A Sense of Belonging

Several years ago, during a difficult time in my life, I found comfort in reading books that introduced me to a new way of experiencing God that was different from the AME church I attended as a child, and was different from the Baptist, Methodist and non-denominational churches I found myself cycling through as an adult. The ancient Christian traditions and spiritual practices spoke to me and became a balm for my soul.

I continued the journey of discovering, remembering, and reconnecting to my contemplative roots which began developing during my childhood. I was a kid who liked to sit for hours on the front stoop of the apartment building where I lived and watch the people and cars go by — somehow finding silence in the midst of a busy city street.

I was a kid who attended Catholic school and was deeply influenced by my 2nd grade teacher, Sister Veronica, who was the only Black nun in our school. I don’t remember much of what she said in class but the memories of her presence have remained with me.

I was a young adult who loved going to the park and quietly sitting on the bench for hours and finding joy in nature.

When I began exploring contemplative spirituality, I often read books that spoke about God, contemplative practices, slow living, and simplicity. During this time, I also started seeking out ways to be in community with others who shared the same longing for a deeper relationship with God.

Fast forward to 2022 and an invitation to Shalem’s Heart Longings program appeared in my email. There was an immediate stirring in my heart as I read the description, and I sensed that I needed to submit my application.

From the first retreat to the last meeting with my small group, I felt affirmed in my decision to take the eight-month journey of exploring and deepening my relationship with God. It offered me many of the things I’d been searching for to help me grow and transform my spiritual life.

As I reflect on my time in the program, I can see three distinct gifts I received: the gift of vulnerability, the gift of showing up for myself, and the gift of community.

I received the gift of vulnerability every time my small group met. During our time together, I would often be prompted by God to share things I either rarely talked about or never talked about at all. The women in my group always made space for each of us to be seen, heard, loved, and we were always encouraged to look for God in everything.

The next gift was learning to show up for myself by becoming comfortable on Zoom. Before the program, I spent very little time on screen and the discomfort I felt while being on camera was at times challenging. But throughout the eight months I slowly became more comfortable with being seen in a new way. (This is still a work in progress).

And the last gift, of community, allowed me to connect with others who were on a similar spiritual path. To learn and share with people from around the world, who desired the same connection, was life-giving and affirming. This gift of community reminded me of the book I read by author Robert Benson when I first began my contemplative journey.

In his book, The Echo, Benson writes about feeling like he was “other” his whole life. He never felt like he fit in because he lived his life differently from those around him. It was not until he attended the spiritual formation program at the Upper Room, that he began to experience a sense of belonging. I resonated with Benson’s experiences and Heart Longings gave me the same sense of belonging.

The ending of my Heart Longings cohort was a mix of gratitude and sadness. I miss our twice monthly gatherings and the relationships I formed. I am deeply grateful for the experience. The books, conversations, facilitators, and the spiritual practices introduced over the course of the program have helped to further shape the relationship I have with God and myself. I will forever be thankful to everyone who was a part of this transformative experience.

October 10, 2023 by Tara Pray 4 Comments
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Janet Hudson
7 months ago

So beautiful Tara. I resonate with much you experienced and that you’ve captured here with heart-felt words. Great to learn new things about you as well. I’ll be checking out wordsbytara.com.

Tara Pray
Tara Pray
7 months ago
Reply to  Janet Hudson

Thank you Janet!

Margot Eyring
Margot Eyring
7 months ago
Reply to  Janet Hudson

What a gift to read the story of your journey, Tara. I was smiling from ear to ear as I heard your voice saying those words and felt happy imagining that small group. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your experience.

Ann F Stanford
Ann F Stanford
7 months ago

Tara, Thank you for this beautiful reflection. I love how you look at three different ways Heart Longings touched you: vulnerability, showing up, and community. Yes! I’m glad you and I both found Shalem at the same time and found ourselves in the same Heart Longings program.

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