The Journey to Belong



I scrolled through the photos of the gathering on Facebook. Smiling faces. Arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. It was my high school 20th reunion. Everyone looked so happy, as if they were having the time of their lives. And I wasn’t there. Emotional memories flooded in. Back then, I always felt just on the outside of friendship circles, desperately wanting to belong.

Two months later, a different gathering’s photographs filled my Facebook feed. Again, I found myself looking at photographs of smiling faces, of arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. But this time, in these photos, I was one of the smiling faces, and my shoulders were draped with the arms of beloved friends-who-are-family.

I began to reflect on my friendships with the people smiling back at me from this set of photographs, and slowly, a realization bloomed from deep within me that made my heart sing … These are MY people. These are the people who nurture me, challenge me, love me. These friendships represent the communities to which I NOW belong.

You may wonder, “How did that shift happen?” Honestly? I’m not entirely sure. But I think it unfolded when I began to shift from channeling most of my energy outward–trying to become who I thought everyone else wanted me to be–to channeling that energy inward, focusing on finding who I am.

During my studies in the areas of counseling and theology, I was encouraged to reflect on my life journey in essay upon essay.  I learned how my past shaped—for better or worse—my present. Through individual and group counseling, as well as engaging with various tools such as the Enneagram, I have been able to identify my wounds that became the lenses through which I viewed the world. I slowly grew to understand my wounds and unravel the knots caused by these wounds. But it has not been an easy journey. In fact, my journey more often than not resembled a wrestling match, with me grunting and sweating and swearing loudly as I fought with God and with the wounds of my past.

Like Jacob, I refused to let go of my wrestling partners until I received my blessing. And like Jacob, I did receive my blessing, but it came at a cost. Jacob wrestled with God all night and walked away from that encounter with a limp. I wrestled with God for six years, and even though I too was blessed, the cost was an incredibly painful process of healing. It is a cost for which I am now truly grateful.

Some months, I was so emotionally raw that my skin literally was sensitive to the touch, and other months I felt like I had completely lost my faith. During those times, I wasn’t sure if God existed, and if he did exist, what kind of God he really was. Because my faith is an essential part of my identity, I felt as if I had lost a sense of who I was. And because I felt so lost, I became a tortoise, withdrawing from the world into my shell so I could cope.

Yet, somewhere on this journey-that-was-like-a-wrestling-match, I found the courage to step out in all my wounded, God-is-not-done-with-me-yet glory. Friends and other loved ones came toward me and drew me out of my shell, unwilling to let me hide indefinitely. I found, to my surprise, that people loved me, wounds and issues and all.

As I reflected on gatherings and belonging, the parable of the Great Banquet found in Luke 14 came to mind. I read the version of this parable in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, and one phrase immediately made the joy-strings of my heart hum:

“If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

What struck me so powerfully was how the last part of that phrase beautifully describes my state of being today, and the journey I have travelled thus far. In concentrating on my own healing, I am learning to be content with myself. And the more I sink into that space, the deeper my sense of belonging becomes. I am learning that as I grow in loving myself, I become more fully ME. Consequently I belong more fully to “WE/US.”

The other aspect of the passage that stays with me, is the second group of invitation recipients and the power of invitation. Eugene Peterson calls the recipients “… the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks” (Luke 14:12-14), … those “people who never get invited out” (Luke 14:12-14), “… the misfits and homeless and wretched.” (Luke 14:21) I know what it’s like to feel the pain of these labels.

I reflected on the power of that second invitation, how wonderful it must have felt when they were invited. In the ancient Mediterranean world, only those who could reciprocate an invitation would be invited to social events. This inevitably excluded the poor and those who were deemed “unclean,” such as the sick, the lame, and the blind.

Imagine the scandal when insiders invited these outsiders, how joy and appreciation must have infused these recipients’ being. These “misfits” were wanted, and I can only imagine what that must have felt … To be wanted, to finally be invited, just as they were. I imagine how their posture straightened in pride and in joy, and how tall they walked as they entered that banquet.

And I can imagine all of this because their story of “misfit-ness” and of being a recipient of the invitation, is my story. And I can fully embrace their story, because now I know I belong.


So, my SheLoves sisters, what are your stories of finding a place of belonging? I would love to hear your  journey to belonging.


Image credit: Tina Francis Mutungu