‘Belonging precedes believing’

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By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world today

As Bishop Thomas Zinkula indicated in his Epiphany letter, sent to some 28,000 households across the Diocese of Davenport, we have a roadmap: “In June 2023 we will kick off a diocese-wide

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focus on three themes, one per year, over the next three years. Year one will focus on welcoming and belonging; year two will focus on youth and family enga­ge­ment; and year three will focus on Church teaching and tradition.”

The order in which we are addressing these themes has an inner logic. Springtide Research Institute, which researches the overlap between the religious experience and human experience of 13- to 25-year-olds, makes this succinct observation: “one of the fundamental truths about communities that sociologists have long known is that belonging comes before believing … however, we often get that equation backwards … we think that we must get everyone convicted of the same set of principles first, and then the community will emerge. This approach is not only ineffective but often leads young people to distrust organizations and disengage from them.”

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Our diocese’s progression from year 1 to year 3 themes demonstrates this inner logic. People progress from belonging to believing. Not the other way around. A sense of belonging functions as the soil from which belief emerges. Take away the soil and belief has no foundation in which to take root.

I had an experience in my own life when I had this progression backwards. Sometime in my late teens or early 20s, I became aware of the fact that there are more than 30,000 Christian denominations in the United States. I pondered the next logical question: since I was born into one of these 30,000 denominations, from a purely statistical perspective, what are the odds that I was born into the “correct” one?

The next logical step (to me at that time) was to create an Excel spreadsheet with the central beliefs of broad denominational categories. I quickly realized how big my spreadsheet would need to be, so I raided the library. I found books that compared and contrasted beliefs in a matter-of-fact sort of way. They included the most prominent figures from each denomination and major historical events in the evolution of the faith community. But this was all just information.

Ultimately, charts, data, facts and figures are not compelling on their own. Human communities are compelling. And if we do find a chart compelling, it is because of its co-relation to a living, breathing community. Charts can be useful along the way (I love Excel!), but information alone doesn’t decide anything. Meaning is found enfleshed in the living faith of a community.

In our diocese, we continue to discover the many ways in which some do not feel at home in the Church. They feel as though they do not belong. This is tragic and their leaving is our loss. Without them, we are less than what we otherwise might be.

As we focus on welcoming and belonging, a fresh awareness may emerge about how those who feel excluded concretely experience that exclusion. With that awareness in hand (or better yet, in our hearts), we can take action steps. The role of the diocese is to provide support, guidance and resources along the way. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to any of this.

The Holy Spirit is on the move. God is not asleep at the wheel. All that remains is our readiness to respond and follow, to dream and discern, and to encounter those who feel excluded and bring the healing of Christ into their lives. We’ll know we’ve done well when we discover healing in our own lives in the process. Healing is not uni-directional but it is mutual. God’s mercy has a context: in relationships, in community, in kinship, in the belonging that precedes believing.

(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)


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