Belonging to Others

I’m thinking about what it felt like to sit at the kitchen table of my childhood home. 

When we were young, my brother Roy invented a game that became so beloved in our family. Thinking on it now, I find myself in a fit of nostalgia; it’s the kind of happy memory I love to go back to. At dinnertime, my mom, dad, brother and I would be eating dinner at the kitchen table and at some point during the meal, Roy would announce he needed to use the bathroom and leave the table. But instead of going to the bathroom, he would quietly crawl back into the kitchen on the floor, slide under the table and kiss each one of us on the knee. And our mom would say, “Oh! It’s the kissing bug!” with a joy in her voice I can still hear. “He’s come to visit us again!” 

Sitting above the table and making eyes with my parents, I loved to be part of this world with my whole family. It invoked feelings of fullness that as an adult, I now associate with what it feels like to belong to a place or to a person or to a group of people. After the kissing bug made his last round of kisses, my brother would slide out in secret and walk back into the kitchen a moment later as if he’d just washed his hands in the bathroom sink. “Roy, you always miss the Kissing Bug!” our dad would say. “He seems to come every time you’re gone!” And Roy would climb into his chair at the kitchen table and try not to smile…

To make a place for this kind of loving pretending—what a gift this was to us children! As a parent of two young children now, I am reminded constantly of how important it is to climb into their world. In his essay “Health is Membership,” Wendell Berry wrote: 

If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us, then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness in ourselves, but also is the sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common.

A sense of belonging to others… I’d count it as one of our most basic human needs. I was recently talking with Anne, our Meals Manager, after she attended the graduation at G.A.N.G., a gang-prevention program in North Nashville at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church—one of our cherished Meal Distribution Partners. Anne told me a little of the keynote speaker’s story – a former gang member whose mother and father had both been murdered on separate occasions, and with no one to call home, he found a life of dealing in drugs by the time he was in fifth grade, and he found his sense of belonging in a gang. By the grace of God and because of the devotion of a few key people in his life, he made it through violence and into the safe arms of a loving community.

Who among us is not longing to belong? As we say often at The Nashville Food Project, poverty isolates people and disintegrates relationships. And when we talk about one of poverty's chief symptoms, hunger—we know it’s not enough to grow, cook and share healthy food—we have to do all these things in ways that create, cultivate, protect and strengthen communities, because being with the people to whom we belong is the foundation of a whole and healthy life. 

The Nashville Food Project’s meals, garden, and volunteer programs have all been designed to be places of belonging. And to the ever-widening circle of friends that is The Nashville Food Project, I am grateful to belong. We already know that the table is a wonderful place to greet others, offer hospitality, give attention, share life, show love. As we enter into this holiday season, let’s promise each other to do the best we can to make a place for someone else at our kitchen tables and in our lives, spending some time getting to know others, spending some time letting ourselves be known. 

Grace and peace,