Safe Community

“Safe Community”  a homily  by Rev. Brian J. Kiely October 14, 2018 Unitarian Church of Edmonton

This week we had a contractor visiting our building.  It was the annual check of our fire systems.  Alarms were tested, sprinklers were examined, extinguishers were checked out.  A few times a year a different city inspector comes by to examine the cleanliness of our kitchen — we always pass with high marks.  On Wednesdays several wonderful men from the church do all kinds of small repairs and upgrades and keep an eye on the general state of the building.  On Friday three of our members met with a provincial energy auditor who came to show us how we could upgrade our facilities and how to get some grants to do it. And every day when she comes in, our Administrator Janet walks through the building to make sure everything is as it should be.

Will spoke of how creating a safe community has more than one dimension.  He was right.  These building safety checks are one part – an important part- of that work. 

Making this place emotionally safe is far more challenging.  How do we protect ourselves from the kinds of things human beings can do to one another deliberately…or accidentally?  

A church community, more than other organizations, has a duty of care for the hearts and souls of the people here.  And that’s a tricky proposition.  No alarm company will take that contract.  No inspector can tick off boxes and say we are good to go.  This is an internal job, our job, one that starts with our Principles and radiates outward through each one of us.  We may want to influence the world, but first we have to get our own house in order. Forming safe community is our work and it is never ending.

We begin with our vision, who we want to be in this place.  The members who restarted this church over 60 years ago established a hospitable and progressive community, one where God might have been optional, but where treating one another with respect was not.

That core has stayed with us through strategic plans, vision statements, changes in ministerial leadership, changes in social norms and expectations.  

Sometimes it has been a struggle to grow through the tough debates of inclusion: feminism, the sexual revolution, acceptance of diverse sexuality and gender questions.  Each of these created frictions and their share of hurt feelings.  Sometimes people left because they felt their well being was not being properly respected.  Mistakes happen and people get hurt.  We can’t always go back and fix it, but we can learn from it.

Sometimes our beloved community cannot meet those needs that fall beyond our values or our abilities.  In an ever evolving congregation some will feel left behind by change. We can only treat one another with empathy even as we move forward.  We must respect the decisions of those who feel they no longer belong.

In other words, sometimes when we listen to anguished concerns, listening generously will be all that we can do.

One of the complexities that complicates the goal of a safe community is that feeling safe is such a personal thing.  What makes me feel safe might not do it for you.

I am an older white male.  I have seldom been bullied. I have never been sexually abused.  I have never been attacked in the street.  And I have had mostly good experiences here.  I have few concerns for my physical or emotional safety.

That’s not true for everyone.  Churches are meant to be places where struggling people can come for solace and support.  They should be sanctuaries for the vulnerable.  They should be, but one does not have to scan too many headlines to learn sometimes they are not.  

And even if no such abuses had ever occurred, we have to acknowledge that coming through the doors is a challenge for some.  We never really know how much courage it takes to enter for the first time.  Some have histories that make them wary of new communities, strange faces, even welcomes that are too effusive.

How do we make our community emotionally safe places when there is no one size fits all policy available?

Well, first, we can begin by breaking down the kinds of things that make a community unsafe.  Church researchers Susan Williamson and Peter Holmes have identified five kinds of potential abuse:  physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and spiritual.

Physical and sexual abuse are in some ways, the easiest to deal with. In our religious education program, we have a ‘two adults present’ rule in our classroom exactly to guard against that kind of abuse.  These abuses are identifiable and measurable and they are not tolerated here.  Ministers are trained in understanding the power in their role that can lead to sexual abuse.  Our association has a zero tolerance policy.  But that just covers my job.

I won’t be foolish enough to say no questionable sexual activity has ever happened here, but I can honestly say that I and the Board have never had to deal with a case of that ilk in the last 20 years.

Though we had an instance where some women were leery of a man who made them feel uncomfortable with his advances.  After some discussion with leaders, I spoke with him.  Several others quietly kept an eye on him, making sure he was never alone with a woman.  We had no evidence to bar the man, but he has not been here for some time.  The community took responsibility for every woman’s safety.  Maybe that’s why he stopped coming, he couldn’t fly under the radar.

Holmes and Williamson also name verbal, emotional and spiritual abuse as concerns in congregations.  What might that look like in a Unitarian Church?

Verbal abuse might include something as obvious as name-calling,  or humour that demeans a group of people on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity and so on.  Or it might be a dismissive argument over a point of social justice policy, theology or political ideology; a, “your ideas are stupid!” sort of comment.

Dismissing someone’s viewpoint out of hand is not terribly respectful, nor does it further a debate.  Sadly we see to much of it on cable news these days.  Bad enough it’s there.  It should not be acceptable here.  It is not clever.  It’s just mean.

We can honestly disagree on almost anything, but we can also be cautious about escalating debate into verbal abuse. Moderating this, calling out the people who cross the line, is everyone’s responsibility directly or by informing someone who should know what to do- and I will discuss them a bit later.

Most verbal abuse happens in casual conversation during coffee hour or meetings or social events when we speak carelessly, heedless of who else might be listening.  I suspect that most of us have a kind of shorthand, and a kind of spoken humour that we use amongst our intimates.  We all understand what is meant instead of what is simply being said.  But when we let that shorthand spill over into conversations with others listening, we may do unintentional harm.  I have been guilty of this too many times to count, but, when someone calls me out, I do listen.  After all it is they who decide whether they are offended, not me.

And because we often do not know the stories of our conversation partners, that verbal casualness can trigger emotional anxiety.  We can make people feel unsafe.  Sometimes you can see the hurt in their eyes, if you are looking.  I don’t want to steal the joy from anyone, but we need to follow the Buddhists and engage in mindful or ‘right speech’.  We must be gentle with the feelings of others, for we do not always know their stories or their struggles.

Words are usually the tools of the emotional abuser as well. As the youth detailed in their covenant, there is a strong culture among them to keep speech safe and cruelty free.  Can we do any less? Cutting people down directly or indirectly, spreading rumour and innuendo is emotional abuse.  It happens and it hurts.    

A leader who leads with a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude also can cause hurt and alienation.  This congregation has generally been fairly careful about that, but it requires vigilance in picking our leaders.  I have seen instances in other Unitarian congregations where community-killing conflict has arisen from emotionally abusive situations. personal antagonisms have destroyed many a community.

Karen Mills’ referred to “radical hospitality” a few weeks ago.  Radical hospitality means doing what it takes to make as many people feel comfortable here as possible.  It means accommodating and welcoming different views. It means it’s not all about you.  Mission has to take precedence over personal goals or aspirations.

The last item on the Holmes-Williamson list is spiritual abuse.  As a liberal and doctrinally free congregation we don’t condemn much as can happen in other faith groups.  We do not appoint ourselves divine soothsayers proclaiming that someone is a sinner because of their sex lives or other activities.  We do not shun divorcees or single parents.

But we aren’t perfect.  We do have to be cautious about our social outlook.  There is an old joke that Unitarians are just the NDP at worship.  It’s not true and never has been.  Still, I have encountered individuals and even small congregations in this country where that was the expectation.  I said small congregations.  They remained small because of their political intolerance.  A political values test is a form of spiritual abuse.  There are members of the church who have told me that they do not feel free to speak of their politics around here… because their views are too conservative or even too moderate.  If we are to be a free church, then we have to be a free church, guided by Principle and guarded by our whole community working on preserving our safety.

A final word on what to do if you see something amiss.  You certainly can call it out yourself, but some people won’t feel that they can confront abuse directly.  That’s fine.  They shouldn’t have to do so.

This congregation elects or hires leaders and taking those concerns seriously is part of our mandate.  You can speak to me.  You can speak to Will, especially if it concerns the children’s programs.  You can speak to a Board member. You can speak to our pastoral minister Audrey Brooks.

But there is also one body specially elected by you the members to consider your concerns.  They are called the Ministerial Relations Committee.  As I said, they are elected directly by you, for their role is enshrined in the by-laws.  They do not report to the Board.  They do not report to me.

Although their first mandate is to be a way for you to talk to me – or any minister, they can handle any complaints about the emotional safety of this congregation.  The members are Ruth Patrick, Graham MacFarlane, David Hagel, Sylvia Krogh and Kat Hartshorne.  You can speak to any one of them in confidence and trust that your concerns will be taken seriously.

The safety of this congregation is all of our work, but there are some among us who are specially charged with looking out for these affairs.  We can’t do our jobs if you don’t let us know about your concerns.

Together we create safe community, every day, every week, for everyone.  If not us, then who?