The noise from the crowd was growing louder. With the bases loaded, the stadium was filled with energy as the Cincinnati Reds worked for a comeback. The pitcher took his signs, began his windup, and released the next pitch. That’s when the most powerful moment of the game happened. Just in front of me, blocking the view of the pitcher, was a young father who stretched his arms out and wrapped them around the shoulders of his two sons. His oldest reached up and intertwined his fingers with his father.. There they sat, three young men displaying their affection in the most public of places.
The path to family transformation comes through belonging. Stigmas fall off when we spend time together. Broken belief systems are transformed when we give one another new words and experiences. We’ve recently pursued “felt safety” for this family, when a generous donor called offering to host a few students from Back2Back Cincinnati in a private suite at a Cincinnati Reds game. Felt safety, as defined by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, is “when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so children feel in a profound way they are truly safe with you.”
Another donor offered tickets to an FC Cincinnati Soccer match. We made plans so families could enjoy these adventures together, believing that’s where we would have the greatest impact. As care coordinators, coaches, and specialists we connect children to the safe adults in their community, building a network that can overcome systemic and generational disparities.
After the sweet moment between a father and his sons, I received a text: If you aren’t too busy, could I give you a call about something?
I’ve been in youth and family ministry for over 20 years. No matter the context or neighborhood, a parent asking to talk means there is a complaint or accusation to process, or there is a request for advocacy. I replied with options to connect, wondering where the conversation would go.
Then my phone rang. As Ms. Parker shared, I thought about how much advocacy a mom has to bring when her city has structures of stigma and pressure for a child like hers. Ms. Parker’s son radiates joy and energy, but at nine-years old, he is labeled “wild.” She filters every story, discerning when and how she needs to step in and advocate for his equality.
For this young mom, her son’s safety is her calling.
She isn’t alone. I’ve seen firsthand the way a LatinX father filters the questions we ask, checking if he is going to have to prove, again, he and his children have the right to be there. When activities are offered to the families in our community, the first and most important questions we answer are centered around the location and leadership of the event.
Each parent is really asking, “Are children who look like mine going to be safe?”
We have shifted our focus toward empowering parents, deepening their felt safety with us, so they can create felt safety for their children. This journey has led us to build a community of overcomers at every age. A group of moms gather weekly with Back2Back Cincinnati staff to share a meal and learn about equitable resources offered to families in the city. As children navigate their return to school, we have found ways to engage parents in the journey.
Ms. Parker first spoke tentatively, wondering if it was safe to ask questions. She shared concerns from her history with her son. She wondered if he was going to be labeled a ‘problem.’ She wanted clarification about vocabulary and security at our program. We talked, laughed, and connected over the brilliance of her child. Ms. Foster shared, before the call ended, “I’m only calling because I want to trust you. Back2Back Cincinnati keeps showing up for my family. After a year with you, I want to trust my children to be a part of what you are doing. This is special.”
It is special when fathers wrap their arms around their sons, mothers advocate for each of their children, and God’s people create space for families to believe they belong, too.