Widening Our Sense of Belonging
Belonging is a strong human need driven by the deeply social nature of human biology. To survive and thrive, we need one another.
There are many ways we satisfy that need for belonging. I had a strong sense of belonging to a place growing up on Dallas Avenue in Newark, Delaware from kindergarten until my junior year of college at the University of Delaware. Throughout my childhood I played in a park behind our house, making trails and forts in the wooded sections. The boys my age who lived on Dallas Avenue fought our arch enemies, the Apple Road “gang,” in mock battles in those woods. I played in the concrete lined drainage ditch that ran next to our house building dams and looking for tadpoles. I grew up with a sense of belonging to that plot of land, a feeling of place I haven’t had since, after many moves, living in many different places.
Many people experience a larger sense of belonging to a place through their city or town, their local sports teams, their state, or their nation. One of the great joys of doing my internship in New York in 1988-89 was feeling at homeness as a New Yorker the way I never felt at home being a Californian. Oh, I loved the weather in the San Francisco Bay Area when I lived there and enjoyed the warm winters in Florida during my first ministerial settlement in Port Charlotte, but I felt so much more at home with the four seasons of upstate New York. More than the weather, the people I met living in Rochester, Buffalo and now Albany felt and feel more like “my people” than many of the Californians or Floridians ever did – though most of the people I knew in both places were transplants from somewhere else.
International travel diminishes those regional differences when one is surrounded by people speaking languages other than English. Traveling in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Germany, Ireland and Romania helped me recognize differences in me from the indigenous population that I might not have noticed otherwise. I knew I didn’t belong in those countries even though I was welcomed.
Beyond geography, people might share the same locality but still maintain distinct identities through their religion and politics. Many of us may not remember the pre-Vatican Two boundaries between Catholics and Protestant. For Catholics setting foot, let alone worshipping in a Protestant space was forbidden. Protestants are notorious for fracturing their institutions over theological differences. Some religious traditions like sects of Islam and Judaism require special head or body coverings, rules about hair display and trimming and dietary restrictions and practices to separate themselves from others.
Thanks to the aggressive politics of our former President, the polarization between Democrats and Republicans has gotten much more extreme. And within each of these parties there are factions that compete with the other factions. All kinds of attitudes and beliefs follow each identification and drive a sense of belonging. As a lifelong Democrat, it would be a major betrayal of my sense of belonging to become a Republican, especially now – though a moderate Republican made that recommendation to me to counter the populist takeover of the party.
What I find quite remarkable about Unitarian Universalism (as guiding lights of our faith are striving to practice it today) is the effort to create a different kind of belonging than these familiar ones.
Belonging can be a challenge for us. We do not have a holy land. We do not have a Mecca we must visit at least once in a lifetime. We have no sacred shrines, though Boston and Beacon Hill may hold a sense of reverence in the hearts of Northeastern Unitarians. We have no nationality that is uniquely Unitarian or Universalist as these traditions have grown up in England, Europe and in the Kashi Hills of India. There is no place on Earth where Unitarians, Universalists or Unitarian Universalists outnumber everyone else. We have no homeland to retreat to if we are persecuted.
Unlike many other religions, adherence to a sanctioned system of belief or unbelief to belong to one of our congregations is not required. Some congregations lean more humanist or theist depending on the people in the congregation and the heritage of that congregation. Yet freedom of belief or unbelief is a bedrock principle of just about every Unitarian Universalist congregation that is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association that protects that freedom in Article II of its bylaws.
While that freedom of belief and unbelief is a defining aspect of our identity, we also have a cultural and spiritual history that has defined us. This freedom would not have been thought of the same way in the early 1800’s when Unitarianism and Universalism were defining their theological differences from their Calvinist Puritan origins. That freedom has evolved and widened into our third and fourth principles: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning and the right of conscience.
So has the Universalist value of God’s Universal Love for all humanity without exception. This Christian centric view has evolved significantly into the statement today of our first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Rather than a place or a belief, what creates the sense of belonging in our congregations are the values that align with these principles. These values find support in many different beliefs and political affiliations. They are not bound to a geography or a cultural identity or an ethnic heritage.
Our congregation is deeply committed to welcoming everyone. Yet extending that kind of welcome is anything but easy as we all suffer from biases. The test of that effort is whether new people coming to our congregation can experience that welcome that creates a sense of belonging.
And we will fail sometimes. What matters is our commitment to that wide welcome. We must commit to learn from those failures, uncover our biases, challenge them, and strive to open our hearts a little wider. We must commit to open to that Universalist Spirit of Love that is the beautiful complement to the Unitarian free search for truth and meaning.