What makes a ‘safe place’?

I’ve been wondering recently what we mean by a ‘safe place’. I’ve heard this applied to places either online, our church and various other communities. These spaces are described as ‘safe’ and I’m wondering what is meant by that. 

This train of thought was sparked when I went to L’abri for a weekend with a friend back in May. For those of you who don’t know what L’abri is, it’s hard to explain. Their website is here. That might help. Briefly, they are an intentional community set up to help people explore the nature of truth and to find their creator God as they question what the heck this life is about. 

There is a monastic quality to life in the community with space set aside for work, study, creativity, prayer, play, tea drinking and discussion of big questions about life the universe and everything. They run on a termly basis with students coming for either whole terms or a few weeks/days. Onsite live a host of workers who help with the day to day running of the place and help to guide the students through their thoughts. It’s an interesting place to hang out. 

I hung out there a fair bit back in my days of working as a student worker for UCCF. Back then it felt like a super ‘safe place’ to explore my huge doubts and questions about this faith thing. I learnt there to enjoy the vast complicated space between the question and the answer and to soak in the wonderful creativity of our Maker. 

I hadn’t been back since the arrival of small people in my world and stepping back into the Manor House,where L’abri England is based, felt like returning home. I breathed in deep of the air of community life.

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(Small geek moment: It might sound odd but the place I love most at L’abri is the rota board, the clear rhythm of days laid out, who is doing what obvious for all to see. I love a sense of peaceful order. Anyways. It was good to be back.)

As I walked around through, I noticed some jarring elements. The library was full of books of my past. Books that triggered fears of exclusion, of being judged for my lack of exact theological framework, books that I feared because their counterparts weren’t there. The well argued other side of debates felt missing. I worried that my greater ease with the expansive nature of faith wouldn’t be welcome. 

I started wondering whether friends would find this a safe space and then started questioning what on earth was a safe space anyway. The next 24 hours gave me some ideas.

I chatted with one of the workers, still there from when I last came. As we chatted I had the profound sense that here was someone who wanted to know me beyond where my theological framework (whatever on earth that means) was at that moment. Here was someone who was interested in me as a person. What I believed was fairly secondary to the connection as human beings. I found this again in the lunchtime discussions, with 10 or so people around a table chatting about a big idea. As the hours unfolded I felt again that this was a different kind of safe space. A space between question and answer. A space where firstly it matters that you are a human being rather than a set of ideas. A place where disagreement can happen and there are always more questions and space for questions rather than a shutting down with the ‘correct’ answer. 

L’abri is a place that is searching for Truth so it’s going to lean more towards finding some answers, but, it seemed to me, a safe place to explore and be ok with disagreement because of this constant desire to treat people with dignity and worth. It isn’t a space where everyone agrees all the time and I wonder if this kind of  safe space is more realistic than my desire to have a safe space sprung from things we all have in common. Those kind of safe spaces, the ones born out of the rush of finding people who seem to agree with you on everything, can very easily can disintegrate into an ‘unsafe place’ when you change your mind and think things outside the tribal norms. 

(Should safe place have quote marks around it? I can’t decide…)

Anyway.

Maybe in our tribal world we should seek these kind of wider safe spaces, ones where different ideas aren’t stamped on. Places where we can treat each other as humans, before treating each other based on our set of ideas about a subject. I think it’s a bit like Brene Brown’s vision in Braving the Wilderness (Well worth a read). She argues for listening, for not devaluing people, for not forgetting that all those around us are just that, people to try to understand and love. 

Maybe it’s about not seeing people as ‘other’ but to seek to see each other as image bearers of the divine. To ask questions. To love through the differences. To be safe spaces for each other because we treat each other carefully and with kindness in the differences. 

Here’s hoping you can treat me like that and I can treat you like that. That we can push through the instant buzz of seemingly connecting with people who think exactly the same as us to the deeper work of understanding why we think differently and finding a deeper connection born of love. 

In any chat about what we think and believe let’s edge closely to the patience, kindness, gentleness, compassion, mercy and grace of our Creator in their insanely patient dealing with humans throughout the mess of history. (It comforts me immensely to know no one has ever in the whole of time got this God thing totally figured out) 

Let me know what you reckon. Is any of this achievable? 

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