Belonging: The Test

How welcoming are we as a community?  Any person can ask this question of any community that we belong to.  Churches love to put that word on their signs:  Welcome! They often promote themselves on signage and literature as being “a welcoming” community.  States, towns and cities do the same issuing a “welcome to” as one drives into their localities.  We could take the cynical approach that it is just a popular word that makes for good signage, something that no one really means.  We could trust that communities really mean it when they say “welcome.”  Extending a welcome implies that people will find that they belong within the community.  As it turns out, there’s a long standing “test” for a true welcome, and it has several expressions.

A Buddhist teaching:

One is not called noble who harms living beings. By not harming living beings one is called noble.
The Buddha [From the Dhammapada, Verse 270]

A Jewish teaching, repeated multiple times in the Hebrew scriptures:

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:34

The teaching of Jesus:

When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ And the King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’  Matthew 25:39-40

In the words of modern social justice movements, this “test” is how a community treats its most vulnerable.  It’s a very simple question, and the answer to it can be tumultuous to a community–either because it must do the difficult work of reorienting itself to a new way of being that embraces the most vulnerable, or because it engages in the soul-damaging denial of this truth–that it is, in fact, rejecting the most vulnerable and in so doing, causing them harm.

In our country, the most vulnerable have included racial and ethnic groups, people with various kinds of physical, mental and emotional disabilities, people caught in poverty, and while they have always been here and always been oppressed, of late people who have varying sexual orientations and gender identities.  We are watching politicians engage in the worst of hypocrisies around this last group.  They know that transgender people are no threat to children and young people or women going to the bathroom.  They know that transgender people, especially young people, suffer because they do not have access to something as simple as the bathroom without having to expose themselves to their classmates as different every single day.  And yet they take up the cause of the “wounded” majority who supply their re-election coffers as the ones who need to be protected.

No State, city, town or religious community passes the test as long as we behave this way. In the four days that have passed since the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have issued orders for public restrooms (including in schools) to be open to transgender people appropriate to their identified gender, governors and mayors, legislators and school leaders have refused to acknowledge, this is what has happened.  In those 4 days, 24 trans people, mostly young people, have attempted suicide. Another 172 trans people have contacted suicide hotlines thinking about and planning their suicides. Just in 4 days.

These are the “least among us.”  We are failing the test as a nation.  Our popular positions protect those who need no protection and harm those who are the most vulnerable.

Bob Patrick

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