A well-known bible story describes how Jesus, while in Galilee, miraculously fed 5,000 men with five loaves of bread and two fish. When I read this story, I find myself asking why is there only a mention of feeding the men and not the women and children? One reason might be that, in Jewish Law, the man was always the provider for his family. Not only were men expected to provide their families with food and shelter, but also protection, emotional and social support, education, health care and religious leadership. This was a huge job and most men in Galilee failed in some aspect, largely because they were living in the wilderness and had no food for their families.
The reasons for these failures were both systemic and complex. Many of these fathers had lost their homes and farms because of high interest rates and crop failure. Others failed as their homes and land were destroyed during the war with Rome or had to be sold to pay the high taxes that followed. Illness and death also contributed.
Most of these failing fathers were homeless, trying to raise their families in the wilderness, outside the protection of the city walls, where bandits, wild animals and unpredictable weather constantly threatened their lives. Instead of blaming or name-calling, Jesus stepped in and helped these men live up to their high calling as fathers. Jesus told them they were his brothers, part of his family of disciples. He supported them socially, healed their wounds and taught them about our Father God who loves and supports them. Then, he demanded social change that ultimately enabled them to meet the demands of fatherhood.
As we celebrate Father's Day, we salute all the "Fathers" in our lives; our biological dads, adoptive dads, stepdads, foster dads, granddads, uncles and even us priests. Like those fathers more than 2,000 years ago, we also are called to provide our families with not only food, but shelter, protection, emotional and social support, education, health care and religious leadership. Like those before us, we all seem to fail in some aspect of fatherhood, and some men are not present in their families' lives at all.
Statistics tell us that about 20% of all U.S. kids grow up in fatherless families. That's 20 million kids! This problem begs the question, why? Clearly racism plays a part and rates of unmarried births reflect this: 70% for African American families, 50% for Latinx families and 30% for White families. Spousal abuse also is a cause, with 20% of women being assaulted by their partner in their lifetimes. Divorce accounts for 30% of fatherlessness in families, which means that only 70% stay connected to their kids.
The effects of fatherlessness on kids are devastating. It is estimated that these kids are 4 times more likely to be poor, use drugs and be unhealthy; 9 times more likely to drop out of school and for the girls to become pregnant before 18; and 20 times more likely to end up in prison or become homeless. Clearly, some men are not living up to their high calling as fathers.
So, what are we called to do as followers of Jesus? Like Jesus, we should avoid blaming or name-calling, and instead step up and help these fathers. We need to let them know they're our brothers, part of our family. We can do our part by helping kids as volunteer coaches, mentors or just as caring neighbors. We can support social services that feed hungry families and provide them with shelter. We can encourage schools to remove barriers that keep absent fathers from being involved in their kids' education. We can work for social change, so that racism and poverty don't drive even more men away from their families.
This task can seem daunting. When Jesus looked out over the crowd of 5,000 fathers unable to provide for their families, he must have been tempted to despair. Instead, he told his disciples to begin by feeding the masses, starting small and doing what they could. He then raised his hands and asked God, his Father, to make enough provisions to ensure that all were fed. As we look out at over 20 million fatherless kids, we are called to do the same.