As soon as the school van pulled up to the Kennedy Center, the children unbuckled and started toward the door. Only nine-year-old Lakita stayed firmly in her seat. Despite having earned this special trip, having learned all about intermissions and curtain calls, having come to school wearing her best clothes, she refused to budge. Nor could she articulate why. We all coaxed and encouraged her for a few minutes; then finally, because ushers were waiting at the curb and more buses needed to unload, a counselor agreed to stay with Lakita while I took the other children up to the Theater Lab.
Just as the theater lights were dimming, I saw the counselor come in with Lakita. They made their way to their seats just as the curtain went up. The performance and the rest of the trip went without incident; but Lakita remained very quiet, sitting on the edge of her seat and glancing around from time to time.
At school the next day, Lakita was able to tell me what had happened. When she saw the Kennedy Center, she said, saw the wide doors and the ushers in their red blazers, she was terrified. She said she was certain that someone would tell her to leave because she didn’t belong there. I asked her whether that had in fact happened. “No,” she answered, unconvinced, “but it could have. I was just lucky this time.”
On Fourteenth Street, there is a mural, a spinoff of the PBS American Portraits series. The mural covers two sides of a building and is about two stories tall. “YOU BELONG” it announces with a colorful design. Since I first spotted it last fall, I have returned several times to photograph it. And since that time, I have been probing the notion of belonging.
Belonging is a basic human need; if we have a family, a workplace, a community where we are welcome and feel comfortable, we count ourselves fortunate. But the notion of belonging often spills over into one of exclusivity. Indeed, we have dozens of words, like parvenu, upstart, or newbie, to identify “the other.” And we have finely tuned antennae that can pick up the slightest verbal and non-verbal cue that someone may be an outsider. No wonder Lakita felt overwhelmed!
I am about halfway into the Sacred Ground journey, an exhaustive study of belonging and alienation. I can think of no better definition of privilege than the freedom to move unchallenged through life, confident that doors will be opened. To be alienated is to encounter every door locked with the keys on the other side.
It was exciting to come across the Fourteenth Street mural. YOU BELONG is a beautiful idea, rather like the idea of the Kingdom of God. But there will be no belonging and no Kingdom until all the doors are thrown open. And that can only happen from the inside.
Links to the appointed readings and prayer for today: