Safe Space

By the Rev. Canon Lloyd Casson

Last January, delegates at our annual convention adopted a resolution calling for the Episcopal Church in Delaware to promote and support the creation of safe spaces for dialogue in all parishes and other diocesan entities to foster Christian growth in the areas of diversity and multicultural appreciation. The resolution was presented by PACT (Practical Approaches for Cross-Cultural Transformation), a grassroots movement of diocesan lay and clergy who provide consultation, workshops, and other resources to encourage and support reconciliation, inclusion, and multicultural appreciation at all levels of our diocesan life.

PACT proposed the resolution because of the dangers and unhappy divisions throughout our country as well as in our churches brought on by issues of systemic racial bias, gender inequality, immigration, economic and social inequality, gun violence, and other sources of conflict. For our parishes and communities to grow into what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community – a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings – it is essential for us to do everything in our power to build bridges over troubled waters, embrace differences, and seek mutual understanding. Productive and healing conversations about the most divisive issues in America require safe space in which to occur. Safe space can be defined as

  • wherever and whenever people trust that they may express their honest feelings, impressions, thoughts, and attitudes, without fear of accusation, or of being judged, labeled (or libeled), or cast out;
  • when they listen with empathy as others share their own feelings and experiences, and they do not minimize or deny their reality;
  • when everyone works hard to keep an open mind, even when their opinions are challenged, and is willing to stipulate when dialogue or data is persuasive; and
  • when each holds the other in positive regard throughout the process and makes commitments to form loving, liberating, life-giving relationships with god and each other, thus growing into the Beloved Community of reconcilers, justice makers, and healers in the name of Christ.

The resolution enables PACT to help create safe spaces by providing resources for meaningful dialogue. PACT promotes inclusion, justice, and multicultural appreciation by offering workshops, facilitating discussions, and providing liturgical and other resources to parishes and other groups in the diocese. For its own training, PACT engages VISIONS, Inc., widely known and used throughout the Episcopal Church and many other institutions as a non-profit training and consulting organization specializing in diversity and inclusion.

Occasionally, PACT sponsors training events in Delaware with VISIONS consultants. These events focus on learning and practicing methods for communicating about difficult issues, endeavoring to help one another and our churches live more fully into our baptismal vow “to strive for justice and peace among all peoples and respect the dignity of every human being.” Participants learn through listening and sharing, affirming the experience of others while delving into and reflecting on their own experiences. They journey into one another’s hearts as they acknowledge the pain inflicted, consciously or unconsciously, by words, attitudes, perceptions, and actions – each toward the other. For example, at one of these training sessions that I attended, we considered

  • what experiences had shaped our reality and instructed our perceptions of ourselves and others, and
  • what conscious and unconscious things we do (or do not do) in our everyday life and within our congregations that blunt or prevent our efforts to be more accepting and welcoming.

The hallmark of a PACT gathering is the bond of eucharistic sharing and fellowship that literally surrounds, contextualizes, and defines the work done together.

From a specially created PACT liturgy, we begin such a gathering by acclaiming, “Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, the love at our beginning and without end, in our midst and with us.” For me, that is when we begin to create the safe space of our meeting, when we acknowledge this most holy Presence among us and in us. Where God is, love is. Where God is, there are no strangers, no enemies. Even when we have had a really painful, agitated discussion that created profound angst, fear, separation, injustice, still we pray, “O God of peace, let us your people know that at the heart of turbulence, there is an inner calm that comes from faith in you. Keep us from being content with things as the are, that from this central peace there may come a creative compassion, a thirst for justice, and a willingness to give ourselves in the spirit of Christ.”

And then, we pass the Peace. I pray that I am correct in assuming that the essence of that prayer resonates with everyone who will help create and occupy a safe space for dialogue around divisive issues. We may not yet have full consensus around a given issue, but what unites us is our yearning for an end to the long, heart-rending night of bitterness that brings a dawning of peace.

What unites us is commitment to remain in community, as our hearts open more and more to each other in the spirit of Christ. Talk about becoming the Beloved Community!

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