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True Belonging: Families In Community

Casper ter Kuile is training to be a minister for non-religious people at the Harvard Divinity School. He’s the host of Living The Questions, a podcast exploring questions that matter.

True community is always intergenerational. When I walk into a gathering where there are children running around and old people smiling knowingly, I’m immediately put at ease.

The wonderful Lucas (Sunday Assembly London's resident child) talking about learning to play the fiddle.
The wonderful Lucas (Sunday Assembly London’s resident child) talking about learning to play the fiddle.

In community, we see the fullness of life. We remember our own childhood and get a glimpse of life to come, as we grow old. So often, new communities are built around existing friendships so that there is little diversity of age. For a founding team, taking the time to meet others across age groups and invite them in can be one of the key ingredients of longevity and success.

Families with kids are a great gift to those who are not surrounded by their own loved ones. There is a real generosity when people who might be alone for much of their time get to enjoy the laughter, play and silliness of a young family. Even the tantrums and tears remind them of what life is all about!
The gift of families in community goes both ways of course. For a child, being surrounded by people of all ages whom you know, and who know you, is nesting in true belonging. And there is nothing better than knowing you belong. Whether to a family, to a place, or to another person – we yearn for this sense of belonging. I was lucky enough to grow up in a school community where this web of relationship was thickly spun. At the festivals we celebrated, the plays we put on, and the daily walk to school, I was assured of the constancy of life.

That reliable pattern matters a great deal for a child. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and philosopher, describes childhood as a magic forest. It is the time of most intense happening, where the most immense experiences of wonder, discovery and difficulty take place – and for which children often don’t yet have the words and thoughts to make sense of. This forest can be a fearful one, full of known and unknown dangers, or it can be a place of enchanted adventure. Surrounding children with loving, familiar and encouraging faces that they see time and again are crucial to making that magic forest of childhood a safe one.

Later, as teenagers, older friends and acquaintances become important to us as they witness our development as individuals. Teenage years are all about identity formation and distinguishing ourselves from our parents. To have older people treat us ‘like adults’ is the most wonderful thing. I remember being driven to the school bus by a family friend who encouraged my interest in politics (something we didn’t talk about much at home), who engaged and sharpened my opinions and made me feel like I had something to offer.

These intergenerational relationships are difficult to build if not in community. What a gift that there are places like Sunday Assembly where we can meet one another across those barriers of age, and weave a web of belonging.