whole again.
William Levi is the first Sudanese man I ever met, more than a decade ago in Washington when as a young, single refugee he was about to testify before a congressional committee. William is the descendant of Messianic Jews in South Sudan's Eastern Equatorial state, and one of nine siblings. At age 18 he escaped-literally ran away-from captivity by Sudan's Islamic army. In mortal danger, he had to leave his village and his close-knit family, arriving four years later in the United States.
As he departed, he sensed he might not see his family again. His father counseled, "Our prayers will follow you even when we don't know where your path has taken you," and, "You will always be with your family, because your family is the body of Christ. Wherever you go, find your family first." At a church prayer service to bid William farewell, his grandfather pronounced Aaron's blessing over him: "The Lord bless you and keep you ..."
William left and war came. He did not see his family for five years. By then, the Islamic armies had murdered his father and burned to the ground his town. His mother, three brothers, five sisters, extended family, and villagers all had scattered-some eventually to refugee camps in Uganda or Kenya, some to new villages, likely never to be together again.
Multiply across the 2 million killed and 4 million displaced in Sudan's two-decade civil war, and you begin to comprehend the total decimation of the family as an institution-and the burden that gradually swelled inside William, by then an engineer. When he launched Operation Nehemiah in 1993, it was not only to rebuild walls in Sudan but also to rebuild families and communities: "What war did not destroy of families, the refugee camps and the UN system did. The family became a relic."
You can read about the community built from the ashes in news editor Jamie Dean's wonderful 2008 cover story, "Home is where the start is." And more about William's life in his 2005 book, The Bible or the Axe. But beneath the waterworks, the health clinic, and the agriculture projects is the story of families made whole again, starting with William's own.
His brother Michael, who struggled with alcohol and other trouble in his years as a war refugee, is back, pastoring a young church where he recently baptized 100 new believers. A nephew has been trained as the community's own doctor. In fact, all eight of William's siblings are back in South Sudan (his mother having died years ago), living and working together, as families uniquely can do but often don't, to rebuild a community and restore war-torn people. William makes several trips a year from Operation Nehemiah headquarters in Massachusetts. As often as he can, he takes his own family-his American wife Hannah and their six children, ages 9 to nearly 9 months.
Postwar Sudan and post-Christian America, says William, have much in common when it comes to restoring biblical families.