Last night at church, in a room full of about 15 people, we gathered together to talk about how to create belonging within our church. To go beyond just a coming together on Sunday mornings and move instead to a place where we form deep connection with one another. To find joy in our interactions. Togetherness.
What is belonging, how do you define it? How do you go about creating it within your community? For me, belonging is first found within the smaller groups of a church or any large organization. These smaller settings are a place where you can build relationships and get to know one another in a more intimate way, which then can branch out into the larger community.
Creating belonging takes some effort on both the side of the organization, and the person desiring to join the group. The organization needs to offer small groups which serve as safe places for new people to get a foothold and the person wanting to join needs to be willing to put themselves out there until they form a few early relationships. It is a two sided street and both must offer up something of themselves.
Some recent examples of ways I have found my way into new groups here in my new area are as follows:
1) At church I joined a Small Group Ministry group last fall which allowed me to meet a group of great women pretty quickly and those relationships offered comfort to me which then allowed me to move into other groups within the church, thus resulting in meeting even more people.
2) At my son's homeschool co-op, they started offering Open Campus days which allow the community to come together for a day once a month. Many different small groups are forming such as book and game clubs, allowing one to get to know others on a smaller scale.
3) I have met most of my neighbors here in my new neighborhood and one neighbor invited me to participate in a weekday morning gathering of dog owners. Her willingness to reach out and include me resulted in me feeling comfortable enough to join in with the larger group of 10-15 dog owners, building community around the shared interest of dogs.
In all of these examples, belonging on my part was found because I was willing to put myself out there and also the organizations I joined provided an easy way for me to get involved through small groups.
I love participating in these organizations and the sense of belonging that comes with it. To begin to find a group of people to share the journey with where we offer up care and support for one another in this often fragmented world.
Ever since I left my native Michigan 30 years ago, I have been looking for home. Looking for a place to sink my roots and establish myself. I have lived in many states since then- Oregon, Colorado, Georgia, and Illinois- to name a few, but none have ever felt quite like home. I always had friendships with people in those states and other things reminded me of home, but there always seemed to be something missing.
When I first moved to Philadelphia, what I noticed most was how life opened up for me and I found my place in many area groups. I began to feel that maybe I had found home due to the many connections I was making with others and I began to think that discovering "home" was all about finding lots of friends in an area.
I also wondered if this area felt more comfortable because Pennsylvania and Michigan had other things in common. They both had Big Ten colleges in their states, both had sports fans with huge loyalties to their professional sports teams, and they shared many of the same chain stores and restaurants.
But after a bit, I realized that there was something more pulling at me here in Pennsylvania. Something more than friends and chain stores. I first noticed it when I was in the woods over at Ridley Creek State Park last week. The way the sun came through the forest and hit on the picnic tables nearby really spoke to me. The dirt path on the trail winding its way through the forest. The feel of the ground under my feet as I walked along. The smell of the woods. Suddenly, I realized I could have been in my native Michigan, the feel of the forest was so similar, so very familiar. The fallen leaves on the path, the bridges over the creeks, the rolling topography, the beeches, the oaks.
After doing some research, I discovered that Michigan lies in the Southern Great Lakes Terrestrial ecoregion and Philadelphia lies in the Northern Coastal Terrestrial ecoregion, different ecoregions for sure, but similar all the same. They both are comprised of hardwood forests and share many of the same local birds and animals. They both have understory trees and forest blooming wildflowers. While their climates are a bit different, Michigan colder in the winter certainly, they both share hot humid summers.
This pull, this feeling of home that I have been searching for and haven't been able to find outside of my native state, has been found finally here in Philadelphia and it wasn't due to just finding friends or chain stores, but due to finding a place whose natural spaces are much like what I grew up with. A place with the same ancient mysteries that essentially take me home. Home, I'm discovering, isn't so much about what you create on the surface of a place, but what a place does to touch those deep recesses of your soul. If you can find somewhere that replicates the woodlands, prairies, deserts or mountains of your childhood, you can go home again, even if you no longer reside there.
For more information on ecoregions click on the links below:
Yellow jewels hang from branches, beckoning me into nature's embrace. Tree litter covers my tracks as I leave the world behind. Time stops, obligations fall away as I make my way along the dirt path before me. Soon I must go back to pick up my son and make dinner, but for now, I will revel in the ways of nature.
A split in the path of sorts. One rising higher for all to see, but stunted. The other taking a more gentle climb. Taking longer yet going farther. The lower path pushing past crossroads, obstacles, and moving into new space. Moving skyward, each crossroad bringing challenges but resulting in supportive lessons and wisdom. Lessons that work toward wholeness. Eventually moving beyond the crossroads, no longer impeded, rising high enough to bask in the warmth of the rising sun, the authenticity of self.
When I moved away from my Illinois home in June of '09, I left behind the garlic I had planted the October before. Somehow it felt as though I had left part of myself and when I came back for a a visit later that summer, I walked by my old house and peered over the fence at my ready to harvest garlic, their long stalks doing a dance for me.
I planted garlic for the first time ever in October of '07. The post I wrote about the experience and how I loved growing garlic so much that I wanted to become a garlic farmer can be found here. My love affair with garlic happened naturally and spontaneously and really was unexpected. Maybe it was because my garlic crop connected me to the land. Allowed me to find a way back to the land when I didn't even know my connection had gone awry. Today is the October Full Moon and many farmers use the full moon in October as a measure of when you should plant your garlic. I have been looking forward to this day for a long time, excited to sink my hands into the dirt of my new home. Excited to know my most beloved crop would soon be nestled in the ground beside my garage. Connecting me to the land of my new home and bringing connection in other ways I have yet to discover.
Traveling south on US101 just south of the Oregon border, my husband and I stopped at a roadside pull-off and took out our cooler to sit at a picnic table and share some lunch. The day was cold, it being late December, but we didn't notice the chill so much. Just the sheer beauty of the coastal woodlands we found ourselves immersed in. We were on a grand adventure heading towards the huge towering redwoods of northern California and the city of San Francisco beyond, our first big vacation since marrying. While I have fond memories of all that happened on that trip, it is the stop at the picnic table and the sandwiches we enjoyed that come back to me time and time again.
As a young girl, my family always stopped at picnic table filled waysides to eat while traveling. I loved the novelty of eating outside, family gathered round as we reached into the cooler and brought out food prepared from home. Our hands scrambling to hold plates and napkins down as the wind tugged at everything, threatening to send it all flying up and away. Challenge met as we ate peanut butter sandwiches, stretched our legs and enjoyed the break of a long car ride. Pleasant memories etched into the fabric of my being.
I have read that home is imprinted on children around the age of eight. That the landscape, culture, nature, and place where one resides as a young child forms a bank of memories that can be triggered many years in the future by a scent on the wind, a song on the radio, a view from the car etc...that will send one back to that place of home many years prior. I feel that these home place memories become so etched into who we are that they not only decide what activities we enjoy as we move into our future but also determine which memories we hold dear.
Recently I came across an empty picnic table in the state park near my home and my thoughts turned to the long ago picnic table outside my grandmother's cottage. Suddenly, I was 10 again and sitting beside my cousin as my extended family gathered around to feast on fruit, sandwiches, and buttercream cake put out on the table by my grandmother. I can remember the way the sun glistened on the lake, the way the woodlot beside the cottage smelled as though it was yesterday.
The picnic tables of my youth have become the tables of my future. In a supposed desire to go home again, I continually find myself unconsciously drawn to places that offer picnic tables because those places are where I feel most comfortable, especially after a lifetime of hopping over those wooden planked seats as I drew up to the rustic tables. From campgrounds to parks, all the while imprinting the love of picnic tables onto my own sons, I find myself seeking out picnic tables and have never stopped to consider why I am so drawn to them until now.
I can see now how they tell the story of my long ago past, taking me home again by invoking pleasant memories, but I see too how their comfortable warmth will also take me into my future. The tales those tables tell and will tell. Both of where I have been and also of where I am going.