Often the outsider can manage and succeed at belonging because it depends mainly on her attitude, and naturally, on time. However there are instances when the other party controls the social norms, regardless.

The latter describes the Zapotec people in the village where we live. Sometimes some are friendly, but being friendly doesn’t automatically qualify the recipient as belonging. There are various old men who we pass almost daily as they walk the dusty road in their huaraches and sombreros, carrying their machetes or driving a team of oxen. We wave or stop to share greetings, and they oblige by returning both.

There are kids who walk by every morning, heading to school dressed neatly in their uniforms—the girls in burgundy pleated skirts with matching sweaters, white knee high socks, white blouses, and the boys in burgundy pants with matching sweaters and crisp white shirts—who also smile and wave back.

There are even a few women walking around who may return a smile, or a nod of the head. The older ones with ribbon braided into their long hair and wearing their mandíl (full apron) over a dress, the younger ones in tight jeans and tops.

Do these greetings serve as entrance to belonging? If only they would. They do show a measure of acceptance, yet not enough to be invited into their communal activities.

One instance is the yearly gathering of the men in the village who climb part way up the mountain to “open the flow” of the river before the rainy season begins. They clear out leaves, branches and rocks that may have fallen in during the past year. My husband mentioned he would like to go next time and help. “Oh, okay. But it’s only for the men from the pueblo,” came the reply. My husband says, “I know. That’s why I’d like to help.” Again the reply, “I see, but it’s only for the men from the pueblo.”

Two plus years living here does not a man from the pueblo make.

Then last week we noticed a canopy placed further up our street with tables and chairs underneath. The house adjacent to it began flourishing with a buzz of activity over the course of several days. Women were everywhere! And each one was wearing her mandíl; it was obvious they were preparing food—and a lot of it—for some occasion.

Each time we slowed as we drove by, rolled down our window, and greeted them, either verbally or with a smile and wave. No response! Just cold stares like we were intruding. Then they’d return to whatever they were doing, whether tending the fire in their anafre, mixing dough, or cutting vegetables. I kept thinking how much I would like to join them…to feel like I could belong simply by working side by side with them.

One day we drove by and saw five huge cazas (a caza is like a 50 gallon washtub) filled with pork they were washing and cutting. Again a greeting; again a glance at us and back to their work. This was not the setting in which to be friendly. Was it because of the work, or perhaps because of the multitude of women?

We later found out that the women of the pueblo were responsible to prepare the food for the carnival to take place. And by the way, we were invited to eat if we first attended the Catholic mass to kick off the fiesta. (Never mind that we had already paid our portion when they came door to door asking for everyone to help fund the party.)

Couldn’t the women of the pueblo use an extra hand in the massive undertaking? Probably, if I were “from here”. But I’m not. In fact, I’ve spoken with other Mexican indian women who also live in this pueblo but originate from another, and not even they “belong” here. The town-folk consider them “foreigners” as well.

It can be a lonely feeling not belonging. Thank goodness for the other social communities in our lives, such as the local missionary community, our team, our field fellowship, and others that help fill that need to belong.

For us, the quest to “belong” is cyclical. Next year, we move back to the US for our year of itineration. We’ll again have to work at belonging in a local church, which can be challenging since most our weekends are spent traveling to other churches. Our daughter will have  learn to fit in at a new school and try to belong to a new group of friends.  Just when the time needed for all our sense of belonging to take root, it will be time to leave and return to the field.

This is why missionaries may often feel like they “never belong”—here on earth. We take to heart the words of Jesus, “behold I go and prepare a place for you”. When we were adopted as children of God, we immediately belonged to His family, and always will.

Optimistic, you say? Absolutely realistic, I’ll concur.

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