Safe Space and Sanctuary

Safe Space cartoon.jpg

What do we mean by “a safe space for all to worship?”

“Safe space” is one of those phrases that’s been co-opted by just about everyone to mean whatever he or she wants it to mean. Some people demand space where others are not allowed to say or do anything that offends them. Others fight for space to be accepted exactly as they are. Still more simply want space where they will be free from physical harm and oppression.

Far too many churches and other institutions confuse the words “safe” and “comfortable.” We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and to be friends with those that others reject. Neither of those directives feels exactly “safe,” if by safe we mean  “easy and free from possibility of hurt or harm.” Safe spaces are often uncomfortable spaces, and if everyone at a church is comfortable, then essential parts of Jesus’s message are likely absent.

A gay or trans person walking into a church is doing an incredibly brave thing, given the history of persecution of the LGBT community by religious institutions and people. For that person to then be vulnerable and let others in, whether in a small group or other church activity, invites the very real possibility that he or she will be summarily rejected and made to feel unwelcome. That possibility is one of the reasons so many churches are unsafe for the LGBT community.

We believe that truly safe space happens when we can be vulnerable with others even in the midst of disagreement. Any “safe” space is a risky space, then, because the very act of being vulnerable and honest puts us at risk of injury. Safe space means that a disagreement, even an egregious one, does not result in loss of relationship or community as long as both or all parties are committed to this idea of safety. 

How is it even possible to create this sort of safe space? First, each person must agree to express his or her opinions nonviolently. Emotional violence (such as shunning or manipulation) should be avoided because it destroys the ability to maintain trust (physical violence must be avoided for obvious reasons). To truly understand and hear someone else’s perspective, I have to be willing to let down my walls and take in what he or she has to say without fighting back. It’s not easy to hear that something I’ve said or done has hurt someone else, especially if I didn’t mean for it to. But creating safe space forces us to encounter our prejudices and privilege without mounting a defense. 

All of this counteracts what we imagine the word “safe” to actually mean. We admonish loved ones to “be safe,” or “stay safe.” We wish each other safe travels, and in all these instances, we mean, “Please don’t get hurt. Don’t let yourself be damaged. You’re valuable to me.” Of course we want to protect those we love and keep them safe from harm. But sometimes vulnerability and integrity involve risk, and in seeking to avoid it we preclude the possibility of real connection. Nobody likes to hear that they’re behaving in a prejudiced manner. It’s rare to find the person who is good at owning up to ways he or she has hurt another person. It’s hard to face the discomfort, shame, embarrassment, sadness, or whatever other emotions we experience in those situations. It’s hard, in part, because American Christian faith hasn’t given us the tools to forgive ourselves well, much less forgive others. 

We talk a big game about confessing sin and being free from it, but how many people actually practice those skills and get better at them? Isn’t it easier, more comfortable, to practice a self-flagellating perfectionism, where every single mistake we make every day is chalked up as a “sin,” and quickly repressed or avoided instead of facing the real ways we actually sin against each other? This is where our current notions of a comfortable, easy safety have brought us. We are after a different kind of safety. C.S. Lewis addresses this when describing Aslan: “Safe?”...Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

At Sanctuary, we believe that it is possible to create space where people can be together as unique individuals with widely variant views and beliefs. This space is safe when all present communicate in nonviolent ways and when all choose to listen and engage with those who are different. This space is also safe when everyone is free to come exactly as they are. It’s a lot harder to vilify someone who sits next to me at the same table. (The only exception to this “come as you are" policy is those individuals who would come specifically to make space unsafe for others.)  

So maybe the space we work to create is not what everyone would define as “safe.” But we hope that this definition is helpful and communicates clearly that we imagine safe space to be: honest, vulnerable, uncomfortable at times, and most importantly, good.


Post by Rebecca and James Farlow
Cartoon by James Farlow