Connection to Place

Have you ever had a sense of belonging to a place? Have you ever had to leave this place? At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll explore the challenges faced by immigrants who leave home in search of new belonging. The choir will sing.
Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning

October 13, 2019

Connection to Place

Moving comes with change, and virtually always with some loss. Sure, hope and possibility, but too the leaving. I’m guessing most here have moved. We look to the possibility, yet virtually always there is a leaving of the familiar. The perennials that will bloom, but not where we’ll be witness.

Our life stories, when told chronologically, tell of the place to place. We mostly adapt and make a new life. In the telling of our stories, we might skim past the dilemmas of moving – the whether to go, or not? Where to move? What to take? What to move?

These are moments when the reality of a move is in front of us.

Immigration stories are stories about moving. Author Ray Suarez (Latino Americans: The 500 Year Legacy that Shaped Americans, 2013) notes,

“In the perennial debates about immigration, legal and illegal, you rarely hear about how hard it is to leave everything you know – family, language, way of life – and jump into a new place with almost nothing familiar and start to make a new life. Talk to immigrants later on in their lives and you hear the stories they were less anxious to tell, when every day was dominated by the act of getting over, of adapting, of just running to keep up.

Since we revere our immigrant past in ways large and small (our immigrant present is a different matter), we have celebrated the triumphs of immigrant life in our common culture., but only in particular ways. Story after story is canned in a heavy syrup of sweet sentimentality, and built on the foundation of America’s power.”

Migration, whether across international borders or not, impacts our sense of belonging; it can shake that foundation of belonging. To pull up roots that sustain – often have sustained for generations is hard.

Gary Younge immigrated to the US from the UK – a middle class example of immigration. He shares he is black, and the family had ties too back to Barbados.

Gary Younge writes. (Tue 24 Mar 2015 03.00 EDTLast modified on Wed 29 Nov 2017 16.17 EST) On returning home a friend says [to me],

“‘You’re so lucky,” she said. “You’ve done so well for yourself. Your mum would be so proud.’ And that was when my eyes started welling up. Now it could have been any number of triggers – alcohol, jet lag or the mention of my mother, who died decades ago. But what really upset me was realising that in this town, people I wasn’t even particularly close to knew me in a way that nobody else would. They knew place names that no one else in my regular life (apart from my brothers) knew. And yes, they not only knew my mother but they knew me when I had a mother.”

As we consider place and transitions, consider the story of Apolinaria Lorenzana. (How many here know of her?)

Apolinaria was an orphan in Mexico City in 1800. Mexico City was a sophisticated metropolis, had been for hundreds of years. The archbishop of Mexico found there were a surplus of orphans and in 1800 sent a group of about 20 to California – alone. Settlers were needed in the remote area. Apolinaria was one of these children. When she was in her 80s (oral histories colleced in the late 1800s) she reported “we were distributed like puppies” throughout California.

This orphan who arrived at age six, could read before she left Mexico. She ends up living in the homes of the affluent tied to the Catholic missions dotting California. She learns to write. She took care of the young and was valued.

These missions in California– albeit a series of them – had become her home; a home she helped create and sustain; she felt belonging and purpose. On the place, she arrived – had immigrated, and yet was a part of a flow of European explorers (in this case Spanish) who had displaced Native Americans bringing disease and taking control. And one of Apolinaria’s role was to work as a ‘nurse’ caring for Native Americans laborers.

Who owns a place? Who controls a place?

While she arrived in what we now know as California, the region was a Spanish territory. In 1821 Mexico takes control, and alters the role of Catholic missions – a more secular. Through this Apolinaria, now a respected women – a leader, was granted two ranches of land and bought a third ranch in the 1830 and 1840s.

In the 1840s further change as the Americans ‘come in’ from the east, and by 1850 California become a state. Suarez (26) notes, “as we saw with Apolinaria Lorenzana, just a few decades after their arrival, the same Californio families who welcomed their immigrant American neighbors soon found themselves foreigners in their own homeland.”

Another author writing on Apolinaria, Maria Rawuel Casas, notes, “Starting in the 1850s Californio landowners faced constant legal challenges and encroachments on their lands by the newcomers.” Then as American Land commissions are formed, and cases argued in English, records varying, she loses her land; her place of belonging.

Casas tells us, “When interviewed Lorenzana was in her eighties and in deteriorating health, forcing her to rely on her Californio friends, which she greatly resented. With no immediate family to support her, Apolinaria died blind, landless, and living off charity, but still respected by rich and poor alike.”

Place – ties of belonging and purpose. What makes it so?

If you grew up by sea air you can feel a place by smell, and breeze. Damp for others – a sense of home for you. For some being close to farming stirs connection.  For some belonging is more near pavement; the noise and food of the large city; home in NYC or Chicago or New Orleans.

How many hear have moved often?  Moved as kids?  (hands raised – 4x, 5x, more?)

For those who moved often, especially moved often in childhood, the sense of connection to place may be less terrain and local culture, and more what moves with us. Maybe like I do you have furniture that has seen both coasts of the US, and the Midwest. A knowing that the dining room table we now use is an anchor to our physical journeys – as is Bill’s mom’s table, and my grandmother’s table – all of which we recycle into use time and again.

Ideally, we imagine belonging in place where we are accepted, and can experience joy and pain as a part of a community. A place we can trust.

And migration – the act of moving –interrupts a sense of belonging. Whether moves taken of freewill, or a forced migration, something tears.

When I hear, “We are all immigrants” as we advocate for immigration policies which honor humanity, it’s helpful to pause in that sentence and ask what we know of the losses a part of the story – what can we feel?

I sense we often dilute the realities of how hard immigration is at the individual experience level. How might we sense the condition of the souls of those arriving to a new place? You may have an abbreviated immigration story is something like, ‘my Irish (or Italian, or Polish, or Swede) family came, were poor, assimilated, and look – they built a solid life. Good stories – but not all the same stories.

In the world today close to 300 million people live in what was not their homeland of birth. Immigrants and refugees each with stories of leaving another place. Migration impacts our tie to physical place – and all that goes with that – often language, and cultural customs has deep impacts. Who can claim a place is ‘theirs’ and not others? Who are the guests, the trespassers, the ‘owners’?

What was place for Apolinaria in Californinia…from stranger, worker, owner, to displaced person on land?

These questions take us deeper into history of our country, and to the forced migration from Africa of slaves. Those who had belonging in a place, and culture, and who were transported inhumanely across the ocean, and then were sold, and then time and again whose sense of place was destroyed in sale. In the stories of migration – in this case forced and arriving in bondage.

What of the ‘Great migration’ of African Americans from the south to the north in the early 19th century. Leaving the familiar of life, and the dangers, and moving toward often urban centers.

What helps then create hope and new belonging when uprooted? Do you come to where someone else ‘owns’ the land? Who has the right to any specific place on this planet?

I come to these questions with an observer’s mind. When we ask, Who can own land?’ it feels precarious to respond. I’m a bit afraid to judge – to say ‘owning land’ in our western understanding of owning is bad. Owning land gives a sense of control, of having boundaries which keep others out – ways I’m protected with a deed to my home – Is this ‘bad’? Hard to answer when the beneficiary, and yet, I wonder can we own a ‘place’? Where do I hold on tightly to place?

Where have we dug in; fences and defenses up? Where do we want others to change to assimilate – to let go of what they know – love – long for?

As Gary Younge reflected, “Migration involves loss. Even when you’re privileged, as I am, and move of your own free will, as I did, you feel it. Migrants, almost by definition, move with the future in mind. But their journeys inevitably involve excising part of their past. It’s not workers who emigrate but people. And whenever they move they leave part of themselves behind. Efforts to reclaim that which has been lost result in something more than nostalgia but, if you’re lucky, less than exile. And the losses keep coming. Funerals, christenings, graduations and weddings missed – milestones you couldn’t make because your life is elsewhere.”

I offer no policy recommendations on immigration, but an invitation to reflect on the experience of those who migrate – When we receive those who have travelled, those who are in the unfamiliar, where are we guided in acts of welcome? When we move, how do we hope to be received? — When we receive a new neighbor who is forming a new home, how do we make space for them – space for their need to connect with place as their own?

The boundaries of the world may be marked by surveyors, and posts, and town lines. They may be marked labelled through rivers and oceans. Or by fences and walls. And too I sense the meaning of all of these dividing points is fluid, and will change.

Can we ever declare a place of connection as ours, forever?

We’re wired for connection – both to one another, and to place. Places of shelter, and beauty, and familiarity. We may move for adventure and opportunity; or move o be near family to care for them, or be cared for; or moves for safety and security away from violence.

We are called welcome the stranger in our land, and to do more. To honor the inherent worth means to help another find belonging – to hold a sense of place gently – we are each caretakers of this shared gift.

May we hold close the value of having a sense of ‘good belonging’ – of being included, of being known, of being valued, of being safe and of fostering communities of belonging for all.

May It Be So



Lorenzana, Apolinaria

(1793–1884) Maria Raquel Casas

Published online: 15 February 2018


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *