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Being Included Is Not the Same as Belonging – 4/22/2012

As some of you know, I love to cook. The original reason behind my interest in making food was just that I loved to eat it. I grew up eating the meals my mother prepared, and she is a wonderful cook, but there came a time when I was no longer living at home and she wasn’t there to cook me my favorite dishes anymore. So I had to figure out how to make them myself, with some trial and error and a lot of calls home to ask for recipes and tips. What I discovered, over time, was some of the same pleasure that I believe my mother takes in her cooking. It feels good to be able to make something delicious and nourishing, to enjoy it yourself and most of all to get to share it with others. Food is among our most basic and intimate needs, and offering food to someone else is powerful way of showing them that we care.

So I get a lot of enjoyment out of cooking, and I enjoy learning how to be a better cook, which is what got me interested in this sort of cooking game show where chefs compete against each other to make the best dish. In each round they have a selection of ingredients that all have to be included in the dish. So in one course they might be required to make an entrée that combines kale, rutabaga, marshmallows and turkey, or the chefs might be expected to create a dessert that mixes chocolate chips, chestnuts, dried strawberries and duck eggs. They can use just about any other ingredients they like, but they have to make sure that all four are in there somehow. Usually, in each set there’s at least one thing that doesn’t seem to go together well with the others, or doesn’t fit into the dish that the contestants want to make. So the temptation is to use as little of it as possible, or to try to crowd it out with

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other flavors. But the goal is to have the dish that best incorporates and uses all of the required elements – the challenge is in taking things that don’t seem to make sense together and finding a way to make them into one delicious whole. Grudgingly adding just a little bit of something isn’t enough to win the game. Being included is not

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the same as belonging.

We heard that phrase earlier when Mac Coleman spoke about his spiritual journey and his decades-long and still ongoing process of becoming a part of First Parish. That was the title of a sculpture that Mac welded, a picture of which is on the cover of your order of service: “Being Included Is Not the Same as Belonging”. It’s an important difference because the urge, the need, to feel like we belong is an incredibly powerful force in each of us. And at the same time, once our own need to belong is met, we often forget that that need feels just as important to others. We might still be ready to include someone new – although even that can be a stretch – but the goal of helping others truly belong can slip away.

Belonging is not an easy thing. In Sumerian mythology, there was a character named Enkidu, who was raised by animals, and grew to adulthood without ever meeting another human being. When fate and an interest in others like him finally drew Enkidu to the city of Uruk, there was no place for him there. A wild man without language or culture couldn’t be accepted into civilized society. Enkidu only found a form of belonging after he fought and wrestled with Gilgamesh, the well-educated and cultured king of the city. The struggle bonded the two men. It connected them. At the end of it, despite their great differences, Enkidu and Gilgamesh shared a common sense of belonging to each other.

Our relationships of mutual change are the places where we truly experience belonging. We’re really a part of something when it reshapes us, and our presence and actions reshape it. In the last two years, the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association has been challenging its membership to respond to a seemingly simple question: “Whose are we?” What person or purpose, thing or things are we ultimately here for and finally accountable to? Some time ago I took part in an exercise where a colleague and I took turns asking each other that question: “Whose are you?” again and again and again. Each time we heard it, we tried to dig a little deeper to find new pieces of the answer. Almost all of my answers were people I knew, and communities – like this one – that are important to me and shape who I am. We belong to the things that change us. And at the same time, we also change their lives because of the connection we share.

Some time ago, one of you gave me a copy of an interview with Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, a physician and social activist who mixes clowning into his medical work and tries to address the physical needs of his patients by tending to their emotional needs – to feel safe and respected and loved, to have the chance to enjoy themselves, and to laugh. Robin Williams made a movie several years ago that was very loosely based on him. The fictionalized version of Patch Adams was played mostly for laughs, and his efforts as a peace activist were largely erased from the film. During the interview with the actual Patch Adams, the interviewer mentioned that the press surrounding the movie had called him a doctor who believed that ‘laughter is the best medicine’. This was his response: “I would never agree that laughter is the best medicine; I’ve never said it. Friendship is clearly the best medicine. Friendship is the most important thing in life: our relationships with those we love.” It’s with this in mind that Dr. Adams has sought to build a hospital that functions as a community, that fosters a sense of respect, and care, and belonging between everyone involved in it – the staff, and the patients. Without a sense of belonging, the spirit and the body both suffer.

As Unitarian Universalists we are called to build just and sustainable communities to which those in need of a spiritual home may belong. That responsibility comes to us from our ancestors. They sought places where they could be who they were, could practice their faith according to their own understanding, in peace, and many of them found that they had nowhere to belong. But this mission does not end at the church property line. Our tradition teaches us that we are all connected – not just person-to-person, but community-to-community. So the same basic values we would apply to our own congregation –

that it should be grounded in the practice of love and the search for truth, governed democratically and open to everyone who needs it – these are the same values we must carry with us to the larger communities of which we are a part.

In the film The Good Shepherd, Matt Damon’s character, a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant and a leading officer in the early CIA, chats with an Italian-American Mafioso. The gangster points out to the spook that different ethnic, religious and racial groups in the United States each seem to have ideals or institutions that bind them together: religious practices, cultural traditions, family ties. “What about you people,” he asks, “what do you have?”

The well-born spy answers directly, “The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.” You see, being included is not the same as belonging. Matt Damon’s character was fictional, but that attitude is all too terribly real. It lurks in our national dialog about race, and immigration, and everything that it means to be a nation of many different identities. It is present in the recently uncovered program by New York City police to spy on mosques in New York and New Jersey. It reveals itself in the rhetoric of fear surrounding Italians or Latinos, Catholics or Mormons, socialists or libertarians: take your pick. The voice that says, “I belong here. You are just visiting.”

In this country, in this commonwealth, and perhaps here in this congregation, a tremendous number of people live in fear of the law while their only crime is the persistent desire to belong as a part of this nation. The system in which you and I and all of us are each enmeshed and involved depends upon their presence and their labor. It depends upon millions of undocumented human beings who are hungry for work and have to do it under the table, for fear of being caught and deported. The price of produce, and much of the restaurant, construction and hospitality industries rely on this labor in order to function as they do. This situation certainly includes people who are present in the country without official permission – it requires them in order to exist – but it needs them to remain half in and half out. Unprotected, unaccepted, treated as interchangeable and invisible and kept imperiled and afraid.

Every community – every group of people – exists on a continuum from exclusion to inclusion to belonging. Every group that we are a part of is in a different place, on a different scale, and needs different sorts of effort in order to move towards that ideal state where there is a place for everyone at the table. But in every case the project begins in the heart with a willingness to meet another person where they are, and to know them as they are. In Robert Heinlein’s famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, the dry climate of Mars has led to an incredibly simple ritual at the heart of Martian society. Just to share water with someone becomes a sacred act, forming a holy bond connecting two people. The moment that helps you or anyone else feel that they belong – in this community or any other – that moment is not predictable, but it does not need to be any more complicated than sharing a glass of water.

In the story of immigration in America, the image of a melting pot is often celebrated: many different ingredients all simmering and churning together into a uniform whole. But the ideal of our community is not to try to hide our differing flavors by boiling them off or burying them, but to gather together into a form that is beautiful, powerful and yes, delicious precisely because it incorporates each of our unique ingredients. It is an ideal that the world needs, so let us be bold and imaginative together, in finding ways to pursue it, within these walls, and in the larger world.

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