“How do you make sure you’re safe?” We’ve received this question in many variations from loving friends who are curious about our life here in San Francisco. Most of us, if we’re honest, have spent much our lives avoiding certain people in the store, on the street, in the park. We’re used to reading about tragedy somewhere else, riffing off a prayer for the victims’ nebulous well-being, clicking our phone-screen off and taking another sip of coffee (maybe that’s just me).
I understand the quick surprise, awe, fear, and tinge of envy (or maybe that’s just me), when a friend tells me they’re diving headfirst into a clump of tragedy that I have spent my life avoiding. A nurse friend recently shared her plans to go to Lesbos to serve Syrian refugees there. I felt the emotional milieu. Another friend spoke of a friend going to the Gaza Strip. Feelings soup arose. I understand that our friends want us to be safe in a space our society deems dicey territory.
Still, when I hear the question, my mind immediately flips to the advice on the neutrality-to-protection spectrum our friends in the park have offered. Usually, it starts by our team leader, Claire, asking a friend to tell Matt and I (the noobs), what we should know about the park.
“Stay out of Park Politics,” one says. Another adds “the Pancake Christians are neutral in all park politics. Nobody will start anything around you or at pancakes. I’ve seen two people from two sides of a feud come to pancakes and sit at opposite tarps facing away from each other. I’ve also seen people come to pancakes and walk off to work it out.”
“Don’t react, just listen to people,” one of the park leaders told me over a Vietnamese lunch. “If anyone gives you trouble, or if a person is freaking out, come to the front and say Outer Circle needs help.”
I’ve felt overwhelmed and honored by this counsel; it has clarified our status as honored guests in the park residents’ living room. With that image in mind, our safety makes sense. Nobody wants a guest to get hurt in their living room. Behind these spoken sentiments, I feel the tapestry and trust of relationships that this team has built in the past eighteen years. Yuppies, protected by the same code of honor, pass through the front lawn of our friends in the park. We get to sit in the living room.
Perhaps most poignantly, one young man, in the midst of teaching me about harm reduction in the city, said, “you have to understand, when people see this team, they will respect you because they think this team is what Christians should be.”
Those words had a distinct weight as they settled. I’ve found myself far less concerned about our physical safety than tarnishing that reputation, betraying that trust. More and more, with these thoughts and voices ambling in my head, when a friend asks if I’m scared, if we’re safe, and so forth, I just give the bittersweet truth.
“I’m one of the safest people in that park.”