A few years ago I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of belonging. It happened when I took a group of troubled youth into the Australian bush with two Aboriginal elders.
These kids had seen and experienced it all and were in many ways, without significant intervention, on a pathway towards incarceration. I wouldn’t say this was their last chance, as hope springs eternal, but the future was not looking good for them.
They were from diverse ethnic backgrounds and had experienced a lot of rejection, physical and mental abuse in their lives. Much of it played out in the van as they shared their stories on the way to our location.
It was then things began to change and change rapidly. The elders and the kids began walking through the bush and the storytelling began. What I noticed was a lot of the storytelling was about belonging. About feeling part of something bigger and all encompassing. Each rock, plant, animal and flower was part of a continuing story.
Awakening a sense of belonging
At first, the kids laughed and joked amongst themselves as they tried to destabilise the storytellers, but as time went on that faded away to silence. Slowly an attitude of real listening and involvement came to them all. They then began asking questions. Their anxieties seemed to disappear and I saw the power of belonging.
Previously these kids hadn’t felt connected to anything. In many ways it had been beaten out of them. There in the bush, with a living presence all around, they began to feel part of something bigger and more meaningful.
The trip home in the van was different. There was a lot of silence interspersed with meaningful conversation. I could see these kids lives had changed forever.
Pride and purpose
This wasn’t my only lesson about belonging. I have spent a lot of time with the Tibetan community in Australia and I really admire their strength. At every event I go to they dress in their national costumes, perform traditional dancing and spend a lot of time teaching their culture to their children.
I see in them a sense of pride and purpose, which has a really strong stabilising effect. At times I wonder how long this will last as the community dissolves into western culture. However, that doesn’t seem to be happening.
The dark side of belonging
I am writing this because last night the power of belonging was brought home to me once more. I met with members of the Kurdish community in Australia. The Kurds hail from a region bordering Iran, Turkey and Iraq. So they do not have a real country. The dominant cultures in those countries seem to do what dominant cultures everywhere do: try to wipe out the minority.
It pains me to hear that Kurdish people cannot speak their own language or use Kurdish names. History tells me none of this works, yet it’s happening over and over again. Humanity continues to make the same mistakes, committing the same cultural genocides. That is the dark side of belonging. It can lead to defining who is in, and who is out.
You might think being part of the dominant culture would make you comfortable enough to allow others their own sense of identity and belonging. Alas, that’s not the case. Absolute conformity tends to be demanded by the dominant culture.
Belonging in spite of differences
This is playing out big-time in the aftermath of the huge earthquake in Turkey and Syria. At last night’s meeting they warned me not about 20,000 casualties, but 100,000 casualties. That’s in the north-east (Kurdish) area of Syria alone.
Sadly though, because the Kurds don’t belong to the dominant Turkish or Syrian cultures help evades them. All the aid pouring into the region is diverted. It is being hijacked and sent to areas favourable to the dominant governments.
My experience with those kids and Aboriginal elders was living proof of how we all need to belong. Today, 30 years later, it seems humanity is still to learn the lesson. There is a grace in belonging, in spite of our differences. Only through this belonging can all of us find peace and the sort of loving kindness Jesus taught.