Sunday, April 26, 2009

On sanctuary

An incident which occurred during our morning service today reminded me of a scene in the animated movie of the Hunchback of Notre Dame where someone (I think it was Esmeralda) bangs on the door of the church and calls for sanctuary. Once the doors have been opened to her, sanctuary is assured. No-one would dare defile the house of God.

Our own church is attended by a few homeless people. During the morning service, three local gang members barged in and started demanding money from one such couple (I'm not even going to speculate what it was for). Fortunately no mention was made of weapons, and the community worker who supports the homeless couple was on hand to take the matter outside and mediate. Few people in the service were even aware of what had happened.

Of course, far worse things have happened. In 1993, many people we knew were present when terrorists invaded a church service with grenades and automatic weapons. Eleven people were killed and many others were maimed. While yesterday's event was nowhere near the scale of the event at St James church in Cape Town nearly 16 years ago, it still left me feeling unnerved.

Mosques, churches and temples all over the world have been violently attacked over the years.

Of course, I am not about to stop attending the meetings because of incidents like this. I believe with all my heart that the doors of the church should be open to one and all. This includes both perpetrator and victim. One Salvation Army officer puts it something like this: If the ladies of your church can safely leave their handbags on the chairs while they drink their after-meeting tea, the church is not doing its job.

I have been thinking about sanctuary since I learned about the incident this morning.

When I was a child shuttling between my exciting, flamboyant Dad and my unexciting, dependable Mom. I used to feel a pang of such disappointment as I left my Dad. My Mom was so 'boring'. But, as the plane landed in our home town, I was more than ready to be home. My Mom was also safe. She was my sanctuary, even thought she worked full time, the home she provided me was my safe place to which I could retreat. The excitement of my Dad's life lacked peace and security.

Today, I have a home of my own, where I can close the door behind me. But electronic media allow into my sanctuary hate-filled communications from people who detest and despise everything I am and everything I stand for. The same is true for my children. My home is not the haven to my children that my mother's was to me.

Increasingly it seems that sanctuary is about people and situations rather than in places. No place is sacrosanct any more.

We try to be our children's sanctuary by being the people they run to when it all gets too much. We try to be a sanctuary for hurting friends and relatives, so that they can withdraw for a while and regroup. I find my own sanctuary in prayer, where I feel as if I am climbing into the mightiest lap in the universe and taking shelter. I also find sanctuary in the people who know me well enough that I don't have to pretend with them. I find sanctuary in the unexpected emails and private tweets/Facebook messages from friends in this space who take it upon themselves to affirm me without feeling the need to let the whole world know that they are doing so. I find sanctuary in the public hugs I get from my teenage sons, and in their explosively angry responses to anyone who appears to be trying to threaten me. I find sanctuary in the look in my husband's eyes when I am dishevelled, unlovely and suffering from a severe-case of morning-breath.

And what about our homeless couple? Where is their safe place? They have no home to retreat to. They will get moved on from any of the places they try to find shelter. They are vulnerable to the gangs and the dealers out on the streets. The council has refused to provide them with shelter.

As far as I know, someone in the church has provided them with a place to stay. I don't know if they have accepted the offer. When I arrive at the church building on a Sunday morning, they are always already on the lawn, with several bags. Because people in the church treat them with kindness, it must have seemed like a sanctuary to them... until yesterday.

And what has this got to do with learning? Well, think about the kid who is being bullied at school. The kid who comes from an abusive home. How is this poor child ever supposed to be in a frame of mind conducive to learning? If his entire mental capacity is absorbed with staying safe, there is none left over for learning.

My elder son's learning journey has been very bumpy recently thanks to victimisation at school. Things are improving, though, as he begins to identify some allies, assisted by a sanctuary-wielding teacher, who reports a marked improvement in his entire demeanour.

I know there is a limit to what schools - as organisations, and teachers - as individuals, can do for children at risk. And I would be the last one to try to lay an extra burden on them, when they already seem to be expected to shoulder an increasing portion of what used to be a parental burden. So please don't think that I am suggesting that route. However, by keeping our antennae up, I believe we can make a difference.

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