I’ll never forget my reaction when I heard the first two lines of a poem by David Whyte titled Self Portrait.
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
My head snapped and I wanted to hear more. As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family and felt abandoned, he captured the essence of my struggle with those two lines. That’s when I knew that what I was looking for was a sense that I belonged. Many people find that in their religious faith. But if it means a sole focus on getting the dogma right, it leaves us on our own.
I suspect that whether or not we’ve named that search for belonging, we’ve all felt it. That’s because, as the saying goes, “no (wo)man is an island.” As humans, we need a connection to others…a place to call home.
On a grand scale, that is the heart of the question we are struggling with in this country right now. Some people are trying to tell others that they don’t belong because their very presence strips them of what they’ve come to know as home. And every social justice cause that is being fought right now is a fight for belonging.
At the heart of our country’s aspirations is the idea that everyone belongs…no matter your age, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. But of course we’ve never lived up to that. As President Obama has encouraged us so often, it is our job to continue the work of perfecting our union and moving closer to our aspirations.
It was in that spirit that the President reached out to young Muslims in this country at the end of his speech yesterday at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. This is one of the groups that is being told that they don’t belong. Fear mongering on the right suggests that they are a threat and terrorist recruiters are more than happy to capitalize on that – offering them a place of belonging in their cult of terror. So these words from President Obama were powerful.
In our lives, we all have many identities. We are sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters. We’re classmates; Cub Scout troop members. We’re followers of our faith. We’re citizens of our country. And today, there are voices in this world, particularly over the Internet, who are constantly claiming that you have to choose between your identities — as a Muslim, for example, or an American. Do not believe them. If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.
That came at the end of a speech where President Obama reminded us of some facts about how Muslims have been an integral part of this country’s experience from the beginning and laid out a few principles for how we can go forward as one American family where everyone belongs. If you haven’t already, you can read the whole thing here or watch it here.