“Safe Spaces”, chances are that you have heard this term before, maybe in an article, or on television, or just in regular conversation. I would also wager a bet that the context you heard this term was a less than positive context. I have heard it many times in reference to “millennials” and the “special snowflake crowd” and in other terms that include language I would rather not repeat. The idea of safe spaces seems to be that there are people out there who can’t handle any disagreement or conflict that comes from a naturally very conflict driven society, so they create these spaces where they don’t have to face any conflict or trouble or any negativity of any kind. It is the kind of place where they are always right, because they never have to face challenges, and it seems that they are most commonly created on college campuses full of students who don’t want to face the harsh reality of the adult world. I feel the need as both a college student and a millennial (and according to my mom and dad a special snowflake) to defend safe spaces, and speak about my personal experience with my own safe space to argue that they do have a very important place in not only college society, but society in general.
Anyone who is around me for more than five minutes without getting a headache from all my talking will likely know three things that I am deeply passionate about right off the bat. Those things are Fred Rogers (or Mister Rogers if you grew up with his show), the musical “Hamilton”, and my campus ministry. Unfortunately this post is not about “Hamilton”, though I could write a whole other post about that piece of amazingness. This post is partially about my love of Fred Rogers and all he stood for, but mostly this post is about the UKirk Campus Ministry, and what it means to me as not only a ministry, but as a safe space.
I will start by answering what I am sure is the first question you have. What does the name UKirk mean? It has almost become a running joke that the name of our ministry is so confusing, but simply put it means University Church. It is the name that represents a whole network of campus ministries across the country under the Presbyterian Church USA. Kirk is the Scottish word for church, because the Presbyterian Church was founded in Scotland, and the U stands for University and is meant to show that even though we are supported by the Presbyterian denomination anyone and everyone is welcome here. Putting the formal name aside for a moment, for myself and many other students at UT Knoxville, UKirk simply means home.
To put into words what this place means to me is nearly impossible, but I will attempt by using the words of Fred Rogers (An ordained Presbyterian minister himself). When asked about how he manages to make such a strong connection with his young audience on his long-running children’s show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Fred would often recount a story from his childhood. When Fred was a young boy he would visit his grandparents farm, and he like many of us, had a special bond with both of his grandparents, but especially his grandfather also named Fred. At the end of their visits his grandfather would sit young Fred on his knee and say to him “Freddy, you’ve made today a special day just by being you”. These words were the foundation from which Fred Rogers would build his legacy of connecting with children of all ages and backgrounds. Fred believed that every child that tuned into his show had an inherent value no matter who they were, where they were from, or what they looked like. They had value for no other reason than they were people made by a good and faithful God, and there was nothing they could do to take that value away. Through his television show Fred Rogers gave generations of children the exceedingly rare gift of his honest self, and encouraged countless others to give their honest selves back.
It is that same beautiful, radical, crazy love that greets everyone that enters through the doors of the UKirk campus ministry. This liberating freedom to be the beautiful, messy, imperfect creations made by a perfect God. That liberating freedom to me creates the very essence of a safe space. It is a safe space to laugh, cry, sing, shout, whisper, be crazy, be serious, or anything in between. It is a place where you can be exactly who you feel like being, and be loved no matter what.
That by no means is to say that it does not challenge you, or get rid of all the struggles and hardships of the outside world. In fact, I would venture far enough to say that my safe space challenges me more than anywhere else. A funny thing starts to happen when you are accepted for exactly who you are, you begin to want to become a better person on your own. A change starts to take hold of you, and suddenly you want to become the type of person that the people who accepted you from the start see you as. It is not forced, and it happens not because someone told you to, but because you feel so overwhelmed with this sense of joy, the change often happens without you realizing it.
We also don’t come to this place to hide from the darkness of the world, but rather to prepare for it. We come here to ask the tough questions (how do we handle being afraid? Are we allowed to love this group? How do we love that group? What does it mean to really forgive? What do we do with our doubts?), and sometimes we leave without answers (something that I struggle with being a person who needs answers). That is something else about this place, you don’t stay here all the time. You have to go out into the cold, dark, scary outside world, and face struggles, uncertainty, disappointment, disagreements, and everything in between.
The comfort comes from the fact that in the midst of all that chaos is a tiny little house on church row that is never short on essential things such as; sugary snacks to eat (food for the journey), a soft couch with plenty of blankets and pillows (rest for the weary), and love and acceptance that you know will never run out. A place where you can be silly, put down your defenses, and have a good ole’ fashioned dance party. A place where the beauty of God can be found not only in the singing of hymns and reading of scripture, but in the laughter that bellows from deep inside as we watch The Office, SNL, and John Oliver. A place where you can find proof of God’s love and presence from the message in songs ranging all the way from “They Will Know we are Christians by our Love” to “I Will Follow you into the Dark”.
I don’t know many things for certain anymore (and I am learning that that’s ok!), but I do know that I would not have survived and thrived in college without this space. I know that everyone deserves to feel the type of love that I have felt here. That everyone deserves to feel like they are enough, and that their honest selves is a beautiful thing. The thing is that UKirk may not be that place for everyone, after all everyone is different, so I feel like I would be hypocritical if I loved this place as much as I do without realizing that there is room for all types of safe spaces. Whether it is in another campus ministry, a club or organization, a pride center, or even in the presence of a mentor or a friend that offers that gift of complete honesty and acceptance. One more thing I know for sure is whether we like it or not, life is hard, it has always been hard, and it probably always will be hard, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a place where you can lay your burdens down, curl up and rest in the peace that you are enough, because you ARE enough, not because of anything you have done, because true peace and security are far too beautiful to ever be earned. I am confident going forward that the peace and joy of my little slice of safety and security will grant me the strength to continue on this journey, wherever it might lead. I truly hope that all can find somewhere like that, because they are out there, and I am willing to bet that they would only become more wonderful with someone like you there.
Senior Speech Pathology Major
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville