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More than just a name tag

YOU know that you belong when you turn up and they have a name tag for you.

At the very least they will feed you.

But is that the same as belonging?

It might just mean that the efficient electronic registration system has you on the list.

It doesn’t mean that you will feel welcome and included.

I recently attended Summer Madness, the synod youth camp held at Alex Park on the Sunshine Coast.

I got a name tag, a bed and enjoyed the food but, more than that, I was welcomed at the gate, saw some people I already knew and made some new young friends.

For me, belonging means having a legitimate place in the group and building relationships that make being in that group
supportive, fruitful and lifeexpanding.

When our family lived in Rockhampton we hosted three exchange students.

For a few months they belonged to our household.

The day we met the first one at the airport we were all so nervous.

Francesco had travelled from winter in Italy and was a bright young man with excellent English, so we were able to talk about all kinds of things.

Our daughter, Ellen, had spent some months in Italy so some of the conversation was in Italian.

We found some common ground and my husband built a bicycle for him.

After several months of training, Francesco was able to ride up Mt Archer, a climb of 600 metres over 11 kilometres.

He showed us how his mother cooked tortellini and I discovered that he liked to eat creamed rice pudding after an energetic soccer practice.

Francesco and I shared a love of reading and on Mother’s Day he presented me with an English translation of an Italian novel that was one of his favourites.

For the first time our household took a special interest in the World Cup that year and Italy won!

By the end of his six-month exchange Francesco belonged to our family.

We still keep in touch.

Some years ago the Uniting Church produced a discipleship tool called Belonging.

It explores the Christian faith by connecting faith, beliefs and living.

Although it is designed for 12 sessions it is flexible enough to be used in a mentoring relationship, in small groups or for retreats or camp studies.

I adapted it for confirmation classes.

It considers what it means to belong to God, to belong to God’s people and to belong to God’s world.

The experience that our family had hosting an exchange student taught me that the elements of belonging include having a common language for communicating, a desire to share and learn from each other and a willingness to be stretched or
changed in the process.

Enabling people to belong is more difficult when there is not much common language or when the dominant group requires the newcomer to just fit in.

At this time of the year there may be people who are new to your neighbourhood, workplace, school or congregation.

How might you help them to feel welcome and what might you do to assist them as they embark on the journey of belonging?

If you are the newcomer what special effort will you need to help you to belong?

1 Thessalonians 2:8 Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. (The New International Version)