“Belonging” seems to be a new buzzword. Everywhere I turn at my university people are talking about how students leave because they don’t feel that they belong, or we come up with new programs to help students feel that they belong here (so they won’t leave), or students tell me directly that they don’t have a sense of belonging or that they don’t belong at their church. From what I can put together, everyone seems to mean that they feel like they belong when they know other people care about them, when they feel warm about being in a place, or when they meet other people just like them. By and large, we’re all talking about how to feel loved by others. We know we belong when people are nice to us.
It’s not that these things aren’t true. They’re just insufficient. Belonging is more than this. I spent two weeks this summer volunteering at a children’s camp in upstate New York where I used to work, and the vision of life they offer there is one where everyone belongs. Campers, volunteers, and staff will all talk about exactly that: in each person’s peculiar weirdness, they feel they belong there. I’m not convinced the secret to Camp Fowler’s sense of belonging is simply that people are nice. I think they’ve figured out something else: the power of contributing to a community.
At Camp Fowler, everyone is family. You belong because you are part of us. And because you belong, because you are part of us, you participate in the life of the community. At each meal a cabin of campers and their counselor serve as “jumpers”: setting tables, clearing tables, getting refills of the dishes for tables. Each day campers clean their cabins, including the half-bath in each cabin. At the end of each week, campers clean the cabin fully to be ready for the next week’s campers. Campers help get canoes down from the racks to go on their day trip and put them away again when they return.
Even better than shared work, Camp Fowler is a community where people point out others’ gifts and ask them to offer those gifts to the community. Often, I’ve overheard the director tell a camper or a staff person, “That’s really cool! Would you share that with us at this meal or this worship service?” Campers tell one another, “You’re really good at that song! You should sing that for the camp lullaby!” A volunteer last week told a high-school camper: “You know a lot about Scooby-Doo and are a great storyteller—would you lead the trivia for this meal?” So much more than telling someone they have an interesting talent for a talent show, we point out gifts that serve the life of the community. And when someone brings a slightly different version of a camp song from somewhere else, we incorporate the new verse into the song we love so well.
When people are guests, we serve them. We are nice to them. We take care of them. But then they are always guests, not fully part of the life of the community. By serving and being nice we keep them at a distance, keep them in some kind of outer ring. If they are family, however, we expect them to clear their own plates and help clear others’. I glimpse this at camp, and I wonder if maybe the church could take a note.
Paul calls Christians “brothers” and “sisters.” The earliest Christians took this call seriously and became a new kind of family. Other early Christians used to discern who would make a good pastor or bishop and ordain them whether that was the person’s wish or not (sometimes they even kidnapped them to make sure it happened, but I’m not sure we need to go that far). If Christ really is the firstborn of all the brothers and sisters, really has created a new family, then our churches need to think about how people belong in a family. Our various Christian communities need to stop keeping people as guests and ask them to contribute. And those who enter these communities need to look for ways to contribute, decide to join the family. Volunteer to help clean up the potluck, ask someone new to babysit, join the church council or a committee, ask a person to read Scripture in worship, take someone a meal, get involved in one another’s lives in real ways.
Community is not an abstract concept, and neither is belonging. Both are lived realities, and it is only in living together in the concrete exigencies of each other’s lives that we will become the community Christ has made us. When we point out one another’s gifts and ask each other to offer them, when we expect each other to contribute to our shared life, we will all understand that we belong. We belong to one another and to Christ, who expects us to participate in his life every day.