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Changing the conversation

Moving from inclusion to belonging.

For the past few years, inclusion has been a popular buzzword. Businesses, organizations, and individuals profess to be inclusive, to accept others for who they are, and to be a safe place for everyone to be authentic. However, for individuals on the margin, or anyone who doesn’t fit into traditional definitions of “normal,” inclusion sometimes doesn’t go far enough.

“If you’re including somebody, it’s your thing and you’re inviting them in,” explains Rev. Margaret Mullin. Mullin, a member of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek Nation in North West Ontario, is the pastor of Place of Hope Presbyterian Church, an Indigenous congregation in the heart of Winnipeg. She points out that while inviting people in is important, it is only the first step.

When churches fail to move beyond that step, not only are they failing to embrace their full potential, but they are also denying God a chance to work through them. Mark Stephenson, the Director of Disability Concerns and the interim Director of both Race Relations and Social Justice for the Christian Reformed Church, related this idea to 1 Peter 4:8-10, which talks about the need for people to “serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

“[By pushing people to the side] we are limiting God’s grace. We are keeping God’s Spirit from fully engaging in the congregation,” explains Stephenson.

Mullin knows well how important belonging is to a congregation and their spiritual development. Her church started out as a Presbyterian mission, but, in 2014, it officially became recognized as its own entity, which meant that the congregation was able to elect leaders and determine what they wanted to do instead of having well-meaning people on the outside making plans for the congregation.

“That’s when the congregation really started to mature spiritually and functionally,” says Mullin. “The people who stood that day [to become members of the church] promised to serve each other and they started doing that.”

Attendance became more consistent. A Sunday school program was formed. The congregation took over running the Miracles Store. Families began to take turns providing food for their Sunday congregational meal.
“Belonging is a huge thing,” she continues. “Self-determination is a really huge thing.”

Moving Beyond Inclusion

And while inclusion is only the first step, the journey to becoming an inclusive community can seem akin to moving a mountain in an increasingly individualistic and isolated society. Jenn Burnett, the pastor of The Well CRC in Kelowna and a doctoral student, knows how difficult it can be to overcome this divisive mindset.

“I just look at how polarized our world is getting,” says Burnett. “The loss of compassion – it’s caused by a lack of diversity, and a lack of tools to do it well.” She says people no longer know how to express invitational vulnerability. They no longer know how to sit down and talk with someone who doesn’t look, sound, or move like them. People don’t know how to invite marginalized individuals into the messiness of their own lives in order to listen to and learn about their guest.

This lack of tools is why Burnett is writing her dissertation on practices that the church can use to move beyond inclusion to nurturing belonging across differences. “Always try to learn: how do you love people well?” says Burnett.

The way you love people will change depending on the individual. It can be as simple as giving them a chance to speak even if it takes them a bit longer to form the words, or taking the time to ask questions about them and then listening to the answer. “This is basic relationship stuff,” stresses Mark Stephenson. It doesn’t have to be hard.

“It needs to be face-to-face,” explains Mullin. “A person in a pew who’s not Indigenous needs to get to know an Indigenous person to care enough to come to the home of the Indigenous person.” It is not enough to donate money or meals once a year; in order for there to be change it has to be a personal relationship. Because, as Mullin pointed out: “Once they get to know a person and a person’s story, they are more open to understanding white privilege and how it’s created.”

“When you talk to white people about ‘white privilege,’ they say that’s a myth,” says Stephenson. This, he continued, is not the case for members of minority groups. “Of course, they can see [white privilege]. Their experience is as someone who is living it. By not listening to some voices, we are really missing out; we’re not understanding reality, even.”

And that reality can be harsh, as Mullin knows only too well: “People who say it doesn’t exist or it’s not systemic haven’t had to follow an Indigenous person into any of those systems,” says Mullin. “I’m working every day on the ground. I’m the one who gets called when someone’s kid commits suicide. I’m the one who is called when someone’s child won’t go to school because they’re afraid CFS [Child and Family Services] is going to take them away because it happened to their friend last week. Not many people are at that level to see the damage. When you’re at that level – where you can see it happening and you don’t understand it – that’s where people’s minds change.”
Of course this extends beyond Indigenous issues. Burnett was once turned down for a pastoral position because, as her interviewer stated while pointing to her swelling belly, “clearly, ministry isn’t your priority.”

Or it can be disability concerns. One of Stephenson’s good friends has cerebral palsy. With her former pastor, she was given the opportunity to use her gifts and she ended up serving a term as a deacon and holding other leadership roles within her congregation.
But, Stephenson continued, her ability to use her gifts to lead was not going to last. All of her leadership positions ended when a new pastor took over the church: “She said her pastor told her that her speech is unintelligible. Really? How can it be that she could serve as a deacon and in various roles before, now suddenly with a new pastor nobody can understand her?”

Loving Our Neighbours

“We want to be loved, we want a space where we can be ourselves. Everybody reflects some aspect of God – even those who are different from you,” says Burnett, explaining why it’s so important for the church to move towards belonging.

“Love goes a long way, you know,” says Mullin. “If you can express love so that it’s felt by the person you’re expressing it to, that goes a long way to someone feeling safe with you.”

But Mullin knows that this relationship often needs more than a subtle push. “I am passionate about and disappointed in the larger Church. I love them. They are working to the best of their ability with what they have and the environment they grew up in, but they need to get out of themselves. They need to get out of themselves enough not to worry about their hood ornament being stolen, because we are an inner city church.”

And so, whenever someone from that church offers to donate a bed or something else, Mullin gives them the address of a family who needs it and warns them that the family will invite them in for tea. Then she calls up the member of her church and warns them that company is coming, so they need to get a pot on, despite what else is available.

“It’s not forcing. It’s inviting it to happen,” she explains. “I’m giving them some options on both ends – not everyone is going to take it – but when they do, the conversation starts to change.”

Once marginalized individuals feel safe in a place or with certain people, God’s grace can easily shine through their lives. Because, as Mullin points out, once people in the inner circle start talking to and caring about vulnerable people enough to visit them and spend time with them, “[They start] identifying a person’s gifts by watching and seeing what they normally do in their life. Then ask them to use that gift in some practical way within the church.”

However, while building relationships is unquestionably important, Stephenson cautions that “It can’t just be [about relationships]. If all we think about is relationships, we’re not thinking about the larger systems.”

If the church really wants to welcome everyone, members and leaders need to start questioning what practices and policies are in place that cater to a certain type of person.

“What practices do we have that are the unspoken part of a fabric of the way we go about being Christian that leave people on the edges?” continues Stephenson. “Are there policies in place? Are there ways in which we require people to go through hoops to become pastors that make it more difficult if you’re not a white, male, English-speaking person?”

Once those questions are addressed, the church will become a place where people can belong, regardless of their appearance, health, or speech. Because, as Jesus points out in John 3:14-15, he came for everyone, not just the people who look or sound a certain way.


  • Christina Van Starkenburg

    Christina is an award-winning freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C. In her free time, she enjoys reading, dancing, and exploring the world with her husband and two boys.

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