More Dimensions of Belonging

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by Erik W. Carter

Read Part 1:  On Belonging
Read Part 2:  Dimensions of Belonging

Are you part of a faith community? Are you regularly invited to be part of the activities taking place in and through the church? Are you welcomed well whenever you arrive? Are you known by others in that community? And do you feel truly accepted there? In last week’s blog, I addressed how each of these aspects of belonging emerged as important to the young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families with whom we spoke. This week, I’ll continue the conversation by highlighting five more important dimensions of belonging.

6. Supported. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities may benefit from more individualized and intentional supports to enable their full participation in the life of the church. What those supports look like will vary from one person to the next—every person is unique in their preferences and needed. And so it is important to ask good questions of people with disabilities and their families. How can we help you be part of this community? What can we do to support your participation in meaningful ways? What could we do to make Sunday the best day of the week for your son or daughter? Surprisingly, one study found that almost half of parents said they had never been asked by someone in their church about the best way to include their child in congregational activities. We recently put together a free guide outlining some of the ways congregations might extend support.

7. Cared for. Healthy congregations seek to support the spiritual, emotional, and practical needs of their members. They are marked by a commitment to care for one another. So it is important ensure that all of the ways you care for any member of the church are extended to individuals and families impacted by disability. At the same time, congregations can also move in some unique ways for these families. For example, they might network through their congregation to help people with disabilities find jobs (e.g., Putting Faith to Work). Or they might take steps to support inclusive housing options in their community (e.g., Friendship House Partners).

8. Befriended. Being chosen as someone’s friend—and naming them as a friend in return—reflects a reciprocity and personal connection that contributes to belonging. We were not meant to live life in isolation. Friendships take belonging deeper. Yet far too many youth and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have few relationships beyond their family or those who work within the agencies and organizations that serve them. Churches should shine when it comes to fostering friendships. By investing in inclusive activities that bring people with and without disabilities together in sustained and meaningful ways, friendships have the best chance of forming. 

9. Needed. People feel needed when others in the church come to see them as having essential gifts and talents to share. When they are considered indispensable and their contributions are considered essential to the thriving of the church. Yes, people with disabilities and their families have much to gain from the being part of their faith community. But we too often overlook how much faith communities have to gain from receiving the gifts of people with disabilities and their families. Ministry to people with disabilities must occur alongside ministry by people with disabilities.

10. Loved. Of course, love ought to mark all of our interactions. And real belonging is laced with love—both given and received.

As you reflect on these ten dimensions of belonging, consider a few conclusions.

Belonging is much more about posture than place.

It is much more about relationships than programs.

It comes about through ordinary gestures much more than from extraordinary actions.

And perhaps most important, the ten themes we heard from these families seem to be relevant to supporting the belonging of anyone. In other words, fostering belonging is not first and foremost about meeting “special needs,” but rather about meeting universal needs.

 

Part 1:  On Belonging
Part 2:  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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