Presume Belonging
by Sharon McCart, MDiv

For years I have used the word “inclusion.” I have worked hard for inclusion of people with disabilities in our congregations. As a rule, I do not like special programs that are places of segregation, keeping people with disabilities separate from the rest of the congregation. I want children with disabilities to be included in Sunday School classes with other children the same age. I want adults with disabilities to be included in whatever the rest of the adults are doing. I have spoken and taught and written and advocated for inclusion.

Everywhere I went I argued and explained all the reasons why people of all ages and all types of disabilities should be included. I used logic and scripture and theology. I appealed to compassion and made a plea for God’s justice. I tried to open doors, hearts, and minds wider. The truth is that too many of all three of those are slammed shut, locked tight and closed permanently. I wasn’t making as much progress as I wished I could.

One day I heard the Rev. Debbie Hills say that instead of working for inclusion, we should begin from the premise that everyone belongs. Instead of trying to convince people of the rightness of inclusion, put the ball in their court to argue for exclusion, if that’s what they want to do. We should stop trying to argue against the point of view that some people do not belong. We need to stop defending inclusion and instead operate from a firm belief that every person on earth belongs here as a full participant, as a member of society, as a member of church.

What would this presumption of belonging look like? How would preaching and teaching be different if I approached them from this point of view?

As I write, I am still working on the answer to this, but here is what I have so far. Jesus presumed belonging. When people around him operated from an exclusion mindset, he did not argue with them. He overrode them. He helped people to belong.

Bartimaeus, the man born blind, sat in the dust beside the road. He had never belonged. Day after day, he sat in the dust at the side of the road as life passed him by. Until Jesus was about to pass by, and then he called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Instead of ignoring this potential interruption, Jesus asked that Bartimaeus be brought to him. He presumed belonging when others meant to exclude. After Jesus restored his sight, Bartimaeus lived into that belonging and followed Jesus, right into Jerusalem.

The Gerasene man who told Jesus his name was “Legion” lived in the cemetery among the dead because mental illness drove him there. He did not belong with the people in town. Jesus restored his health and invited him to return to where he belonged, which was among the living.

In story after story, we read of Jesus presuming belonging for people who had been excluded from society—the woman with the hemorrhage, the woman at the well, the lepers, the man beside the pool waiting for healing, and many more. He never stopped long enough to make a speech about why these people should be included. He presumed belonging, and then he did whatever it took to help them belong. He did not preface this by making long, impassioned speeches and arguing until people agreed with him.

What this means to me is that I need to stop making speeches and do what it takes to help everyone belong. Instead of taking people to task for excluding others. I can give them ways to help everyone belong. Those ways start with seeing everyone through the eyes of Christ while at the same time seeing Christ in others. We need to find out both the needs and the gifts of everyone. We need to stop wanting to feel comfortable in church and instead think about the comfort of others. We need to learn how we all need each other, and that includes people with disabilities.

When we presume belonging, we make it possible for everyone to join us. It is not without effort. We may fail. We will need to keep learning and trying again. But every person belongs to God. And because that’s true, we all belong to each other. Belonging is both the beginning and the end of our journey when we follow Christ. 

Credits: With thanks to Rev. Lisa McKee and Rev. Debbie Hills for their thoughts on this topic.