My friend Willie surprised me this past week when he walked in on our ministry with street friends. He was part of the crowd needing services like a shelter voucher, meal, clothing, and toiletries for two years. Then he got housing and came a step inward from the outer fringes of society. My people from the Parker Memorial United Methodist Church got him some basic furniture and kitchen supplies. Willie was off the streets and beginning a life of belonging in a new way.
But even during his two years on the streets there was something special about Willie. He already knew he belonged, even when the larger society didn’t get it. His sense of worth and personality transcended the usual way we see ourselves. I dare say most of us get a powerful case of “less-than” thinking for reasons much more minor than homelessness and poverty. Willie would just walk into the room and he radiated that sense of belonging regardless of his circumstances. I wish we could transfuse others with whatever Willie has.
In the picture above, some of the volunteers for our Open Table ministry are standing together. This was the gang on one of our third Tuesdays, which included people from Mt. Zion UMC, Munholland UMC, Parker Memorial UMC, and several street friends. Willie is right there belonging with the rest of us. And it was natural to have him lead our prayer as the whole group of street friends joined us for our weekly circle: standing in communion, holding hands, all of us belonging in the human family, including those who don’t know they belong. Willie led the prayer after briefly encouraging the group that their situation is temporary, just like his was.
Then he began a prayer to “Our darling Jesus.” That phrase gets me every time. I think the close communion Willie feels with Jesus might be the main source of his sense of belonging. That divine-human connection seems to feed him, as it did when Jesus told his disciples, “I have bread that you know not of.” The feeding is invisible, internal, but I think this really sustains Willie. And right there is a secret of the gift of belonging: belonging is an inside job.
In the times when I have forgotten that I belong, I have been out of touch with my inner communion with the divine. When I have wondered if people will accept me or like me as I am, the question arose from my fear and insecurity, not from my spiritual communion. In Willie’s words, I had forgotten “our darling” for a moment. In such moments I really need to stop, look within, and listen for another Voice to remind me that I belong just as I am.
Communion with the divine is the heart of contemplative practice. So when I call others to these practices, or when God calls others through me, the call is to experience divine communion. This means we need reminders of who our “darling” is, and of whose “darling” we are. And that can bring the ultimate sense of belonging.
Because belonging is an inside job it can help me know I belong with others too. Belonging with others does not come from them. Willie was never looking to others to validate his belonging. He was bringing his inner belonging with him into relationships. That has always made his personality appealing. He could literally have nothing, not know where he would sleep at night, and still somehow know he belonged. As I said in my last reflection: “You gotta get you some” of that.
But how? We can’t just wish to feel that sense of inner belonging. And all of us know what it is like to believe we don’t belong. We can temporarily believe we are too tall/short, fat/skinny, conservative/liberal, poor/rich, old/young, etc. to be acceptable to others. But NONE of that creates belonging. Belonging is really an inside job.
What we can do is set our intention to spend a lot of time with our “darling.” You might not refer to the divine in that way, but you can commit to be with The One Who Loves You So as often and in as many ways as possible. You can open your heart to His/Her presence in the shower, in the garden, at a church, or at a bar, (some of my friends have their best spiritual discussions at bars). You can welcome your “darling” in the grocery store line, at a restaurant, or while you wait on a car repair. You can experience being accepted as you are in a library or at home, in a group or alone, with strangers or with friends, and if you are really lucky you can even know you belong in a family. However you practice God’s presence, you will still learn belonging is an inside job.
When our contemplative practice groups gather all around the New Orleans region you could say we are cultivating that sense of belonging. We are saying to the divine, “I belong in you and so I come to just be with you now.” And when we gather to share with our street friends every Tuesday afternoon we are saying to them, “We belong with you and you belong with us, for The One Who Loves Us So is right here in our midst.”
How do you experience belonging? When do you notice you belong and where do you not experience belonging? I encourage you to do your homework, to practice coming Home as often as possible, because when you are Home you know belonging is an inside job.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, also available as a Kindle book.