Looking to The Margins: Creating Belonging

PHILLIP D. RASH

Physchologist and Clinical Professor

June 4, 2019

Thank You vice president Sherman and good morning.  Those of you that know me understand that I would prefer a much more intimate setting for a conversation like this.  In fact, one of the reasons I became a clinician was because I prefer one-on-one, in small group interactions.  I also know, that you came to devotional today preferring to hear from a dynamic and charismatic speaker.  But what's the old adage: “You don't always get what you want.”  I guess so we’ll do this.  As my initial nerves begin to subside, I sincerely feel that it's good to be with you today.

The BYU mission states that all instruction programs and services at BYU should make their own contribution towards the total balanced development of the total person the mission also contains the idea that a BYU the full realization of human potential is pursued.  Please keep those two important concepts in mind as we continue for a while.

The balanced development of the total person and the full realization of human potential.

Not long ago, BYU hosted a noted scholar on the topic of student success.  Dr. Laurie Shriner and other scholars from across higher education have come to conceptualize the idea of college success in a way that reflects the broader, more comprehensive language found in our own mission statement.  For Dr. Schreiner success means students getting the most out of their college experience, being intellectually, socially, and psychologically engaged.  In her definition, we find that idea of the balanced development of the total person.

In a conversation with BYU administrators, Dr. Schreiner quoted a scripture found in John, Chapter 10, verse 10 several times.  In order to add spiritual context, her definition of student success.  In this verse, Christ proclaimed that, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” 

An abundant life is certainly characterized by the development of the total person and the full realization of human potential.  O ur potential to become like our Heavenly parents.  I truly believe that our Heavenly Father desires that we live an abundant life.  I'm equally convinced that the one who notes, even the sparrows fall, desires that our time at BYU is a successful one.

Furthermore, I believe that our Heavenly Father endorses the broad view of student success, as previously described.  We are so much more than a GPA, and we are so much more than a grade on a term paper, or final exam.  An education at BYU is intended to help.  Now quoting from the aims of a BYU education “Students integrate all parts of their University experience into a fundamentally sacred way of life.  Heavenly Father wants us to live, work, and study, and to do so abundantly.  Nevertheless, living an abundant life while a student at the University is not a given, and there are several elements that must be present in order for one to succeed and to live abundantly.

One key factor, now widely recognized in the field of education, is whether or not an individual feels a sense of social belonging.  Belonging is not simply having a place, or even fitting in somewhere.  Instead, belonging says that this place is my home, that I have a purpose here, that these people around me understand and accept me.  It's a feeling that my community has my back and wants the best for me.

Belonging has been described as a basic human need and its absence has been shown to affect our mood, our ability to cope with stress, our academic achievement, and even our immune system.  Belonging is more than mere affiliation.

Admission to BYU guarantees that a student will be allowed to affiliate with the University for four or more years.  For employees, being hired at BYU guarantees that we get to come to work and receive compensation.  As long as we show up and do a good job, we'll be all right.  However, the guarantees end there.  To help someone truly belong, requires an intentional, institutional effort as well as the cooperation of individuals of goodwill.

Belonging summons the courage to confront our own prejudices and to challenge the assumptions we make about others belonging and list those who are wise enough to just listen, and humble enough to admit that they don't fully understand the desire and ability to help another person belong at BYU, at church, in our apartments, or in our neighborhoods, is a characteristic of advanced discipleship. 

Perhaps the Apostle Paul was speaking of this idea when he wrote “…There should be no schism in the body but that members should have the same care one for another.  And whether one member suffer all the members suffer with it or one member be honored all the members rejoice with it,  Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular .”

I think you'll agree that BYU is a fairly homogeneous place, as are the communities of Provo, Orem and even far away Springville.  On campus, I am consistently surrounded by a majority of people who generally act like I do.  I don't have to look very far to find someone who has shared similar life experiences.  Growing up in similar neighborhoods raised in similar families and have had similar educational opportunities.

When I arrived as a student on campus in the early 1990s, these commonalities shared with peers and professors alike allowed me to feel comfortable very quickly, to make good friends, and established long term relationships to communicate my needs and to find the resources I needed to do my best.

My path, from affiliation to belonging, was fairly quick and although there were, and continue to be, hiccups along the way.  The process has been relatively smooth.  I would venture to guess that there are many here today who would say that their experience has been similar to mine.  Of course, no one is identical to another human being in terms of experiences, beliefs, or behavior.  However, for many of us, our commonalities facilitative feeling of community and a sense of belonging.

I would also venture to guess that there are individuals in this auditorium today who would say that they have not experienced Brigham Young University in the same way.  They may look like me, or they might not.  They might affiliate with me or they might not.  Unfortunately, I predict that there are individuals who for a variety of reasons have never felt like they truly belong here.  In fact, in my conversations with students, faculty, and staff, a number of our brothers and sisters feel like they live on the periphery or on the margins of the BYU experience.

I recognize that this might be difficult for some of us to believe when compared to our own experience at the University and elsewhere.  After all, some might say BYU is a very welcoming place.  The students and staff are generally friendly and even kind.  The grounds are gorgeous and we have clubs and sports and many resources.  Maybe those who feel like they don't belong simply aren't trying hard enough.  However, I'm afraid that this attitude ignores the complexity of what we refer to as marginality, the idea that there are those who for many different reasons, and life's life circumstances find themselves on the margin of a given group or community.  We aren't speaking about me reticence, or simply reluctance on the part of individuals.  Often, the factors that place and keep individuals on the margins around the periphery of a given community are extremely complex and usually have very deep sociological and historical roots.

Therefore, when we are tempted to respond to the idea that some of our brothers and sisters remain on the sidelines by saying, “they just need to try harder” we necessarily encounter the warning given by King Benjamin when he said perhaps, ”Thou shalt say the man has brought upon himself his misery.  Therefore, I will stay my hand for his punishments are just.  But I say unto you, O man, whosoever do with this the same hath great cost to repent.  And except he repenteth, he perishes forever and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.”

Now, we know that King Benjamin was talking about refusing those who are severely, economically disadvantaged, about beggars to be precise.  Nevertheless, there is an important parallel in terms of the response that we have when we are made aware that someone in our community does not feel fully accepted.  After all, what did King Benjamin say, “are we not all beggars?”

Have we not all had some point of our lives felt like we didn't belong?  I'm confident that it wouldn't take long for the majority of us to remember a time in our lives when we felt like a stranger, or an outsider looking in.  Probably not to the same extent as some of our brothers and sisters, but perhaps in personally significant ways.

Throughout the Old Testament, the children of Israel were repeatedly commanded that certain groups of people were to be expects tended special care.  These groups included the poor and oppressed, widows and orphans, and strangers.  When the Lord revealed his law to the prophet Moses, he commanded, “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger for ye know the heart of a stranger seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

I think it would be unfair and inaccurate for me to compare my experiences of not belonging to those whose cultural or racial identity, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation had placed them on the margins of society for hundreds, even thousands of years.  Nevertheless, the Lord's use of those words, “Ye know the heart of a stranger was designed to activate an holy empathy within all of us”, it's like he's speaking to me saying, “Phil, you know what it feels like to not belong, remember 7th grade at Eastman Echo Junior High School?”

That brothers and sisters, is my Egypt.  I'm 50 years old and I still remember the sting of that awkward and painful episode of my life. How we respond as a university community?  And how do I personally respond to those on the margins? It's weighed heavily upon my mind for quite a while.  I believe we can and should do better.  More importantly, I believe that I can and I should, do better.  My relationship with a God who asked me to show my love for him, by loving my neighbor, depends upon it.  Likewise, I believe that my discipleship and personal ministry should largely be defined by it. 

Fortunately, our loving Heavenly Father provided us a perfect model to follow in the person of his son Jesus Christ.  Even though none of us will be able to walk his path perfectly, we are nevertheless called to emulate him in his works.

When the Savior visited the inhabitants of this continent, he taught many sacred and important things.  In 3rd Nephi, we read, “Verily, verily I say into you, this is my gospel and he know the things that you must do in my church.  For the works which he has seen me do, that shall ye also do.”

What the Savior did, with the people in the land bountiful, provides us with a very robust blueprint for discipleship.  He blessed, healed, taught, instituted the sacrament, and he prayed with and for others.  Additionally, the New Testament allows us to witness other acts performed by the Savior that we are likewise commanded to emulate.  So who were the marginalized that Jesus encountered and how did he respond and relate to them?

Just for one, there was the woman at Jacob's Well and there were many reasons why Jesus being a Jewish man should never have engaged her in conversation.  First of all, she was a Samaritan, an ethnic group considered to be heretical and unclean by the Jews of the day.

Secondly, she was also a woman whose social status was not on equal footing with men.  Additionally, she had been divorced multiple times, and at the time of her encounter with the Savior, she was living with a man who is not her husband.  How did Jesus act towards her and what do we see Jesus do in this story?

I urge you to read the entire account found in John Chapter 4, but to briefly summarize what started with a strategic request for water Christ asked her for a drink, ended with the Messiah revealing his true identity, as well as the essence of his mission, to this woman of Samaria who in turn proclaimed her witness of Jesus divinity to her entire community.

Also, we often recall almost off-handedly that Jesus ate with publicans and sinners.  Who were publicans, and what makes time spent with him so remarkable?  From my limited understanding of the subject, publicans were contract employees of Rome.  They collected revenue, including taxes from the people on behalf of the government.  Of the day, because they worked for Rome, they were considered to be traitors to the Jewish people. 

Apparently, some publicans inflated taxes for their own benefit, used extortion and fraud to give more money than they were owed, and others may have used force and brutality in their work.  For these reasons they were hated, especially by the Jewish leaders.  In Jesus day, how did Jesus respond to the Pharisee?  A chill criticism that ensued after he shared a meal with publicans and with others of ill-repute.

Consider for a moment, that it was during one of these meals, and we can read about that dinner in Luke, Chapter 15, that the Lord taught three beautiful and inspiring parables:  the parable of the lost sheep; the parable of the lost coin; and the immensely powerful parable of the prodigal son.

Perhaps, one of the greatest demonstrations of Christ's ministry to the marginalized, is found in Matthew, Chapter 9 where Jesus sees a publican named Matthew sitting at work one day and bids him to “follow me”.  Matthew, the publican from OA, from a class of men despised by the Jews, left his post to follow Jesus and was later numbered with the original twelve apostles.  Jesus ministered to all types of marginalized individuals, including lepers, prostitutes, adulterers, the demon-possessed, and Roman soldiers.  Even while upon Golgotha, saggingizing cross the one innocently and heroically bearing all sin and human frailty, mercifully ministered to a contract thief being crucified next to him for his crimes.  So then, what do we see Christ do with the marginalized as previously mentioned?  He ate with them, he walked with them, he cried with them, he healed them, he validated them, and he listened to them. 

Most importantly, Christ taught everyone the doctrine of his father, the doctrine of ultimate liberation that in him and through him alone we are made free from the bondage of sin and death and that in him we overcome all things.

I believe it is also critical for us to remember that Christ himself lived on the margins and that Christ's own marginalized status was intentional and foretold by the ancient prophets.  Isaiah prophesied, “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground.  He hath no form, nor comeliness, and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.  He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and we hid as it were our faces from him.  He was despised and we esteemed him not.”

Perhaps Christ had to live a life of marginalization and rejection because the Father knew that those two things would be both pervasive and painful to many of his children during mortality.  Christ's mission, according to Alma, was to go for suffering, pains, and afflictions and temptations of every kind and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people and he will take upon him death that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people and he will take upon him their infirmities that his bowels may be filled with mercy that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

If we are to do what the Savior did, we probably want to ask ourselves who are the marginalized today and what should be my response to them?  Time will not permit us to list every group that currently experiences, or who have historically experienced marginalization.  Unfortunately, those ministered to by the Savior, might still encounter many of the same attitudes and prejudices.  Prejudices in our day. Although Christ ministered to those deemed by society, to be broken or defective, in his time the terms broken or defective cannot be applied to those standing on the periphery of belonging.  And inclusion today, marginality does not mean to be less than.  Even if people existing on the margins have been wrongly treated, as such throughout history, it is also important to understand that membership in a community that has historically endured pervasive marginalization and even oppression, doesn't mean that all members of that community considered themselves marginalized.

I mentioned this only because it would not be wise, following this devotional, for us to approach someone and say, “Hey, Brother Rash says that you might feel marginalized at BYU.”  That's probably not the best approach.  So, what do we do?  Perhaps we begin by opening ourselves up to the idea that there are, in reality, people who feel as though they do not fully belong at the University, in our wards, in our residence halls, and in our neighborhoods.  They may not act downtrodden, and sad or angry.

However, it is important for us to remember that not everyone experiences BYU Provo, the States, or even the church, in the same way.  It is also important to acknowledge that history often leaves deep and enduring scars, age-old prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities, against the poor, against women, and against our LGBT or same-sex attracted brothers and sisters, has left abiding scars.

Similarly, religious differences continue to engender deep division and hatred even within the families.  President Dallin H Oaks reminded Latter-Day Saints that as we look to the future, one of the most important affects of the revelation of the of the priesthood is this divine call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God's children.  Racism is probably the most familiar source of prejudice today and we are called to repent of that.  But throughout history, many groups of God's children are, or have been, persecuted or disadvantaged by prejudices such as:  those based on ethnicity or culture, nationality, or education, or economic circumstances.

As servants of God who have their knowledge and responsibilities of his great plan of salvation, we should hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions institutionally and personally to abandon all personal preferences, prejudices at BYU the vast majority of us share a common church membership as well as common religious beliefs and practices.  However, we must always remember that some among us did not.  And even though many of us share a common church membership, there are different ways of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and when my sense of Orthodoxy confronts your sense of Orthodoxy, there is a potential for misunderstanding and judgment.

Consider just a simple example.  When my sense of Orthodoxy allows for watching TV on Sunday and the Orthodoxy of my roommates does not, there's a risk that I may be placed on the periphery of that small community of roommates.

Now, let's consider a more significant example.  There are men and women who for a number of reasons, have not served and may never serve a full-time mission and they exist day-to-day in a virtual sea of those who have the accounts of their pain at the attitudes, conversations, and judgment of others, even by the well intention, have broken my heart.  Let's not add to their potential burden through thoughtlessness, judgment, or abandonment. 

Let's also not forget that there are brothers and sisters all around us whose faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is failing, or has perhaps already failed, a crisis of faith, or a loss of spiritual identity is a tremendously disorienting and frightening experience.

Perhaps our response to those in crisis might be crafted through the lens of what we now refer to as ministry, a newer holier approach to caring discipleship.  Instead of working to bring about an immediate change in belief, behavior, attitude, we can listen with love and seek to understand.

Always ready, as Peter counseled, “To give an answer to every man that asketh, a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and in fear.”  In Luke, Chapter 14, Jesus sat down to dinner with the chief Pharisee. Christ used that opportunity to teach the following lesson: “When thou makest a dinner, or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor their rich neighbors. But when thou makest a feast, called a poor man, Delaine the blind, and thou shalt be blessed.” 

In other words, as disciples we don't just spend our time with those who are just like us, or those with whom we are already comfortable.  We spend our time with those whose life experiences, and beliefs, and customs are different from our own. 

When I read this scripture, I immediately thought of the recent forum address given by Brian Stevenson who taught us about the power of proximity, being with those who are different from us and those who might even challenge us. 

As we heard, disciples venture to the margins and invite others in, from the periphery to a place of belonging and abundance, we will surely stumble, trip over ourselves.  We have to be alright with a little stumbling.  We ask for patience and understanding because this is only the beginning of important conversations.  The important thing is that we try, we acknowledge that there really is a margin, and that some people have lived on that margin for a very long time.  We acknowledge that history leaves scars.  We rid ourselves of prejudice and withhold judgment.  We listen with love and understanding and we activate that holy empathy by recalling how we too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Brothers and sisters, if it all seems unattainable or overwhelming, remember the words of our Redeemer spoken to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Fear not little children, for you are mine and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that my Father hath given me.  And none of them that my Father hath given me shall be lost.”

In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.

NOTES

 

1. The Mission of Brigham Young University (4 November 1981).

2. The Mission of BYU.

3. Laurie A. Schreiner, “Different Pathways to Thriving Among Students of Color: An Untapped Opportunity for Success,” About Campus 19, no. 5 (November–December 2014), 10.

4. See Matthew 10:29, 31.

5. The Aims of a BYU Education (1 March 1995).

6. See Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen, “A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students,” Science 331, no. 6023 (18 March 2011), 1447–51.

7. 1 Corinthians 12:25–27.

8. Mosiah 4:17–18.

9. Mosiah 4:19.

10. Exodus 23:9.

11. 3 Nephi 27:21.

12. Matthew 9:9.

13. See Luke 23:39–43.

14. Isaiah 53:2–3.

15. Alma 7:11–12.

16. Dallin H. Oaks, “President Oaks’ Full Remarks from the LDS Church’s ‘Be One’ Celebration,” Leaders and Ministry, Church News, 1 June 2018, thechurchnews.com/leaders-and-ministry/2018-06-01/president-oaks-full-remarks-from-the-lds-churchs-be-one-celebration-47280.

17. Russell M. Nelson, “Ministering,” Ensign, May 2018.

18. 1 Peter 3:15.

19. Luke 14:12–14.

20. Bryan A. Stevenson, BYU forum address, 30 October 2018; quoted in Erica Ostergar, “BYU Forum: Creating Justice,” Intellect, BYU News, 30 October 2018, news.byu.edu/news/byu-forum-creating-justice.

21. D&C 50:41–42.

Phillip Rash
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