Creating Sacred and Safe Spaces
by Lawrence Lerner
On March 15th, 2019 a shooter used the Facebook social media platform to broadcast the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. How do I write about hate without honoring it? Turn hearts and minds to the community, the families, and friends that are left behind. Honor the fallen. Leave the shooter unnamed.
The shooter invoked the name of one of the four afterlife realms revered in Heathen traditions. Heathenry is an inclusive faith, and in speaking of Valhalla the terrorist sullied the gods and goddess we revere. The Muslim faith and families honored the victims as appropriate by rite and ritual. Across Pagan traditions we believe not only in a life after life but in rebirth.
Despite the horror, there will be a life that goes on after the life that was. Communities often go into a kind of group shock and then a flailing action in all directions. Some healthy, some not. I remember being in Chicago just after 9/11. I got into a cab and at the next stoplight the driver turned around and said in a quiet voice, “Please sir, tell me why.” We pulled over and talked for a while. The driver needed someone to hold space for him. “Holding space” is the term reserved for times when someone who is taking a journey with one or more that have undergone some trauma. It’s a role somewhere between witness and counselor.
In my personal vows to my god I repeat “I teach. I guide. I witness. I do not intervene.” I counsel others (and constantly remind myself) to act without interference, judgment, or control. It’s too easy to take away someone’s agency with the good-natured, “Let me do that/care for you.” You may also find yourself holding space for someone while they hold space for another. After Christchurch, good people found themselves in the position of wondering how to support their local Muslim community. A community with which they may have heard many narratives but had little personal experience.
Holding space is a sacred and selfless service to others. You are there on a painful journey when they are vulnerable and may need to be weak. It’s not required that you be a priest to hold space, but it’s often who the community looks to in emotional times. How you do that is on a case by case basis. In Pagan traditions we pray to gain insight and wisdom to do it for ourselves.
Be proactive in outreach but not action. Let others know you are present and available to listen, witness, and be mindful. Presenting experiences and outlining options or giving them a process is healthy. You will make them stronger and give them the power to make decisions that align communities and evoke something new.
Talking is the most often-used form of providing comfort. Remember that words have intent and create the world around us. Our remarks, even with the best intentions, may be less than helpful. Consider some often-used remarks that could be phrased in a different way:
“The universe never gives us more than we can handle”
This evokes all types of questions and is a test of anyone’s faith.
Suggest: “It’s okay to grieve at your own pace.”
“I know how you feel”
No, you don’t. You are not that person and don’t know how they are processing recent events.
Suggest: “We are here for you when you’re ready to talk.”
“How are you?”
In American society, we often use it in place of “Hello.” Three words that are too often a plea to them to make you feel better. You need to hear the answer that they are enduring, getting on with life, getting over it etc. it’s unnecessary pressure them.
Suggest: “I understand this is difficult for you.”
“What can I do for you?”
Don’t add the responsibility of finding some way for you to be helpful.
Volunteer practical things. “I’d like to drop off some meals.” “I can take the kids to after school activities for the next few weeks.” “I can sit quietly with you.” In this instance, seek out or ask about Muslim practices before you offer help.
You can create an oasis for communities to journey through it and let them come at their own pace. Give them a place to be safe, sacred, weak, and away from judgment.
Think of it as putting pillows on a coach. Let others arrange as they see fit.
It is often said we die two deaths. First when the body ceases to function and then when our name passes from memory. Let the names of the victims not pass from memory and let all communities learn the lessons of supporting one another by holding space.
Header Photo: Wikimedia