Where Do I Belong?
In October of 1977 under the influence of the urge to “find myself,” I decided to buy a 14 day rail pass and go west. That meant taking a leave of absence from my junior year at the University of Delaware. That meant leaving my job at the university computer center. That meant saying goodbye to my family not knowing when I might see them again. I was set for adventure as I boarded the train to Chicago suitcase in hand.
The end of that trip across the country, a trip that stopped in Athens, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Wenatchee and Seattle Washington; and Corvallis, Oregon, was Palo Alto, California. I had worked as an electronic technician summer hire for Hewlett Packard in Avondale, Pennsylvania. I thought I’d have a chance at working full-time for HP in Silicon Valley where their headquarters was.
My first night there, though, staying in a seedy, rundown hotel, (Palo Alto was a little different back then) I wondered if I’d made a big mistake. Did I belong in this new place where I didn’t know anyone? Could I find a job and make a life for myself here?
On Sunday, I figured out where the Palo Alto Unitarian Church was by looking them up in the telephone book (this big book was how we figured out where things were before the Internet). Then I got on the bus that ran once an hour and showed up very early. It was so different with an open air courtyard for coffee hour and single story modern buildings spread out on the property surrounded by tropical plants. As I sat in the service, singing familiar hymns and listing to the minister giving a message that resonated with me, I immediately felt at home. From their bookstore, to the friendly woman sitting at the welcome card table, to the interesting folks I met during coffee hour, I discovered so many similarities with my home congregation in Newark, Delaware where I grew up. These were my people and I immediately felt like I belonged here. I felt confident that as part of this community, I’d have the courage and connections to make a new life here.
Another way I’ve experienced belonging is living communally. My first year in California, I rented a one bedroom apartment that had a balcony that overlooked the complex garbage bins. The price was right at $200 dollars a month. After living there a year the rent went up to $240. I was outraged, gave them notice and rented a room from Peggy, an elementary school teacher who greeted me at the membership table the first day I visited the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. When I moved to Berkeley to finish my engineering degree, I shared a room with a social work student ($82 dollars a month!) and several other people in a three bedroom flat. Every time I moved, it was to move in with at least one other person.
As I was preparing to enter seminary at Starr King School for the Ministry, it was time to move again. I had been living with the family of the co-ministers of the Oakland Unitarian Church, renting a room from them in a large, beautiful home in the Oakland Hills along with two other non-family members. The household had to break up because they lost their lease.
There was an opening in a house near the Rockridge BART stop in North Oakland in an attractive neighborhood. This large home had been a communal space for a Buddhist oriented collective. One meditation teacher and his wife lived there and taught in a large meditation room in the basement. I had taken classes there and come to meditation on Monday nights. The seven other residents in the large six-bedroom home were all older than I was which felt intimidating but we shared a common meditation practice that connected us.
I remember the transition process from being an outsider to this little community to feeling of belonging. It didn’t take a long time. What facilitated that connection process was eating breakfast together in the morning in our shared kitchen. We shared an evening meal together once a week. We had house meetings once a month. We shared chores. We soaked in their redwood hot tub that I maintained and cleaned. By being together we eased into belonging together.
All this communal living has set me up well to be a minister. Albany UU doesn’t belong to any one person. It belongs to all of us. We share it together. Some of us have special responsibilities for its upkeep, cleaning and maintenance. Some of us organize a lot of the activities that happen. All this effort is done for the community, both members, friends, and the larger community. You’ll sense that if you come on the third Saturday when we make a free breakfast. You’ll feel it here on Sunday morning.
In a time when our President is sending a strong message to those outside our borders that he doesn’t want them here; we are creating here a place where people can feel they belong.
We are imperfect in our hospitality. We can inadvertently send non-welcoming messages. Yet central to our message is one of welcome. Core to our values is the inherent worth and dignity of every individual.
If you identify with Unitarian Universalism, you belong here too.