My country, the Dominican Republic, gave me the gift of knowing what it means to belong. And for 28 years, I took that gift for granted. Not only did I grow up in the same church all those years, but I also attended and eventually worked in the same school during that time. In a culture where you typically live near extended family, I grew up always within 10 minutes of my aunts and uncles. We also had a lot of adopted aunts and uncles through our church community.
My parents grew up in a small town in the south of the country and my dad grew up in a Palestinian home. Somehow that also tied us to many other Palestinian/Lebanese families in the Dominican Republic. So even though I lived in a city with over 1.5 million people, there was a neighborhood feel to many of the relationships I had.
Being together with friends was a way of life. We vacationed with other families from church almost every time we went on holiday. Birthdays, graduations, holidays, Friday nights, Wednesday night ice cream after prayer meeting, pizza after church on Sunday nights, long weekends at the beach or up in the mountains – always, always, always meant being with multiple friends from church.
Grieving was also a community affair. Funerals, visiting friends who were sick, and serving others in need, were also normally done together. Any given month there were many reasons to gather with family and friends. Together was definitely always better.
As you can imagine, a lot of my grounding and identity came from being well known and deeply loved.
On my wedding day, 9 years ago, I said goodbye to that sense of being deeply known. I married an American and moved to a new city in the United States. I moved with great eagerness to discover who would be “our people.”
We loved hospitality and opened our home consistently to our church family. But the first 3 years I couldn’t quite tell who wanted us to be their people (mostly because I misread cultural cues.) I yearned to do life together – not just to invite others into our life but to have others invite us into their life – especially the way I had been used to in the DR.
I compared our family with other families who seemed to have what I longed for. I had friends. We had our small group from church. But something was missing that had been a big part of my life.
I looked for home in people and developed sinful habits of seeking refuge and safety in what they thought of me.
Over time, the Lord kindly used my new church– especially our women – to give more of that sense of belonging. But just as I felt like I was starting to understand my American friends more fully and their way of doing life, we gave up life with them to move to the other side of the world.
I didn’t realize, though, that I was still grieving that belonging didn’t feel exactly like it had in the DR. So with unresolved grief and with patterns of seeking refuge & safety in people as a way of coping with that loss – we moved to a very international city in the Middle East.
Our time in that new city was relatively short (10 months) due to my husband’s work. I jumped into trying to do life with God’s people there, because I knew it would be for a very limited time. I expected to belong in an expat community—where everyone far from home is aware of how hard it is and would embrace us into doing life together. But metropolitan life, ministry, distance, extreme busyness, no car, children who get sick—all made doing life in community very challenging, not just for me but for every woman. My longing to belong was not met in those relationships the way I hoped. This exposed my heart to me as He revealed a lot of sin during that time.
We began to taste the sweetness of friendships at the end of our time there but soon it was time to pack up our apartment and say goodbye. As I thought of moving to another city in that same country to start all over again, many tears rolled down my cheeks. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But the Lord used losing that sense of earthly belonging a third time to show me something I desperately needed to understand.
“You Are My People”
One day, reading Isaiah 51:12-16, the Lord broke into my soul. His Word – alive and piercing – brought clarity to my heart:
“I, I am he who comforts you;
I am the Lord your God,
establishing the heavens
and laying the foundations of the earth,
and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’”
When I read the phrase, “You are my people” I burst out crying. I had been longing for 6 years to hear other people say clearly (in a way that made sense to me in my culture and personality): “You guys are our people.” But that day I heard God himself telling me that.
God’s Spirit through Isaiah opened my heart to understand the longing to belong is good and right. God gave it so we long for Him! Yet I had been ruled by the functional beliefs that:
· the longing to belong would ultimately be met by people, and that
· I am entitled to have this longing met completely in this earthly life.
In Christ I have been welcomed into the life of the Trinity – and I now have the same relationship with the Father that the Son has. When the Lord says, “I will make my dwelling among you” He is giving us the gift of doing life with us through his Spirit.
Ever since I left the DR I had been living as if belonging was a right. And when I didn’t experience it – either because of my own cultural definitions or due to the Fall (my own or the brokenness of others around me) – I would at times experience jealousy, anger, fear or deep sadness. He has led me to repentance from idolatry and unbelief by comforting me with the promise of who He is: He is my home.
Being from the DR deeply shaped my definition of community. This was a gift. But as Christ took that rich community away He has allowed me to taste over and over again that He is my portion. And that is a greater gift still.
How has your home culture influenced your sense of belonging?