Why didn’t I come here sooner? As I enter my fifth year living in Michigan, I berate myself for just now making it to Detroit.
I was unaware of Michigan’s quirks and nuances when I moved to Grand Rapids in 2012. The tightly-knit locals call their half of the state “West Michigan.” No, not western Michigan, as you may typically refer to a region. The designation of “West Michigan” is a severing from the east side of the state in an attempt to form a distinct identity.
The east side of the state, with its statistics and stereotypes. Poverty, crime, blight, bankruptcy, pollution, lead poisoning, decay. I wrote Detroit off. I let the headlines and apocalyptic language shape my understanding of places I had never been, where people live who I had never met. When a co-worker suggested I visit Detroit sometime, I scoffed.
As Courtney Martin writes in The New Better Off, “…curiosity is not a matter of geography, but generosity.” Writing places off denies their beauty and worth; it denies that there is life and vitality and something to learn from each nook and cranny of this marvelous world.
In the past few years, I’ve seen more of Michigan. I’ve visited the quaint towns, climbed the sand dunes, and been awed by the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan. I’ve been to Flint several times and even Dearborn, but I still hadn’t made it to Detroit until recently.
My friend Isabel and I headed east from Grand Rapids on a cloudy Saturday morning. A fellow type-A travel nut, Isabel got busy planning our itinerary as we drove.
Our first stop was the historic, 150-year-old Eastern Market. The market’s sheds span several blocks, with additional vendor stalls and food trucks scattered here and there. Brick and mortar businesses surround the heart of the market. Just beyond lay seemingly empty warehouses and industrial spaces. Straying from the bustle of the market, we found ourselves on near-deserted streets dotted with a wide variety of murals and street art—catching my eye at every turn.
Something to know: my favorite pastime is to explore places on foot, and I love markets and street art. Bring those things together? Elation. Then and there in the Eastern Market I began to fall for Detroit.
We circled back to the center of the market and devoured powdery beignets for lunch. On our way out, we popped in Germack for a quick drink. The coffee was good, but it was Germack’s character that stood out. Feisty, truth-proclaiming prints were strung across beautiful exposed brick walls. We soaked in the atmosphere before moving on to our next stop.
We checked into our downtown Airbnb then meandered to the Detroit River. Our riverwalk started east of downtown at the William G. Milliken State Park. We followed the path along the river, pausing to take in the sights of GM’s dominating Renaissance Center and the Ambassador Bridge stretching to Canada.
I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the newly furnished sidewalk—peppered by modern outdoor seating, gorgeous landscaping, and even the occasional sculpture—with the empty parking lots and concrete structures that lay beyond. A chain-link fence served as a stark divide between manicured grass and asphalt. Though new to Detroit, this picture seemed to represent the city itself: its rise, its abandonment, and its current revitalization.
As we neared the end of our walk, we stumbled upon a statuary commemorating the role Detroit played in Underground Railroad. Titled “The Gateway to Freedom,” the memorial honors Detroit as one of the largest terminals to freedom. Due to the efforts of diverse groups of people in Detroit, thousands of African Americans escaped enslavement—many passing through the city on the way to Canada.
We finished our walk and hopped on the Detroit People Mover, a single-track public transit system that loops through downtown. It was worth the city views for only 75 cents!
That evening, we walked through the BELT, a redeveloped alley featuring murals and art installations. Their website states that the redevelopment is “part of a continuous effort to ensure that artists have a space to create and engage with the public in Detroit.”
As a street-art lover, I had a field day walking through the BELT. But despite the impressive works of art, it all felt a bit out of place. The well-polished alley was quiet, with only a few others meandering through while we were there. Still, it was definitely a fun stop on our wanderings through Detroit.
Isabel and I walked a few more blocks before stopping at the Detroit Beer Co for dinner. The experience was mediocre, but we still had fun celebrating Isabel’s belated birthday and watching the People Mover go by from our table on the second floor. After dinner, we passed the iconic Fox Theatre and The Fillmore before turning in for the night.
The next morning we headed to Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood located west of downtown. Irish immigrants hailing from County Cork (hence the name “Corktown”) settled the area in the mid-1800s. Though today, Corktown is known to be one of Detroit’s trendiest neighborhoods.
After fueling up with coffee and sandwiches from hipster enclave Astro Coffee (which features a chalkboard mural by Ouizi), we popped in a few off-beat shops including the Detroit Artifactory and Eldorado General Store. Erin, the owner of Eldorado, gave us some great tips on how to spend the rest of our afternoon.
Before leaving Corktown, we walked by Michigan Central Station. At its height in the 1940s, this massive rail depot served over 4,000 passengers a day. A 2015 BBC article states, “...as the auto-industry slumped and the local economy collapsed, the station saw less and less traffic. Since the last train left in 1988, the once-regal station has come to symbolize Detroit's economic woes.” Future plans for the landmark are unclear, yet locals remain committed to its preservation.
From Corktown we headed to Detroit’s east side to check out the Heidelberg Project. Located in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, the Heidelberg Project is a 30-year old community organization and open-air art project "designed to improve the lives of people and neighborhoods through art."
It began raining when we got there, so we had just a few minutes to explore. The project fascinated me and I found myself scrambling to find meaning in each perplexing square inch.
We visited Belle Isle Park next. An island sandwiched between the U.S. and Canada, Belle Isle is allegedly Michigan’s most-attended park—though it felt quite deserted on this gray, dreary day. Even so, one could envision the full glory of the park and gardens on a summer afternoon.
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory was our first destination and it proved to be a delight. Once again, I was impressed by the history of this unsuspecting city as I learned the conservatory, which opened in 1904, is the oldest continually-running conservatory in the U.S. The tiny Belle Isle Aquarium next to the conservatory shares the same honor as the oldest continually-running aquarium in the U.S. (aside from a short stint of closure 2005-12).
The conservatory was a perfect place to rest (and warm up, thanks humidity!) amidst sightseeing. I found the aquarium a bit dull, but worth popping in to view its green opalite valuated ceiling.
In need of an afternoon pick-me-up, Isabel and I heeded the advice of Erin, the owner of Eldorado, and headed to the West Village. We stopped by Red Hook Coffee, where we spotted another work by Ouizi on the ceiling, as well as on the building across the street.
We passed on Sister Pie, another recommended West Village spot, in favor a full meal at Rose’s Fine Food. Rose’s is an old-school, community-minded diner that cooks from scratch. Though their prices are a bit steep (I paid $13 for two breakfast tacos with a side of rice), they are justifiable. In addition to using quality local ingredients, Rose’s also donates to Detroit-based organizations and gives a discount to neighborhood residents. Tipping is also optional, as they pay their staff livable wages.
With full bellies and tired feet we said goodbye to Detroit. On our way out of town we made a final stop in Dearborn, a small city just outside of Detroit. With the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the U.S., Dearborn is a fascinating place well worth a visit. But on this day, we were just there to pick up baklava before hitting the road.
The car quiets and my mind wanders.
What if we believed there was beauty in everything—in every person, place, and experience? How would that change us? How would it change our engagement with the world?
I sink into these questions as we drive westward.
What if we were generous with our curiosity? What if we didn’t settle for the easy beauties of our world—the Parises and Florences—but dug deeper, looking beneath the surface of written-off places ?
I reflect on the past 30 hours in Detroit, a city disregarded by so many, and I feel grateful. Grateful for the opportunity to see a new place and walk new streets; grateful to listen and learn and be present in a place others call home.
What if we sought the beauty that exists in all places? What might we find there?
We just might witness tenacity and notice a strong sense of self. We may be inspired by a never-give-up attitude. We may find beauty, yes, but we might also find hope.
Detroit’s flag features two Latin mottos that translate to “we hope for better things” and “it will rise from the ashes.” If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we just may find hope in this city; a hope gritty and dogged, worn and resilient. A hope we can learn from and lean on during the midnights of our own souls, and a hope that will lead us forward, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
I sink into the earth. The sand warm and supportive. Gritty, molding.
I sink into the earth from which I came. Attentive to her quiet and powerful energy; her soft, permeating heartbeat.
It’s morning and I walk along the river. Body sore and awake from yoga, I walk by the glistening river. It flutters in the sun, warming up as winter recedes. Flexing its muscles. Returning to itself. Invigorating and hopeful, a privilege to witness. If only one pays attention.
That’s always the key, isn’t it? Paying attention. Noticing. I grieve for the beauty I miss.
We all know it’s vulnerable. It fluctuates by the minute and the forecast predicts rain. Still we savor the 75 degree Sundays. Cafes drag their tables outside. We roll up our sleeves and drink iced coffee.
This is the gift of seasonality: mindfulness, inquiry, gratitude. Awareness of the earth and its movement. Attune to the natural world.
I sink into the earth, on the shore of Lake Michigan. My lungs expand as vibrant, invisible life fills me. The air in my lungs expels back out into the world. A generous, miraculous exchange.
Each spring is a rebirth, a resurrection, a shedding of skin. Each spring I come home to myself, each spring I am made new.
One at a time my limbs lower—tense—then relaxed as they surrender. The recently thawed sand holds me, sculpting as I shift and settle. I rediscover the most natural of states. Not a desk chair, where I spend forty hours a week, but the earth with her ease and welcome.
Tired eyes scan the lakeshore. The gentle waves rise and collapse, sunlight brims on the crest. The vertical horizon grows hazy; the sky and water fade together.
Each spring is a revitalization. A tangible hope. It’s every pair of sandals pulled out from storage and every hammock strung between trees. It’s crowded sidewalks and stroller traffic. There are few smells more hopeful than a barbecue in spring.
The sun warms my skin as the breeze leaves goosebumps. My eyelids grow heavy and I nestle in further. I don’t speak the language of the dune grass, bowing in the wind, but I rest in its song.
The whole earth awakens in the coming of spring. And I drift off to sleep.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had dreams about my dad dying.
The details were always fuzzy, but the pang of loss so sharp I remember it still. I’d fall to the ground sobbing, clinging to his feet, before waking up disoriented with wet, raw cheeks.
Growing up, dreams about losing my childhood best friend weren’t rare either. She’d disappear into a blinding light while I scrambled to pull her back, frantic despair spreading through each vein until it consumed me entirely.
Today, this fear lingers. More than one missed call from my mom, or a “call me when you can” text, quickens my breath. Anxiety slowly builds as I fumble to call her back, quick to evaluate her tone.
A few years ago, a friend drove 592 miles to see me and I recall with clarity the day she was on the road. I sat at my office cube fidgeting and distracted, checking my phone for a call or text of reassurance. I feared an accident, a blown tire, or a slipped glance at 80 mph.
I was studying in Hungary during my brother’s first deployment. With no precedent or warning, whether in a café or sitting on the tram, my eyes would well up. I’d quietly plead with God for Luke’s safety, all while trying to reason my emotions out of a panic.
My greatest fear is not my own death, but the loss of those I love. Though it is not a fear rooted in personal experience, for I have been spared the unexpected loss that many suffer. If I examine the source of this fear, then, I find it is rooted in love, the consuming love I have for the people in my life, and in stories: stories of others’ losses, accidents, assaults, miscarriages, cancers, and strokes.
While the permeating joy and latent fear of love have ebbed and flowed in the recesses of my consciousness for as long as I can remember, never have I felt them more acutely than over the past 12 months.
Last year, I serendipitously fell in love. I was beginning my final semester of college and emerging from the darkest season of my life. My focus was on self-care, a new internship I had recently started, and planning for life after graduation.
Meeting Martín was the last thing I anticipated and it put me in a delirious shock. It felt like the best news in the world delivered at once in human form. It was so unexpected, it took several months for our relationship to sink in and even feel real. I still marvel at the grace and miracle of it all, and I hope I always will.
As I reflect on the past year together, I realize just how profoundly our relationship has grown me. While our love is a source of great joy, it also daily reveals my selfishness and chronic flaws that are easily hidden from others.
It is no wonder that we are wired to love; it is the very force that refines us, molding us into the greatest versions of ourselves. It fills out the skeletons of our lives and puts flesh on the bones of our days—giving them purpose and meaning.
While my relationship with Martín has indeed refined me and brought my life immense beauty and joy, it has also heightened my fear of loss. When I say goodbye or hang up the phone, I fear it is the last time. I envision car accidents and worry over migraines that might indicate an illness. Though often latent, at times this fear abruptly surfaces and pierces my chest.
From the passenger's seat, I watch his eyes focus on the road. While the credits roll, I feel his heartbeat against my skin. Cooking dinner, sipping coffee, reading… these mundane moments catch me. I press his palm into mine and draw him closer; convinced that if I just hold him tight enough, his breath will never cease.
To choose love, to choose openness to the world, is the most courageous thing we can do. It is a brave, hopeful act to love despite our fear of this fleeting, fragile life.
As Mary Oliver writes:
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Feeling everything deeply is my enduring blessing and gut-wrenching curse, yet it has never made love less worth pursuing. It is a simple truth of life that love is, and will always be, the source of our greatest joy and grief—and to embrace this dissonance, to love wholly despite our fears, is to live courageously. While it may not minimize our fear or the agony of loss, finding contentment in grey spaces of tension and uncertainty fosters a posture of openhandedness. It enables us to hold our loved ones lightly, nourishing gratitude and respect for the sacred fragility of life.
Guest post by Sarah Holle
It has been a year of grief.
It has been a year of death, abuse, depression, and anxiety; of deception, unjust legal and political systems, mysterious health problems, and financial uncertainty.
Throughout this year I have felt isolation set in as I try to make sense of it all. I have drawn away at times, crippled by the overwhelming amount of suffering experienced at once. Yet I have found rest in the vast beauty of nature and comfort in the non-judgmental spirits of plants. They create a restorative atmosphere, content to simply exist and sit with you and those around you.
The flowers do not have an agenda and do not try to change who you are, yet you walk away a changed person after experiencing their patience and ease through life.
This fall I was at work on the urban farm doing a final harvest and clean up for the season. My body was exhausted from weeks of strenuous labor. I find time and time again that Mother Earth humbly puts us in our place every day we work with her, reminding us of her capability to give and take.
I sat on the ground to spare my hurting back and began individually pulling each collard green leaf from the stem, carefully inspecting each one for bug damage, as well as admiring the intricacies of how each leaf had formed.
The farm is a beautiful space for meditation and I began reflecting on the yoga sutra 2.46, which loosely translates to “practice each posture with grace and ease.” I believe this applies to all parts of life, being mindful in how we move, think, and react. So as I sat in the farm, I harvested each plant with grace and ease, feeling a connection to each one and acknowledging its life and vitality. The plants had endured the harsh Minnesota weather, taking a beating from the summer heat and autumn cold, still they remain beautiful and resilient—not to mention delicious and nourishing.
Just days before, I was sitting in a forest outside of Portland grieving the unexpected loss of my cousin Andy. Sage and lavender incenses burned as the river gently flowed and the trees rustled in the wind, reminding me that Andy’s spirit is here and can’t be erased.
Andy had lavender growing outside his house; an herb that has calming properties and multifaceted use, and one that I use to calm the increasingly frequent anxiety attacks that wash over me. As I approached Andy’s house, it was as if his lavender plants were guarding the entrance, marking his home as a place of peace, tranquility, and mindfulness.
His home was minimalistic and mindfully arranged. There were books of wisdom lying around, a small Buddha on the mantel, and wholesome food still fresh in the pantry. I know Andy was on a journey of finding peace within himself and with the earth, but I will no longer be able to ask of the enlightenment he discovered.
However, I can follow the way Andy lived and find enlightenment of my own. In this season of grief, I have realized each moment is worth recognizing and living with grace and ease, since we don’t know what the next moment will bring.
Nature has been my teacher in this. Plants—whether collard greens or lavender—have trained me in mindfulness and brought me healing and rest during a year of grief.
As I have experienced this for myself, I’ve also realized the troubling disconnect between our society and the natural world today. We have forgotten how to listen to the instincts that our ancestors used to live by. Our world has become so cluttered with noise and distraction, and yet we wonder why we feel overwhelmed and experience such staggering levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
I became more aware of our present disconnect with nature while living in Kona, Hawaii. There, the land is everything—it is a place of healing and spiritual encounter, it is a central part of Hawaii’s history and native culture, and it shapes the way people live. Witnessing the central role of nature in Hawaiian life grew my fascination with plants and deepened my own sense of connection to the earth.
The earth holds many mysteries we have tried to understand through religion, as well as the beliefs, traditions, and sacred texts passed down from our ancestors. But if we mindfully studied the living organisms around us, how they exist and interact in their complex ecosystems, we can glimpse these mysteries and gain a further understanding of how we are so deeply intertwined.
I’ve found throughout this challenging year that returning to nature, resting in the beauty of a sunset or an immeasurable mountain range, brings perspective to the suffering we experience. It doesn’t discredit our thoughts or feelings, rather the vastness of the earth as well as the small intricacies of nature reminds us that we are not alone.
I challenge you to engage with the natural world and discover this for yourself. Whether it is examining the intricate patterns of your wood table or the leaves of a houseplant, or taking a walk outside, notice how welcoming the earth is to your soul—and let that transform you.
Sarah Holle is an urban farmer and yoga instructor from Minneapolis, MN.
She studied Food Systems and Horticulture at the University of Minnesota and is passionate about stewarding sustainable landscapes and communities. If you don’t see her biking around Minneapolis with coffee in hand, you can probably find her on a hike out West—referencing her favorite Western Wild Flowers Guide Book.
This post is part of a series on belonging, in which I'm exploring the idea of belonging as well as sharing stories, expressions, and experiences of belonging from my life and others. Please email me if you’d like to share your story, discuss this topic, or be notified when new blogs are posted.
The story of Jesus is the greatest story I know.
It is a story of humility, of infinite power relinquished and privilege surrendered. It is a story of incarnate love entering into pain, identifying with the other, and choosing to belong to a broken people.
Christianity aside, I’m mesmerized by the story of Jesus. Contemplating the idea of belonging in this season of advent strikes me as an urgent call. In the backdrop of a grievous year and our global anxiety, we need the story of Jesus more than ever.
We need it because it is a story about real, inadequate, and confused people like us. It's about a young, unmarried pregnant woman. It’s the story of a poor man with questions for God.
It’s the story of God’s love coming to us in the lowliest form of a homeless infant in a smelly manger.
It’s the story of a Middle Eastern family seeking refugee (sound familiar?)
It’s a story about fear and trust, about resisting oppression and pursuing the light.
Because I believe in the divinity of Jesus, his story is remarkable to me in that he chose to be born on the margins. He chose the poor as his family; he chose humility, anonymity, and social and economic powerlessness. The form of humanity Jesus chose prompts me to reimagine the character of God. What does Jesus’ story tell us about the heart of God? About who God’s people are, and where She stands?
I’m often disillusioned by the expression of Christian faith in America, and frankly around the world. The church too often “kisses the ring of Caeser” by bending to power and fame and acting as an exclusive club with a selective admission committee. It can be slow to listen and quick to condemn. The church masks imperfection, fakes vulnerability, and buys whole-heartedly into our consumerist, performance-driven culture. At its worst, the church has endorsed oppression and perpetuated injustice.
Amidst this, I think of Jesus.
Jesus, a blue-collar carpenter who chose a life on the margins; Jesus who sought solitude, not spotlights; who invested deeply in the lives of few and who flipped tables in rage at greedy injustice.
Jesus who welcomed women, stood up to the religious elite, and invited prostitutes and tax collectors in. Jesus who laughed over wine, broke bread with the despised, and washed the dirty feet of his friends.
In this current wave of populism and border-raising, I think of Jesus—who fled persecution as a refugee.
When I hear talk of registering Muslims or accounts of deadly racial profiling, I think of Jesus—a brown, Middle Eastern man.
When women are degraded, people with disabilities mocked, communities of color oppressed, and inmates locked up with no chance of redemption, I think of Jesus—who was one with the outcast and hurting.
Too often our gospel is colonized so that it is no longer good news for the poor, but a prop for the rich. Yet the true identity of Jesus reveals the expansive, inclusive heart of the Gospel which is indeed good news for all.
There hasn’t been a lot of good news this year. As I reflect on 2016 and continue to experience our collective trauma, the birth of Jesus is a welcome reminder of the gritty hope that remains on the margins. Jesus’ example urges me to imagine what it would look like for us to truly strive to live like him and be present in the world’s darkest places.
I cling to the story of Jesus because it is the story I need. I need examples of faithfulness to give me courage for tomorrow. I need the call to reconciliation as much as I need permission to be angry.
Like Mary on that dark night it feels a bit like we are in the desert, too. Many of us are confused and afraid of what’s next. In this uncertain time it’s necessary we find stories that propel us forward with compassion and bravery, that help us tend soft hearts and open hands. It is in the gritty hope of Jesus’ story that I rest for today and have new eyes to imagine tomorrow.
What does belonging mean to you?
I won’t try to constrain a dynamic, ambiguous concept like belonging to a definition of my own, but exploring the depth and breadth of its meaning is a worthwhile pursuit—and will lay the foundation for our conversations moving forward.
Across history, and countless languages, cultures, and texts, the idea of belonging has taken shape in nuanced understandings. While aware of my limitations in exposure to such a vast and universal topic, here are some key ways I think of belonging:
Belonging as Togetherness
The word belonging has roots in the Old English word gelang, meaning “at hand, together with" (1). Grounded in this definition, I understand the heart of belonging to be togetherness.
Through being together, physically and metaphorically, the richness of life is found and we discover the truth that we are inextricably bound together. While this profoundly impacts us individually, it is also the starting place for communal transformation and action.
Earlier this year I spent a week in Mendenhall, MS, the birthplace of John Perkins’ ministry of racial reconciliation and Christian community development. As Perkins gave us a tour of the 2,000-person town still divided by “the tracks,” he reminded us that “the work of reconciliation begins in relationship; It is through coming together that social transformation occurs.”
Mississippi bears the scars of division, and warns us of what can happen when we disown and oppress our neighbors. Perkins reminds me that only through togetherness can such wounds heal and progress towards “a more perfect union” be made.
Belonging as Kinship
I also understand belonging to be an extension of kinship, an expansion of our conception of tribe or family to include all people. I love Gregory Boyle’s idea of kinship as shared in Tattoos on the Heart (pg. 187-212).
He defines kinship in the context of his gang-ridden LA neighborhood as “not serving the other, but being one with the other,” arguing that without kinship, “any effort to help someone just might be a waste of time.” He continues:
Often we strike the high moral distance that separates “us” from “them,” and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us. Serving others is good. It’s a start. But it’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom. Jesus was not “a man for other”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.
Boyle’s message is clear: without a sense of affinity or belonging, our service remains shallow. He doesn’t elevate himself and pity his neighbors as others to be served or saved, but as simply friends to be in relationship with—and that is the truth of who they are.
Belonging as Gemeinschaft
Belonging can also be captured, in part, by the concept of gemeinschaft: the social capital and relational quality of a society that is rooted in affection or kinship (2).
It is important to note that gemeinschaft comes from the word gemein, meaning “common, general" (3). When German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies explored gemeinschaft in the 1800s, the kinship of gemeinschaft referred to the “reciprocal bonds of sentiment” found within a shared, common tradition experienced in homogenous communities (4).
The diverse age we live in demands that we foster a gemeinschaft with strong reciprocal bonds of kinship and affinity—based not necessarily on our shared ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation, but on our shared, common humanity.
Belonging as Ubuntu
Ubuntu is a Southern African concept, humanist philosophy, ethic, and ideology that has further shaped my sense of belonging. It is understood in a variety of ways spanning different nations, languages, people groups, and leaders across Africa.
But in the interest of brevity (never my strong suit), Ubuntu is often translated simply as humanness, human kindness, and humanity towards others, or more broadly as "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity".
Michael Onyebuchi Eze, a historian and expert on Ubuntu defines it in this way:
'A person is a person through other people' strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference … This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am (5).
At its core, Ubuntu speaks to human interconnection. It contends that we don’t exist in isolation and cannot be complete, or fully human, alone. Ubuntu stands for community and mutuality, and calls for a compassion rooted in this.
Desmond Tutu, a prolific activist, retired archbishop, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, helped introduce Ubuntu to the Western world. Tutu argued that we think of ourselves too often as separated from one another, when in reality we are deeply bound together.
Ubuntu is also a quality we can possess, which Tutu’s speaks on in his book No Future Without Forgiveness:
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
The idea of Ubuntu embodies and emboldens our understanding of human belonging. It opposes our cultural praise of independence and self-sufficiency, and provides an alternative and hopeful perspective on what it means to be human.
Belonging Leads us Forward
While conceptions of it may vary, a sense of belonging always leads us forward. It cultivates a richer inner life, with a fuller understanding of ourselves, and an outer life of openness to the world.
A true sense of belonging is enriching, intimate, and healing, yet remains a powerful social force. It is the foundation of a diverse, yet connected, society, and is the prerequisite for building social capital, as well as the result of it.
As belonging leads us forward, it compels us to act with thoughtful intention. By nature, belonging connects, abides, practices hospitality, comes together, and creates a space in which all feel “welcome and wanted” (6).
As we continue to explore this topic of belonging, I look forward to hearing and sharing stories of what belonging means to others, how they seek it, and what it looks like in their daily lives.
What does belonging mean to you, and how do you understand it? Start the conversation by commenting below or reaching me here.
1. Oxford Dictionaries: Belong
2. Encyclopedia Britannica: Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
3. Online Etymology Dictionary: Gemeinschaft
4. Merriam-Webster: Gemeinschaft
5. Eze, M.O. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa, pp. 190–191
6. Faye Richardson-Green, Partners for a Racism Free Community
We belong to one another.
Strip the titles, labels, and identities away, and our shared humanity remains.
Understanding that we belong to one another is the necessary starting place for individual and collective healing, as well as for social transformation. Though vulnerable to clichés and lofty sentiments, when taken to heart this understanding has far-reaching implications.
The theme of belonging and interdependence has risen to the forefront of my consciousness this year. I am graced with the beauty of it time and time again and am reminded of its necessity everyday.
I’ve wrestled with the vastness of this theme and how to write about it. Perfectionism and fear often hold me back from writing, yet suppressing my voice is maddening too; I know it is time to pick up the pen again.
Today, I’m starting a series on belonging: exploring its meaning, necessity, and implication for our personal and public lives.
At the heart of this effort is an awareness of our urgent need to cultivate a sense of belonging. As 2016 has progressed, this societal need has become increasingly clear—and our lack of affinity and connectedness painfully raw.
As Gregory Boyle notes in Tattoos of the Heart: “Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other.’”
We need to remember that we belong to one another. It’s my hope that as we explore this theme, amidst our diversity and divides, our sense of connectedness and interdependence will grow. However I want be clear that as we do so, we must be mindful not to invalidate identities or disregard the unique experiences that accompany them.
I’m aiming to post around every two weeks as a part of this series. A few upcoming topics include defining and understanding belonging, a theological basis for belonging, and the need for it in our world today. I also hope to share stories, expressions, and experiences of belonging (loosely defined)—from my life, and others too.
It is good to be writing again, and I look forward to seeking belonging and community together.
Please email me if you’d like to share your story, discuss this topic, or join the effort in general. I’ll shoot you the latest blogs and updates as this project unfolds.