God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
--Psalm 46:1 NRSV
You may have seen “Safe Place” signs around at various businesses, schools or community centers. The yellow signs resemble a traffic sign, yellow with black writing, a square turned 45 degrees to make a diamond, and the “A” in “Place” looks like a house. It’s a national program where any child or teen can get help. Employees there know to call a designated local agency that works with children and youth which will quickly dispatch a staff member to assist a young person. The children and teenagers who use “Safe Place” often flee trouble at home including abuse and neglect, while others are runaways or suffer from mental health issues.
Those among us who are fortunate grew up in healthy families where we were cared for and we learned to care for ourselves. Many people, however, never experienced such care and have to journey in life searching for physical, emotional and mental safe places. Unlike the children and teens who make use of the “Safe Place” program, many adults spend their lives looking for safety in all the wrong places. Some people build emotional walls to keep everyone at a distance and live as if they are self-sufficient. Others seek security in unhealthy relationships thereby perpetuating cycles of abuse and neglect. Some seek to control their environment driving those around them crazy with intrusive and bossy behavior. Others live consumed by fear and numb their emotions with drugs or alcohol. As adults, we can operate as if we do not need others’ help and out of a misguided sense of pride, we forgo safe places.
For me as a child, church was my “Safe Place.” I experienced a community of adults who cared about me and were invested in my future. Church was an extended family of adoptive aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins who cared for me. I knew the people at church weren’t perfect, but from my childhood’s perspective I felt safe and loved. I grew up and experienced how dangerous churches could be and I guess always were, but I still am surprised when church people turn out to be just as broken as anyone else so strong was the imprinting upon me as a child to believe church was a safe place.
We all know how unsafe faith communities can be. We have learned that the clergy sexual abuse scandals are not just a Roman Catholic problem but a crisis for Protestant churches as well. Even our most vulnerable are not safe at church, which is why “Safe Church” policies that keep two adults with any children and other rules are necessary. Yet, anyone who has spent time in a church knows heartache from church fights, disagreements and members leaving in ways that sunder long-term relationships. Is it any wonder that megachurches which promise individual comfort and entertainment while at the same time offering anonymity and requiring little commitment seem to be flourishing? Intimacy is messy and potentially dangerous, especially when we call one another our “church family” and speak of Christian love but act in ways that make such concepts empty of their meaning.
I continue to wrap my head around the truth that there is no truly safe place in this life. Some of us are fortunate to have found safe places in our marriages, families, jobs, friendships and yes, even churches. Yet, we never know what can change in an instant. Illness, car accidents, natural disasters and, as we’ve seen, pandemics can upend our expectations of safety. The spouses, partners and friends we trust are capable of behaviors that we never imagined such is the capacity for deception hidden in every human being. Jobs can end, layoffs from recessions can happen, and industries which we thought would last forever become obsolete. Ultimately, there is no guaranteed “Safe Place,” except for God.
The only way a faith community can become more or less “safe” happens when it is made up of people who have discovered the truth that God is their “refuge and strength.” Why did we ever think we could just show up at church and everything would be hunky-dory without any real struggle on our part? It takes effort, practice, accountability, and vulnerability to grow in one’s faith in God, yet most church folks have little investment in doing this kind of soul work anymore. If we wish church to be a place where we come to experience God as “a very present help in a time of trouble” rather than just one more thing to be disappointed about in this life, it takes effort and commitment. Most of all, it takes understanding that our true “Safe Place” is God.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851