A tale of two spaces
A reflection exploring how we respond when our spaces are disrupted and subverted by people with a different set of values and world views. By Simon Jay
Every time I walk into any space, whether it is a church, restaurant, park etc, I ask the question: Who has constructed this space? Who is it for? How does this space want us to behave? This is important for me because so many of the spaces that I inhabit have little to no Black or ethnic minority people there, and as I look deeper I notice some really interesting things about how the space is constructed and how people are required to perform.
When I walk into churches I often find myself looking at the photos that display an all white leadership team or pictures on the walls that represent our Christian story with images of a white, western-looking Jesus. I will be conscious of our Bible readings and songs that we sing where it suggests that to be pure we must be ‘White’ as the driven snow. When I find myself in these spaces it leaves me with a feeling that I am not seen, that I am somehow less.
Our values and rituals that we associate with our spaces are often very sacred to us. If someone enters our space and starts to subvert it by ‘acting out of place’ we can find ourselves very challenged and threatened. I want to explore this in more depth by starting with my own journey as a pioneer missional team leader in Birmingham.
In 2001 my wife and I moved into the Welsh House Farm community as part of a church plant initiative. The area has around 4000 people living there, and has lots of social and emergency housing that is home to many people from different countries, ethnicities and cultures. In 2003 we set up the Haven Centre, which is a small community project that aims to work alongside and support the local community. It is at the Haven Centre where this story begins. I want to call this ‘white space’.
I was doing a piece of research exploring food, hospitality and the Eucharist meal in marginal spaces. On this particular occasion I had invited several members from the Caribbean community to join us. One person, I will call CJ, straight away began to subvert the normal practices around this meal. When I explained about the Christian tradition of breaking bread and drinking wine as a way of remembering and participating in the Easter story he told me “We don’t drink wine, we drink whisky, and what’s this stuff called bread? We will be eating Jerk Chicken.”
The day before the meal members from the Caribbean community came to the Haven Centre to season the chicken. It’s important to season it the night before to get all those great flavours soaked into the chicken. I then watched in alarm as they took the raw chicken out of the box, slammed it on the work surface and stated to wash it with lemon and vinegar.
“What are you doing” I said, “the food hygiene course has told us that we are not allowed to wash raw meet, you will end up contaminating the place.” They all looked at me and laughed, then carried on washing the chicken. Once again practices and rituals that I had previously believed were wrong and unclean were subverting the space.
When I eventually calmed down we started a discussion about the importance of washing the meat. CJ said, “For me we need to wash away the years of oppression and slavery.” Another woman told me that to not wash the meat would invoke a feeling dirt and contamination if she were to eat it. Over the next two hours we talked a lot about systems, values and institutional racism. During these conversations I had come to realise that the Haven Centre’s practices and rules were based on white western values of economics and food hygiene. We had failed to see the deep traditions and practices of the Caribbean community that had been passed down from generation to generation.
My response to this was to leave my comfortable space at the Haven Centre and resituate the meal in CJ’s flat. As we drunk whiskey and ate Jerk Chicken we talked about issues that centred around identity, race, spirituality, faith, power and white space.
“Christianity is a white man’s religion used to justify slavery and oppression to Black people”, he would say. I asked him a question, “For you to give Jesus any consideration at all what would need to change?”
He said, “He would need to be Black”.
It was in this new space that we had the freedom to talk about a Black Jesus who stood in solidarity with the suffering and oppression of Black people. At the end of the evening CJ embraced me and gave thanks to the God that he recognised had been with us in that space.
As I reflected on how it felt to be in these different spaces I was left with the notion that at the Haven Centre something needed to change. It wasn’t just the way we prepared our chicken that created barriers of exclusion. The way we ran our meetings, appointed our staff and trusties and prioritised our values of time keeping and productivity failed to make room for people from different cultures and ethnicities. If we were to take seriously the issue of diversity and inclusion within the Haven we would need to allow our space to be disrupted and subverted by people with a different set of values and world views.
This is an important question for our churches. For many of us we have no idea that our spaces are places that exclude. It is often not until someone from a different culture enters that this sense of disruption begins to emerge. Unfortunately my experience has taught me that when this happens our temptation is to assimilate them into our way of thinking and behaving.
In her book Making Room, Christine Pohl encourages us not to reject or assimilate those that are different from us. Instead we should welcome them in and celebrate all that they bring. In doing so a new space is created that’s a littler bit different, yet makes room for everyone.
Simon Jay is part of an Urban Expression team in the Welsh Farm Community in Birmingham, and has recently graduated from Bristol Baptist College
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