You belong here

I think I was wearing jeans and a sweater that day. What I do remember for sure is that it was cold outside, I had two miles to walk after I got off the subway, and it never even crossed my mind that jeans would be the wrong thing to wear. But when I got to church, one of the members gave me the side eye.

“Jeans at church?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

I hadn’t been a member of that church for very long. I was fresh out of college, enthusiastic about being of service, and church had seemed like the perfect avenue for my prayers and energies. But that moment put me off. Suddenly, I found myself wondering if I really belonged.

There are lots of reasons any of us might wonder whether we belong among our fellow Sunday School students or the people who make up our church. What we wear, how we identify, what we’re sure—or not so sure—we believe about our faith, even how we talk about our own very personal experiences of God, could seem to lead to an uncomfortable conclusion: Maybe we’re actually outsiders. Maybe we’ll never be welcome.

Suddenly, I found myself wondering if I really belonged. 

But is that the right interpretation of these sometimes glaring differences? That’s what I had to ask myself after the jeans drama. 

I’d always thought of Christian Science as the most inclusive way of viewing the world that I’d ever encountered. All of creation, Mary Baker Eddy explained, is governed by universal spiritual laws of good. No one stands outside of them. Christian Science helps us understand these ideas and make them practical, but they include everyone, whether people call themselves Christian Scientists or not.

So why wouldn’t the most inclusive, expansive spiritual system have only the most inclusive, open-minded church members? Praying about that question one day, I got a vivid mental image of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time criticizing his healings and telling the people that he was doing the devil’s work. Ouch. Rather than embrace him and the new ideas he brought, they criticized, mocked, and resisted them.

I could bring to church what I believed was important—inclusiveness, open-mindedness, love—and that way, those qualities would always be with me in church, whether or not everyone else was expressing them.

I understood then that this wasn’t about the guys harassing Jesus any more than it was about my much less extreme situation of the lady at church who didn’t like the way I dressed. It was simply the opposite of inclusiveness and expansiveness coming to mind in a way that seemed like these people’s own thoughts. But those thoughts weren’t theirs, or anyone’s. They didn’t come from God, so they had no source, no actual power. And no one could be fooled by them. Including me.

Yep, I had some better thinking of my own to do, as I realized how that woman’s judgments had caused me to feel some judgments of my own. And my heart softened as I realized that whether or not she wanted to embrace me, I could still embrace her. I could bring to church what I believed was important—inclusiveness, open-mindedness, love—and that way, those qualities would always be with me in church, whether or not everyone else was expressing them.

After that, going back to church felt natural. And that woman never commented on my clothes again. A few years later, though, when I was having a hard time after a breakup but hadn’t told anyone, she surprised me by approaching me after the service one Sunday and inviting me to her house for lunch. It was exactly the love I needed at that moment. It was exactly the love I’d always known was there for all of us in church. 

And it was as though God was saying to me what He says to each of us, no matter who we are, how we look, or whether or not we feel like we fit in: You belong here. Because you do.

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