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let's take a different approach
Sometime last month a short video appeared on social media, featuring sociologist Brené Brown in an interview. She said, “The opposite of belonging is fitting in. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
I hate to say this, but we’ve been doing belonging wrong in our congregations.
We like to think of Unitarian Universalism as an outsider faith, but we also like being insiders. Over and over again we hear people saying they loved finding 'like-minded people’ and felt like they’d found a place to fit in. And certainly the fellowships that sprung up in the mid-20th century seemed to emphasized the insider-in-an-outsider-faith way of being together, as though ‘finally, a club for us.’ People didn’t seem to come to Unitarian Universalism as much as they came from Catholicism, or Judaism, or Protestant Christianity, or other faith traditions. And there they found other refugees, who had various struggles with monotheism, or doctrine, or dogma. Our fellowships - especially those who built in the woods or in affluent suburbs - became havens for people who fit in.
And when those who did not fit in also arrived, well, they didn’t feel like they belonged.
Because while we say words like ‘we welcome everyone’ there can be subconscious judgment. I’ve told the story before about the greeter who stood outside and sent those who he thought didn’t belong to other congregations down the street. And yes, that’s an extreme example - but we often do it in the ways we judge where people live or work, or just the ways they express their gender or sexuality, or how we tokenize people of color, or how we set up expectations of financial contributions, or how we struggle to accommodate accessibility for all in favor of comfort or aesthetics.
But even more subtly than that, we often emphasize congregational culture and a belief that we have a common theological perspective (usually humanism or religious naturalism) and push back (still!) against the language of reverence.
And then we wonder why people don’t stay.
It’s not because they don’t belong. It’s because they don’t fit in.
And as someone who spent probably the first 40 years of her life trying to fit in, let me tell you that it is exhausting when you think you’ve found a community to belong to and learn that you’re on the outside, because that truth about you means you don’t fit in. Again. And you either give up or keep trying, hoping next time will be better.
Look. Half the time we don’t even realize we are expecting people to fit in.
For some of us, when we came into our faith community, our whole selves - with the fullness of all that we are and all we have experienced - were welcomed and we found we belonged. And somewhere along the line, we forgot that we aren’t the measure of all that is welcome; it’s the whole ‘there is no such thing as normal’ idea. We have to welcome others with an openness that says “your whole self, with the fullness of all that you are and all you have experienced, belongs here, and we will learn about you as you learn about us, and we will love you - all of you.”
And we need to not just say it, but do it. We must examine our biases, consider those things we ask of others that are about leaving their whole selves at the door, and make changes to how we welcome each other.
Let’s stop looking for ‘like-minded people’ and start saying yes to true belonging. This is how we draw the circle of love wide.
I feel so lucky that the congregation I joined in 2004 was one that understood belonging, and I found my place in Unitarian Universalism. I don’t take that for granted, and the lessons I learned then and continue to learn about belonging are important parts of my ministry to others - and to myself.