“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
– Matthew 10:40
I took a class on Christian Spirituality at General Theological Seminary in June. Seated in the heart of Chelsea, I got to spend two weeks in a part of Manhattan I rarely frequent. Each morning I’d ride the subway downtown with my head and heart set for an adventure in this quickly changing part of town. Long gone are my favorite diner and family style pizza restaurant. Among the always gorgeous brownstones and tree-lined streets are new and unique retail offerings and my now favorite almond croissant and cappuccino at La Bergamote. Chelsea, like most of the city is changing but it’s still known as a safe space for the LBGTQ community. Chelsea is their home. It is their safe space and I, felt welcomed.
I spent those 2 weeks getting to know the students and my professor at General and … looking at flags. They were in windows and storefronts, on t-shirts and stickers. They were everywhere. Chelsea was covered in a quilt of colors called the rainbow flag. The rainbow flag, beyond a statement about gay pride, in this context, identifies the person or location as a safe space – a place of welcome, a sanctuary, welcoming visitors from all over the country with a simple symbol of peace.
But the flags don’t wave everywhere. Not every space in Manhattan feels free. Such was the case at the top of the park at 110th Street a few weeks ago when I ran into a friend on his way to a party.
We’re new acquaintances. We’ve enjoyed running into each other in the neighborhood or at local church sponsored events. On that day, I didn’t recognize him. He’d abandoned his typical attire for party clothes. It was Pride weekend and he was dressed, for a Pride party.
But first, he’d have to get there.
The Northern tip of the park is home to a correctional facility, a shady-looking hotel, the little grocery store that could, and a handful of people that make their beds, by day or night, on park benches. On any given evening, you’ll find a gathering of boys from the ‘hood on the corner, loud but harmless among a horde of commuters entering and exiting the many modes of mass transportation that intersect at 110th Street and Lenox Avenue. Gentrification hasn’t taken hold of this section of Harlem. It’s still a little gritty. It’s still the Harlem I know, the Harlem I love. There just aren’t any flags.
For my friend that night – who’d stepped out of his world of privilege to walk among the margins – I think it was scary. For my friend, that night, I was the flag. He saw me as a safe space. The few moments of respite my presence offered seemed to be the welcome he needed – even a block away from home, even in New York City.
I can’t know if it was the first time he’d left the comfort of his apartment dressed this way but when he walked toward me, what I saw were the cautious eyes of a man unsure – what I noticed was a man that didn’t feel safe. His eyes sought me out for acknowledgement, maybe even protection. We entered, in this moment, a holy liminal state – and one I still believe in – the God-sized dream of a beloved community. For a moment, there was peace – a peace we both participated in.
In the weeks after the election sanctuary became the new buzz word. Churches scrambled to identify themselves as welcoming spaces for our Muslim brothers and sisters. It happened on a less amplified scale with other communities that felt threatened. Random attacks were a real and I worried over the person that might let loose his/her newly sanctioned rage on me or my family. I worried over the possibility of all this evil cycling back in a vicious season of grief and despair – where hurt people found no comfort in peaceful efforts but found satisfaction only in hurting others.
Yet hope was there. Hope was found in abundant and particularly meaningful eye contact between strangers. Hope looked like eyes lifted towards each other, a mining for truth among the ruins of fear. Are you an ally? Are you safe? In your eyes, do I find, an altar of sanctuary?
Since then, I’ve thought long about words like sanctuary. Is it a physical space? Can I offer sanctuary with my heart and words? What is it to be a safe place to land? Is a sanctuary a conditional space? What, if any, are the rules and my central question – the one that keeps me up at night …Could it be, that as we welcome others, we welcome God (even and maybe especially those we don’t agree with)?
Wherever you stand on this topic, hear me when I say I didn’t want to write this – but it’s a real story that happened in my real life. I share it here as an invitation for your own pondering. As a human being, as a member of the staff at a church, as clergy to be – I felt honored to be a safe space – to be even for a moment, a place of immunity, a place of safety and welcome – a sanctuary for one of God’s people.
Above any of our personal beliefs Lord, let us be doers of your good will. Help us to offer even a cup of cold water to one of your little ones. Help us to be, live and offer sanctuary. Amen.