Making Safe Space Safe: A Tough Call to Make

I don’t recommend taking drugs before going to a viewing. I’m not talking about Valium or a sedative, washed down with a glass of whiskey. I’m talking about the sort of high that makes you forget your own name, pronouncing it over and over again to hear if it ever sounds familiar as you try to remember how to walk. That kinda high. And if you do make this colossal mistake of a decision, don’t select a viewing of a car crash victim. With the sight of her broken hands folded over her abdomen clearly stuffed with something to compensate for the shattered sternum and ribs that punctured her lungs and caused her to die reaching for a cassette tape on the passenger seat floor. Because that corpse will be wearing makeup, even if the person who inhabited the body never wore it, and was particular about what went on her skin. Don’t get ridiculously high and not have enough sense to introduce yourself to the family; don’t approach the casket, gather around with the 6 friends–also high–who are with you, and stare. And gasp. And whisper, “What the fuck” loud enough that someone can hear it. I think. It has been many years. I might have added that detail in the memory, perhaps wanting to act like the affront was the open casket and not the intoxicated twenty somethings bursting into the viewing and leaving within minutes, all without a word to family or friends. Don’t do it because it will haunt you.

In my vocation, I come across death fairly regularly. Expected death. Unexpected death. Slow death. Quick death. Deaths that bring with them relief; deaths that destroy family dynamics to such an extent, the pieces never come back together. Deaths where I have to remain emotionally unattached. Perhaps that’s not an accurate description. One of my spiritual practices is the cultivation of compassion; understanding the experience of mourning without making it about my experience or projecting my own emotional needs upon the family and friends of the deceased. Funerals are not the place to speak empty platitudes, or feign emotions that are not present. For me, serving in times of grief means being able to share the emotional space without placing needs or expectations on others; to allow myself to respond to their processing while being present in the moment. Mourning does not happen on a schedule; fretting about the future or what comes tomorrow can fill a person with dread and anxiety. Sometimes we need to be given permission to live in the moment, to surrender to the seemingly overwhelming emotions, to allow them to overtake us and wring us dry. 

I have a funeral tomorrow. One which takes place within the sanctuary of First Presbyterian, but one over which I will not preside. I am reading one prayer, and sitting with the family. By their request. The presiding pastor is theologically my opposite. He was once president of a local college known for its conservative Christianity. And while I would be loathe to surrender my pulpit or to allow for a wedding to take place as officiated by a conservative pastor, a funeral is different. Burying  the dead is one of the most ancient things we do as human beings. It is at the heart of Christianity. So why would I insert myself into a process that is central to my faith tradition just because I have theological and social views that are different from the pastor requested by the deceased? To me, that would be unChristian. 

I write this not to congratulate myself, but to be transparent. I have been very public about saying that First Presbyterian Church is a safe space for GLBT persons. While I do not know the presiding pastor personally, it is safe to assume that someone who served as president of that college locals know I’m talking about will have rather strident and stringent anti-GLBT+ views. I will not allow pastors who are against same-gender marriage to perform weddings in the sanctuary. But in the case of a funeral, I think that my duty is to be hospitable, loving,  and supportive for the family. The members of the family have been attending worship the past two Sundays, and have asked that I sit with them. This is a great honor for me, and I believe that God is calling me to prove that I will not let personal feelings prevent me from serving others in the name of Jesus Christ. I am not called to preside over this funeral, but rather to pastor. 

I feel a bit torn, though. I know I am doing what my heart tells me to do and what I believe is God’s calling, but I also know how important it is to have a consistently safe space. And I have very publicly declared FPCYS a safe space. I hope that my quandary is more owed to my own assumptions, and that there will be little to no evidence of anything that would indicate that my fears are well-placed. But I know how fervent this school has been in silencing and oppressing GLBT+ persons, both on and off campus. I also know some incredible people who earned their degrees from there, including one who is queer and is also a pastor. So this situation might be an opportunity for me to further unpack my assumptions and prejudices. I’m thinking about safe space, though, and what is required; the ways in which a safe space needs to be versatile, to encompass all those who approach and ask for refuge. For hospitality. For service. For the presence of Christ.  

God of comfort, hear my prayer. 


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