Places of Sanctuary

Maya Angelou says, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” What do the places you have called home have in common? Have you ever been without a safe place? At our service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll explore the human need for sanctuary. The choir will sing.


(Sermon, Places of Sanctuary, Rev. Sue Browning – Oct 14, 2018) 

Last week I officiated at Carol Kabler’s memorial service. Many here knew Carol – a member who died in June at 102 (almost 103!). She had been vibrant until her last months. Family and neighbors who spoke at the service talked of being in Carol’s home. Carol and her husband Hugh moved to the eastern shore in their late fifties and for over 40 years their home was a place of sanctuary for many. The home was modest in size, on a creek. It was a place where the kitchen table was central. At the table tea was served, newspapers were read, decisions were made and stories were invited.

Maya Angelou says, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Imagine Angelou’s image… a safe place to pour out what we experience, what we worry about…a place where we figure out who we are. While at Carol’s table make no mistake, you were questioned but who you were wasn’t doubted. Questions were to understand and asked from a center or curiosity.

We need a place where our views have a chance to form; where our true identities are welcomed. Have you ever felt yourself cringe when a you share something, and a family member or friend says, “Really?” in just such a way that you feel yourself pull back – hold back. A criticism in the tone?

Maya Angelou is not calling for a world where we are never challenged. She is not calling to stifle difference. She was active in the civil rights movement – aligning often with controversial leaders. But when ‘out there’ and under criticism and challenge we are vulnerable. There is time for these risks. I hear Maya Angelou saying it is a precious time when we feel truly heard and accepted. Maybe this is when we are alone, maybe with our cereal bowl, or cup of tea, and our body is melded into that sense of some whole, peaceful time and we can hear ourselves. We feel safe – we have sanctuary. Maybe it has been at your home that you sensed such protected space…the quintessential fireplace or sundrenched breakfast nook with conversation. Possibly safety has been in a campground, untethered from the day-to-day.

We each need sustained times of feeling safe. Babies don’t need fancy, but they need to be routinely fed, and changed, and held. Toddlers need consistency and predictability to learn trust. By our teens, we need a place to regroup from the unpredictability of changing social scenes. As we age we need to create our safe place, and in time to be sanctuary for another.

Have you ever been without a safe place – sensed there was nowhere to turn or go? Have felt alone or misunderstood without a place of retreat? Have you been without physical shelter? Have been without a trusted friend or colleague?  For some there has been a consistent presence of sanctuary in our lives. For others, the patterns have been rockier.

Part of the sense of safety is at a personal level. Our families, our individual circumstances vary.

At some measure sanctuary and safety is tied to personal or family financial security. To be privileged is to be born into economic circumstances where the basics are met without question and there is disposable income to cover emergencies and some leisure. Some are ‘Privileged’ in that money is not a worry imposed on the child or teen. Some here grew up that way, some did not. Privilege at an individual level may be tied to family circumstances. For example, some experienced the death of a parent at an early age.

Part of safety is determined by forces beyond individual situations. We feel more or less safe based on where we fit in society.

Privilege tied to our group’s treatment is different than having the individual  ‘privilege’ of grown up rich or poor or with individual hardships. At times, our gender, or sexual orientation, or race or ethnicity, or physical or mental health make us less, or more, safe. As a white, middle class, straight woman living in the US, I’ve been mostly privileged to have the basics of safety as I walk through life. Privilege can be a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular group of people. Some are favored in our culture.

There is privilege that comes when you don’t need to think of your ‘group’ – your gender, or sexual orientation, age, or race or ethnicity as a factor in how favorably you will be judged. If a realtor meets you, and listens to your housing need, and doesn’t think “oh, but there are few African Americans in the area” and then (consciously or subconsciously) steers you another way…or even wonders about showing you a house. As an individual in a favored group you don’t ask for the privilege – it happens. Privilege is feeling safe – unchallenged in these moments.

In the book “Between the World and Me” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes growing up as a black boy in Baltimore where ‘sanctuary’ was not the norm. He shares, “So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much.”

As humans we have a right to sanctuary. I have the right to not only “kitchen table sanctuary,” but to walk-down-the-street safety – not needing to be ‘twice as good’ to be safe safety.

There is privilege that comes when you don’t need to think about sexual orientation. Amazingly it has been 20 years since the death of Matthew Shepard – who was murdered based on his identity. And this week we heard of his story continuing with the decision to intern his ashes at the national cathedral. Rev. Mariann Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, notes “His death was a wound on our nation…We are doing our part to bring light out of that darkness and healing to those who have been so often hurt, and sometimes hurt in the name of the church.” (NY Times, Oct 11, 2018)

Sanctuary for Matthew, albeit it too late.

In the last weeks we’ve watched Judge Kavanaugh –now Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh – be challenged. He grew up being believed, and in hearings he was questioned. He felt unsafe, and he erupted. We watched Dr. Christine Ford, who had long lived in fear and whose sense of safety was lost at a young age, tell of her experience and knowing. She knew she’d be challenged; she had reason to be doubtful she’d be believed. A contrast in experiences of safety. A contrast in privilege. For many, the privilege of sanctuary has never been a norm. This is a reminder that our sense of these past weeks is filtered through our own context and sense of entitlement or privilege to being believed, or not. Contrasts for reflection.

Return to Maya Angelou’s call to assure we have a place of refuge – a place where we can be ourselves; to recharge, to know we matter. Without such a place we cannot move to wholeness – to sense the grounding of our source of being. We cannot figure out how to use our anger productively. In these weeks, what has been your place of sanctuary to get perspective, to heal?

Is there is a human right to this sanctuary

‘Human Rights’ are rights tied to being alive. Some talk of inalienable rights, which link to the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Broadly human rights are the rights to freedom of thought and belief, and the right to the basics – food, shelter, and the right to humane treatment. There is a human right to justice in how we are assessed, and limit punishments to only what is needed for a crime – to not include torture. There are human rights of equality – where a group is not privileged over another.

The human right to sanctuary emerging from these basic rights. There is a human the right to have a place of safety. We imagine a world where all have sanctuary. Yet sanctuary is a reach for many.

And the need to safety often is in tension with the law. In the middle ages in some places in Europe, criminals could flee to churches – a sort of cooling off period. A time of sanctuary. The Underground Railroad offered sanctuary for those en route, but also for meetings and planning. In the 1980s sanctuary was offered to central American refugees who were fleeing violence. At the most basic levels we offer sanctuary when we offer safety, at times risking our own safety.

At the more immediate level, can we help one another find sanctuary of heart? Can you believe another’s story of pain without starting with skepticism? Recall, when it is you feel safe. It’s difficult to offer a place of non-judgment. To be ready listen. Some here participated in the small group discussions last year. We had chances during these sessions to share and not be questioned. To speak, and let your truth sit. A group is starting here Oct 23.

Rev. Christine Robinson (UU World, Summer 2012) talks of this as the process of growing – of creating safety –  through the telling and hearing of ‘thick stories.’ She describes,“Society can be a better place when people know how to listen deeply to each other and care for one another. There are few places in people’s lives where they are invited to share deeply and listen without judgment. The world is hungry for sharing soul to soul. Deep listening means listening from the heart rather than the mind or ego. It grows out of silence. Deep listening happens when people listen without responding, so they don’t have to worry about what to say, what the other person needs to hear, or how to heal the person or solve the problem … When someone has shared deeply, our silence tells them we’ve given them all our attention and that we are holding their stories in our hearts. This silence connects us with one another in a way that is deeper than using words or questions….”

She sees when we don’t respond with our own questions and interrupt the sharing, we create special space. As we listen we may ask, “What am I learning which is new? What is this stirring in me? Where might we have had experiences which raised similar thoughts and feelings?’ and from there hold the space. Let the others share. Creating the safety of home.

Friends, my wish is that all here know sanctuary. I wish all here have the grounding of home and safety. And from there, my wish is that, with our eyes open, we help create sanctuary for one another – to be open, to hear, to learn, and that we do this work of creating safety especially aware of those pushed to the edges – those who are most vulnerable for whom privilege is not a reality.

In these acts for ourselves and for others there is hope. We all have the right to sanctuary.

May It Be So


Questions for Reflection (from the Soul Matters resources)  

  1. Who has most shaped your understanding of sanctuary? Which of their “lessons” is most relevant to you today?
  2. Which of your homes has felt most like “home”? How are you recreating that experience in your life right now? OR Who is sanctuary for you? OR Is sanctuary something we build rather than something we find?
  3. Do you find sanctuary of silence, music or beauty? How often do you turn to sanctuary in your life?

I offered this sermon in connection with our Soul Matters theme for the month of October which is ‘Sanctuary’ and I selected the questions from the Soul Matters resources. For those interested in further conversation around these questions check out the Soul Matters group which will meet from 4-5:30 at UUFE.

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