Dimensions of Belonging

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by Erik W. Carter
Read Part 1: On Belonging
 
We all want to be part of some larger community. To find our home in the midst of others. Although a sense of belonging is no less important for people with disabilities and their families, it can sometimes seem more elusive.
 
Like so many of the things that matter most, belonging can be so very hard to define. We feel its absence quickly and deeply, but we sometimes struggle to describe its presence. And so my colleagues and I interviewed almost 50 parents and young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to learn about their experiences within their faith communities and to find out what belonging meant to them.
 
As we reflected on all they shared through these conversations, we identified ten dimensions of belonging. Each provides a powerful point of reflection for congregations committed to being places of belonging for all in their community. In this week’s blog, I’ll share the first five of these important markers.
 
1. Present. Belonging requires presence. And yet so many people with disabilities whose faith is an important part of their lives find themselves on the outside of the doors of the church. Consider just a few statistics. In one large-scale study of adults intellectual and developmental disabilities in 24 states, more than half had not attended any type of religious service in the past month. In another study, less than 45% of individuals with significant disabilities reported involvement in a place of worship at least monthly. You cannot have a presence if you are never actually present.
 
2. Invited. Presence is best ushered in by an invitation. Many churches proclaim they are welcoming—on their websites, on their church signs, and on their outreach materials. But an announcement communicates something altogether different than a personal invitation. For many people with disabilities and their families, generic promises of a warm reception have not always been honored. In fact, in one study, nearly one third of all parents said they had left their congregation because their son or daughter with intellectual and developmental disabilities was not welcomed or included. For these families, it may take someone personally reaching out and saying, “I would sure love you to come.”
 
3. Welcomed. It has become far too easy to move through Sunday without really engaging with others in substantial ways. To have few meaningful interactions amidst the passiveness of our worship services, the brevity of our fellowship times, and our quick departure after the benediction. Far too many people with disabilities and their families say they are overlooked or avoided during these times. And so they soon stop coming. Wouldn’t you? Extending an active hospitality is an important aspect of helping people feel like they belong. To welcome people in ways that assure them that you are glad they are here. Here, welcome is more than a word, it is a feeling.
 
4. Known. Not merely known about, but rather personally known. As the once-popular show Cheers regularly proclaimed, we all want to be part of a community “where everybody knows your name.” But belonging is not just about whether you are known, but also about how you are known. Too often, people with disabilities are known primarily by their labels (e.g., “We have a young man with Down syndrome who attends our church.”). And such labels tend to evoke images of struggles, challenges, and deficits in people’s minds. Belonging comes when people know you as an individual, not as a category. And when they see you in terms of your gifts, strengths, passions, story, and personality (e.g., “That’s Sam, a young man with a servant’s heart, a love for God, a bone-cracking handshake, and passion for the Celtics.” Truly knowing someone comes from spending time together.
 
5. Accepted. Acceptance extends beyond mere friendliness and common courtesy; it also entails being embraced for who you are. As an individual, rather than as a member of a group. But acceptance is not automatic, nor is it always ensured. Attitudes about disability that are pervasive in our society have also penetrated our churches. Reluctance, uncertainty, myths, and low expectations abound. In one study, only a little more than half (55%) of parents strongly agreed that clergy and congregational leaders accepted their child with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And slightly less than half (48%) strongly agreed that other congregation members accepted their child.
 
In next week’s blog, I will go further down this progression and share the next five dimensions of belonging. In the meantime, reflect on the dimensions I have presented so far. To what extent are people with disabilities and their families present, invited, welcomed, known, and accepted within your church? And what steps might you take to move toward being the sort of community where these things are true?
 
Part 1:  On Belonging
Part 2:  Dimensions of Belonging
Part 3:  More Dimensions of Belonging
 
About the Author
Erik Carter is Professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and a researcher at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. His research focuses on helping congregations and communities receive the gifts, faith, and friendship of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He co-leads the Collaborative on Faith and Disability and is the author of Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations.

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