Growing up my mother always warned us, “There’s no safe place down here.” Whenever we went to her for an explanation of something crazy happening in the world she reminded us that this world is not our home and safety wasn’t hers to give. Yesterday I was watching the news and received a remarkable gift. Yes, you read that right, I received a gift from watching the news. The top health official of the state of Illinois, Dr. Ngozi Ezike began to weep at a news conference where she discussed the increase in the states Covid 19 case count and that over 9,400 people had died to date. “These are people who started with us in 2020 and won’t be with us at the Thanksgiving table.” With those words, she began to weep. Her emotional display was shocking as it went against every ounce of leadership and public relations training I’ve ever had. It was uncomfortable and awkward as her colleagues stood nearby scrambling for tissues. We are taught to maintain control of our emotions at all cost. To “never let them see you sweat”. To “keep it together” and maintain healthy distance, even while exhibiting loving closeness. However, as shocking as her emotional display was, it was also a gift. Her open display of vulnerability albeit brief, provided a type of safe space for others who were struggling to hold it together and keep their composure. It was refreshing and reassuring to know that someone “out there”, someone in leadership “at the top” felt like we do.
Almost immediately the text messages and social media post began to mount as people overwhelmingly responded with gratitude, compassion and empathy. It appeared that the safe space I felt in my living room, was being experienced by thousands of people across our nation as the news story was aired. Safe space seems like such a basic concept yet is often difficult to create. Oxford dictionary defines it as “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm”. As I reflected on Dr. Ezike’s gift, I realized that her vulnerability allowed others to feel safe to be vulnerable too, although she was anything but safe in that moment. The pandemic, racial unrest and polarized political climate all underscore our lack of physical safety and for too many of us, exploit our lack of emotional safety. More than ever my mother’s words ring true, there really is “no safe place down here”.
As leaders the closing of churches, reductions of operating budgets, struggles to meet the needs of suffering communities in crisis and our inability to connect with our members as we used to make us anxious as we try to fix, program and/or manage our way out of this because that’s what we as church leaders do. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training” and this moment is revealing that too many of us have been trained to maintain buildings and religious systems instead of curating holy space. The truth is, we are just as exhausted, anxious, afraid, angry and grasping for answers as those we seek to lead. In our efforts to “keep it together” we have mastered a type of uneasy openness that shares only what we can afford to lose yet leaves our delusions of sufficiency intact even as we try to reach out and connect with each other. We have adopted postures of openness and care yet remain unavailable, working harder than ever, but we are not safe.
Safety isn’t fair. Safety isn’t a political issue. Safety isn’t professional, measured, neat, orderly or ours to give and yet it is intrinsic to our human flourishing. I would argue that safety is a basic human right. Father Richard Rohr said, “We only become enlightened as the ego dies to its pretenses, and we begin to be led by soul and Spirit.” While we must continue to advocate for justice and wrestle against principalities in high places, we must do it in ways that allow our egos to die to their pretenses as we are led by soul and Spirit. Egoic pretense is the death of vulnerability, compassion and empathy because it provides places for us to hide instead of revealing the truth of who we really are. We cannot preach a gospel that doesn’t dissect us first before it pierces the hearts of those who hear our proclamation. Our vulnerability and emotional honesty are required to ensure that our sanctuaries be they in our homes, churches, online or in parking lots be true safe spaces. Without our prophetic witness that calls out the systems of oppression that enable our egos pretenses our spaces may be profound, comforting, uplifting, impactful or even beautiful but they will not be safe. Being led by soul and Spirit requires us to accept the risk of vulnerability and speak the truth even if we must weep.
I am reminded of the story of Jesus weeping upon hearing about the loss of his friend Lazarus. I believe Jesus was moved the overwhelming grief underlying Mary’s accusation “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32), but more than the mere sentimentality of their pain or loss, Jesus is vexed and moved by their unbelief. Jesus’ models the Divine prophetic witness that names the evil and oppression in their midst yet weeps with them. While they are comforted and Lazarus is enlivened, the whole point is to glorify God and validate Jesus as Lord and Savior. As disciples of Jesus Christ we must be equally as vexed by the unbelief in our midst as we are moved by the suffering we see. Vulnerability and emotional honesty give us the integrity to create safe space anyplace, even as it discomforts us, by glorifying God as validation of our identity as Jesus disciples. I do believe my mother was right, there is no safe place down here. Yet I also believe that being led by soul and Spirit, safe space can be created anywhere, even down here.