Who are we? “Whose” are we?

By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras

Westminster Unitarian Church

October 20, 2019


Reading by Starhawk

“We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been – a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.”



I moved around a lot when I was growing up. Many of you know this about me. I was born in the Netherlands. I moved to New Jersey when I was 5, hence my attractive yet indistinguishable east coast accent. Later my family moved to South Korea for a few years, then Switzerland. Lots of countries, lots of different people and lots of different languages. 


One thing that stands out to me from all that travel is how, when my family spotted another Dutch family, there was instant recognition. We would often become friendly with them. In fact, when I hear a Dutch accent in a crowd my ears still perk up. It’s an odd feeling of suddenly being home, away from home. A feeling of belonging. 


Author Maria Popova, in an article on “belonging, conflict and identity,”  shares a parallel story of meeting a boy she knew from her high school, while waiting in line for travel documents. When their eyes meet in that crowd of others, they are one of a kind. They suddenly felt that they belonged to the same tribe, in the face of the shared “Other” of bureaucrats and strangers. In relieved recognition they spend […] hours together as they wait for their papers talking about everything under the setting sun.


Contrast these snapshots of instant belonging with another experience from my childhood. I’m 11 years old and my family is living in South Korea, but on summer vacation in the Netherlands.


Now, picture me, in a hospital bed. A nurse walks in with bucket and washcloth. She’s nice enough, and she’s there to change my sheets, wash my face, and freshen me up. She’d been in the day before, too, making small talk. “Nice day today” she said, in her cockney British accent. I answered her: ja, het is een mooie dag.” Dutch for – yup, nice day outside. 


I’d been in the hospital for 7 or 8 days. Meningitis, my mom told me. I had no idea what that was, just wished it was done so I could spend time with my cousins. I wanted to see them.  Not this British nurse, with her bucket. 


They were my tribe and I wanted to go to the beach with them and do scavenger hunts and laugh with them. I want to be with them and be like them and speak like them and I did not want to speak English to this nurse who probably was, as my mom assured me multiple time, very nice. Why did I not want to speak English with her?? 


It’s fascinating, looking back how strongly I felt about it at the time. And how, in the many years since then I just as vigorously refused to speak Dutch to my parents once I was back and embedded with my American friends at my school. Much to my parents’ perplexed frustration.


Only now do I realize it had something to do with belonging. 


In that same piece I mentioned earlier, the author writes again about her newfound friend at the government office. Upon returning to school on Monday, they never saw or spoke to each other again — “we had both resumed our respective tribal affinity amid the larger nation of the school.” she writes “As the sameness of our shared predicament dissolved, each was once again an “Other” to the other.”


The author goes on to write that “Almost everyone has experienced some form of such disposable [belonging] like this — with an airplane seat mate, with a fellow patient at the dentist’s waiting room…. 


But, that same psychology that sits at the root of our affinity for each other, she continues, is also at the root of our alienation from each other. And sits at the root, of [all kinds of] ways we hurt each other.”


That nurse, did not appear to be part of the tribe I so much wanted to be part of. In that moment, I wanted to be Dutch, and she was not. Later, when I was back with my school friends, I wanted to be American, and that meant speaking English with everyone, including my parents. As my sense of who I was changed, my sense of who I wanted to belong to, that changed too. 


It’s something Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner calls our “internal clamor of identities,”   Shifting understandings of ourselves that create belonging or the lack of it. […] Impacting who we see as friend or threat, based on any one of our multiple identities of gender, race, religion, nationality, class, political affiliation, favorite sports team, etc, etc, etc. 


My young self was experiencing those cross currents up close and personal – where do I belong? Do I belong with the English speakers, over here? Or with my tribe of Nederlanders, over there? Who am I ? “Whose” am I? Who are my people? 


And so it is, right? Maybe you’ve had your own experiences in this belonging vein. Being part of a scout troop where you all believed and did one thing, or belonging to your high school sports team where you all did and believed something else. Or maybe for you, it was a lack of belonging that stands out. Some of our most painful memories are from that kind of experience. Just as some of our fondest are often those times or places where you knew you were home, loved, where you knew you belonged.


I would argue that our relationship to identity and belonging sits at the root of just about every societal challenge we’ve got. And many of the personal ones. But I think the opposite is also true, figuring out how to create true belonging may open up a window into changing everything. 


That rings true for me. As I started writing this sermon I found it led me right to a key personal story about an identity shift that opened up new ways of seeing just about everything for me. Myself, my life and ultimately, ministry. 


So. Fast forward from childhood to adulthood in my life. I was 35 when I hit an early mid-life crisis that tossed me smack out of one societally recognized identity and into another. For about 10 years from my mid-20’s to my mid-30’s I identified as gay. Or, as some say queer, lesbian, not straight. Whatever you call it, in that identity I found friends and a way of looking at the world. I found a community. I found belonging. And I found a vision of my future: I would connect with the right person, settle down, and, finally, be deeply, ultimately happy. 


Which was great until a significant breakup in a string of breakups had me questioning – wait.  Is this me? Is this my path? Am I on the right track? I was beginning to see how, hm, the problem really wasn’t always the other person. In a flash of honesty I became willing to see the ways in which *my* stuff was getting in the way. Perfectionism, impatience, self-doubt, fear. And I was suddenly able to see how some of that same stuff was impacting everything in my life, including my relationships with women and with men.


And if that was true, I asked myself, was I actually gay in the first place? 


If it had always been about stuff in me, I wondered, was it really ever about the gender of the person I was dating? 


It became an existential crisis. Because I had created a whole life around this identity. 

I didn’t even realize until that point, how much I had tied my sense of who I was to that way of seeing myself.  I didn’t realize until much later how “coming out” in my mid-20’s had been, for me, about much more than the gender of the person I wanted to date. It was also an assertion of personal freedom. All those mainstream rules I’d been raised with? They didn’t apply to me anymore. I’m different, I said to myself. I don’t have to dress like that, or wear my hair like that, or be like that. I don’t even have to go to grad school if I don’t want to, I don’t have to have a particular kind of success and I don’t have to have any particular kind of life.  I can choose my own path. It was enormously freeing. 

And, I found a community. I found my people. I belonged. 


Until… I didn’t. Or felt like I didn’t. 


At 35 a whole bunch of things that had been very clear suddenly were very not.  


Because if I’m not gay, it seemed to me, then everything I had been aiming toward, my whole vision of my future, is thrown into question. My whole philosophy of life, which had been built on this new identity, was suddenly tossed up for grabs. It meant: all that freedom – was that still mine? All those expectations that didn’t apply to me because I was different – well, how different was I really? 

And all those friends, were they still mine? Was that community still my people? Where do I belong now? 

A colleague of mine once said enlightenment, or spiritual insight, is a lot like being hit by a bus. He told me when he got hit by the enlightenment bus, he went to seminary. 

Ultimately, I did the same. 

My questions and realizations cracked open a window into something deeper, something spiritual, something underneath all of these clamoring identities. Bigger than any one of them. It led me to take a second look at everything. Including religion. It led me back to church and then to seminary, to Unitarian Universalism, to this congregation and ultimately to this moment, here, today. with you.


Now you may be thinking…. Actually, I have no idea what you are thinking. It’s not every day that your minister comes out. Or comes in. Or whatever it is that I am doing. 

But here I am, here you are. 

On various sides of various divides.

All seeking spiritual enlightenment, hopefully not in one fell smack. 


But seeking something. Something bigger than our everyday circumstances would show us. Something more real, more true more connected. Wondering together how do you do that, particularly in a world people seems to be getting more and more divided. 

The poet Rumi offers these words “Your task,” he writes, “is not to seek for love, but merely seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

After my  post-breakup not exactly “come to Jesus” moment I began to see the barriers. 

I began to see that when I claimed this fabulous new queer community as mine, my experience was that I was also saying this other group you’re not mine. I wasn’t just putting up a shield against oppressive expectations, I realized, I was distancing myself from a whole world of people. 

I began to see that my single-minded focus on finding acceptance in whatever group mattered most to me at the time, prevented me from seeing a lot of other groups that matter too. It wasn’t until I found myself in that in-between space of feeling like I belonged nowhere, that I started seeing  people I couldn’t really see before. Like the woman who emptied the trash at the hospital where I worked. The new mother with the cranky baby on the subway. The elderly hispanic woman at the baptist church whose niece was in trouble. Suddenly, she, they, were my people too. In a way they had not been before. 

And when I stopped looking for the right person, or the right group to make things okay, I had to come face to face with me. I had to start sorting through what was me, and what was not. I had to start looking at what was and what wasn’t serving me, for me. And I had to start taking a look at whatever it was that was blocking me off, from anyone – a long term project. 


Ultimately, I stopped trying to find the place where I would finally fit, or trying to change myself so I would fit, and started learning (and oh, there is so much to learn)  how to create belonging for me and everyone. 


My story is unconventional. I think it would be fair to say that it is unlikely to be representative of anyone else in any particular group or identity. Yet, there are elements that may resonate for others, and ways it may point in useful directions for all of us, including me.


Because the fact is that shifts in identity, in big and small ways, are simply part of being human. Becoming an adult, getting married, having children. Getting divorced, a health diagnosis, changing careers. Changing religious affiliation, aging, or even moving to new town – all these things and more can feel like a shift in our identity. With an associated change in where you think you belong, who you think your people are.


Any in-between time can come with lonely moments, where you may even feel, for a while, that you actually just stand alone. 




But according to psychology researcher Brene Brown, learning how to stand alone may just be the key to true belonging anyway. 


In her book “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone,” Brene Brown writes that learning how to stand alone means learning how to accept ourselves, just as we are, today. It means learning how to believe in ourselves, to belong to ourselves, even in the face of criticism, vulnerability and uncertainty. 


And, the more we belong to ourselves, the more we are able to stand alone, then, paradoxically, the more we can belong anywhere


And in these days of clamoring identities, with massive cultural shifts happening right under our feet, what a gift is that? To be able to belong anywhere? 


Getting there, though, requires some intention. And some courage. Brene calls it “braving the wilderness” a willingness to break down walls and abandon ideological bunkers so we can live,”  as she says, “from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt.”


And then we practice. We practice acceping ourselves just as we are, and we practice reaching out. Because braving the wilderness also requires that we are,  as Brene writes, “going to have to [spend time] with people who are different from us. We’re going to have to sign up, join [in] and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, […] and be more curious than defensive.”


We’re going to have to learn, I will add, how to create belonging for ourselves and everyone.


So where does my story end? If I were listening to someone else preach this sermon I would be asking myself. Okay, that’s great, that’s all very nice. But really, what’s the deal now, is she or isn’t she? Gay or straight? Queer or not? Friend or family? 

While a pragmatic friend blandly called me bisexual after I told her my story, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m not a big fan of labels. Or boxes. Or any barriers that separate. 

In fact for years I’ve tried not identifying at all – I didn’t want anything blocking me from anyone. 

And that kind of worked. But it has also left me feeling a little hidden, and a little separate in its own way and like something important was missing. 

So I’m going to try something else for a while, because maybe… maybe I get to claim them all. I’m Dutch. I’m American. I’m straight. I’m gay.  

Dutch people are my people. Americans are my people. Straight people are my people, Gay people are my people. 

You are all my people. And I am yours. 

My story is complex. But my hope is that by making room for more of my truth, there will be more room, for all of yours. My hope is that by being more transparent, I can be more present. And my hope is that together, we can make room for more and more life-changing ministry in an ever-changing, complex, world. 

May we find the courage to stand alone. 

May we find the courage to reach out across all our differences. 

May we know that we belong to each other. Every single one of us. 

And may we practice making that real every day.