On the Journey of Belonging

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What is belonging? Erik Carter, a researcher who has identified ten dimensions of belonging, has observed that a desire to belong is not a “special need.” In fact, belonging is a very ordinary need shared by nearly everyone with or without disabilities. He writes, “If these ten dimensions of belonging reflect our deepest needs, they seem pretty universal. These are everyone’s deepest needs.”

A sense of belonging can’t be measured by the people around us; it is something only we who want to belong can determine. Here’s a true story about how my congregation, Chelwood Christian Reformed Church, saw belonging in action.

About a year ago several participants and their caregivers from a nearby group home began attending worship. One of the participants chose to sit in the front row rather than in the back with his housemates. Each Sunday, “Tom” lined up his bear, tiger and books. Each Sunday we all shook hands with Tom, the bear and the tiger during our greeting time. Each Sunday when he saw me walk to the front and pick up a microphone, he smiled and pulled out of his pocket a microphone he brought from home. For many weeks he lined up everything in the front pew, then sang into his microphone whenever we sang. His entire face lit up during this part of worship.

One Sunday morning, Tom stood to sing, then moved to the front, sandwiching himself between two of us. He grinned at me, laid his head on my shoulder, and lifted his microphone to his lips. Concerned that his caregivers would think this had violated some boundary, I told them how overjoyed I was to see this demonstration of moving from inclusion to belonging. He’s part of the worship team in front every Sunday morning, sometimes with his tiger, and always full of smiles ready to praise God, knowing that he truly belongs.

This journey started over thirty years ago when we received a call from a mom who asked us if her son could come to our church. No one else wanted him. Today, twenty five percent of our congregation is persons with developmental disabilities from three group homes and other independent living facilities. When we asked ourselves “where is God working,” we only had to look around the room.

To us, belonging means that everyone's gifts are used including taking the offering, serving on the worship team, folding bulletins and taking turns as greeters and coffee hosts. One friend serves as a member of our Leadership team and attends Council meetings. We’re not running a program; we have a community.  

Erik Carter states that each dimension of belonging can be addressed within a faith community. We have been using these ten dimensions to assess what’s going well and what could be done better in congregational life. We interviewed each other in our leadership team and in the congregation. We listened to stories and gave examples. 

Carter’s ten dimensions also provide guidance on our journey. They’ve become a reality check to celebrate our strengths and a guide to find support for our weaknesses. We make action plans focusing on one or two dimensions at a time. We’re telling our story on Facebook.

Used this way, the ten dimensions tool have helped us become more intentional in our focus. We decided that if we were going to move beyond inclusive and accessible, we needed to acknowledge that this is our calling. We can’t just say, “We welcome everyone!” We needed to identify what that means in Albuquerque.

So now we say, “We believe that each of us is created in God’s image. God values each of us and invites us, with arms open wide, to continually develop a more vibrant relationship with Him. Therefore, we welcome persons with developmental disabilities, their families and their caregivers to join us as we explore what this means for all of us. We’re not experts; we’re seekers. This journey must be taken with grace. We’re looking for those with a similar heart and passion to search out what it means to all live in faith together.”

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