On Your Own Feet, Belonging

Many of our refugee and immigrant partners at the Village Exchange Center find themselves in a diaspora condition, lifted out of land and culture, seeking to keep critical values and mores in a new social context.  For these communities, values are often rediscovered and clarified in the sometimes-painful play of social tensions.  For the established hosting community, a genuine welcome of the foreigner means leaving some of what is familiar and is therefore also a movement into diaspora.  Today, globally, historical forces are thrusting our stabilities and securities into unknown arenas.

Just hours before his untimely death, the Christian monk and writer, Thomas Merton, declared, “from now on folks, everyone stands on their own feet.”  More than a casual statement, Merton was addressing our post-modern condition of loosened trust and dependence on traditional institutions and centers of meaning, “the centre doesn’t hold.”  His insight was no doubt significantly gleaned from his personal experience of solitude as a monk which enabled him to read an emerging experience of solitude in our culture, of an individualism which necessarily follows the collapse of the security of institutions.

Individualism left to itself is prone to curl in on itself, thereby smothering the possibilities of relationality and the openness of the Spirit.  But when an individual follows the thread of experience toward a unity of life and people, the person enters the paradox of our time, the individuated person creating and manifesting unity.  The individual is appropriating the universal truth of unity.  And when this is happening across a diversity of cultures, something new is emerging within history.  The autonomous person, for all the endured vulnerability, feels their agency and freedom, and their capacity for ownership of things chosen.  The experience of freedom, in the context of our movement toward unity, is also surrender, because we are discovering something already given, intrinsic, already belonging.

Standing on our own feet, turned toward our meaning, we discern something most basic, universal, inescapable, having to do with our total, intrinsic belonging to the world and one another.  In the space cleared between our personal freedom turned toward the world we discover in a new way an old truth.  Faith traditions have long voiced this truth, but perhaps our time reveals its fullness and necessity.

Belonging presupposes a given unity, and diversity is the intended splendor of life.  As Rabbi Sacks points out, “Look at the world God created.  He didn’t create one kind of tree.  He created 20,000 kinds of tree.  He didn’t create one language but 6,000 kinds of languages.  The miracle of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here.”

The Quran says that God made “peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another.”  Diversity offers human beings a deeper appreciation of the God-given world and ultimately of Godself.  Buddhism clearly highlights diversity with our identity.  Dogen gives the wonderful summary, “To study the way is to study the self.  To study the self is to forget the self.  To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.  To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.”

I recently have come to know Pastor Luke, from Camaroon, who is in the U.S. seeking asylum for his family.  The stories he tells of violence in his homeland are wrenching.  Our first days together focused on the horrific situation and urgent personal needs, but then we found moments to talk about less critical and more mundane aspects of life.  Luke shared with me how over twenty years ago he, from the east coast of Camaroon, married his wife, from the west coast.  There were strict taboos against inter-tribal marriage.  It cost them both a decade of total rejection from their families.  However, because of their insight and confidence in what is true, in recent years there have followed a number of inter-tribal marriages, enough for the communities to have taken a turn against the divisive taboos.  Where people have the courage to enact our simple belonging to one another there is released and made available to others the possibilities of their own recognition.  Because we already know.  That’s the power of it; the center holds.

Rev. Marcel Narucki

Multi-Faith Director

Village Exchange Center

June 2019