Swimming, Belonging, and Welcome

I’m a swimmer. I swim 3 or 4 mornings a week with the Master’s Swim Club in Hopkins. Usually when I tell people “I’m a swimmer”, I

immediately confess, “I’m in lane 1, that’s the slow lane.” This has been true for the past 5 years, but recently I moved up. I’m now in lane 2, the 2nd slowest lane. Being in lane 2 has been a goal of mine for a long time. Lane 1 can be frustrating at times for a whole variety of reasons plus I wanted to get better. I wanted to swim faster and easier consistently, and finally I am doing just that. I’m in lane 2! I should be celebrating. I should be rejoicing. But after a month of swimming in lane 2, I’m not happy.

In lane 2, I am the slowest, which isn’t that big a deal, but I’m the slowest by A LOT. In lane 2 I can make the intervals, but I am hardly ever getting done with the other swimmers and I barely ever receive sufficient rest. Plus, all of the friends I have made in my 5 years of swimming are in lane 1. We understood each other. We would break extra long after hard sets. We would joke around with the coach. We told each other when we’d be gone for periods of time, checked in on each others families, we counted our sets in funny voices and different languages and would have silly conversations. None of this happens in lane 2. Or maybe it does, but not for me because I’m too busy trying to catch up.

Today, when I arrived at swimming there was nobody in lane 2 and all of my friends were there in lane 1 so I switched back. I was excited to reunite with Noah and Barb and swim with them again. I felt pretty good about the switch initially. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t belong in lane 1 either. I swam faster than the rest of them now- not by a ton, but enough that it showed. When they were complaining about extra breaks, I couldn’t join in because I had just had a long break and by the end of practice I felt sad.Icanbarelykeepupinlane2andinlane1I’mtoofast. There’snoplace that I belong.

I talk about the importance of belonging often because I think it’s so important. Belonging gives us a sense of identity. It connects us with others and helps us feel like part of something bigger than ourselves. When we belong we have a feeling of safety and maybe even purpose. When we feel like we belong, we can dare to be our self and be accepted for who we are.

In the church we often talk about whether or not people are members. We might even use the language of “belonging.” We might even ask, “Do you belong to Shepherd of the Hills?” But I believe belonging goes beyond membership. One of the things I love about Shepherd is that you often go out of your way to welcome people in: introducing yourselves and saying hello. We also go out of our way to make sure that people know that it doesn’t matter if you are a member of our congregation or not, you can participate fully in the life of our congregation. The message I hope to send is: You belong! But in spite of all of these good intentions I am sure that some people who enter our church don’t have a sense of belonging. They might not feel like they fit in. Or people might be struggling to find their place. So then what do we do?

As I have struggled to belong in lane 2, I have recognized that other members of the lane are trying to help me belong. There is a woman Beth, who when she has seen me switch back and forth between lane 1 and 2 has said, “Hey come swim with us.” Or “We missed you today.” She has made me feel wanted and welcomed. Pablo has continued to encourage me each week asking, “How was practice for you?” or “You are doing a good job.” When I lament that I am so slow, he commends me for sticking with it. These small statements make a difference. Pablo helps me feel like I’m not the burden or slow- poke that I think I am, and that I really do have a place in lane 2. These statements let me know that I am seen. I am encouraged and I am missed when I am gone.

Isn’t this what we can do for others in the church? To pay attention to the people who might be sitting by themselves and welcoming them to come and join us. To help people when they seem confused by the liturgy and admit our own struggles. To notice when people haven’t been around and say, “hey I missed you today.” None of us can make someone else feel like they belong, that will happen when that person really feels it and when it’s true. But we can help others feel more comfortable by paying attention and noticing when people show up, by encouraging them when life seems hard and to invite them to participate along with us.

May you all know that you indeed belong to God!
Pastor Joanna Mitchell

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