On Belonging

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by Erik W. Carter
 
We were not made to be alone.
 
Such a simple statement—which brings both theological and empirical support—is not merely about physical location. Much more than that, it is a statement about the importance of relationships. We thrive when we are in community, when we are known, needed, and loved by others. And we are most likely to flourish when we experience a deep sense of belonging. As Sue Mosteller, a long-time member with L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto, reminds us, “... alone we are poor, together we are rich.”
 
But such relationships can be few or fleeting for far too many adults with intellectual disability, autism, and other developmental disabilities. According to one study, almost one quarter of adults with intellectual disability who are receiving public services and supports report having no friendships and caring relationships beyond their family members or the paid professionals in their lives. Another national study reports that about half of young adults with intellectual disability or autism did not regularly see friends outside of school or work.
 
A growing number of churches across the country are recognizing the powerful role they can play in developing opportunities for new relationships to form, and in creating places of belonging for members of their community who are so often overlooked. Friendship Ministries is committed to calling more congregations to step into this important area of ministry—ministry aimed at supporting people with and without disabilities to live life together in community with one another.
 
Many of the current conversations outside of the Church—in educational, vocational, and residential circles—are calling society to increase the inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These are certainly critical conversations. But the Church can go further. Yes, we should support inclusion. But much more than that, we should be at the forefront of fostering belonging. Inclusion places the accent on location. Belonging puts relationships front and center.
 
So, what might it look like to foster belonging for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities? In next week’s blog, I’ll share with you what we learned from young people with disabilities and their families living across the state of Tennessee about important dimensions of belonging. In the meantime, reflect on your own experiences within your faith community. How do you know when you belong? What are that actions and attitudes others hold that communicate to you that you really are an indispensable part of your community?
 
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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