The Privilege of Belonging
One weekend this fall my husband and I flew to New Mexico. One of our twin sons is a college junior in Santa Fe, and we find that the 2,500 miles between us pulls at our heartstrings. Parents’ Weekend offered us a legitimate pretense for visiting.
This particular son, our picky eater, has grown up to be a foodie. With the parents in town to foot the bill, he was keen to take us to a high-end restaurant. So one night we found ourselves at a swank establishment where, two years before, we’d run into Robert Redford out front waiting for his car. Apparently, that sort of thing happens in Santa Fe.
We were having a grand time. Amid the scintillating conversation, a young food runner brought our second course. Since we had arrived, the back dining room, where we scored a quiet corner table, had filled with regular patrons. We found ourselves surrounded by the sort of well-heeled folk who retire to Santa Fe: women dressed simply but elegantly, and men in open-collar casual with cufflinks peeking from their sleeves.
As the young man put the plates before us, we automatically did what we do when something special is offered with gracious attention from the hands of another human being. We stopped talking and complimented the gorgeous food. Then we thanked him profusely, looked up at him, and smiled. In accented English he said, “You’re welcome.”
But then, as he stepped behind our table to make his way back to the kitchen, he whispered, “Thank you for being polite,” and was gone. We looked at each other with stunned expressions as our hearts sank.
We can only surmise that our young waiter felt moved to thank us for treating him like a fellow human being because he endured hundreds of encounters with patrons who did not. How many times must he have been treated with disrespect or dismissiveness? How many times must he have been treated as though he were simply not there?
I couldn’t help thinking how comfortable it is to belong—to a family, a neighborhood, a school community, a church. Belonging offers a cocoon of privilege so cozy, so blinkered, that it’s hard to see beyond to those on the outside. It takes a remarkable act of will—or an accidental encounter with grace—to bust out of those safe, familiar places.
A few years ago at a community organizing workshop, a grandmotherly African American elder from a Baptist church in D.C. and I were assigned to talk as a pair. As our conversation, full of connections and exclamations of “You said it!” concluded, she put her hand on my arm, leaned in to me, and said in a low voice, “You know, if we hadn’t been put together, I never would have talked to you.”
I hope my expression didn’t betray that for a moment I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I wanted to laugh with pleasure at her honesty and her confidence, but I wanted to burst into tears thinking of the wariness that had seeped into her bones over the generations. For the first time in a long time I became acutely aware of how blithely I flit through life and how others do not.
Twenty years ago I served on a bishop’s search committee. Another committee member and I spent three days in the town of one of the semi-finalists. We shared meals with his family and heard him preach. We talked to his vestry, the town manager, the funeral home director, and local clergy colleagues. One person we met with was a Hispanic pastor of a Pentecostal church in a nearby New England mill town. The two churches had created a joint youth group, and their leaders met once a week for lunch in the Pentecostal pastor’s neighborhood.
He grinned as he described their first meeting, which took place at a local Spanish-speaking restaurant. “From the window of the restaurant, the regulars and I watched [the semi-finalist] park his car down the block and get out. I could tell he was uneasy about the neighborhood, so after a few minutes I went out to greet him. I could tell he was glad to see a friendly face walking toward him.”
After several weeks of meeting for lunch, the Episcopal priest suggested that they meet for lunch in his town, a tony Boston suburb. The Pentecostal pastor begged off. “Why not?” the priest asked. “I always come here. Now it’s my turn to treat you. That’s what friends do.”
Later, the search committee members and I asked the priest about this conversation. He explained how stunned he had been at the response, recalling that the Pentecostal pastor had explained, “I can’t walk the main street of your town. Do you realize how out of place I would be? Do you realize how people would look at me, a brown guy, and challenge my right to even step foot there?”
The priest told us, “Those words struck me as absolutely true, but—and I’m sorry to admit this—it never occurred to me that he would feel that way. That one conversation, even after months of getting to know him, changed everything for me.”
In his essay “Intimations,” written two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, E.B. White observed the snow falling outside the window of his farmhouse in North Brooklin, Maine. He wrote,
Since I started writing this column snow has begun falling again; I sit in my room watching the re-enactment of this stagy old phenomenon outside the window. For this picture, for this privilege, this cameo of New England with snow falling, I would give everything. Yet all the time I know that this very loyalty, this feeling of being part of a special place, this respect for one’s native scene—I know that such emotions have had a big part in the world’s wars. Who is there big enough to love the whole planet? We must find such people for the next society.
Who is there to love not only the whole planet but also the actual real live people in it? Each person we encounter at a restaurant or coffee shop is a beloved child of God and deserves our courtesy and consideration. But the next society requires more of us.
The Baptismal Covenant found in The Book of Common Prayer used by Episcopalians asks if we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” The promise requires us to seek Christ in all persons, not simply to serve those whom we encounter in our everyday lives. After all, helping familiar people is easy . . . but God asks us to do more than that.
God expects us to extend the privilege of belonging to others. It’s part of the transaction of loving God and being beloved by God. Rather than resting in our comfortable cocoons of privilege, we are called to go out of our way—to seek justice along unfamiliar paths that are inconvenient and involve venturing far beyond our safe walls of belonging. Befriend a refugee family. Tutor a young asylum seeker. Mentor a newly released prisoner.
Be prepared that very little of it will go according to script. And be prepared to be blessed in unexpected ways. With God’s help, seek to be the person whose words and actions cause hearts to soar.