Looking to the Margins: Creating Belonging | Phillip Rash

Looking to the Margins: Creating Belonging | Phillip Rash

Those of you who know me understand that I
would prefer a much more intimate setting for a conversation. In fact, one of the reasons I became a clinician
was because I prefer one-on-one and small-group interactions. You came to the devotional today likely preferring
to hear from a charismatic and dynamic speaker. I guess my mom was right when she said that
we don’t always get what we prefer. As my initial nerves begin to subside, I sincerely
feel that it is good to be with you today. The Brigham Young University mission statement
states, “All instruction, programs, and ­services at BYU . . . should make their
own contribution toward the balanced development of the total person.” The mission statement also contains the idea
that at BYU “the full realization of human potential is pursued.” Please keep these two important concepts from
the mission statement in mind as we continue: We are striving to achieve (1) “the balanced
development of the total person” and (2) “the full realization of human potential.” Not long ago, BYU hosted a noted scholar on
the topic of student success. Dr. Laurie A. Schreiner 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. Dr. Schreiner defines success as “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 several times in order to add a spiritual context to her
definition of student success. In John 10:10, Christ proclaimed, An abundant life is certainly characterized
by the development of the total person and the full realization of human potential—our
potential to become like our heavenly parents. I truly believe that our Heavenly Father desires
that we live an abundant life. I am equally convinced that the One who notes
even the sparrow’s fall desires that our time at BYU is a successful one. Furthermore, I believe that 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. As found in the BYU Aims, an education at
BYU is intended to help “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 as a
student at the university is not a given, and there are several elements that must be
present in order for an individual 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 am needed and have a purpose here, and that these people around me understand
and accept me. It is 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 means 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
will 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 enlists those who are wise enough
to just listen and humble enough to admit what 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: I think you will agree that BYU is a fairly
homogenous place, as are the communities of Provo, Orem, and even faraway Springville. On campus I am consistently surrounded by
a majority of people who look, dress, and generally act as I do. I don’t have to look far to find someone
who has shared similar life experiences, has grown up in similar neighborhoods, has been
raised in similar families, or has 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 establish 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 facilitate a feeling of community and a sense of belonging. I would also venture to guess that there are
individuals in this auditorium 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 the same communities
that I affiliate with or they might not. Unfortunately, I believe 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 that 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 resources. Maybe those who feel like they don’t belong
simply are not trying hard enough. However, I am afraid that this attitude ignores
the complexity of what we refer to as ­marginality—or the idea that there are those who, for many
different reasons and life circumstances, find themselves on the margins of a given
group or community. We are not speaking about mere reticence or
simple reluctance on the part of individuals. Often the factors that place and keep individuals
on the margins or on 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
that “they just need to try harder,” we necessarily encounter the warning given by
King Benjamin: 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 doeth
this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath
done he perisheth 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 our response when we are made aware that someone in our community does not
feel fully accepted. After all, as King Benjamin reminded us, “Are
we not all beggars?” Have we not all, at some point in our lives,
felt like we did not belong? I am confident that it would not 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. We probably do not feel this to the same extent
as some of our brothers and sisters but may perhaps still feel it in personally significant
ways. Throughout the Old Testament, the children
of Israel were repeatedly commanded that certain groups of people were to be extended 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 ye 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 have placed them on the margins of society
for hundreds or even thousands of years. Nevertheless, the Lord’s reminder that “ye
know the heart of a stranger” was designed to activate a holy empathy within all of us. It is like He is speaking to me, saying, “Phil,
you know what it feels like to not belong. Remember seventh grade at East Minico Junior
High School.” That was my Egypt. I am fifty 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 I personally respond to those on the margins has weighed heavily upon my mind for quite
a while. I believe we can and should do better. More important, I believe that I can and should
do better. My relationship with God—who asks 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
a perfect model for us 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 and His works. When the Savior visited the inhabitants of
this continent, He taught many sacred and important things. In 3 Nephi we read, “Verily, verily, I say
unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the
works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do.” The Savior’s interactions with the people
in the land of Bountiful provide us with a very robust blueprint for discipleship. The Lord blessed, healed, taught, and instituted
the sacrament. 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? For one, there was the woman at Jacob’s
well. There were many reasons why Jesus, being a
Jewish man, should never have engaged her in conversation. First, she was a Samaritan, an ethnic group
considered to be heretical and unclean by the Jews of the day. Second, 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
was not her husband. How did Jesus act toward her, and what do
we see Jesus do in this story? I urge you to read the entire account found
in John 4. But to briefly summarize, what started with
a strategic request for water ended with the Messiah revealing His true identity and the
essence of His mission to this woman of Samaria who, in turn, proclaimed her witness of Jesus’s
divinity to her entire community. We often recall, almost offhandedly, that
Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. Who were the publicans and what makes time
spent with them 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 get more money than they were owed, and
may have used force and brutality in their work. For these reasons they were hated, especially
by the Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day. How did Jesus respond to the pharisaical ­criticism
that ensued after He shared a meal with publicans and 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 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 9, when Jesus sees a publican
named Matthew sitting at work one day and bids him, “Follow me.” Matthew the publican, 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’s agonizing cross,
the One—innocently and heroically bearing all sin and human frailty—mercifully ministered
to a contrite 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 important, 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, embodied
this universal pain: 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 me to list every group
that currently experiences or has historically experienced marginalization. Unfortunately, those ministered to by the
Savior might still encounter many of the same attitudes and prejudices in our day. Although society in Christ’s time deemed
marginalized people to be broken or defective, the terms broken or defective should not be
applied to those standing on the periphery of belonging and inclusion today. Marginality does not mean to be less than
others, 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
does not mean that all members of that community consider themselves marginalized. I mention this because it would be unwise,
following this devotional, for us to approach someone and say, “Hey, Brother Rash said
that you must feel marginalized.” That is 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 or sad or angry. However, it is important for us to remember
that not everyone experiences BYU, Provo, the United 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 LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters
has left long-lasting scars. Similarly, religious differences continue
to engender deep division and hatred, even within families. During the “Be One” celebration, President
Dallin H. Oaks reminded Latter-day Saints that we need to rid ourselves of prejudice. 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 do not. And even though many of us share a common
church membership, there are different ways to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints. When my sense of orthodoxy confronts your
sense of orthodoxy, there is a potential for misunderstanding and judgment. Consider a simple example. When my sense of orthodoxy allows for watching
TV on Sunday and the orthodoxy of my roommates does not, there is a risk that I may be placed
on the periphery of that small community of roommates. Now let us 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. They exist day-to-day in a virtual sea of
those who have. The accounts of their pain at the attitudes,
conversations, and judgments of others—even by the well-intentioned—have repeatedly
broken my heart. Let us not add to their potential burden through
thoughtlessness, judgment, or abandonment. Let us 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 ministering—“a newer, holier
approach to caring” discipleship. Instead of working to bring about an immediate
change in behavior, belief, or 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 fear.” In Luke 14, Jesus sat down to dinner with
a 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 thy rich neighbours. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor,
the maimed, the lame, 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,
beliefs, or customs are different from our own. When I read this scripture, I immediately
thought of the recent forum address given by Bryan A. Stevenson, who taught us about
the “power in proximity” and about being with those who are different from us and those
who might even challenge us. As we strive to be disciples who venture to
the margins and who invite others in from the periphery to a place of belonging and
abundance, we will surely stumble and trip over ourselves. We have to be all right 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 holy empathy by recalling how we too were once strangers in the land of
Egypt. If it all seems unattainable or overwhelming,
remember the words of our Redeemer, spoken to the Prophet Joseph Smith: In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

3 Replies to “Looking to the Margins: Creating Belonging | Phillip Rash”

  1. Beautiful speech, thanks for speaking up for me, someone who has himself felt marginalized most of my 64 years on this planet.

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