Belong – welcoming the powerful stranger
The following reflections are the synthesis of research and pondering in the lead up to the Guinness and God Series hosted by ACU and the Archdiocese of Canberra Goulburn.
Lana Turvey-Collins, Theresa Corson and myself shared our encounters in the Church, discussed what it means to belong and explored what an inclusive church could look like.
The title of our discussion was ‘Belong – Encounter in the Church’ and is the first in a series which will examine the praxis of Belong, Believe and Become, a model which Archbishop Christopher Prowse has proposed for our Archdiocese.
Belong, Believe then Become is actually the reversal of an older process which required new members of a Church community to:
- First become (change the way they lived; repent; act like they belonged there).
- Then believe (change the way they thought; have faith; believe like one of the community).
- Then they could belong (because they had behaved and believed, God forgave them and made them His child. Then they were welcomed into God’s family).
The Become, Believe then Belong model is the extreme opposite of Jesus’s handling of power in the Gospels. Conversely, we see Jesus empowering the powerless, giving a voice to the minority and started by listening to the unique story of each person. Doug Bixby points reminds us in his book ‘The Honest to God Church’ that “our call as Christians is to share God’s grace, not to decide who gets it”.
To belong means to come as you are, not as you should be. It’s a new way of being Church that allows people to be honest and vulnerable and leaves room for grace. The model places a sense of belonging as the starting point and acknowledges the sociological need for connection.
It is human nature to want to belong to something, whether it’s a sporting team, a nation, a culture, a family, or a shared history. Research conducted by Brene Browne led her to conclude that we are biologically wired for connection, that “we are created to belong, and our greatest fear is that we will not belong.” In her book ‘Daring Greatly’ she recognizes that “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.
The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.”
The Belong Believe Become model suggests that anyone can belong, regardless of their orientation, regardless of their beliefs, or whether they are even Christians. They are included, loved, embraced and welcomed. Then, only after belonging, do they begin to hear about Jesus, see Christians acting in counter-cultural ways, and learn about this Jesus who claims to be the Son of God.
Nathan Albert notes that this model is also exemplified through the life of our doubting Thomas who belonged to his community for three years. It was there that he belonged and was intimately known by Jesus and the other disciples. However, it wasn’t until a week after Jesus’ resurrection that Thomas saw Jesus face-to-face. During this week, all the other disciples believed and Thomas continued to belong even though he didn’t believe.
Thomas belonged, believed, and then became. Perhaps he didn’t want people telling him to “change” but instead be told he was God’s beloved.
Challenges of belonging
Jesus simply called the disciples as they were, they didn’t need to change, they just needed to follow.
It is difficult to ignore our uniqueness of nationality, culture, gender, family experiences, sexuality, socio-economic status, hurt and rejection, addictions, shame, disability, misunderstanding group culture, lack of education, mental illness or age differences.
Belonging can be a hard first step, because we don’t feel like we know what we are doing, we compare ourselves to others and don’t feel like we fit in. We don’t know the dance steps and feel out of place. We need someone to show us and make us feel welcome despite all of this difference.
Another challenge to belonging is the tendency to want to be part of a winning team, to follow the victorious, take sport for instance. Sporting team doing it tough, staying loyal, some switch teams or just, others follow a different code, or at worst they stop following altogether. It’s easy to follow a team when they are going well, harder when they are struggling, making excuses etc.
At the end of the day it’s not about your own performance or contribution, you are just a fan, someone to cheer and be a supporter, you can’t really make any difference to what happens on the field, besides the mood.
Pope Francis is calling for Catholics to have skin in the game, to stop viewing life from the balcony and confusing happiness with an armchair. We should be less concerned with commentating on what it means to be a Catholic, and actually start living it daily – that is how we will belong, decide and be.
We cannot belong by proxy. That means living in the mountains and the valleys, where you will get dirty, but there will also be moments of hope and joy. Jesus didn’t say, come follow me on twitter. He literally meant follow in his footsteps, eat, weep, heal and pray.
Belonging creates and undoes us both
In his book titled ‘Finding a Home in the World’, Pádraig Ó Tuama quotes a poem by David Wagoner called “Lost.” And there are these two lines: “Wherever you are is called Here, / And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.” Pádraig says that “powerful strangers can also be unsettling and troubling. And powerful strangers can have their own hostilities and have their own way within which they cause you to question who you are and where you’re from. That is a way within which, for me, the notion of saying hello to “here” requires a fairly robust capacity to tell the truth about what is really going on. That can be very difficult.”
Padraig, a practitioner of conflict resolution speaks eloquently about the inclusion of language, “we infuse words with a sense of who we are. So therefore, you’re not just saying a word; you’re communicating something that feels like your soul. And it might even be your soul. So the choice of a particular word is really, really important.
There is what is in the text and — whether that’s a sacred text or the text of somebody’s life — and then there is the lenses through which you read and interpret that. There is the way within which there’s a generosity of listening. And when somebody says something, to try to figure out, “Did I hear them correctly?” because sometimes I’ve heard what I want to hear, and I might be completely wrong.” Are we creating safe places for belonging to grow? A place where different points of view are heard? Are people willing to speak or is there a sense of pervading fear and silencing of difference?
Belonging gone bad
Cecelia Clegg and Joe Liechty write in their book ‘Moving Beyond Sectarianism’ that “Sectarianism is belonging gone bad” and devised a scale whereby at the lowest point people disagree with each other, but at the highest point they demonize the other person. We can become so defensive of our point of view that the way we do things is at the exclusion of all others.
In my article ‘C is for Catholic’, I ponder what is behind the name calling that goes on between Church communities and list some of the C names which include: Cradle Catholics, Concerned Catholics, Conservative Catholics, Churched Catholics, Conscience Catholics, Charism Catholics, Convenient Catholics, Catechetical Catholics, Creative Catholics, Cautious Catholics, Charismatic Catholics, Cerebral Catholics, Compassionate Catholics, Contemplative Catholics.
My Christian journey has been an eclectic way of being, perusing the smorgasbord of Catholicism and piecing it together on my plate. It’s unlikely that I will ever settle on a single dish. Many Catholics have adopted a nomadic approach and float between seasons in and out of Parishes, ecclesial communities and other Christian Churches which nurture and sustain them.
This model is out of sync with the geographical orientation of Parish.
Virtually belonging and the lone wolf
What does it mean to belong to online faith communities, is it the same as belonging to a community which gathers every Tuesday evening in the Church hall? It’s clear that social media can be used in a very shallow way, but it can also span continents and keep people in touch with the universal nature of the Catholic Church.
Despite the possibilities of online connections, Dr Alan Woodward (Lifeline’s executive director of research and strategy) notes that “young people, despite typically being surrounded by schoolmates and acquaintances, don’t always connect with others in the way they may appear to on their social media accounts”.
For whatever reason, be it a past hurt, fear of commitment or previous disappointment in community, many people chose to walk the path of faith alone. There may be a desire to belong, but it is overshadowed by an inability to trust or find a suitable community that ticks all of the boxes.
However, Pope Francis suggests that “we are not Christians as an individual, each one on his own,” he said. “None of us become Christians on our own,” but rather “we owe our relationship with God to so many others who passed on the faith, who brought us for Baptism, who taught us to pray and showed us the beauty of the Christian life.”
“We are Christians not only because of others, but together with others” he pointed out, describing the Church as “a large family that welcomes us and teaches us to live as believers and disciples of the Lord.”
Belonging to a broken Church
Because of historical sexual abuse, it has been hard to tell strangers that I find belonging at Marist College Canberra and the Catholic Church. Fortunately I have a broad community of people who are supportive of what I do and how much these flawed institutions mean to me. I continue to plug away with good people who believe in what we are doing to help make Jesus known and loved. Sometimes I feel like a new shoot of green leaves, spurting forth from a blackened trunk after a bush fire.
This little branch cannot separate itself from the trunk and go plant itself as its own tree. Even if it could leave the tree, how would it find nourishment from deep underground roots, or shelter from being trampled on? I am happy to stand on the shoulders of those who come before me, to be supported by the traditions of the Church and to acknowledge that bad decisions have been made, that we are not immune to failure and that we will go further together.
Pope Francis says that to walk our path in the shadow of the steeple is not always easy, because “at times we encounter human weakness, limitations and even scandal in the life of the Church”. I would like to disown my Church sometimes, to avoid the shame involved by association, the fear of being labelled, but it’s at these times I remember the good that we continue to do as Church.
Building bridges through stories
In his keynote address at the ‘Othering and Belonging’ Conference, John A Powell explained that “stories are critical to our shared survival as they allow us to suffer together. “How do we build bridges?” he asked, highlighting the main impetus for his keynote address that morning.
“We must hear other people’s suffering and stories. Compassion means to suffer with others.”
“The Circle of Human Concern should include everyone, including those with whom we disagree,” he said.
“We are all a part of each other. We don’t like it, but we’re connected.” “When we connect with someone, we complete a narrative,” Powell concluded. “We tell a story and we suffer together.”
I recently spent time on a Young Professionals weekend for people aged 25-35 and I picked up a new word called ‘vibing’. Vibing describes how a young person is picking up on the atmosphere created by the community who are holding the space. If it’s genuinely vibing, then young adults will feel welcomed, heard, challenged and participate in genuine ways.
However, the recent Synod on ‘Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment’ recognized that “a substantial number of young people, for all sorts of reasons, do not ask the Church for anything because they do not see her as significant for their lives. Some even ask expressly to be left alone, as they find the presence of the Church a nuisance, even an irritant.
This request does not always stem from uncritical or impulsive contempt. It can also have serious and understandable reasons: sexual and financial scandals; a clergy ill-prepared to engage effectively with the sensitivities of the young; lack of care in homily preparation and the presentation of the word of God; the passive role assigned to the young within the Christian community; the Church’s difficulty in explaining her doctrine and ethical positions to contemporary society”. It is clear that we have plenty to do as Church.
Listening to some extremely conservative orthodox young Catholics, it seems that they are looking to escape from modern world, rejecting a constantly changing society, looking for something that demands more than the rest of the world expects of them. Their preference is for the inclusion of all the bells and whistles, the high liturgy, a longing for sanctity.
At face value it looks as though they are clinging to the past, a yesteryear that was simpler and a Church that was more wholesome. On a deeper level, I think there is a sense of safety and assurance in these practices, something tangible and concrete that they can stake their claim of faith on.
In his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit (Christ is Alive) Pope Francis says room should also be made for “all those who have other visions of life, who belong to other religions or who distance themselves from religion altogether. All the young, without exception, are in God’s heart and thus in the Church’s heart.
We recognise frankly that this statement on our lips does not always find real expression in our pastoral actions: often we remain closed in our environments, where their voice does not penetrate, or else we dedicate ourselves to less demanding and more enjoyable activities, suppressing that healthy pastoral restlessness that would urge us to move out from our supposed security.”
In his blog Ted Johnston says, “we are all born into this world belonging— it’s our commitment as the Body of Christ (the church) to help people experience the stunning truth that they truly do belong.
And so we reach out to all people – non-believers included. We know they belong, and we want them to experience that fully and unconditionally. And so we seek to embrace unbelievers. We go, with God’s love, to them. And we welcome them with open arms when they come to us.”
How well do you welcome the powerful stranger called here?
Nathan Ahearne is the Head of Formation at Marist College, Canberra