This past weekend, I went with three of my co-workers to a camp near Seattle, Washington. It was my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, and the first time I’ve ever seen the ocean from that side. The air was cool, the leaves were changing, and pines lined the landscape like the book jacket of a Twilight-saga novel.
We were there for a conference, and throughout the weekend we sat in small groups, walked by a lovely lake, and spent time considering our stories and what the future held. As the weekend passed, a reoccurring question kept coming up:
Where are you from?
Where’s home for you?
But as these basic questions kept getting asked, I felt like I was lying to the asker. Sure, I’m living in Nashville. Yes, my family lives in Pittsburgh. But as others shared their stories about life and work and home – stories of consistency, familiarity, and long-standing friendships, something felt missing my story:
Growing up, I went to 2 elementary schools, 1 high school, and 6 churches. One of my clearest memories from my childhood was when my mom told me we were moving before I entered the seventh grade. We were walking next to some large potted plants along a public sidewalk, automatic sprayers misting against my ankles. As my mom told me about our family’s plan to move, I distinctly remember wiping away tears and saying, “I just want to feel like I belong.” It wasn’t a lament of leaving as much as it was a hope for what lied ahead.
Several church changes, years of college, and moves later, those words I said when I was 11 echo again through my head: “I just want to feel like I belong.” Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve felt a longing to leave. I often feel like an outsider, sometimes for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years. Peace and community usually come after about a year of being somewhere, but there’s something about my spirit that cannot shake the restlessness.
Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve felt a longing to leave. I often feel like an outsider, sometimes for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years.
Something I’ve learned through my moves is that when you leave a place physically, part of you always stays behind. Memory and nostalgia and a thousand different stories now inhabit that place instead of your body, but the remembrance clings long after you’ve left. An arrival at each new place brings with it a longing for the place before it, not necessarily because you felt like you belonged there, but because you don’t know how to belong where you are now.
How do you find belonging in a new place where your social calendar is short and your relational confidence is slim?
How do you find belonging in a place where it seems like everyone has found it but you?
How do you find belonging when everyone tells you that you’re in the friendliest city in America but you’re feeling more lonely than you have in a quite a while?
How do you find belonging when you feel like you don’t belong?
It’s a question I’ve been asking it seems like for ages, one that never seems to go away.
I confess that I haven’t even really prayed about feeling a sense of belonging in this new place. I haven’t prayed to feel a sense of belonging for many reasons, one being that I don’t know that I want to belong here, in a place that is nearly 10 hours away from the closest thing I have to home, from family, from grocery stores where I know where everything is and coffee shops where the staff is familiar.
I also haven’t prayed for belonging because as hard as it is to not feel it, it softens my heart in the places it is hard. To be a stranger in a new place and to feel the desire to be known draws me to greater empathy for the stranger – for the one who has no family, no friends, no place to rest their head. In many ways, I feel the part of the stranger, but I am NOT the stranger. I have a home, a family, a table to eat my meals. In a different place from here, I am known. For many in this world right at this very second, that is not the case.
I also haven’t prayed for belonging because as hard as it is to not feel it, it softens my heart in the places it is hard.
So instead of praying for belonging, I pray the same words I prayed when I was trying to decide if I would leave Pittsburgh and move to Nashville.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
I don’t know what God’s will at this time is, if it is for me to leave this place after a year or stay, if it is make friends or to remain in a quiet way of life, but I do know that his will is that I draw closer to Him. In this season of a quieter life, a shorter social calendar, and a sense of strangeness, he is softening my heart, turning my heart to consider The Other, and bringing me into closer community with Him.
I like how Henri Nouwen put it:
“But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.”
So as another day in this new city comes to a close, I pray he continues to help me build my home not here, not in Pittsburgh, not anywhere else in this world, but in Him.