Six weeks ago I started a series in this column space that began to explore what it means to say “I belong to Sacred Heart.” I hope you have been following the flow of musings and thoughts – if not – let me touch upon a few points. There are almost 3,000 households that are registered, but then “registered” is not the kind of belonging we are thinking about. There is a group of 500 (or so) households that volunteer, serve, minister, open parish emails, give in an identifiable way, and contribute to the annual appeal. This smaller group certainly demonstrates more of the characteristics that would seem to point to a greater sense of belonging. But along the way, we made the point that all these great external characteristics are the result of belonging, not the precursor to belonging.
But what about “internal” characteristics? There are nine statements that describe a person who is “spiritually committed:”
- My faith is involved in every aspect of my life.
- Because of my faith, I have meaning and purpose in my life.
- My faith gives me an inner peace.
- l am a person who is spiritually committed.
- I spend time in worship or prayer every day.
- Because of my faith, I have forgiven people who have hurt me deeply.
- My faith has called me to develop my given strengths.
- I will take unpopular stands to defend my faith.
- I speak words of kindness to those in need of encouragement.
It is tempting to say it is these people who will go on to possess a greater sense of belonging, but studies have shown that, again, these are the result of a greater sense of belonging, not the precursor to belonging.
In both a visible and internal way we can see the effects of parishioners possessing a sense of belonging – but how do we “build” that sense of belonging so that parishioners can bloom and blossom in the good soil of the parish – and then, naturally and generously, invite others to join them?
If after six weeks, you think this is the point where I unveil a master plan of programs and projects that will be so compelling that a sense of belonging is inevitable, unavoidable, or inescapable, then prepare to be underwhelmed. Stop and ask yourself all these same questions, but apply them to family. It is the same dynamic. People have a sense of belonging to communities (from families to parishes) when an individual knows he or she is valued – just as they are. Even more, people want to know that their gifts and talents are recognized, appreciated, and will be nurtured. People want to know they are part of something greater than themselves and that they can make a meaningful contribution to that greater purpose.
None of this should come as a surprise. It all stems from a deep, intrinsic human desire as natural as breathing: a need to belong.
It starts with the simplest of things: knowing someone’s name. At our 5:30 pm Saturday Vigil Mass there is a wonderful gentleman named Raphael Fernandez. Raphael arrives at the church about 20-25 minutes before Mass begins. He stays in the back of the church, meeting and greeting folks, asking them about this and that, and then he works his way down the side aisle to his regular seat. Along the way, he continues to connect to all manner of people – some of whom he knows, some he is just meeting. Once he is in his seat, all sorts of people come over to say hello. Soon the pews around him fill up with his “family” – a group of people who know him and who know each other’s names, their families, their coming and goings, what the kids are doing, the ministries they are working, and just all manner of things. The people know they are valued and recognized. They know they are “at home.”
There are lots of Raphael’s in our parish. There are lots of pew communities at the different Masses. There are two things that can be said: (a) did you notice that this is not something that the priests do for you? And (b) if one pays attention, you can notice there is a movement in which the pew community reaches out to embrace new comers who then become engaged and active in the parish. In small ways throughout the parish, the simple act of welcoming, inclusion, and invitation leads to belonging – and belonging leads to so much more.
In time there will be programs and projects. There is a season for all things, but for this season, we need to be about preparing the soil of this good church. It is the work of each of our many hands.
Hands that reach out to include and build family. Voices that welcome and engage. A demeanor that values and appreciates. The creation of that good soil church begins when each one here begins a conversation with, “Hello, my name is….” and continues each week as the conversation grows, bearing fruit, when someone suggests, “You know what we should do?” Then in the doing, faith grows, purpose becomes clearer, prayer comes more naturally, forgiveness more easily. Sound familiar? Remember the nine “internal” characteristics above?
What’s the plan? Introduce yourselves, week in and week out, in every season. Be attentive to the visitor, the one you see every week but don’t know their names. Introduce yourself to a “pew community.” In time you will begin to realize that these are the people who “belong.” When you asked them when and how those traits emerged in their lives, the answer is often, “You know, it all started when I was talking with….”
Previous articles in the series: