A whiff of home

What does belonging feel like? Teri McDowell Ott ponders this as she introduces the April issue of Presbyterian Outlook.

In the fall of 2021, I was invited to guest preach at the church where I grew up — Northbrook Presbyterian Church, in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. My family attended Northbrook for years, my parents both serving as elders. I was ordained to ministry in the sanctuary. But it’d been more than 20 years since I’d been back.

It was a cold, rainy Michigan day when I rolled into the parking lot where I remembered my father steering his silver Ford LTD, my mother in the passenger seat, my brother and me in the back, after our begrudging teenage ritual of dressing “nice” for church. From the outside, the church’s buildings looked the same. I knew where each door led. A woman who remembered my family and me greeted me warmly, and led me to the pastor’s study to put on my robe. The furniture was different. New books sat on the shelves. But it was the same study where, at 19, I sat to discuss the terrifying new call I felt to the ministry with then-pastor, Rev. Dunkelburger.

Most of the people were new to me in my childhood church, and so was the carpet. A contemporary praise band now led the worship music, and they’d added large projection screens in the sanctuary. Standing in the pulpit reminded me of the embarrassing youth Sunday when I was assigned a reading that included the word “inevitably,” which I mispronounced “in-ee-vit-a-bit-a-bil-ity.” I’ve avoided speaking this word ever since. Remembering my awkward, shy teenage self in the pulpit reminded me how this faith community surrounded, nurtured and loved me through those young years and made this church feel like home.

What does belonging feel like? This was the question Dr. Eric Barreto, Weyerhaeuser associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, posed to Dr. Willie Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, to begin their conversation in this issue. We can hear the message, “you belong here,” but if a place feels foreign – if we don’t sense anything familiar, if we don’t feel as if we can act or speak as our honest, authentic selves, if we don’t experience the desire to be known, understood, loved – then we won’t feel or know that we belong.

There is an issue of possessiveness about belonging. Once we feel like an institution, a land or a country is “ours” — we’re happy to “welcome” others, but not as happy to give them a share of the ownership, or let them shape the space according to their ideas, values or culture. Fostering a sense of belonging means giving up some of our own control, allowing ourselves to be the guests instead of the hosts in a space that feels like ours. This isn’t easy, which is probably why we focus more on welcoming. But we also know, deep in our souls, that welcoming doesn’t often go far enough. People long to belong. People need to belong.

In the context of theological education, Dr. Jennings answered the question of what belonging feels like as “being surprised by the familiar.” Students from far and wide find “a whiff of home in this place among people that are not connected to them,” Jennings continued. “What I would want for every institution is for students to say, ‘Sometimes when I’m here, I feel like I’m home.’ ”

People long to belong. People need to belong. I pray this special issue of the Presbyterian Outlook, full of thought-provoking content by amazing contributors, gives you a “whiff of home” and the encouragement to make “home” a place where all can know and feel belonging.