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What does belonging feel like?

Eric Barretto and Willie James Jennings discuss how our knowledge of belonging resides in our bodies.

This video clip and transcript are the first in a series of bonus content from a conversation between Eric Barretto and Willie James Jennings for Outlook’s April issue. Stay tuned for more extra content and read the full, edited version of their conversation here.


Eric: A few years ago you lectured here at Princeton Seminary and exhorted us to wonder what our seminary feels like. What does Princeton Seminary feel like? The question has stuck with me. So, starting with you, Dr. Jennings, what does belonging feel like to you?

Willie: What belonging feels like, especially in the context of higher education and especially theological education, belonging feels like being surprised by the familiar in a place where you didn’t imagine that you’d be surprised by the familiar. So, students who come from far and wide, from places that are so distant from higher education, when they arrive and they realize even though they’re far from home, they sense home, they smell it, there’s a whiff of home in this place among people that are not connected to them. Some might be, but most are not. There, in the midst of being surprised by the familiar, what slowly starts to emerge is a sense of belonging. Not the old kind of belonging or the one that they’re familiar with from their homes, but a new kind of belonging that is slowly emerging. What I would want for every institution is for students to say, “Sometimes when I’m here, I feel like I’m home.”

Eric: There’s something about belonging that’s ineffable. Like, you can’t pin it down. You can’t have a list of criteria and say, we’ve achieved belonging. But at the same time, it’s something that’s deeply physical, something deeply embodied. And I wonder if that combination of something that we can’t quite put on a chart, but also is deeply embodied is part of our struggle in figuring out that feeling of belonging. Maybe that’s why it’s important to start with feeling rather than the intellect.

Willie: That’s exactly right. Because with belonging, what we’re waiting for is for people to say it to us. Those of us who inhabit these institutions. It’s not something we can say to them. I mean, we can say, “we want you to feel like you belong here.” And I used to say that all the time at the start of every academic year to the students. But what we’re waiting for is over the course of an academic year, and over the course of a career in school, a student will say very gently, but very, very clearly, “I do belong here. And I sense that I belong.” And what that means is that we’re challenging the fundamental alienation that many students feel when they enter not only higher education, but especially theological education.


The April 2023 issue of Presbyterian Outlook explores the concept of belonging from various perspectives, identities, places and positions.

Order extra copies of this special issue for use in independent study, congregation-wide discussions, Sunday School classes or small groups. You can order extra copies today for just $4/copy while supplies last. 

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