Safe Places

For a long time, I have believed deeply that the church must be a model of diversity, of a group transcendent of society’s established race lines. Any church or group that appealed to one ethnic group prevented the church from becoming a truly diverse “melting pot” of an institution. Thus, ethnically homogeneous churches and institutions, regardless of the ethnicity, hindered Christianity.

Soong-Chan Rah, who offered a lecture at UVa last semester, on “Race and the Gospel,”  sees the role of ethnic-specific religious groups—churches, campus ministries, etc., differently, and his comments proceeded to completely break down my approach. He said that sometimes non-white people in the United States need a place where they aren’t in the minority, a place to recharge after a life filled with face-to-face experience with their “otherness.” If I were confronted six days a week with my status as a minority, must I also, on Sunday, enter into a culturally different, and possibly uncomfortable, atmosphere in the name of diversity? That was the consequence of my view before hearing Rah speak. The worshipping community, however, should be a place where I can simply be myself, fully at ease with my religion and those around me. What Rah was appealing for was a safe place for my non-white brothers and sisters, a context in which they can be themselves.

Urban Hope recognizes this reality and seeks to establish a safe place. The second half of Urban Hope’s mission statement is that we are “creating safe places in our neighborhood to grow together into wholeness.” This idea of a safe place is, I believe, vital to the success of any organization or program that deals with community development. In a work rooted in relationships, people need an opportunity to flourish, and to do this they need a context in which they are comfortable and safe.

We can imagine the effects of the opposite context, one in which we don’t feel safe. All of us have experienced a time of discomfort, a time when we did not feel particularly at ease, whether it was caused by the physical atmosphere or the people around us. Few, I think, would say that they were themselves; we put our guards up and steel ourselves so that we hopefully escape the situation unaffected, or at least not as affected as if we were completely open. This is the human condition, rooted in self-preservation, and it would be wrong of us to expect anything different. The safe place, then, offers that context needed for people to be at ease, opening the doors for the building and maintaining of genuine relationships. Only through this can we hope to affect change.

A “safe place” can mean multiple things, as I believe it does in the Urban Hope mission statement. Perhaps most importantly we want to provide a place that is physically safe for our campers. While I do not wish to overpaint Walltown as a relentlessly violent neighborhood, violent action does sometimes spill onto its streets. Last week I had a conversation with a camper where she informed me of a shooting that had happened earlier that day, not two short blocks from my house. She was not indifferent in her telling but neither did her tone suggest that such shootings were complete anomalies in the neighborhood. This is not the only reality of Walltown, but we must acknowledge that it does exist, and at Urban Hope we seek to provide a place of refuge in which the campers can feel safe from harm.

In addition to physical safety, a safe place must be one of personal, emotional comfort. The implications of Rah’s stance on this issue speak directly to my work here at Urban Hope. If we are seeking to establish a safe place, does my presence as a white male in a predominantly black context hinder this? Can the kids truly feel at ease as long as I am here, given that I come from the majority group? Every part of me wants to say yes, and ultimately I think it is possible, but those implications are not easily dismissed. How, then, can I make certain that my presence does not prevent the development of a safe place at Urban Hope? What steps can I myself take to ensure that these kids can grow despite the challenge that a diverse atmosphere presents?

Luckily there are many people here in Walltown who have successfully navigated this tension and cultivated safe places while simultaneously adding to the diversity of the community. Through listening to and observing these people, it has become apparent that a main step toward maintaining a safe environment is to submit. Coming into Urban Hope my first actions must be to let myself grow into the existing culture in order to preserve its “safe” status. Rather than assume that I have the answers or the means to achieve a certain end, I must instead, with as much humility and grace as possible, actively seek to allow this culture, and by extension the comfort of those who live here, to flourish. This is one possible way to create a safe place.

But is an ethnically homogeneous group the only type of safe place? If so, this would present a bleak future for reconciliation, a process that aims to bring two groups to each other, rather than merely forcing one onto the other. I think Soong-Chan Rah has great wisdom here but there must also be a way to cultivate an ethnically diverse safe place. Through this question we return, I think, to Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, the two people responsible for integrating Durham Public Schools. Both sides ultimately learned that the key was to listen and through that attentive practice groups could be brought together for a common good. And like Ann Atwater taught, once we’ve helped our brothers and sisters get halfway to what they want, we tell them our needs, and then we work together to achieve it.

I think the second scenario fits more closely with Urban Hope and it is the one that guides my actions here. There is a richness, and utility, in diversity as we understand that everyone has something to contribute. But we must acknowledge the importance of letting flourish the other cultures and practices of the groups with whom we work and, at least in my situation, ensure their safety. It’s definitely a process, and it may take time, but the result, an ethnically diverse safe place where we can “grow together into wholeness,” is well worth it.

Hope on a nature hike at the Eno!