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Claiming Kinship: Listening to Our Stories of Belonging

There lies the longing to know and be known
by another fully and humanly, and that beneath
that there lies a longing, closer to the heart of
the matter still, which is the longing to be at
long last where you fully belong.

— Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home

How often do we actually listen to each other? If we look at the strife and division in the world, the answer is painfully clear: not often enough. As further evidence, just take in the experience of someone asking you simply “How are you?”

That question, asked with intense and genuine curiosity, has become something of a signature question for me. Indeed, over the years, it’s emerged as a sort of catchphrase of the work Reboot does in large part because of the tears it provokes. Those tears, I’ve come to see, stem from the relief people feel when their longing to be known is met “fully and humanly,” as theologian Buechner notes. 

But listening to and for each other’s longing to be known, while important, good, and necessary, isn’t enough. For as Buechner also notes, there’s a longing that lies yet closer to the heart. This is the longing to fully, wholly, and completely belong. In a world riven by the endless suffering of division and dehumanization, the challenge to each of us is to go beyond knowing who we are, who each of us is, and to whom we each belong. 

The task, then, isn’t merely to ask with deep empathy how we each are, how broken our hearts may be, but to inquire deeply, compassionately, and fully into the other’s longing to belong.

This is what we set out to do when we created the limited series podcast, Reunion: Stories of Belonging. Recorded over the course of a year, Philippe Celestin (aka Spn), Marshall Pollard (aka Mr. P.), and I set out to explore what it means to belong. Spn and P are the producers behind StayDrmn, a company specializing in hearing and capturing stories so that we might move closer and closer to Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of “beloved community.” They are also my brothers-in-belonging.

In the year that we ideated, interviewed, argued, and loved our way into community and conversation, we were each changed as we heard our own stories as well as the stories of those around us. 

Early in the writing of my new book, Reunion, I dove into the works of James Baldwin. Baldwin helped me see that I had to know “from whence I came” so that I might contribute meaningfully to others’ inclusion, their felt sense of love, safety, and, most importantly, Belonging. Spn, P. and I all ended up exploring our own stories of Belonging–whether it was Spn’s grandfather who turned away from his natural gifts as a pianist to raise a family in Iowa or P’s family farm, the roots of which go back more than a century and the land of which is visited by ghosts of his ancestors, or the story of my father’s biological mother; her story and her gravesite in Ireland.

This was all in service of hearing the stories of those whose lives and loves were different from ours and yet united in the shared longing to belong. During the waning days of writing Reunion, P., Spn, and the folks whose stories you’ll come to know as you listen to these episodes, wandered the halls of the National Portrait Gallery. We wandered into an exhibit called Kinship that featured the works of artists who used portraiture to tell stories of families, of kinship, and Belonging.

At the exhibit, we experienced the visceral and transformative power of kinship.  Before setting ourselves to the task of hearing each others’ stories of Belonging, we might have seen the loveliness of the photos but failed to feel the longing to belong that lies closer to the heart, still. The portraits built on the months of listening to each other so that when we came together and sat in a circle, we created a community of kinfolk.

In Reunion, I wrote of that time: “Before portraits of remarkable people doing the unremarkable work of simply trying to belong to one another, I recalled my lost ancestors. In writing Reunion, I’d turned ghosts into elders and thereby experienced the power of kinship. Now, I’ve come to know that kinship is the felt sense of reunion. Whether it’s in a churchyard in Ireland, or the narrow alleys of a tiny Italian commune, or the halls of a museum in the most powerful city in the world, kinship is everywhere. We merely have to claim it. Indeed, once I claimed those who had been dismembered, I found my own Belonging.

My work as a writer was to grow beyond what had come before. When I began writing, I was haunted not only by the ghosts of my ancestors, especially those dismembered from my family tree.  When I finished, I was changed for the better. My heart expanded as it came to hold the stories of my discovered kinfolk. Not only did I belong to a wider community, but I knew down to my bones that I was not alone.

May you, after listening to these stories of remarkable people doing the remarkable work of being human, claim the kinship that is your birthright. May you know that, not only are you not alone, but that you belong.


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