Sometimes, I attempt to break from social justice discourse, work and meetings to focus on myself and to reconnect with and meditate upon some of my other values. Yet, when I engage in these meditations, I realize that I can never fully remove them from my need for social justice. My life requires social justice. I realize how the need for social justice is part of my personal life, even in those mundane moments that many would describe as “apolitical”, such as going on a date, spending time outdoors or a going to a party. When I think about community, personal health, relationships, intimacy, trust, self-love — I can never separate these things from my experience as a black Latina woman in the southern United States. No matter how personal the endeavor may seem, being places and meeting people will always have dimensions of power involved. It is the world we live in. That’s why I need social justice in my personal life, because I want to have a good life.
As I take time to reconnect with myself and my own life, I reconnect with my desires and I remember how much I long to continue to cultivate community and warm relationships with other people. Reflecting on this desire can quickly turn to worry about belonging. I begin to wrestle with my history of feeling and sensing that I do not quite belong.
I think about how these feelings of not belonging have lingered for long periods of time in my life. I know that so much of my trouble with feeling a sense of belonging is tied up with traumatic experiences as a child and a teen. However, I know, too, that much of why I don’t “belong” is wrapped up in the injustices of the world that show up in social discrimination, such as micro-aggressions, name-calling, and exclusion. I know that it is not a mistake that I struggle socially, because when I try to show up, I am sometimes met with actions or words that are intended to cause me to feel small. I am reminded of this when, gathering the courage to walk with a friend at night among Christmas lights downtown, I am called “n*gger” twice by four drunk men in a truck. I feel small when a white, female classmate gets praised for repeating something I had said earlier which was met with silence. It is vulnerable to show up in a world that is not ready for you, in a world in which you don’t really belong because of your race or nationality, or sexuality, and so it goes on.
I found myself worrying about belonging this week leading up to Christmas. I find myself worrying even still as we enter the fourth day of Christmas.
I got accepted into a faith-based leadership cohort in which my cohort and I are encouraged to build community with our peers– and seeing that most of the cohort is white, I worry that I will not be seen the way that I hope to be. I know that racist stereotypes inform the way that people interact with me at first, and that these stereotypes are caused by the media and our culture, which depicts black women as undesirable. It is an injustice. I worry that people will not muster the courage to look beyond these harmful images and introduce themselves to me. I am familiar with the ways that the expectation is usually put on me to make the first move, to be the one who risks first. I feel anxious knowing that often these voices are not just my anxiety alone speaking. It is actually happening. The men in the truck happened. Going to churches where very few would say hello to me really happened.
And I remember that I don’t really belong. I’m not being self-deprecating here; I really don’t. Because I don’t fit in a neat box, and because I am part of various marginalized communities, I am often reminded that I’m on the outside and not really welcome.
It’s distressing to me, but I also find it comforting to know that Jesus was born into this world not belonging. He was born in poverty and he would grow up to have an uncomfortable life. Christians know how the story goes — Jesus is born, he lives, he is rejected by many, he is betrayed. He eventually is killed by the powers and principalities of his day, scapegoated by the most powerful empire in the world. Jesus is born into discomfort, into marginalization.
Jesus did not belong in the world. More often than not, Jesus was unwelcome except for those who were brave enough to receive him and be hospitable towards him. We know these people: among them being Mary, the mother of Jesus, who took care of him and loved him dearly; the women who stayed in his presence as he died; and those throughout his life who trusted and believed his testimony and vision about God and the world God is creating.
What does it look like to belong when you are giving testimony about another world, a world that does not fit into this world? What does belonging look like when you desire a different world, a world unfamiliar to most of the people you are encountering? A hospitable world where the poor and those who weep can thrive? Jesus is from another world and wants us to imagine a new one, one that as Christians, we are invited to join Jesus in building. As disciples of Jesus, we are called into the discipline of co-creating a world with Jesus–one that is beyond what we can imagine now.
In a world filled with stress-inducing racism, unjust immigration laws, sexual assault culture, and imperial warfare, there are many people who do not just feel like they do not belong — they are also unwelcome. Both their material and social circumstances isolate them, and those who live in more comfort within their communities don’t reach out to ease their suffering. How then, can those who feel isolated because of discrimination, warfare in their communities, or lack of resources feel welcome?
Since the political strife in our world creates broken nations, broken community, and broken relationships, I want to argue that belonging is something that we create. Belonging is not something that we are born into. Belonging does not seem to be innate. Rather, it seems like something that we can become part of.
Belonging is something we become.
It is often thought that one belongs because they are the same race, ethnicity, national origin, or they share the same hobby as us. To an extent, this can be true. Many feel this way. Yet there are even those who find welcome in their society who have moments where they feel unknown and unseen by their own peers — someone may not know how much we need, how much we want and how alone we feel. We may fear sharing those needs with others — and at times, we might even recognize that there are certain needs, that if we were to share with our communities, would create discomfort for our peers. I think about the ways that I’ve tried to exist in white churches. I did not feel like I belonged because many did not want to accept that racism was something that they participated in and that affected our congregation (and me) directly. I only felt welcome by the one or two people who were honest about this and understood that actively striving against religious racism was a requirement in order to befriend me. When this need is ignored, I feel unwelcome and like someone who is feared. If we are honest with ourselves, there are many ways that Jesus intimidates us because of who he is, what he asks of us and where he wants to take us.
Yet, those who claim to be inspired by Jesus are called to be disciplined into creating belonging for those who do not feel like they belong, for those whose existences are perceived to cause discomfort and unease because of the way society marginalizes them. Those who do not belong must be encouraged through action, for many strive to be here despite all of the odds. A baby, such as Jesus, with a poor family, escaping genocide, surviving despite all of the odds; how do you keep such a baby alive so that he does not die before he turns old? How do you create a world where such a baby would not have to be born in such lowly conditions, born among animals and unclean shepherds? How could Jesus and his family be more welcome in this world?
It takes courage to be in a world where you will not belong. It is no small feat to show up in it, yet Christ shows up. Jesus, born into the world, with the courage to be among us.
God with us. This is what we reflect on in these twelve days of Christmas. May we show Christ how much we want him to be with us through our personal devotion and through justice for those in the world who are unwelcome. Christ, indeed, is welcome here, despite the unease he may create for those existing more comfortably in this world. May we do the same for those in our world who do not feel like they belong.