“Minding the Gap” Explores Family Breakdown Through the Eyes of Young Men

By Meg Biallas Henry

In my home state of Illinois, if you drive about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, you’ll find yourself in Rockford, Illinois.

Regularly ranked among the country’s “worst cities”, Rockford boasts an unemployment rate of 7.7%, making it the highest in the state, “well above the 4.9% annual joblessness rate.” And with a crime rate four times that of the national average, people aren’t exactly flocking to the sleepy Midwest town.

Many residents are looking to leave Rockford – among them Keire and Zack — both young men and friends of filmmaker Bing Liu, a Rockford native himself. Compiling over 12 years of footage following the lives of Keire, Zack and other Rockford residents, Liu’s documentary, Minding the Gap was recently nominated for an Oscar in the category of Documentary (Feature).

How Intergenerational Violence Leads to Family Breakdown

While the film could be just another moving portrait of blue-collar America (there is some of that), or an inspiring story of skateboarders trying to hold onto their youth a little bit longer (there’s some of that too), Liu manages to weave a more complex narrative:  the cycle of intergenerational violence that often leads to family breakdown. With each interview and outtake, viewers quickly realize how acts of domestic violence disrupt and destroy the family unit.

We learn that Liu’s mother remarried when Liu was a young boy. While interviewing his mom on camera, Liu confronts his mother about the abuse he was subjected to by his stepfather. “Did you know that the first time I was alone [with my stepfather], was the first time [he] grabbed me and beat me? How much did you know about what was happening? You were always working.”

One of the documentary’s subjects, Zack, becomes a father during the course of filming. He wrestles with understanding his own parents’ domestic disputes, while trying to be present for his newborn son, Elliott. His seasonal employment as a roofer doesn’t give him the hours he needs to provide for his girlfriend Nina and their son. In one disturbing scene, we hear audio of Zack beating Nina. Liu, in an attempt to be a friend, but obviously caught in the middle, approaches Nina tentatively with deep concern: “How do you think I should approach [to Zack that I know] that he hit you?” Liu asks Nina. “Don’t,” Nina tells him flat out.

The hesitation to confront patterns of abuse is consistent even with Liu’s friend, Keire, whose father was violent towards him. “How long did you get disciplined for?” Liu asks. Keire clarifies with a sheepish grin, “Well, they call it child abuse now…”

The documentary is a time capsule of the joys of youth (the enjoyable skate scenes), but jarring when juxtaposed against family tension, fears of retribution and shame for past behaviors.

Family as a Vehicle for Human Flourishing

As Christians, we understand that God created family as the structure within which humans are made to flourish. The family is the most basic human structure and should act as a sacred space that fosters growth and development and nurtures love and respect. Families, in fact, are intended to “nurture and manifest the image of God in each person,” writes Rachel Anderson in Time to Flourish (Center for Public Justice, 2018). Indeed: God created the family in such a way that through it we might see the imago Dei.

God created family as the structure within which humans are made to flourish

While the film often paints a bleak picture of family life, there is one example that demonstrates what it could, and should, look like. At one point in the film, Zack’s girlfriend Nina moves in with her with aunt and uncle – into a home that is clearly more healthy and stable – loving, even: “[My aunt and uncle] would always want to hug me, and I would back away,” she says, as if uncomfortable with the signs of affection. “Before living [with them], I didn’t know what a real family looked like,” Nina confesses.

We know that things are not as they ought be: families should be havens for safety, love and nurturing. Children should not fear the adults who profess to love them, nor should one parent fear the other.

What Happens When Family Fails?

Christians understand that there is sin and brokenness in the world – and that it seeps into every institution, including the family.

We also know that when domestic violence is at work, it is often tied to other systems of injustice. For the young men profiled in Minding the Gap, we see the struggle to complete high school, to provide for a family on the paycheck of hourly-wage and seasonal work, not to mention the systemic injustices tied to race and class.

Yet there are institutions set up to step in when the family unit breaks down. When parents separate, there is alimony to ensure the the child’s basic needs are met. When a parent is unfit to care for their child, there is a foster care system designed to step in and provide a safe environment.

The Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on the Family clearly states the role of government as it relates to family:

Government’s policies should aim to uphold the integrity and social viability of families, which do not exist in a social, economic, or political vacuum. Public policy should, therefore, take carefully into account the ways that other institutions and the dynamics of society impact families positively and negatively from the earliest stages of family formation on through to the last stages of elder care.

This should prompt us to consider the ways in which government and other institutions do – or do not – strengthen families. Certainly the government and the Church on their own are not responsible for a family’s health, but they do have a vital role to play.

Uplifting Families Amid Brokenness

The effects of child abuse are staggering: poverty, divorce, incarceration, and most often, a continuation of the cycle of violence. Yet God is on the side of the oppressed – he hears their cry (Psalm 147:3).

For those on the outside looking in, God calls us in our role as citizens to care for our neighbors (Mark 12:30–31). Family violence is just one example of factors that contribute to family breakdown. Consider the ways key institutions can support the family unit to nurture healthy families and create a generational cycle of care–rather than violence:

Churches, faith-based nonprofits and networks like Project 1.27 and Ignite Hope can help support families, especially in temporary situations, when a home environment is unsafe or unstable. By training church congregations for a number of roles, including short-term placement, kids have respite and refuge while the caregivers get back on their feet. Consider Nina’s situation: facing daily exposure to an abusive boyfriend, she was able to move in with her caring aunt and uncle. Yet some parents don’t have this option. A temporary host family, like one through a Project 1.27 church network, could offer Nina and her son respite from a dangerous home environment. The Church – and by extension, faith-based organizations – is uniquely positioned to be the hands and feet of Jesus. In addition to meeting the felt needs of children and families, Christians can offer “spiritual wrap-around services of prayer...and encouragement” through ministry work like that of Ignite Hope, a faith-based organization that exists to support the modern-day orphan through prayer in the public square.

Employers can enact policies and practices that enforce consistent work schedules and designated days of rest, to ensure that parents have quality time at home. When we learn more about Liu’s mother, we find out that her irregular work schedule made it convenient for Liu’s stepfather to beat him. “He was home with you all day,” Liu’s mother confesses, sorrowfully reflecting on the harm that was done to her son while she was at work. Employers can build in ways for parents to be more involved with their children’s education. In a reported article for Public Justice Review on parent involvement, Bekah McNeel writes that some schools in high-poverty districts “try to adapt their expectations and messaging”, helping parents focus on core activities, such as reading to their children and getting them to school on time. As just one example, employers could supports these efforts by allowing a flexible start and end time to the workday so that parents can be present for drop off, pick up and creating margin for good developmental practices like homework and reading. These family-supportive workplace practices can provide healthy boundaries for families that experience the stress of hourly or shift work in tension with meeting their family’s physical, psychological and spiritual needs.

Policymakers can create family-supportive policies that enable families to flourish, while honoring both marketplace and caregiving work (see CPJ’s principles on family-supportive policies). In particular, public policy can address systemic barriers to family stability, such as addressing historic wage gaps that contribute to cycles of poverty. One area that has generated interest on Capitol Hill is paid family leave. A number of proposals offer some creative solutions so that workers can adequately care during seasons of caregiving. In the film we see that Zack and Nina, both shift workers in the contracting and hospitality sectors respectively, have little to no options when it comes to planning for time off when their son arrives. While certain (often larger, or multi-national) employers can pave the way in setting a good example for healthy workplace practices and benefits, public policy offers broader, long-lasting support to families like the ones featured in Minding the Gap.

Film is a powerful medium for storytelling, and documentaries in particular can help us see the imago Dei in those whom we might not otherwise know about or stop to consider. Minding the Gap focuses on the individual lives of Keire, Zack and storyteller Bing Liu, prompting us to develop empathy for their home life, their circumstances, and their challenges. But they are just three friends, living in one town. What about any number of other households in America? What pain and hurt is lurking behind those front doors?

Minding the Gap reveals the ugliness of family violence, but it’s just one way the family unit can disintegrate. If we understand our God as one who desires flourishing for all created beings, including those in broken families, we should consider how God calls us to work through the Church and other institutions to play a role in achieving that end.

Meg Biallas Henry is the Director of Communications for the Center for Public Justice.

Minding the Gap is available for streaming on Hulu, and through the POV documentary series from PBS. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or intimate partner violence, you are not alone. Get help and learn more at thehotline.org and RAINN.org.