by the Rev. Christopher Potter, Vicar
This weekend, we hear from the Gospel of Mark about Bartimaeus, a man who confronts conformity from his roadside perch as Jesus passes him by. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, steps outside the social pigeon-hole afforded him by society and asks Jesus to cure his blindness. I will speak more of this on Sunday but want to bring up a particular part of the lesson in the Gospel that cries out for our attention.
The Episcopal Church has a laudable history of welcoming the outsider, the marginalized, and social outcasts. Long before it was politically correct, Episcopalians were calling women and people of color to orders and ministry in the church. I’m reminded of Absalom Jones, the first black Episcopal priest ordained in 1802, Enmegahbowh, a man from the Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota who was ordained to priesthood in1859. There were also deaconesses ordained in this country as early as 1885.
Recently, there has been a conspicuous move by the Episcopal Church to wrestle with its history of [at least] complicity with the slave trade and with the unjust usurpation of land and possessions perpetrated upon many people. Some churches on the East Coast have returned land and buildings that were taken unjustly from people and built with the sweat of the children and grandchildren of the true owners.
We have made an integral component of Baptism the promise to “… respect the dignity of every human being.” The Church nowadays is quite clear in expressing its intent to be a place of welcome for all people regardless age, gender, orientation, personal sexual identification, color, even creed.
There are different opinions about this. I do not have any claim to the ‘truth’ here. I invite your thoughts and discussions on how far we have [or have not] come with ‘welcome’ in the church. I sense, though, that we may have set some invisible limits on what particularly is welcomed and what we encourage and accept from newcomers. For example, when welcoming people from South America, has the church made any cultural, liturgical, or musical accommodations for them? I mean, do we simply want new guests who come into our churches to do what we do while leaving their uniqueness, their personal/cultural identity at the door? When they become part of our community, do we sing songs that are sung (in this example) in Columbia? Do we celebrate the beauty and costumery of African members, or do we passively expect people will dress like us? Would we, in another example, accept people who wish to dance in church when we sing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”?
The distinction here, for me, is between inclusion and belonging. Inclusion implies that a person is part of the whole, someone who has become an inconspicuous member and has assimilated into the general population by doing exactly the same as what everyone else is doing (and what has been done for generations).
Belonging implies a radical welcome that encourages and gives all people the right to express their spiritual and religious culture openly, with acceptance and excitement from everyone in community.
Belonging is a higher level of participation than inclusion. Belonging doesn’t require a leaving-behind of the practices and rites that have nourished the souls of the newcomer once they come into a new community. Belonging is a statement of how one feels in relationship to the whole. It means that all of me is accepted without reservation. It implies that my presence and identity is accepted, welcomed, celebrated, and shared openly.
Historically, there has been an expectation in this country — even before the Revolutionary War — upon assimilation, that immigrants become indistinguishable from the homogenous masses. Doing so was required if the immigrant wanted to secure a share in the rights and privileges of this country. (Imagine, for example, the intended outcome of calling America a ‘melting pot’.) These assimilation views are recognized in the tropes “Just speak English” or “You’re not from around here, are you?” There are hints of this all over our language, too. Some use “African American” when the accurate term is probably, “American.” My daughter has fought the culture war with people who use [her phrase] “The ‘R’ Word” when describing someone with a cognitive impairment. In her world, the real sign of her belonging would simply refer to “Lauren,” without any adjectives.
I am pastorally and personally excited by the possibilities of doing more work with belonging at St. John’s. With the keen eye of Chaplain Patti, St. John’s School is helping school children feel a greater sense of belonging by celebrating unique identities (social, ethnic, religious, etc.) in real ways – not just by naming these differences in classrooms or chapel services, but by celebrating them the way the children might do at home or by what may have done historically in the family.
There are many ways we can boost a sense of belonging at St. John’s: in our worship, in different types of fellowship events that we host, in music selections, in rites and rituals, and by engaging with each other in conversations about cultural and ethnic differences. I believe that with the foundations of Jesus’ teaching like the ones we hear in the Gospel this weekend, we can enter this kind of welcoming and belonging without fear, and with eagerness and with joy.