I wanted to write and tell you a little bit about our first Community Conversation, which took place this past Wednesday at French Roast Cafe. There were eight of of there, and I was struck by the thoughtfulness, care, and wisdom with which each person participated in a conversation about the balance of hospitality and safety in our community. How do we keep our doors wide open, welcoming all, and make our worship space as safe as possible, physically and spiritually?
I’d like to summarize the conversation as clearly and concisely as I can here. If those who were present would like to add comments, please do so below. If you have any thoughts or questions, don’t hesitate to bring them up with me in person or over e-mail.
Health of the Community/Care for Individuals
In any church, there is a balance that must be maintained between the health of the community (or the body) and the care of individuals in that body. If the needs or presence of an individual begins to erode the health of the body, we must respond. This is a tough balance, and in speaking with other clergy, I’m learning that there are no easy answers. One pastor told me that that, in fact, the process of setting boundaries is the most important part: we can set good boundaries in a way that either affirm or deny the humanity of individuals.
Risk and discomfort are important in a community: they create an environment of growth and learning. But fear and threat are not acceptable, and endanger the health of the body. As Erica said, “we’ll always be sitting around the table with people we are uncomfortalbe with. The question is how do you distinguish between good and bad discomfort.” It is impossible to create space that is truly safe, but there are things we can do to create a space that is “safe-enough” for us to thrive and grow.
One of the signs of the health of our body is that we’re beginning to draw people who have a high level of need to our community. As we become a stable place, we will draw people who feel unstable. It’s important to remember that these people may not fit our expectations. People suffering from mental or emotional anguish who present a challenge to our community may come from any walk of life.
Particular to St. Lydia’s
St. Lydia’s faces many of the same challenges every other church faces. However, there are some things that make our community different, and which move us to ask big questions about our identity. St. Lydia’s is different from other churches in that we offer a full meal at worship, our service takes place at night, our service takes place in a gentrified neighborhood that also has a high level of need, Trinity Lower East Side runs a well known soup kitchen, and our worship creates an high level of intimacy as we gather around the table and share our stories.
These elements combine to create a delicate balance in our worship. We reach a deep level of intimacy when we pray at the table after our meal. If something unexpected or unnerving occurs during that time of intimacy, it has the possibility to be spiritually damaging to those who are vulnerable during that moment. As we move further into our work together, we’ll be able to ask more questions about this dynamic as a community. It’s important that we feel we’re able to offer pastoral follow up for all that’s unearthed during intimate moments, as well as provide a safe-enough space for the intimacy created.
What We’re Doing and What We Can Do
There are a number of good practices already in place to assist in creating a safe-enough space. Currently, I stand at the door each week so I’m aware of each person who enters church. If someone arrives who is drunk, high, or feels unsafe to me, I will explain to them that they may not worship with us. If I have any concern about a congregant, I will ask our presider to keep an eye our for him or her. Both Rachel and I carry cell phones on our person, and we lock the door when we have moved to the sanctuary. We also always answer the door when it rings in pairs. Finally, if it is necessary, we have the option of calling the police or an outreach team from a local agency.
At our meeting Wednesday, we discussed several additional practices we will put into place, beginning this Sunday. First, we will have “table hosts.” These are designated congregants who each sit at a different table in worship and can be attentive to the dynamics at the table. Second, I’d like to organize a session with a psychologist and/or a clergy person who has a background in work with the mentally ill and the homeless community in January. This will give the entire congregation some education and training to help us feel better equipped for this work. We might discuss the possibility of creating a team of people who are particularly skilled in this work. Third, I’m working on extending our network of resources in the East Village so that we have folks we can reach out to for support and guidance.
Finally, I would encourage each of you to feel free to speak up for yourselves and one another in situations that might feel “off” to you. You might offer to switch seats with someone who seems ill-at-ease, or decide to tell me or the presider about behavior that worries you. Sentences like “I’d rather not do that,” “We don’t do that here,” and “Please stop,” are ones we should have at the ready. We should not have to use these sentences often, but it’s important to have them on hand for moments when we do. Staying safe is more important than being polite. Trust your gut.
Finally, a reminder that this process of wrestling, of struggling to find a way forward and working to value each person at our table, is a life-giving struggle. It teaches us about who we are. It’s part of our answer to God’s call on our lives — figuring out how to responsibly set a table of hospitality and welcome where all may worship freely and without fear, where we might see Christ in one another.