You were always meant to belong without fear.
I attended a retreat in Breckenridge earlier this month. Though I didn’t know it before I arrived, the theme of the retreat was Belonging. I found this ironic; the retreat was hosted by a faith community that I had once been a part of, but had left for complex and painful reasons. My attending the retreat was an experiment to see if I still belonged.
Every year, the women of my former faith community, a tiny Evangelical Presbyterian Church, retreat to the mountains to spend time with God and each other. There is some prayer and singing, some Jesus talk, but there is also a lot of wine, snacks, and raucous laughter, and not a lot of sleep. It has always been a kind of profane and holy weekend, with moms cutting loose away from their kids and multigenerational mingling way past regular bedtimes. It’s so much fun that it has even been worth the severe altitude sickness I get every single year.
When I left this small, close-knit community, I wasn’t sure I would ever attend the retreat again. Then, this year, I heard that the retreat was scheduled for a weekend when I was child-free. I missed my friends. So, I screwed up my courage and decided to go—not knowing if I would belong, or if I’d end up driving down the mountain alone a day early with a bruised heart.
What does that mean, to experience Belonging? What is Belonging?
Let’s start with its opposite. Belonging is the opposite of isolation. It’s the opposite of shame, the opposite of fear. Belonging is also, as identified by Brené Brown, the patron saint of therapists, the opposite of fitting in. (Maybe that surprises you as much as it surprised me.)
Let’s also start with our bodies, the bone-and-breath vessels through which we experience Belonging. For me, Belonging feels like a deep breath. Like relaxation and the release of pain. Like an embrace. Like the prickle of warm tears. Like being the little spoon.
When you belong, you experience unconditional acceptance. When you belong, others delight in your presence, even if you bring nothing with you but yourself. When you belong, all your burdens are shared, and the weight of them hangs a little easier on your shoulders. When you belong, you don’t have to worry about how others perceive you or if you’re doing enough or if you’ve made one too many mistakes or if you’ve overstayed your welcome. When you belong, you are home.
Home is where you kick off your shoes, change into your comfy pants, help yourself to a snack from the kitchen, and stretch out on the couch. Belonging allows our bodies to rest. Belonging allows us to let down our guard. Belonging allows us to be held. Belonging restores our souls.
As a queer Christian, my Belonging is kind of a hot topic.
What harms my belonging with one group qualifies me to belong in another, and most perceive these groups as mutually exclusive. But I am always both things, and within me, there is no incongruence. I think some folks don’t know what to do with me. Maybe they find me (and others like me) disorienting, challenging, or inconvenient. I know I’m not the only one who grew up believing gay was the opposite of Christian, and anybody trying to be both would end up in Hell.
Harsh teachings like that mean that some days, it’s difficult to still call myself a Christian. It’s a cringy term to use, conjuring up trauma for some and well-deserved scorn from others. I think Jesus weeps over what the word “Christian” has come to mean in America today. Even though I grew up finding all my Belonging in evangelical Christianity, even though I speak the language and know the culture—or perhaps because of those things—there is always, always fear when I step into Christian circles today as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I don’t know if they want me anymore. I don’t know if I’m allowed to be there. I don’t know if my voice matters.
If you want to know more about what I think of how the Church has responded to LGBTQ+ people (spoiler: I think the term “spiritual abuse” is appropriate), and what needs to happen next (hint: it has to do with attachment theory), read this post.
What do we do with the absence of Belonging?
We have all felt the painful absence of Belonging: when you used to belong, but don’t anymore; when you want to belong, but you’re drifting; when you will belong somewhere again, but you’re in transition; when you’ve suffered a betrayal, and had your sense of Belonging ripped away from you; when you thought you belonged, but later realized it wasn’t real.
Belonging appears on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as the first thing we seek once our safety and survival needs have been met. As soon as we crawl out from under the rubble, we’re looking for a group to belong to, fellow survivors who need our help or rescuers to care for us. Our biology compels us to seek relationship. Belonging is necessary for life; community is not optional for any of us. But when our Belonging rests entirely in the hands of a group, a community, a family, or an individual person, it is fragile. True Belonging—the kind that can’t be destroyed by rejection, broken by betrayal, or lost by geographical relocation—starts within ourselves.
Before I came out, I didn’t fully belong to myself, and so I couldn’t really belong anywhere else. I wasn’t at home in my own body. There were parts of me that were unknown, unembraced. This sense of unbelonging doesn’t just apply to queer folks in the closet. It also applies to all of us who have trauma we have not recognized, wrestled with, or reconciled; it applies to all of us who have cut off pieces of ourselves in order to be accepted, or silenced parts of our being in order to be loved; it applies to all of us who have lost touch with self-compassion or forgotten how to love our bodies. That is to say, it applies to all of us who are human. Without an internal sense of Belonging, we are scattered pieces; disparate parts living in conflict, fear, and desperation; a kaleidoscope of wounds, the shards of our childhoods. Without an internal sense of Belonging, we ache for kind hands to gather the pieces and fit them back together. This is the meaning of the word “integration”: wholeness, harmony, welcome for the exiled parts of self.
Integration is what allows for the restoration of Belonging.
For some of us, integration looks like figuring out sobriety, or that first terrifying step toward vulnerability or reconciliation with another person, or a long course of trauma treatment. For me, integration meant coming out—and coming out was good for my faith. I know not everyone can say this. For many, coming out—and suffering the rejection of a faith community as a result—kills their faith. Sometimes, the harm is just too great. But for me, coming out led not only to intrapsychic Belonging within myself, but also to a deepening of my spiritual experience of Belonging. After coming out, I carried a sense of Belonging, of being at home, inside my own skin.
The most beautiful part of coming out was realizing that I’d committed one of the worst “sins”—being gay—but my experience of God hadn’t wavered. In fact, it didn’t even flicker. The sun of God’s love only rose higher and shone brighter and warmer. So now I know—with a gut-knowing, not a head-knowing—that nothing can separate me from Belonging. When you do the very worst thing of all, and God only grins...there is nothing that beats that sense of safety.
As the retreat speaker said, “God never withholds Belonging.”
My faith is no longer the faith of my childhood.
I can’t worship with corporate singing anymore—especially not to the old familiar church songs I led on the piano for so many years. The ways evangelical Christians talk about God—immovably masculine, inscrutably holy, aloof and transcendent, the bringer of retributive justice—feel foreign to me now. I’m not afraid to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance in the image of a father-figure who supposedly proclaims his love by killing his own son. Theological debate and traditional hermeneutics have little appeal to me now; the mysteries and contradictions of the Bible no longer keep me up at night.
But Jesus is still the same—Jesus, God-made-flesh, with smile lines and eyes that are quick to tears, big arms that draw me against a chest inside which a real heart beats, and brown skin that smells of sweat and sawdust. Prayer is less formal now, less based on words, but it’s richer and more embodied than it used to be. The old focus on sin and “sin nature” has faded, replaced by an identity of being beloved, of possessing unstained goodness in my core. I can’t read the Bible as often as I used to, but when I do, the words of God on the page never come in a stern or angry voice anymore. I’m so much less afraid. I don’t worry about having emotional highs or rapturous spiritual experiences; I’m grateful when those moments happen, but I don’t seek them as proof of God’s love anymore. Having God in the everyday experiences of my life sustains me in a way it never did before. I no longer feel that my faith requires me to be at war with myself—or with anyone else. I have a deep hunger to connect with others spiritually, to share my encounters with Spirit and hear their experiences of Divine Love; other faiths are no longer threatening, and my understanding of God is only enriched by others’ spirituality, never diminished. The whole world feels more sacred than it used to, because now I know that everyone in it is precious.
We all belong. We’re all headed home together.
So, I bet you’re wondering, How was the retreat?
Well, it was actually pretty fun. It was also hard. I got another nasty case of altitude sickness. I had some difficult conversations, and some moments where my heart felt a little too tender, like a bruise that hasn’t healed just yet. But I was able to share parts of myself with friends that I had withheld for a long time, and I received so much kindness. In the formal sessions, I had a chance to examine the importance of Belonging, but in the time in between, over drinks, curled up on couches, breaking bread, I got to experience it in a visceral way. Paradoxically, I never felt that level of Belonging in the years before I left the church; I think I had to become more integrated to be able to receive it.
The gift I took away from that weekend were these words from God: “You were always meant to belong without fear.” I hope those words can be a gift to you, as well, wherever you are in your journey of Belonging.
We’re all headed home together. If you can, find some time to paint a picture of what home means to you. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an image of what home means to me: Home is a porch at sunset. A pungent citronella candle burning to keep the bugs away. Four mugs of decaf black tea steaming together on a scuffed tabletop. A blanket over my shoulders because the air is getting chilly. Home is sitting with those who have loved me longest and hardest—Mama, Ruach*, Jesus—sharing playful teasing, laughter, warm silence, a little reminiscing, some homemade cookies. Home is a love that is just as ordinary and immanent as it is mysterious and transcendent, a love that soothes all pain and ends all fear. Home is perfect Belonging.
*Ruach is a feminine noun in Hebrew, the term for “spirit,” “wind,” or “breath”; in this context, it means the wind of God’s breathing, the living essence of God, or the Holy Spirit.