This story is featured in the winter 2020 issue of Lumen.
The "mission of family" is as vast and diverse as the stars in the sky. We sat down with three alumni families who have made their focus of "saying yes" a way of life.
"Family first" as hospitality
On any given day, you might find Jackie Wald ’10 in her beater of a van – it’s a 15-passenger beast of a thing that her kids make fun of – filled with her own five children, several foster kids and any number of friends and neighbors who might need a leg up, driving through St. Paul’s East Side to deliver meals to the homeless or the homebound. “None of this is official or organized,” Jackie said laughing apologetically, “It’s more a way of life. We’re just ordinary people doing ordinary things.”
She and her husband, Jeff Wald ’09, an assistant attorney for Ramsey County in Minnesota, met as St. Thomas undergraduates and married in 2010. The couple always had a desire to serve the poor but as their family grew, they came to understand that service wasn’t something that would propel them outside of their home. Rather, the goal became inviting others into their family.
“We’ve always said that we wanted our home to be a place of hospitality,” Jackie said. “Our call was to put our little family first, but that didn’t mean to be insular or isolated.”
Adoption and foster care naturally fit that model of family life and service. They have adopted two children, continue to provide foster care, and open their home on Tuesdays and Thursdays to at-risk youth. They will plan activities like delivering meals, taking a nature walk or visiting a sculpture garden. They might have a fishing day, a farm day or a beach day with the children, perhaps a teen mom and her baby ... Everyone is invited.
“Everything we do, we do it together,” said Jackie. “We’re always asking, can we minister together? And the gift that we’re giving is relationship. It’s not the thing we’re doing but the relationship – contact with our children, with the people receiving the meals. We’re inviting them into a family.”
"[T]he gift that we're giving is relationship. It's not the thing we're doing but the relationship."
Jeff credited his time at St. Thomas in helping to form his approach to family life.
“We heard [the term ‘mission’] a lot at St. Thomas and in Catholic circles,” he remembered, “thinking of the family as a place of mission. ... Sometimes as Catholics I think we can be thinking ‘we’re not out there enough, we need to be out there evangelizing.’ ... We started looking for opportunities to serve the poor as a family. Adoption was another opportunity for our family to be on a mission, bringing people into the life we already have.”
“Sometimes when the [at-risk] boys come over there’s this temptation to entertain,” said Jackie, “They’re 15, 16 and there’s a lot going on, but then I remember, no, this is our home and I’m going to cook and you can join me. Or Jeff will play basketball with them. We’re going to be here for you.”
Jackie added, “It’s what Dorothy Day used to say about ‘presence.’ If I’m serving you soup but I’m not looking you in the eye, I should have stayed in my room. It’s not about the doing or what we accomplish, it’s about acknowledging that you have dignity and being present to you in that moment. I want to listen to you, to hear you, to look at you and through that presence, you experience Christ.”
Relationship and conversion
Living this model of family life is shaping how their kids interact with others. When delivering meals, it will often be the children who notice someone on the street in need.
Jackie said, “The kids will say, ‘Hey, Mom, we have two milks left and there’s someone over there who really needs it.’ There’s no fear in them, instead there’s an urgency to meet the needs they see. ... It connects them back to the reality that our life is a privilege and a gift. ... They are learning to understand and accept the differences between us and not try to make everybody the same.”
Jackie’s Cuban, Jeff’s German, their adopted children are African American and several of their children have special needs. The Walds are very open to discussions about differences in race, especially with their own children.
“It can be a real stumbling block down the road if you ignore the fact that you look different,” said Jeff. “For good or for ill, the country that we live in is very divided and they’re going to have something to say about race to [our children]. So, we talk about it and just try to normalize it.”
This model of family life isn’t easy. In fact, it requires constant, ever-deepening conversion on behalf of Jackie and Jeff most of all.
“I used to live for 7 p.m.,” said Jackie, “or whatever the bedtime was because then it was our time, but there’s something that’s not in the right order when you’re living like that. ... [So] often what I want is comfort, what I want is ease, a cold dark room alone. But I can meet the Lord in that tension, it brings me back to him and I’m grounded again.”
“There’s an opportunity to be a sign of contradiction and a sign of hope,” said Jeff. “The most evident way we can express our hope in society is by having children. It demonstrates not just our hope in God but hope in our country and in the goodness of life.”
More sacrifice, more mercy
After a miscarriage very early in their marriage, Justina ’13 and Matt Kopp ’14 learned in their next pregnancy that they would need to prepare a little more room than expected, four times more. Justina was pregnant with quads.
“I had this realization: ‘I am five people right now,’” said Justina, “and the importance of recognizing all of us as unique people.” And from the beginning, even before their children were born, the Kopps have been intentional about recognizing each of their children as individuals.
“We want to really stress that as parents,” Justina said, “to see them as individuals and not just lump them together as ‘the quads.’”
Because the pregnancy was high-risk, the Kopps were advised to terminate two of their children.
“The doctors kept talking about the dangers to my health and my safety,” Justina said, “There was never any discussion about the very obvious danger to these two children whose lives they were going to take.”
The Kopps told their doctors, “We want to hear your plan for four healthy babies and one healthy mamma.”
“You always hear about the sacrifice that it requires to be parents,” said Melissa Hamilton ’09, “but I didn’t realize how real that was ... it takes every bit of you and every bit of your emotions and time and commitment. It stretches you. It’s incredibly difficult to articulate the impact because it’s so profound.”
Her husband, Ryan Hamilton, added, “I can be incredibly selfish ... but I’ve found that it’s coming quite naturally [to make sacrifices as a dad]. The juice is coming from somewhere – it’s the overflowing mercy of God. He didn’t give me these kids to break me ... he gave them to me to strengthen me. I am able to sacrifice and think of something more than myself and then apply that to other areas of my life.”
"The universality of Catholicism is so important," said Melissa. "What other institution spans every continent, every country, every culture. I can't think of another one."
As they raise their young children during a particularly tumultuous time, not least of all with respect to U.S. race relations, they draw strength from their faith. “It’s the Church’s duty and responsibility to lead on [matters of race relations],” said Ryan. “The Church needs to be the voice of truth.”
“I don’t want to be on any committees just sitting around talking about things or outsourcing [works of mercy],” Ryan said. “I want to be with a community that will go find a family in poverty and uplift them. Bring these people who are marginalized into the mainstream. When you’re ready to do that, come talk to me.”
Ryan and Melissa have been trying to do their part as a family of faith that leads with truth. Ryan was featured on a Catholic podcast and in local and national newspapers this past summer, challenging people to live their faith daily, not just on Sunday: “If people are leading with their whiteness, and it just so happens [they are] Catholic, then that’s the problem,” he said in a June conversation with The Catholic Spirit. “I invite people to lead with their Catholicism, lead with their faith in terms of their worldview, and see where it takes us. I think that will be our role in making things better.”
It’s something Ryan and Melissa want to impress upon his young children as they grow and consider their own identities. “I’m going to tell my kids they’re Catholic,” Ryan went on to say. “I’m going to teach them to lead with that.”