Belonging Is Something We Become: A Christmas Reflection

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.

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.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Advent is for the Killjoys

I have a tendency towards sadness, which is why I think I like Advent so much.

When I say “a tendency towards sadness”, I mean that not in the sense that I like or enjoy being sad, but rather… it feels honest to be sad in this world and I feel the need to pay attention to that. Christmas matters to me because of the sadness that precedes it.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

I remember when I was doing Mission Year several years ago, feeling so much shame for my sadness. I felt like I was broken. I was suffering with deep depression, lingering feelings of childhood needs unmet, an enduring sense of loneliness that I could not shake off. I remember sensing that I have always felt this way. I have always felt sad– I just did not want to admit it to myself and I did not want others to see it. I wasn’t allowed by my family to talk about it. And, I do not live in a world that lets black girls express grief. And tiredness.

But, during Mission Year, I also I remember one of my teammates challenging me with this thought, when I expressed dismay and shame over my constant sadness, lamenting that I ought to never feel anything. I prayed for numbness. In response, he offered this: “If you never feel anything, if you decide to just be numb forever, you would be asking to not feel joy either. You can’t experience joy without experiencing grief.”

He said this to me, the first time that I ever heard this.

Since that time, I have been able to accept that this tendency towards sadness is okay and real.

Later, I have come to understand that this tendency towards sadness is not my fault. It is a remnant of my history on this earth; a reminder that a longing for justice has been worn into my brain and skin cells through my lived experience, this sense of sadness that doesn’t quite leave.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy.

photo credit: rachelvirginiahester

A year prior, in my first year of college, I remember having my depression explained away. Someone in the college ministry told me that maybe there was something wrong about my brain and that I needed anti-depressants and that there was nothing wrong with me. It could just be how my brain worked, she assured me, and that I am okay, and that she cares about me. She knows that we don’t talk often but she hopes that this message doesn’t bother me.

I did not know what to make of this new idea, that some brains are just sadder than others. I could not imagine at the time that maybe, while there could have been truth in that statement, maybe there was more than just this simple explanation. She was not the only one who told me this. I remember always hearing about depression this way from my college-mates that did affirm the use of anti-depressants.

I didn’t want my sadness to be dismissed. So, I became afraid of anti-depressants*, because I had concluded that if my sadness came from no where, that sadness was something inherent in me, about the way that I was born. I did not want my sadness to be dismissed, to be contextualized, because I had been through a lot.

And this world is dark.

I did not want to believe my sadness came from no where.

I think about the Christmas story, the one that many Christians will be thinking about for the next month, and I think about the gift of frankincense and myrrh that the wise men gifted Jesus. I remember being told that these two items were given to him intentionally, because these were medicines used to cope with pain. (I don’t know what to do about the gold, so I won’t comment on that). But, I think about the life that Jesus would have, one where he would be spat upon, threatened and mocked by authorities and others in his society and I know that any sadness Jesus felt during his ministry did not come from no where. The kings must have known about what kind of life Jesus would live. One where he would be acquainted with sadness and grief.

As I’ve become more honest with my own experience in the world, I know that I can now attribute this pain to much of what is happening in the world around me, whether it is that which directly affects me or something felt by communities worlds away.

Advent is powerful for me, because I can live into the mystery of this season and the complexity of my emotions as I interface with a hostile society in a precarious global climate. Advent encourages me not to put complex emotions away, because Advent reminds me that it is okay to have hope that is grounded in reality. During Advent, I can resist the compulsion towards happiness without giving into sadness. It is a season where I feel more comfortable not shaming myself for refusing to feign contentment in a dark world.

Advent is the season for killjoys, an expectation for real joy. A time that I think about The One Well Acquainted with Grief, the One that Befriended me. The One who Hopes for Joy After Grief.

Advent begins this Sunday.

*For clarity, this is not to be taken as a statement about anti-depressants, rather was what I was told to believe about them at the time. If you are considering anti-depressants, please talk to a professional who can be sensitive to your needs.

I Have My Very Own (Queer) Christian Flavor and It’s Tasty

Finding my voice as a queer Christian means being comfortable about being a queer Christian.

Being black feels vulnerable already. Being queer and Christian feels vulnerable and scary as well. Being a woman anywhere is scary. Being queer and black and a woman who wants to be a Christian… help me, Jesus. Being queer, black, Christian, woman and ME makes me want to pass out!

I know that many people in my community know that I am living in my identity as both Christian and queer and that I do not see this “bothness” as a contradiction. I’ve never really struggled so much with believing that it was good to be both, which is different from a lot of people’s stories. There was a time in which I didn’t believe being a queer Christian applied to me, because well… I didn’t know bi+ people even existed until I was 19 going on 20. It was then I met for the first time in my life an “out” bisexual person. That is a story for another time.

I find that I have to practice being known as someone who is queer and Christian in the same way a person has to practice feeling comfortable wearing make up or wearing a new clothing style. Knowing that God loves queer Christians is one thing… It made sense to me. But being confident as someone who is a queer, Christian black woman is another story!  Because I am an (awkward) black queer Christian woman, I feel the need to assert myself a lot. I often tell myself that this asserting myself is unnecessary… that people get it. However, my inner voice tells me otherwise: You need to assert yourself more, Rachel, because asserting who you are more is how you grow more comfortable in your skin. If I assert myself over and over again, it is only because I am trying to get more and more comfortable with the fact that being queer and a passionate Christian is my reality. THIS is my reality. I can never go back. I often imagine what it would be like to go back. And by “back” I mean going back to a life where I could convince myself that I could fit into what the Christian church wanted for me to be.

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The pride flag in my bedroom. (photo credit: rachel virginia hester)

“Going back” is impossible.

It might sound ridiculous that I would entertain such an idea as “going back”, but it is one of the many tapes that play inside my head. “Everything would be easier if people still believed you were only attracted to men”. Sometimes I think that I would feel better– that many of my inner anxieties would cease if I had never told anyone, but I don’t think that confidence happens by “going back”. I began telling people that I was queer slowly and gradually because despite the risks of telling people, it felt lonely keeping it to myself. So, instead, I’d tell folks in passing, non-nonchalantly at times, in hopes that if I did not draw attention to it, it would feel less awkward and vulnerable and instead feel “normal”. I did it gradually, because an all or nothing “I’m queer, y’all!” Facebook-style announcement or haircut reveal on a day like National Coming Out Day feels too vulnerable for me. Emotionally impossible. “Coming out” gradually and selectively is all I could muster. It often still remains all that I can muster because it is not a small feat to trust others with your queerness, especially in a world that already is hostile to you for existing as a black woman.

I find a lot of common ground between my personal relationship with my queerness and my relationship with clothes. When I practice makeup and outfits, I get compliments for some of my outfits, and I struggle not to shake them off. “It’s okay I guess” or “It’s not my best dressing day, but thanks!” I don’t fully feel comfortable in the clothes that I wear, because I haven’t fully reckoned with who I am supposed to be within a human body. My human body. In the same way, I get told by peers that I’m brave for sharing with them about who I am and why I still want to be a part of the Church. I get complimented for my identity based work. I don’t always receive these comments well because I’m still trying to come home to my voice and to accept my flavor. I hope to someday see myself the way that I want to see myself. I hope I can live up to the kind words that people say about me.

In the past three years, I tried to come home to my voice, my queer voice, but it was difficult. I did not always feel supported enough to come home to myself. When I went to The Reformation Project conference last month, it kept coming up, even during my presentation.

“This is my first time presenting ever.”

“REALLY?” many would say.


I felt like I could give myself permission to have my voice — MY voice, not someone else’s — at The Reformation Project Conference — this conference where I was surrounded by queer Christians, with so many of the keynotes and speakers being queer people of color like me. I don’t necessarily need permission to come home, but I wanted support. I needed support.

I think what made being able to present at The Reformation Project feel so special was because it was the first time I felt supported enough to show up as “me” and for it to be okay. More than okay. Therefore, I felt the courage to present what I have learned in my few years of life at the conference. Despite this courage, I still felt nervous, especially when I had started my presentation. Of course, the record tapes went wild: “why isn’t anyone responding? Is anyone connecting to what I am sharing? Am I even making any sense? Are my lived experiences even relevant to the Church? Do I have anything to bring to the Church?”

“I don’t sound like what I’m ‘supposed’ to sound like,” ran the inner tapes.

I don’t sound like a gay Christian who has been in the Church my whole life.

I don’t sound like a gay Christian who had a church home.

I don’t sound like a queer Christian who always knew they were queer.

“Maybe that’s why no one is saying anything. Maybe that’s why my audience is so silent,” sang the record. “I don’t sound like how I’m supposed to sound like.”

But as I finished my presentation, I was surprised to hear so many positive words and to see so smiling faces. My modest audience were thankful for my words. They told me they were glad that I presented, that what I shared was necessary. That there were other queer youth Christians who struggled in activist spaces like me. That there were even old, white men who connected to my words, even as we exist within the world in very different embodiments, separated by power and privilege. That felt so special to me.

To be able to sound like me and to know that my stories and revelations resonated as meaningful to others–this has an impact on me. This is why I share, why I speak, why I write.

I sound like me and it is important. I sound like someone who has her own story of being queer and Christian. It’s a story that is still unfolding. It’s as story that has its own flavor and it is a good flavor. It’s tasty.

I sound like someone who hasn’t found a steady place to call my church home both past and present.

I sound like someone who found my best friend and my first love outside of the Christian faith.

I sound like someone who struggled to find her place in non-religious activist spaces for 2-3 years.

I sound like these things and so much more.

These things are part of my story and they have and mean something to someone.

I want to strive to keep from comparing myself and my story to that of other Christians, whether they are queer or straight. I can’t or else it will drown my heart. I can’t, because I can’t anyway. The LGBTQ+ community is so diverse, despite the ways certain narratives get raised above others inside and outside of the Church.

I have my own voice, my own stories, my own flavor and I’m trying to remind myself that this is a flavor that I can like. It will take time. I might not be a pistachio queer Christian or a moose tracks gay Christian. Perhaps I am an elderberry sorbet queer Christian. If God already likes my flavor, I should be able to as well.