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Something that I omitted from my first two posts, on purpose, was safety. I wanted to save it for its own post, to really pray and think about it first.
While we all have our own boundaries that we will not cross, and sometimes this is set up by society and the perceived fear of the unknown, there IS a real fear of the KNOWN. For those who have experienced abuse, rape, theft, violence, or other personal violations, there is a real need for safety and safeguards, and that may be not letting a stranger into your home, not approaching a stranger to ask them if they need help.
I do think that all too often there are many of us (myself included) who have used fear as an excuse to not help people. However, there are those who have experienced themselves or have had someone close to them experience such harm that they cannot pull down the walls, nor should they be asked to.
How do we balance the need for personal safety and answering the question “who is my neighbor?” When we think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we wonder why the priest and the Levite passed by the man who had been robbed and left for dead. We often think they couldn’t be bothered, that they just wanted to ignore him, but what were there real fears? We often pass by homeless people on the street in urban areas and do our best to ignore them–sometimes out of ignorance, but sometimes out of fear. It doesn’t get the priest and the Levite off the hook, it just makes me wonder what their reasons were (of course it is a parable that Jesus is telling, so there is a point that the two of them did not help and it was a Samaritan, someone the people he was speaking to despised, who was moved with pity and helped).
There’s also a difference in rural and urban areas. In the Boston area, when someone came to me and needed help I could immediately think of a dozen organizations to contact. Rarely did I hand anyone money (our church used gift cards to a local supermarket) but I often offered to call and put people in touch with organizations that could help. Sometimes people refused those offers for help and I used to think that they weren’t really in need, but maybe there was their own fear at play–fear of losing one’s choice in the system, fear of being placed in with other people, fear of stereotyping and labels, fear of accepting that the problem was bigger than they had thought. Or perhaps the systems were just overwhelming. I remember one woman who had some mental disabilities trying to obtain help. I let her use our phone at church to call some of the social service agencies but she had a hard time getting through waiting lists, conditions that applied for each location, paperwork that was needed–I could tell how hard it was for her to process all of that. I think for a number of people there were plenty of resources to help, but there are still people who fall through the cracks, who are not able to find help.
Where we are now, in Durant, there are some great local agencies, but there is no homeless shelter. Durant is kind of a crossroads–people end up here as they are passing through–so the need is different. Most people in this town know each other and there is more of a willingness to open a door to a stranger than in an urban area such as Boston. The slower pace of life that I have observed allows people to listen to each other’s stories. People don’t just offer bags of food; they offer meals in which people sit down together and talk over time. The stories are heard, and perhaps a little bit of trust is built up.
Maybe it’s not so much that my walls have come down as it is that trust is built up a little differently. I don’t mean this post to be a rural vs. urban ministry post, but rather a reflection on boundaries, safety and trust. What boundaries do we need to ease? What can we do collectively to help ease the boundaries that we place? What can we do collectively to build safety and trust? What is the church’s role in hospitality, boundaries, welcome, and safety?