What Does It Mean to Belong?

Belonging means to be accepted some place for who you are, whereas fitting in means you have to change who you are in some way to be accepted. In a sense then, belonging is the feeling we get when we are the recipients of unconditional love – when we are loved just for who we are. That belonging feeling can also happen under other conditions though, such as when we’re in a gathering or community that values us for just the way we are. Whether it’s through unconditional love, an accepting community or some other way, feeling like we belong is a powerful experience.

My hometown Unitarian Universalist congregation was probably the place where I felt like I most belonged when I was a kid. I would roam the halls before and after the service, playing with my church best friend, the Director of Religious Education’s daughter, Megan McDonald. Church was a safe place, a place where I could be myself, a place where I was unconditionally loved and supported by an amazing community. Which is a good thing, because I sure didn’t feel like I belonged at school. And I even had a hard time feeling like I belonged as a young adult, after college. I had a great group of friends when I lived in Philadelphia, and I certainly belonged with them to a large degree. And I was a member of and belonged to the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia when I lived there. But the place where I’ve felt like I’ve really and truly belonged the most, where I was really welcomed, accepted and celebrated for being me, was seminary. It was almost like coming home in a sense… I was with my people. Of course, I also feel like I belong here at our church – I had this deep sense of connection and excitement on the plane on the way back from my first meeting with the search committee that didn’t happen with any other congregation. I remain incredibly grateful for that sense of connection and belonging here, which remains to this day.

Belonging is also not something that always just passively happens. Sometimes, you show up, and you know you just belong. But other times, a sense of belonging is something that is created, over time, through the building of connections relationships. Their perhaps needs to be a fertile ground for belonging to grow and flourish, it’s not the case that anyone can create belonging in any group simply by working at it. But given the right circumstances, a powerful sense of belonging can develop, and that development can involve intent – kind of like some of the intentional relationship and community building we often do in our church community.

I do wonder though if sometimes in our increasingly consumer culture where we’re able to customize so many aspects of our life, that we have begun to we confuse “belonging” with “having everything exactly the way we want it.” Because belonging isn’t about everything being exactly the way we want it – it’s about being accepted for who we are, which is different. For example, while I certainly felt my most profound sense of belonging in seminary, not everything there was the way I would have arranged it. It was a Christian seminary, and while most often that led me to a richer and deeper learning experience as I encountered that which was different from me, there were times where I was just uncomfortable, or wished things were more UU. It wasn’t my ideal seminary, it wasn’t my dream-of-your-perfect world seminary, but it was a great seminary, one where I belonged, despite the occasional discomfort and the frequent challenges.

Being accepted for who we are also doesn’t mean that we are perfect human beings who are never going to be challenged to grow and change. Indeed, this is written directly into the seven UU principles, the third of which states that we affirm and promote “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” There’s an old saying that floats around the church ether that the task of religion is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Being a member of a Unitarian Universalist church community means that sometimes we’re going to be challenged spiritually and emotionally. Spiritual growth and change can be an exciting and invigorating process, where we learn or discover new things and new directions. Emotional growth in change, growing in terms of how we relate to others – that kind of challenge is often more difficult. It can be hard to admit when we haven’t been acting our best selves, or living up to our own values. I know it’s sure hard for me to admit when that’s the case. Spiritual and emotional growth and learning though is part of what we’re to do… even though sometimes it’s not comfortable, even though sometimes it’s painful. And it doesn’t mean we don’t belong here – it just means we’re human, and that we’re part of a community that has committed itself to helping each of us become our best selves.

So. My hope as your minister is that everyone who wants to be a part of our community has that special feeling of belonging here, of feeling like they’re coming home – like you’re coming home. But I also hope we all know and understand that that doesn’t mean that everything is going to be exactly the way we’d like it, or that we’ll never feel challenged. Belonging is important and powerful – and it’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable.

See you in church!

peace, love and blessings,

Rev. Seth