Take a moment. Close your eyes. Think of a place where you really belong. A place where you can be completely yourself. A place where you can show your real emotions, your real personality, and be completely and utterly accepted. Maybe you don’t have a place like that in your life. So imagine a place where that could happen. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do the people there welcome you into that space? How do you ‘fit’?
Belonging. It is such an important concept for humanity. When we don’t have a place where we really belong, we feel isolated, lonely, excluded and hurt. And yet, places of belonging can be few and far between for many people.
I am a pastor who runs a church for people with disabilities and illnesses that can’t make it to church. I also meet with people in real life with the same issues. My experience of belonging, or lack thereof, is formed by this context, but it can be applied to any situation. The people I work with don’t feel like they belong anywhere in society.
Let’s go back to that place you imagined belonging. Now imagine you are deaf and no one there can sign. Or you are in a wheelchair and can’t get into some or all of the rooms because of the lips on the doorframes. Or others don’t sit to talk to you so you spend the whole time either looking at butts or straining your neck to look up at them. Or perhaps you have a vocal tick and are asked to sit in a different room to not distract others. Or maybe you take your child with disabilities and there are no facilities to accommodate a parent taking care of a child in a bathroom (it can take a lot of space!).
These, and numerous other examples, show how easy it is for those with disabilities and illness to not feel like they belong in society. They are talked over, ignored, stared at, put at the back, accommodated only once others realize that they need help. And when they can’t leave the house they are often forgotten completely. This can lead to depression, loneliness and hopelessness.
Often it can be simple measures that help people with differing abilities feel like they belong – ramps, removal of lips on doors, making sure aisles in stores are wide enough for wheelchairs – and others are more expensive. Changing bathrooms to accommodate chairs and carers can require major renovations that can seem extravagant if you only know one person in a chair, or even if you know none! But think of it was you in that situation. How quickly would you tell your other disabled friends about a place that was welcoming and allowed you to belong without hassle? How many of your friends would join you at that store/café/church/home? It is the same with training someone on your staff, or yourself, to sign enough to talk to someone. You may have no deaf people that come to your store/church/café at the moment, probably because no one can talk to them, but with a little effort, time and some money to train your staff/congregation, the deaf community will begin to come because they know they belong there.
It is about being preemptive. It is about people, all people, being welcome before they even arrive. As soon as they walk in the door they know that this is a place for them, that they belong in this space as much as anyone else. Is it hard? Yes. Will it take time and dedication? Yes. Will it be worth it? Absolutely! The joy that comes from diverse relationships is so rewarding. I can testify that the people I work with change me and my life far more than I feel that I change theirs. They bring me joy and laughter and depth of relationship that I have not found anywhere else.
Make the time. Spend the money. Train yourself. And create that space you imagined for others to be a part of. By helping others belong, you will find a place you belong also.
Her personal blog can be found at www.christinewelten.com