catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 6 :: 2014.03.21 — 2014.04.03


Daring to belong

When Todd reached over and took my hand, the bond was complete. I knew I belonged.

I am a European American with roots primarily in England and Germany. I have lived all of my life in West Michigan knowing that I belong on a tropical island far, far away from gray skies and any hint of ice or snow. My winter escape for this year was to the island of St. Lucia. Located in the Caribbean between the islands of St. Vincent, Martinique and Barbados, lays this largely undiscovered tropical gem.

My fiancé Leif and I arrived at the Hewanora Airport and then taxied to Casa Del Vega in Vigie. Merlyn, the villa’s proprietor, greeting me with a hug as if we were old friends, though we had only communicated by e-mail prior to our arrival. She shared with us the news that she had just had a birthday and then told us we must join her on “the boat” on Sunday.

The balcony next to our room offered a stunning view of the expanse of ocean framed by tropical flora and decorated with the occasional fishing boat or cruise ship. We were sitting there visiting with our new friend, Joe from Amsterdam, when our driver showed up and told us it was time to leave. We asked Joe if he had any idea what to expect and he was as clueless as we were.

We piled into the car and drove in silence to the boat dock. Cars arrived carrying baskets and boxes of food. We helped to load them into the boat, but nobody said “hello” or felt the need to introduce themselves to us. We were simply directed onto the boat where we found an empty bench on the port side of the fishing vessel and claimed our seats. On the leeward side, the rear, up on the captain’s deck and on the bow were about 20 of Merlyn’s closest friends and family.

As we pulled out of dock and began our excursion, the conversation started — not with us, but not excluding us either. The talk was about the history of the island and the people who had crafted that history. Merlyn’s husband Frances had introduced Social Security to St. Lucia and his cousin John Compton had been the first Prime Minister.

The accent was new and the words were fast so we didn’t take in everything that was being said, but more became clear as the talk continued. They were talking about a Frenchman who had fallen in love with a Lucian. But he was from money, maybe even royalty, and could not marry someone who had been “touched with the tar brush.” It took several repetitions of this phrase before its meaning became obvious. This was an expression about skin color, and the examples of blatant racism were not from three or four generations ago, but the experiences of the people on this boat and their immediate friends and relatives.

There was also abundant laughter. There was no hint of anger or resentment in their descriptions or their memories. As they recounted the various successes they and their parents had experienced, they were laughing at those who were too blinded by color to see the beauty, depth and intelligence underneath. They were laughing at the intolerable situations that they had by their own fortitude and merit risen above. They were laughing at the myriad of ways they had proven their oppressors both wrong and ridiculous.  

It was time for lunch and we were given large paper plates filled with rice and peas and chicken wings. We ate ravenously and delighted as the conversation and laughter turned into song and dancing. The joy was contagious and Leif, Joe and I were all captivated by it. With beaming smiles and stereotypically stoic European limbs we looked just like Ian’s parents in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

We traveled the entire west coast of the island, rounded the mighty Pitons and then turned back. A dolphin appeared and jumped playfully in our wake. Eventually we dropped anchor and some of us enjoyed a swim in the ocean and a rest on the secluded black sand beach of Anse Cochon. When dinnertime came we feasted on the delightfully surprising choice of salt fish or lasagna. We drank red wine and even redder sorrel juice.

Then the guitar came out and Monroe began to play. It took a minute to register before I realized that he was singing a Glen Campbell tune! We were transported back to the 1970s and the song track was a medley of Simon and Garfunkel tunes followed by “The Impossible Dream” from Man of la Mancha, “The Old Rugged Cross” and assorted folk and Motown tunes. I cheerfully joined in, quietly at first and with more vigor as our hosts struggled to remember the words of the songs I was raised with, knew by heart and wanted to offer up as my gift to this celebration.

Then Todd reached out for the guitar. Todd had the countenance and the charisma of Bill Cosby. His short white hair and his occasional cringes at the pain of sciatica were the only tell tale signs he offered of advancing years. Todd was sitting next to me and had been paying attention to my voice and the words I was intoning. Now he tentatively strummed the strings and looked at me with a question in his eyes. “Sing, Sing a Song?” he asked as he played the opening chords. I nodded. And together we launched into the song I used to sing with my fifth grade classmates during the “opening” before our classes began each Friday. 

The songs and the singing continued, and with each one Todd played and sang with more confidence. He hadn’t played guitar in 12 years and he seemed thrilled to have me as a song-making partner while the boat began cruising back to port. Finally, he relinquished the cherished instrument and sat back with a satisfied sigh. And then it happened. Todd reached over with his hand and laid it over mine. I wasn’t sure if my hand was in the way and if I should move it when he took my hand in his and held it as a he might the hand of his spouse or his child or his dearest friend.

It doesn’t take all that much to make someone feel like they belong. And we all need to feel that we do. Too often our expectations are negative. We worry that no one will notice us or say “hello.” We assume that we will feel alienated and alone in the midst of others. So we pass up invitations to enter into the unknown with people whom we have never met. But living in fear of being an outsider robs us of the very experience of life and the very joy of community.

This particular outing wasn’t a formal gathering. But it was a “church” in the most glorious sense of the word. In that way, it was perhaps a model of the early Christian community that we read about in Acts. When we read that passage, it seems there was no prearranged purpose no objectives to fulfill and no goals to meet in order to justify the time people spent together. It seems that they gathered together for the shear joy of gathering together — for pondering the lessons of the past, for telling stories, for loving God, for sharing a meal. And people were drawn to the community. So contagious was this fever of the Spirit that people couldn’t just sit by and watch — they had to join in, they had to be a part, they had to belong.

The need for community is in our blood. Human beings throughout all of history have formed themselves into clans and tribes. It is only in our relationships with others that we define who we are. It is in community that we find our identity. In is in community that our sense of esteem grows. It is in community that we gain a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

We need such a group; such a place of belonging — today perhaps more than ever, as we struggle with the realities of broken community, fragmented society and disrupted family systems. There has been much talk and debate over the problem of overscheduled youth, but I wonder if such a phenomenon isn’t a natural reaction in a culture in which people are desperate for a place to belong.

We all know about peer pressure and we all know that it is such a powerful force for our youth because of their overwhelming need to fit in, to be accepted by others, to belong. Add to this need the disruption caused by a mobile society, the reality of divorce and the challenge of newly blended families and how could our kids not be longing for something as stable as a weekly football game? Nor is the phenomenon strictly about the children. How many times do we hear about parents living through their children — finding their own sense of belonging and filling their own need for community as a soccer mom or a baseball dad?

As spring approaches, a heightened time of anxiety comes upon both children and adults as they graduate from high school and college, about to embark on a new journey that leaves behind their place of belonging and calls them or pushes them into the unknown where they must begin to define who they are all over again. 

As we struggle with these times of transition, when we face the realities of brokenness in our own lives, in our own families, in the very fabric of our society, we need more than ever to find a place of belonging. And if we don’t find it, we live more and more in isolation. We experience more and more emotional, spiritual, and social brokenness.

Our model community, the one described in Acts, didn’t devote themselves to mission statements and budget sheets. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. This is a community of learning that shares a life of fellowship, meals, worship and prayer.  

Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. God’s presence and power are manifest in such a community.

They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. There is a sense of mutual caring and compassion that resists an economic system sustained by huge inequalities of wealth and the systematic exploitation of the many.

Day by day they spent much time together in the temple. People know they are part of the community not just one day a week, but 24/7. In community they find identity, esteem and purpose.

They broke bread in their homes and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people — all the people, committed to each other, not bound together by the recitation of lengthy creeds, but by their sense of belonging to God and with each other.

And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Day by day people found community and their sense of place within it. Day by day they proclaimed their own membership in this community through the act of baptism — not a baptism that required three years of training and a commitment to tithe, but a baptism that fulfilled the need of people to know in a concrete way that they belonged. And that, I believe, is the strongest argument to be made for baptism today. It secures not my rescue from hell and damnation, but my sense of belonging in an everlasting community — come what may.  

We are the sacramental presence of God in this world. Communion means that we gather in common to drink from one cup and to eat from one loaf. This communion includes everyone who is seeking to live a God-centered life, the life that Jesus spoke of and exemplified, the life he held out as the promise of resurrection hope.

We are community because we drink from the same cup and we share the presence of the same God. We are not a community based on being Lutheran, Reformed or Catholic, Buddhist, atheist or agnostic. We are instead held together by the common belief that we are all on journeys of faith and that we each have a right to pursue our own relationship with the divine.

This was the passion of Jesus the Christ — that we would each pursue and find our own relationship with the divine. For he told us, the kingdom of God is within you. His example calls us forward to reach those who have not heard, to go ever outward beyond the boundaries that we accidentally raise when we begin to forget about the forgotten.

The vision of Acts 2 breaks into our midst, revealing a scene that proclaims transformation in the face of indifference and despair. A scene that challenges the notion that nothing can change. Here we see that God’s power and our human commitment make for a potent combination. New life takes shape in a community that is inclusive of all, that pursues justice, and that envisions the establishment of God’s reign in a world in which there is plenty for all.  

For such a world we work, we pray and we preach, trusting ourselves to be bearers of God’s good news to others, to invite them into a place where the young see visions and the old dream dreams. Jesus shows us how to shape our community into a life-giving place where the norms of society are unimportant and compassion and sharing and a spirit of love and acceptance abides. I can’t think of any place else I’d rather belong.

You have been called to this community. You, who choose to belong, belong here. And because you belong, you also have purpose. There is something significant that you are called to do in this place. You are to invite others. And with the security of knowing you always belong, you are also empowered and emboldened to step out of isolation and commune with others — even others you know nothing about and have never met before.

It wasn’t until we were unloading the boat, as we thanked each of the people who had allowed us to be part of this incredible experience, that we asked and learned the names of these amazing people who never did introduce themselves to us. It was even later, back at the hotel with Merlyn, that we put together the puzzle of relationships. But it didn’t take those kinds of social conventions to know I was welcome. It didn’t take a formal invitation. It didn’t require anyone asking who I was, where I came from or why I was there.

It just took being human beings in a particular place at a particular time — together. It just took the gift of human touch. Todd took my hand and I knew I belonged.

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