Safe places: places like your mother’s lap when you were young, the attic that kept you warm while out of sight, the friend who listened to your dashed dreams with tears in her eyes, the closet where you hid when a stranger knocked on the door, and the family that embraces you. For some of us, inside four walls is safe while for others a wide open field or a trail in the woods feels more secure. The one thing that is constant is that we all need safe places, and when we are in danger we look for them.

Our physical location is important and so are the people who surround us. Safe people create safe places. As I read the Gospels I see Jesus as a Safe Person for those who were broken or seeking. Even Judas was given access to walk with Jesus for several years. I think part of the Church’s calling is to be a safe place, a place of refuge for those in need and pain. Yet sometimes it is not so.

Years ago a young woman told me about a time when she was searching for God.* She was raised in a good family, but she felt abandoned and life was painful. Her questions were deep and hard. She knew God had the answers and she went on a quest to find Him. Not being part of a local Body at that point, she simply visited churches. Not during services, but when she thought she could find a quiet place to seek God on her own. A large, ornate church in the middle of town caught her attention. However, it was locked. A small, friendly-looking church on a side street called to her. Unfortunately the door was chained shut. At one church she found an open door and a place to pray. Soon someone came to question what she was doing, and she quickly left, no closer to answers than when she entered. She tried Sundays, but they were little better. The loneliness she experienced in the throng of worshipper was deeper than the pain of being alone. At another church she arrived early and sat in a pew only to be asked to move by an older gentleman because, “this is where I always sit.” At another church she was followed around as she made her way to the restroom before entering the auditorium: she had simply stopped by and wasn’t dressed for Sunday service. The man who trailed her wore a gun only partially hidden, obviously protecting the normal crowd from people like her. As she traveled, she stopped by church after church, and she couldn’t find what she was looking for.

Eventually she found solace and a connection with God in public parks, standing among the trees and wandering the lonely paths. It wasn’t church, but God seemed to be there. One day in a distant city she drove by a beautiful park. The beauty of God’s summer was on display in well-tended flower gardens and properly pruned trees and shrubs. It was beautiful. When she had some free time, she drove across town to enjoy the park and find rest and answers for her weary soul. A large gate welcomed her, and she had barely begun to walk the well-trimmed path when she was approached by a monk, “Welcome. How can I bless you today?” he said. It was a Buddhist temple, not a park after all. This was not God’s place. She left disheartened by the fact that she had been offered more blessing and welcome in this place than in the places where the God of the Bible was preached.

This story brought tears to my eyes and hot anger to my heart. Why can we not do better? What have I  locked up that should have been open, what have I carefully saved that God wanted to spend? What am I bearing arms against, either mentally or physically, that is meant to be welcomed? What do I need to lay down in order to bless the hurting with open arms?

We are the Church, and how we choose to manage our buildings and spaces communicates profoundly to a hurting world. May we be a safe people who create safe places.

*details changed to protect privacy