Most of the time, when I hear the term sacred space, I envision a church or a place of worship, a space set aside. But recently the term has taken on new meaning for me. And as I have journeyed this last year, engaging with issues of systemic racism, Black Lives Matter, children trapped at the border, and my frustration and heartbreak at the ways Christians interact with these issues- the term has taken on new meaning.
I was at a conference a couple weeks ago and it was about two in the morning. I wandered back to my room after a full night of catching up with friends from around the country. My roommate was not back in the room. I knew the wise decision would be to go to sleep. I was leading worship, I needed to rest my voice. But after wandering aimlessly around my room for a few minutes I decided to go find my roommate.
I only had 12 more hours before I would return to my new hometown, where I am still making friends and feel lonely a lot of the time. I could sleep then. So I shuffled downstairs to the hotel lobby in my sweats and wandered into a room where my roommate and some other folks were hanging out playing spades and dominoes.
We sat around telling jokes and making fun of each other. I was just watching people play. At one point I was invited to play dominoes, but I play like a first grader and I could tell that there was a level of strategy happening that I did not have. (Stay in your lane, Erna. You will look like a fool if you pretend you can play at that level.)
At one point the conversation turned to a more serious topic. It isn’t my story to share and this isn’t the space to do it. But an African American friend shared his experience of a negative and racially ignorant interaction. He shared his experience and his story- we all responded in different ways. Personally my jaw dropped, I was shocked, I was angry, I was mortified. Everyone kept playing cards, playing games. Some focused on the playing. Others took time to express frustration. A few of us pondered an action plan. In the midst of it we kept making fun of each other and laughing. There were also raised voices, indignation, laughing at how awful the situation was. More people threw out ideas for response. We sought the wisdom an elder that was in the room. It was 4 in the morning and I didn’t know it, but I was in a sacred space.
Within hours of leaving that conference the Ferguson report was released. I am in the midst of reading it now. Then Tony Robinson, another young black man was shot in Madison, Wisconsin. Then the heinous SAE video was released. And then the video of Martese Johnson- a young black man being thrown to the ground outside of a bar was released. There was barely time to grasp the heinousness of one thing, before the next thing happened. I could barely learn the name of Tony Robinson, before I was grieving the hatred being spewed out of the mouths of some young fraternity boys.
Again and again my mind has wandered back to that room at four in the morning. It has become a sacred space, a place where I could be with people and we could all be sad and upset about something without having to explain. Be angry, but still be laughing. Be acknowledging pain, but still be teasing each other in fun. Be naming an injustice, and forming a plan, but be fed by each other’s company. It looked like playing cards, it was actually holy ground.
Part of what makes this journey hard, the journey of fighting for justice, peace, and shalom, is the sense of isolation.
I called a good friend the other day, as I was reflecting on a painful interaction. I said, “Just tell me I’m not crazy. Tell me that I’m right to be hurt.” She said, “You’re not crazy.” That’s all I needed. Because when you’re in pain, and there are so many messages saying that you shouldn’t be, you start to feel crazy. We need a community where we don’t have to explain our pain, but it is acknowledged and seen and grieved.
When I first started following Jesus more seriously in college I decided to spend the summer after my sophomore year at the Los Angeles Urbana Project learning about God’s heart for social justice, the poor, and the inner city. I had no idea the way that summer would change the trajectory of my life.
But in deciding to go, I was deciding not to come home for the summer. This upset my Korean immigrant mother profoundly. Asian culture values obedient children. And now there was a new voice in my life, Jesus, and I was being obedient to Him and that put me at odds with my mother. Not coming home for the summer communicated disobedience. And to make things worse, the choice to spend the summer in the inner city, working with recovering drug addicts and prostitutes, terrified my mother who had come out of poverty. She repeatedly told me, “I didn’t spent years working 15 hour days to send you to private school so you could go back to being poor.
That summer was the start a 10 year period of persecution and tension from my mother, where she repeatedly threatened to disown me. She eventually cut me off financially. When I came on full time staff with InterVarsity, where I had to fundraise my salary, she forbid me from reaching out to our friendship or family networks because she was ashamed that I was begging for money.
The fall after I graduated from college and was interning with InterVarsity I was invited to a conference for Asian American staff. It was an amazing experience. The most precious thing that happened was that they brought in another staff’s parents. In front of the group stood an older Japanese American couple. They were parents to Collin Tomikawa, an older brother who is still on staff today.
These kind, beautiful, Christian parents said, “We know that many of you are paying the cost of not having your parents blessing.”
And let me explain, in ministry we pay different costs, we pay in different ways, we pay for different things. For an Asian American person, to live outside of their parent’s blessing, is one the most painful costs there is. And it is not paid in one moment, but a longsuffering that often goes on for years.
Collin’s parents said, “For those of you who don’t have your parents blessing, we want to offer ours. We want to stand in their place until a time when they can bless you. We want you to know that we are proud of you and the work you are doing. That it is important. And we bless you. We bless you.”
We were invited forward to receive blessing. And all of us who came forward took off our shoes, because we were on holy ground. And most of us were on our knees weeping- because we were paying a cost that most of our fellow staff did not understand or even see.
And we received their blessing.
That was almost 20 years ago, and to this day remains one of the most sacred spaces I have ever been in.
I believe deeply in working for truly whole and reconciled multi-ethnic community where people are profoundly affirmed in who God has made them and everyone labors in love cross culturally, cross class, fighting all systems of oppression that deface the image of God in others. But it can be sad and heartbreaking work. It has been this year.
And I realize that to sustain, I need sacred spaces. Where there is grief, laughter, community, and vulnerability. Where others will let you know you aren’t crazy, because you don’t have to explain why you are in so much pain.
And so to my friends in the room at 4am, and to the brothers and sisters that wept with me on floor almost 20 years ago. I thank you and I honor you. In the name of Jesus, you sustain me.