I grew up in a small town in eastern South Dakota. My entire grade in school had under thirty kids, so we all were very familiar with each other from kindergarten on. You might think that knowing each other that well and that long would mean we all felt connected and close, but like most places you go we had the “in” groups, and we had other groups, and we had outsiders. Especially up through 7th grade, I tended to be an outsider, never confident that I belonged in any of the groups. The more visible the “in” group was, the more ostracized and inadequate I felt.
When I started attending my church as a young mom, I saw many groups of people who were very close. These were people who really knew each other and enjoyed being together. I was excited to be part of that. But as time went on, I noticed I wasn’t really fitting in like I saw others did. These other folks had history together, and work and family connections that had helped them form easy friendships. They also had “done church” together, serving and being involved in many ways. I taught Sunday school and served on committees, really hoping to both help the church and forge friendships. I tried not to appear as uncomfortable as I felt, because even though I was met with kindness and encouragement I still didn’t feel “in.” How do people get it right? I wondered. How do they get over the barrier between “out” and “in?”
I got through it, and part of it was giving up the focus on being accepted by others and allowing myself to believe I am accepted by God just as I am. I came to understand that embracing my true self, the way I was created by God is key to true belonging. God made me curious, sensitive, and enthusiastic about lots of things. That comes out awkwardly sometimes, but that awkward, outside feeling has turned out to be very helpful. Because I know the feeling of being on the outside, I truly want to reach out to others who may also feel like outsiders. Fully believing that we are all beloved children of God has helped me be brave about extending welcome to others even when there is a risk of getting it wrong or being rejected.
One passage from the book Love is the Way, by Bishop Michael Curry that spoke to me on this topic was in chapter 5 “Love’s Call—and Love’s Calling.” He says this: “Somehow, when we come to love ourselves through God’s eyes, and through loving others, we become whole again.
We are beloved children of God, called upon to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors. It is all tied together in a package. This is the most fundamental part of following Jesus, and all the rest is built upon it. What if we are having trouble really believing in our core that we are beloved children of God? We ask the one who can do the impossible. When we ask God to work in us, God will always answer yes. Praying, meditating, worshiping, or reading scripture aren’t things we do to earn this love, they are acts that make room for that love and that belonging to take root and grow. Doing this in community makes it possible for our church to deepen its roots and grow in us and through us.
Looking back, I can see that even though I didn’t feel like I was part of any “in” group either as a child or when I started at my current church, that I really was an important part of the community, and all along was building the foundation of relationships. We do this when we extend a welcome, a word of encouragement or a request for help, and open ourselves up to the love of God and others.