Seeking sanctuary

Last week, the office set of church keys went missing. We tried hard to discover them, but after a decent interval of searching and waiting for a miraculous appearance, I gave in and called the food pantry guest who had visited us that morning.

“Oh, those are your keys?” He had them. On a fob with the church name and phone number.

He didn’t have enough gas to bring them back, he said, so I met him on the way home from evening service at a MacDonald’s just off the freeway, in a near-eastern neighbourhood of Cleveland.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” my office administrator, the church treasurer, and the sexton had all asked me.

“It’s MacDonald’s,” I told them, ignoring the sound of heists, hijacks, and gunplay riffling through the card index of my memory (I am old enough that it has not been digitized).

Besides, there was a part of me that balked at the question. This is a neighbourhood where people live, and work (some at MacDonald’s), raise their children, and worship. Who am I to say that it’s good enough for them, but not for the likes of me?

And if we’re honest, mightn’t it be more dangerous, less safe in some ways, for him to sit in his friend’s broken-down truck, waiting for me in my suburban church parking lot?

Safety has been on my mind lately. Either side of the missing key mystery, I participated in conversations where churches were described as “safe spaces” in a time of division, danger, and disgruntlement. I was the culprit first time around. Still, when I heard the phrase spoken aloud, I felt myself balk again. What’s safe for me may not be so easy for another.

A few days after our recent election, a man stopped me in our church parking lot as I left, last and alone, from a funeral. He was delighted and excited to tell me that now, all of “the immigrants” would be sent “home.”

I hadn’t realized until I told the story today how rattled I still was by the encounter.

What gave me pause was not concern for my own residential status (the anniversary of my citizenship falls on Inauguration Day…); but the next morning, from the pulpit, I counted us. One from Colombia. Two from Vietnam. Liberia, Nigeria. The realization that for some of us, such encounters are too regular for safety – that is what scared me, and scarred me.

Safety is not a static situation, nor a one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps it is not even, after all, the destiny or destination of the church. (Standing behind Jesus was not always the safest place to be, for a given definition of safety.)

Perhaps we are called to something a little loftier; a little bolder; even more humble. Something more inclusive. Something more surprising. Something a little less… safe?

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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