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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 1, 2007

Roles of modern-day godparents

By Vivi Hoang
The Tennessean

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tracy Coleman cuddles godson Nat Howards, 4, while her husband, John, holds their other godson, 2-year-old Frank, at a relative's home in Nashville.

The Tennessean photo

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What started out more than 1,500 years ago as a simple task - presenting a child for baptism - has become a revered but blurry mix of religious and secular duty.

What does a godparent do? In most cases, whatever they, and their godchild's parents, think best. The role may be centuries old, but it's far from anachronistic. People customize everything from their rides to their ring tones to suit their tastes these days, and how they treat godparenting is no different, keeping the lifelong position going strong and its prospects healthy.

"It's this resilient, tenacious tradition that has lost its past," says Lisa Kimball, a lecturer with the University of Minnesota who studies godparenting. "It's lost its connection back to its history. What is its role today? People are inventing it."


The custom has survived the ages but evolved into one fraught with inconsistency.

"There's a sense of familiarity and honor," says Kimball, an Episcopalian and godmother to an astounding 13 godchildren. "But at the same time, there's an absent discourse. It's very public when it gets started and it drifts into privacy, so it may or may not be sustained. There's often either a deep connection or pained distance. That's the paradox."

So what is the role of the modern-day godparent?

People are fashioning it as a quilt of institutional knowledge, tradition and social expectation, Kimball says. The role has largely developed into one of companionship and mentoring, not always with a spiritual component.

"Godparents are there for their friends' children to talk or give advice when they don't or can't talk with their parents," says 45-year-old Regina Hambrick of Nashville, Tenn., who's been by her godson's side since his birth. "My godchild Michael is now 21 years old, and we are still close."

Patsy Sermersheim's best friend, Donna Hazlett, chose her to be the godmother to her first son because she felt Sermersheim could best tell her son who she was if something happened to her.

Sermersheim, 46, sadly found herself having to carry out Hazlett's wishes when Hazlett was killed in a car accident seven years ago at the age of 38.

"I wrote him a very long letter all about who his mom had been and how she had grown and changed," says Sermersheim.

While it's typical for godparents to feel honored to take on such a role, parents Ashley and Michael Jaeger, whose son Elijah was baptized recently at St. Edward Church in Nashville, felt honored when their chosen godparents accepted.

"You actually handpicked and chose these people to do this for you, and you're so grateful they accepted and they want to be there and want to be part of your life and your child's life," Ashley Jaeger says.

John and Jana Blackwell of Smyrna, Tenn., godparents to two unrelated girls ages 5 and 13, characterize their job description as gift-givers, boo-boo fixers and book-readers. Those seemingly ordinary tasks will change as the girls age, but the crux of what they do remains the same, 40-year-old Jana Blackwell says.

"We are there because the parents that created them knew that, at all times, there needed to be people that represented faith and love in a family of God that knows no bloodlines," she says.


The Christian godparenting tradition developed out of the Catholic church, which to this day has very specific rules that govern it. A godparent's job is two-fold: to present the person being baptized and see to the child's spiritual upbringing.

Whoever the parents choose must be at least 16 and Catholic, says the Very Rev. David Perkin, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Nashville.

"In this part of the South where it's predominantly non-Catholic, many times parents of a child to be baptized represent two different Christian denominations," Perkin says. "The Catholic church law requires there be at least one Catholic godparent ... at least one, and preferably two."

If there are two, the pair must be a man and a woman, he adds.

For Franchatta Howard of Nashville, the choice was clear. She picked her cousin Tracy Coleman and Coleman's husband, John, as godparents to her two sons, who are now 2 and 4. Howard says she considered several couples but ultimately settled on the Colemans because they have similar upbringings and values, are spiritually grounded and good role models. "It's a good support system," 29-year-old Howard says. "I know that if (my sons) need something and I'm not readily available, I have two dependable people that can step in and make conscious, sound decisions."


These celebrities helped form extended families with other famous folk:

• Aretha Franklin, godmother to Whitney Houston

• Steven Spielberg, godfather to Drew Barrymore

• Drew Barrymore, godmother to Courtney Love's daughter, Frances Bean

• Jennifer Aniston, godmother to Courteney Cox's daughter, Coco

• Sting and wife Trudie Styler, godparents to Madonna's son, Rocco

• Elton John, godfather to David and Victoria Beckham's two oldest sons