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belong

House in Charlottetown, PEI
This past month, I had the privilege of setting foot in parts of Canada that I have never been to before. I traveled to Prince Edward Island for a Vineyard gathering and got to spend some time wandering the streets of Charlottetown, strolling along the scenic boardwalk, and eating the best ice cream in the nation (that's what it said right on the store window). As I walked around the quaint city, I had a faint sense of not belonging, of being a stranger. It was a bit odd because I don't usually feel that way, even in foreign places, so I decided to look into the idea of "belonging."

Be-long: be (an intensifier) + longen (old English, "to go"). Basically, "belong" means to go along with, to properly relate to. In our common usage, the word denotes acceptance (of a person) or possession (of a thing). However, the original meaning of the word is much more active than our contemporary, more passive usage. Instead of having someone confer belonging on us as a person, we actively choose to belong by walking with someone, by properly relating to them. Interesting.

What was even more interesting was the talk I heard after I started pondering the notion of "belonging." In one of the sessions, Terry LeBlanc, of Mi'kmaq descent, talked about the history of First Nations people in the Maritimes. The first thing he mentioned was how he felt at home when he came to Prince Edward Island, because this was where his ancestors were from. Well, now it was starting to make sense that I, a third generation European immigrant to Canada, would feel like an outsider in the land of the Mi'kmaq people. Terry outlined the tragic history which unfolded after the Europeans came to North America, and it was sobering to hear about the deliberate steps taken to strip this land's residents of their identity, their culture, their livelihood, and their future. Listening, truly and humbly listening, to the voices which have been historically silenced is an important part of healing and reconciliation. So we listened. And then we sat in silence. What else could we do?

Let me reframe this shameful history in the context of belonging. The First Nations people who truly belonged on (properly related to) the land were aggressively and unfairly displaced by people who did not belong there. Not at first, anyway. The immigrants could have belonged, they could have walked together with the First Nations, they could have learned to rightly relate to this new land and its indigenous people, but instead our interloping ancestors chose to conquer, to subjugate, to dominate, to eradicate. Belonging was interpreted as taking possession, not offering to walk together in mutual respect.

In our church communities, we don't do "belonging" very well, either. We attribute a sense of belonging to being with people we relate to, to hearing music that is to our taste, to sitting in comfy seats and drinking good coffee and being welcomed by an enthusiastic greeter, to having people know our name, to gaining a position of influence. We think belonging is basically the result of good customer service, and if we don't get that feeling of being valued, if we believe we are not being treated with enough deference, we walk away. But none of the perks of Western church culture mean that we belong. Belonging only comes by doing the hard, humble work of walking with someone because we choose to, not because they make us feel all warm and tingly and secure. Belonging is saying, "I choose to walk together with you, to be bound to you in a mutually respectful way. I choose to honour you as a person, I choose to be changed by you and to adjust my journey because of you. We belong to each other, so let us walk together, let us make this a journey of joint discovery because we are better and stronger together." Belonging is a familial bond, not a tentative sociological construct.

Jesus called his disciples with a simple phrase, "Come. follow me." There was a lot packed into those few words. Jesus was saying, "Let us walk together. Join your story, your history, to mine. Let me show you what it means to belong, to bind yourself to another, to rightly relate to God and your fellow human beings."

The call is still the same today. Come. Belong. Walk together. Let us learn to do this better.


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