First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Sanctuary: Refuge or Risk?

October 7, 2018
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees
Unitarian Universalist congregations often describe themselves as being places where people can bring their whole selves. Our congregations are sanctuaries where we can be welcomed as we are. We aspire to be safe spaces that embrace those who are most injured and most weary. Rev. Charles Grady says:

Our churches are clearings in the wilderness of this time:
places of refuge and sanctuary for the bruised and tired,
and also places of healing and renewal.
They are "workshops for common endeavor,"
and schools for learning and enlightenment,
transmitters and celebrators of a heritage,
tools for breaking down barriers,
tools for building new bridges.

This congregation has been doing some deep reflection these past few years as we continue our work to be a clearing in the wilderness. The alienation and disconnection in the larger culture has redoubled our commitment to being a place of refuge and is enlarging our understanding of what that requires of us.

The need to communicate skillfully and thoughtfully with each other is more apparent to us than ever. The need for skilled communication is more apparent than ever given the rancor and divide in this country and given some of the shortcomings we are coming to terms with in our own faith. The ways we humans interact can erect barriers that make it harder and even potentially impossible for trust to ever get established or build trust and relationship.

The thing is, we can so easily unintentionally say something or do something that will injure another person. None of us knows everything that another person is holding. None of us knows their whole story. None of us knows fully another’s pain, the tender places in their heart, the wounds and grief and anger.

Marshall Rosenberg has done extensive work on nonviolent communication. Nonviolent communication emphasizes the expression of feelings and needs. He calls it Compassionate Communication and a “language of the heart.” Rosenberg says that “the intent is to remind us about what we already know—about how we humans were meant to relate to one another.” In many places this form of communication is also known as “giraffe language.” The giraffe best represents this language because it is “the land animal with the largest heart.” Giraffe language

inspires compassion and joyful relationships in all areas of life. . . . The giraffe’s height affords a long view into the distance and provides a heightened awareness of future possibilities and the consequences of our thoughts, words, and actions. . . . The long neck of the giraffe reminds us of [the] important quality of vulnerability.

A jackal, on the other hand, is used to represent thought, speech, and actions that disconnect people from feelings and needs. Jackal language disconnects people from their own needs and feelings, and those of others. The jackal has sometimes been described as “a giraffe with a language problem.” (Nonviolent Communication Companion Workbook, Lucy Leu based on Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life)

As much as we want to be giraffes, sometimes we’re going to be giraffes with a language problem. Unfortunately, we have learned communication styles that result in our speaking and acting in ways that can create hurt and pain. It’s also difficult to live up to our ideals 100 percent of the time. Despite our best intentions, we sometimes mess up. Sometimes we’re grouchy and having a bad day. Sometimes we don’t take the time to reflect on what we are saying or doing and its potential to hurt someone else. Sometimes another person doesn’t know that what they are saying or doing has the potential to hurt us.

We just aren’t going to get it right all the time. In fact, plenty of times we aren’t even going to know exactly what right means. Part of our work is recognizing that there are going to be messy, uncomfortable, and nuanced conversations.

Fortunately, there are many tools and resources available to us for doing the work of compassionate communication, of creating sanctuary. We are already using some of them on a regular basis. Just think about the invitational language we use each week as we join in singing. The congregation is invited to rise in body or spirit to sing. That language is carefully crafted to recognize our differing abilities and needs.

Our young people here at church offer another example. They use the language of oopses and ouches to let others know when they have hurt or been hurt. When someone says something that hurts them, they say ouch. When they say something that hurts someone else, they say oops. That simple practice acknowledges their mutual accountability. They hold themselves and each other accountable. They apologize without needing to justify and take the risk of letting others know when they have caused pain.

The insert in your program today is another tool that can help us hone our welcome. We read part of it responsively this morning. That section offers suggestions for responding to the question: “Reflect on what calls you to be welcoming to all who enter your congregation. What faith value are you practicing?” The other side of the card offers tips about questions to avoid and some alternatives.

Our greeters and membership committee regularly discuss how to greet those who come through the door—both new and returning people. They are discovering that there’s a lot of art and mindfulness to this ministry of hospitality. Some questions stop conversation. Others open conversations in beautiful ways. A seemingly innocuous question like, “Are you new here?,” can imply to a newcomer that you don’t think the person belongs. And when people who are already members get asked this question by someone who doesn’t know or recognize them, the question has a way of making them feel alienated from the community they are a part of. A more inviting alternative to “Are you new here?” is saying something like, “I don’t think we’ve met, my name is Sandra.”

Other questions can also seem harmless like, “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” But these questions can create complicated and hurt feelings in the person being asked. Asking someone who is unemployed, underemployed, recently fired, or has a disability, “What do you do?” can suggest that people are defined by their work. That question can also imply that certain kinds of work are preferred to others. It can embarrass people and make them uncomfortable.

When people of color or who have an accent are asked, “Where are you from?” the question may intentionally or unintentionally assume that they are not from “here” and that they don’t belong. For people of color, “Where are you from?” is a microaggression suggesting that they have a foreign ancestry. In today’s hostile environment toward immigrants, asking “Where are you from?” has become a dangerous question to have to answer.

Instead of asking, “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?,” a great conversation starter is “What did you think of the worship service? I loved the story.” Feel free to use that one today. See how it goes. The point is to let people tell you who they are and what they care about rather than trying to find out what you want to know. Open-ended questions free of assumptions and judgments invite real sharing and real connection. (

Celeste Headlee has worked as a radio host, conducting many interviews. She has learned about what makes a great conversation. She says, "Go out, talk to people, listen to people. And, most importantly, be prepared to be amazed." When asked to share “a piece of advice on how to better hold conversations,” Headlee says,

The one thing you can do right now, starting today, is to take a breath before you respond to somebody. The reason I say that is because, on average worldwide, the amount of time, the amount of space in between one person ending a sentence and another person responding is less than half a second. That means we are not actively listening to each other; we are waiting for a break for when we can talk again. So, the easiest thing you can do is to take a breath. (,

One of the things that religious community provides is a place to practice taking a breath. We are learning and practicing together. We can take a breath before we begin a conversation and before we respond to another person. There is a real opportunity to be more inclusive with our words and actions.
The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible wisely observes that, “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18, NRSV). There’s another saying that advises: “Speak so you become each other’s companion on the journey.” These inspirational sayings remind us that words need to be careful, honest, kind, and spacious. Rash words can erect barriers. But “the tongue of the wise” lays the groundwork for genuine connection. Words land best when they express an interest in the amazing person before us. (


That wisdom applies to our actions as well. We could adapt these two saying to “Rash actions are like sword thrusts, but the heart of the wise brings healing” and “Act so you become each other’s companion on the journey.”

Our greeting time this morning was a demonstration of how actions can reflect invitation and listening. To listen and use invitational language fosters trust. The greeting time, which I know some of you absolutely cherish, can be awkward for some of us. People can be uncertain about how they are supposed to greet others. If everyone else seems to be hugging, I may feel pressured to express myself that way. Not everyone likes to be touched, for a variety of reasons including germs, personal space, and more. And for some people, that hug or handshake they receive on Sunday morning is one of the few times they experience human touch all week. We are not all the same.

We do well to listen carefully to the cues the amazing person before us is giving us and to practice invitational language. That’s why this morning I encouraged you to check in with the person you greeted. We asked each other, “How do you want to do this? A handshake or a fist bump or a smile or something else?”

Howard Thurman said, “Ultimately there is only one place of refuge on this planet for any person—that is another person’s heart. To love is to make of one’s heart a swinging door.”

We are shelter for each other. In the words of our opening hymn, this is a hearth to keep us warm, holding hate out and love in. This is a place of laughter and hope.

The umbrella story shared earlier this morning shows a way of offering such a hearth. Imagine coming to church with an imaginary umbrella knowing that there are other people sitting here in the pews who need shelter. Imagine going back out into the world with that imaginary portable umbrella knowing that there are others who need shelter.

How are you going to share that umbrella? Will you take a breath in order to be fully present to the person you encounter? Will you use giraffe language?

This language of the heart is our shared commitment borne of our shared longing for the refuge of each other’s hearts. May we pass along the words, “I don’t know why it’s raining. But I do know that you can keep dry under this portable sanctuary.”

May it be so. Amen.