From Being to Belonging

As we celebrate the new members (more than twenty!) who have joined the church this past year, Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Nathan Rivera reflect on what it means to "belong." How do we move from merely "being" somewhere to gaining a sense of "belonging," and what shifts occur both within us and in our relationships as we make that transition? 

Sermon - "From Being to Belonging"

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine, back to the year 1964. I was seven years old and I remember the day that I became a Junior Forest Ranger. Those of us of a certain age will remember the ad campaign started by the National Forest Service in which Smokey Bear reminded us that we could prevent forest fires. That campaign has lived on long after Smokey’s death and continues today. Back in 1964, kids could actually send away for “membership” in the National Forest Service. I was so excited when the mail arrived and there was a small manila envelope with my name on it. I tore it open and there was a membership card with the Forest Service logo, a patch, and a letter welcoming me as a Junior Ranger. It was the first time that I had ever joined any kind of club or organization, and I was proud to be a member. The responsibilities of membership were pretty limited: I had to keep an eye out for forest fires and report them, which never happened. And I had to be sure not to start one myself which, thankfully, never happened either.

Now let’s fast-forward to 1971. I was fourteen and I joined another club. This one was the Columbia House Record Club. Do you remember them? It seemed like a good idea at the time, because if you signed up to become a member, they sent you a dozen records for a penny. I was excited to join because this offer sounded great. Until I realized that I had signed on to buy records from Columbia House for the rest of my natural life. It wasn’t a club. It was basically a scam. Although I did enjoy those twelve records all through high school. Jumping ahead another five years, I found myself joining again. This time, fortunately, membership was more meaningful. I was in college and joined a fraternity. As a fraternity brother it was the first time that I felt like I really belonged to a group other than my family. I lived with my fraternity brothers. I ate and drank and occasionally even studied with them. We had a secret handshake that we had to learn for our initiation (and never used again), and the initiation itself was a shared experience that helped to solidify a common bond. While I acknowledge that fraternities are fraught with all kinds of issues, I made friends with other members that have survived the test of time.

One more story of joining. The year was 1986, and Irene and I were living in Yarmouth, Maine. We had two young daughters and didn’t know many people beyond a handful of friends at my work. We were in search of community. A place to make connections that we hadn’t yet made in the few years since we’d moved to Maine from Washington, D.C. And we were looking for a place that would help us raise our kids with the values that were important to us. Does this story sound familiar to any of you? Without really knowing anything about it (this was long before the days where you could sit and research churches on the internet), we walked into First Universalist Church. And we immediately felt at home. We were welcomed. Our children were welcomed. We met others like us, people who shared our outlook on life. People who didn’t force you to believe what they believed. Most of you here know what that felt like, because you experienced it yourselves. We were drawn into the church, quickly became members and, as they say, the rest is history. In very short order, it became a place where we felt we truly belonged.

I offer up these experiences because they illustrate different types and different levels of belonging. If it’s helpful, we can picture them as concentric circles, with movement toward the center or the core. On the outermost ring we have things that pose as clubs and merely promise belonging, but like the Forest Service and the record club are basically ways to get you on their mailing list. This outer ring might also include groups and organizations that produce what I call “affiliations.” They don’t demand much of us, nor do they offer us much in return. We can call ourselves members, we can say that we belong, but membership doesn’t mean very much. When I make a financial contribution to WHYY or to WXPN, they tell me I’m a member and they send me their newsletter and emails about “exclusive opportunities,” but I don’t feel a strong connection to them, or to others who are “members.” On this outer ring, the bonds are loose and tenuous, and the relationships are often transactional. I want to continue to listen to good music on my car radio, so I send XPN some money every year, and there’s little more to it than that. I’m a member, but there’s little sense of being a part of the organization.

Moving in from this outer ring toward the center we find groups that involve deeper connections. Picture a neighborhood association, a food co-op or perhaps a local political organization. These groups exist to pursue a common purpose and to promote shared interests. You tend to get to know others, either by attending organizational meetings or by engaging in a common activity. It might be a neighborhood clean-up day, periodic business meetings, or a rally for some common cause. There’s a little more investment required of us at this level of association. Investment of time and energy, and maybe money, too. These associations present us with the chance to meet others and form bonds that exist outside the organization themselves, but for the most part our interactions are task-oriented. We come together to get something done.

And then there are the places at the center of this model. At its core. There aren’t many that I can think of, to be truthful. These are the places where we’re brought together for common purpose, to be sure, but where the bonds we form surpass that purpose. These are the places where we can know others and be known by them. Where we are accepted for who we are, just as we are. Where we can love and be loved. Places where we can build bonds of trust and respect that we can’t or don’t find elsewhere, even with our own families of origin, because familial relationships are often fraught with so much baggage. These are places where we can be our authentic selves, or explore what that means if we’re not sure, without fear of judgment.  These places that I’m describing are places of true belonging. And I’d like to think that our church is, or can be, one of those places for all of us.

Dr. Kenneth Pelletier of the Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention says that “A sense of belonging appears to be a basic human need – as basic as food and shelter. In fact,” he writes, “social support may be one of the critical elements distinguishing those who remain healthy from those who become ill.” We say it all the time here, not only to remind ourselves of the truth of the statement, but as a statement of our desire to make it true: We need each other. We yearn for that sense that others are here for us when we need them and the security that comes with it. As human beings, we also have a basic need to be part of something larger than ourselves. To feel in our finite selves that we’re connected to a greater, perhaps even infinite, “Self.” It is within such communities of belonging that we can seek and discover our purpose. It’s within such communities of belonging that we can make sense of our lives, seeing ourselves not as independent actors, but as completely and complexedly inter-dependent. The poet John O’Donohue reminds us: "We can have all the world has to offer in terms of status, achievement and possession, yet without a true sense of belonging, our lives feel empty and pointless. Like the tree that puts roots deep into the clay, each of us needs the anchor of belonging in order to bend with the storms and continue toward the light."

Just as there are these concentric circles of association, from the loose and the lax to the central and the complete, so are there similarly corresponding levels of our own involvement and commitment. Because we can choose, even within the context of one of the core organizations like this church, we can choose to be on the margins, to stay on the fringe. We can choose to remain at that outer layer where connections and commitment are minimal. By our bylaws, all it takes to be a member of this congregation – to technically “belong” – is to sign the membership book and make a minimum financial contribution every year. We don’t even have to show up on Sunday morning, or ever, for that matter.

We can, too, stay in that next ring in. We can do more than the minimum that’s required, but less than the maximum that’s available. We can come on Sunday morning, sometimes, if we’re not too tired from our busy week. We can occasionally volunteer to help set up some tables for an event. We can make a pledge and put some money in the basket and bring a few jars of peanut butter for the food bank. Maybe show up for a rally or bring a meal for our homeless families if it doesn’t conflict with something else on our calendars. Maybe we’ll even serve, albeit grudgingly, on a committee now and then, if the person asking seems appropriately desperate. I will confess to you that, when Irene and I joined the church in Yarmouth more than thirty years ago, this was my level of involvement for a long time. Irene was the one who jumped in with both feet and, within a matter of months, was chair of the Religious Education committee and helping to organize the annual auction. I, on the other hand, held back, unsure of how much of a commitment I was prepared to make. So, if you’re in this middle ring that I’m describing, I get it. I’m not putting anyone down for being there themselves. But I can attest to the fact that, until I moved from the middle to the center, I didn’t know what I was missing.

Because at the center, where we commit fully to the church and its members, is where we find true belonging. What does it look like if we take our commitment to and involvement with the church to its highest level? We engage fully with opportunities for participation. We make showing up for events and activities a priority in our lives, not just an addendum to our lives. We extend our kindness and care to others not out of obligation, but as part of a larger spiritual practice of compassion. We think creatively about where the church is headed and how we might help it to get there. We say “yes” – joyfully -  when we’re asked to serve. We see ourselves as integral to the church and the church as integral to our sense of self. In that way, we take ownership of the institution just as the institution becomes central to our own lives.

Belonging is not a spectator sport. It doesn’t happen by sitting on the sidelines, wondering or worrying why, given the promise of the church, we’re not feeling it. We need to walk toward it. Meet it half-way. If we want “our longing to be” as writer Peter Block calls it, to be affirmed, nurtured, and cultivated, we need to find ways to invest ourselves in the church, its activities and, most of all, its people.

There is no wrong or bad place on this continuum from the edge to the center. If you’re here for the first time, if you’re just dipping your toe to see how it feels, we welcome you. If you’ve spent some time with us and are considering joining the church, we’re glad you’re here. Maybe, like those we recognize today, you’ve taken the step of formally becoming a member but you really haven’t found your footing yet and are still looking for ways to get involved and to build relationships. That’s wonderful! We urge you to keep moving toward the middle. And for those of you who lead, those who show up day in and day out, those of you who teach Sunday School and are part of Soul Matters groups and who stay overnight when we host homeless families and who joyfully say “yes” when asked to do just about anything here in the church, I say “Bless you and thank you.” You get what I’m talking about, right? You belong to the church because the church belongs to you.

This congregation, this church, will ultimately be what we make of it. It’s like the Beatles say on their Abbey Road album, which I’m pretty sure was one of the records I got in that pile for a penny back when I was 14 years old: “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” May we – all of us – make our church a place where our deepest longings can be realized and fulfilled. A place not just where we can be, but a place where we belong, each to the other, each to all.

This day and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.

Closing Words - from the writer and activist Starhawk

We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been — a place, half-remembered, and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.