How do we allow people to move from feeling like outsiders, to knowing they belong? The Salvation Army value ‘Offer a Place to Belong’ is a challenge to look beyond our own needs.
A woman at the corps (church) I attend recently gifted me a ripe, perfectly formed feijoa. Her gift meant a great deal because it demonstrated she had listened to me and understood my love for this unique fruit.
Not all feijoas are created equal—the best are sun ripened, sweet and ready to eat. My new friend had searched for and found me a perfect feijoa. Her gift demonstrated that she truly appreciated what mattered to me. It also symbolised I was moving from a place of being an outsider in her world, to one of belonging.
In the space of three-and-a-half years, my husband and I have packed up our lives and moved into a new community three times. This has involved not only changing the house we called home, but our workplace and our worship community too. Each time I have wondered how we will know we belong.
I know that I belong in a new house when my pictures are up on the walls. I know that I belong in my new workplace once I am confident undertaking the tasks assigned to me. And I know that I belong in my new community when I have friends I can share coffee and my life with.
I’ve discovered the feeling of belonging is something that develops over time. Each transition we’ve undertaken involved a process of ‘coming to belong’—until eventually an invisible line was crossed and we knew we had found our place in each new house, workplace and community.
Much has been written by academics about our human need to belong. Abraham Maslow popularised the idea in the middle of the last century, capturing this complex notion within a simple pyramid that he called a ‘hierarchy’. Maslow suggested once our basic physical needs for food, shelter and safety are met, we have the capacity to attend to the next level of human need, which he identified as the need for social inclusion—or belonging.
Maslow described how this need is essential to human development. Our need to belong incorporates a need for friendship, intimacy and trust, as well as the give and take that comes with being part of any group, whānau or family.
Maslow helped us understand how having inner needs does not necessarily mean we are ‘needy’; instead, he identifies that these needs are valid components of a flourishing holistic life. When our need for belonging is not met appropriately our development is stunted and we may even suffer psychological damage.
This need for belonging is beautifully captured by the Māori concept of whanaungatanga, which emphasises relationship and the importance of being an integral part of a family or friendship.
Whanaungatanga is enhanced by being together and doing life together, and acknowledges that belonging comes with rights as well as obligations. True belonging is not a passive experience, but an intentional act that ensures we create reciprocal and deeply respectful relationships.
Our human need for belonging, or whanaungatanga, is so strong it can shape our behaviour at a profound and often unconscious level. It is a powerful force within that drives us to seek out experiences that meet our needs. For many, this involves joining a group, club, church or gang. Social media offers a virtual community that also helps meets this need for belonging.
The Salvation Army has named ‘Offer a Place to Belong’ as a key missional value. In doing so, we dare to address that invisible line all people experience when they encounter new groups, work places and worship communities. Perhaps unwittingly, The Salvation Army has named a value that aspires to address human need at its deepest and most significant level.
It is a bold move to aspire to live in a way that encompasses people’s innermost hopes and longings—and potentially also their deepest wounds. Those who are the most wounded will enter our spaces with the greatest expectation that we deliver on the promise held in this value. Failure to offer a place that draws people over their invisible measure of belonging risks further wounding those who are already vulnerable. For this reason, we must take this aspirational value very seriously!
Invisible lines often hold invisible fish hooks, subtle dangers that we can easily miss if we are not purposefully looking for them. For example, the very act of offering something creates an invisible power difference. We who belong are offering something to those who do not yet belong. As those offering a gift, we hold more power because we hold the resource.
Unintentionally, therefore, this value subtly defines some people as ‘them’ or ‘other’. It suggests we are ‘inside’ and are offering something to ‘them’, who are outside. To counter this risk we will need to explore how to create a place to belong based on mutuality rather than privileged power imbalance.
This aspiration becomes further complicated because we are not only offering belonging, but also food parcels, addiction treatment, spiritual healing, compassion and the Christian faith. We must be ever mindful of the potential danger for the power imbalance in these interactions to generate invisible barriers of superiority and inequality around us, the givers. In fact, perhaps ‘Offer a Place to Belong’ could be replaced by a more mutual process of ‘Creating Community Together’?
A further invisible challenge in delivering on this organisational value is the assumption that everyone at our centre or corps is willing to offer a place to belong. It is such a risk to open our spaces and our hearts to new people. What if they join us, only to change the nature of our community? What if my invisible line of belonging is trampled on? What if my need to belong comes under threat?
Sadly, some groups maintain their sense of belonging by excluding anyone who might threaten this. They protect their need for inclusion by excluding others, either consciously or unconsciously. Our organisational value of offering a place to belong is a high ideal that comes with potential costs. To be honest, excluding those who are different or unfamiliar sometimes just feels safer and easier. To genuinely create community together we need to be aware of our own invisible resistance and be willing to address this.
Over the years, I have met staff and Sunday worshippers alike who have struggled to cross the line into a space where they know they belong. Despite years in a Salvation Army environment, they have not experienced the belonging they expected.
Ultimately, this is because belonging is created by how authentically we live like Jesus. Ideally, our commitment to live like Jesus will motivate us to build trust, appropriate intimacy and respectful relationships—the building blocks for belonging. When people are struggling to find a place of belonging, we need to examine our own willingness to contribute to this process of belonging, rather than ignore or even cast blame on people who don’t ‘fit in’.
To create a place where all can belong, we must actively and intentionally connect with each other. Even when we are the newcomer. As we gain an understanding of each other’s invisible lines we can assist each other to cross over these—perhaps with the help of a perfect feijoa.
Major Sue Hay is director of the Northland Regional Bridge, which offers addiction treatment across Northland.
by Major Sue Hay (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 3 June 2017, pp7-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.