Sacred Space, East Bay: ‘God sees you’

Posted on August 19, 2014

[Editors’ note: This reflection, by the Rev. Scott Denman, St. John’s, Oakland, was recently published in the Sacred Space,East Bay enewsletter, issue no. 6.]

When I was asked to participate in Sacred Space I was not initially excited about the invitation. How would we be empowering people? Would this just be another instance of the haves making themselves feel good by giving a hand out to the have nots?

At my core I am a community organizer. By bringing communities together to insist on just policies, the hope is that barriers will be removed so all people can be empowered to help themselves. In a sense community organizing is out to make charity obsolete.
Some have described charity as being a “down river” effort. Churches are often pulling people out of the river to save them without ever going up stream to see how they got pushed in in the first place. Charity is important, but this down stream work needs to be combined with efforts to go up stream to see what the systemic problems are and how we can work together with our political leaders to create a more just society. 
What I have discovered is that Sacred Space is not only about charity, giving out food and socks to the homeless. Sacred Space is also about empowerment. This realization was accentuated when a homeless teenager attending a Eucharist would not have eye contact with me. But as he began to share his story I felt a word of encouragement emerging from within me. I felt God’s love for this young man and I felt I could see the goodness at his core. I simply told him, “God sees you.” At that moment he looked directly at me and said “Yes, that is what I believe.” Tears began to pour down his cheeks, probably because it had been awhile since he had been seen. We prayed together and then I asked him if he would like a sandwich. He declined. But then he asked me for something else: “Can I have a hug?” There we were, a 58-year-old white priest hugging a homeless African American youth on one of the most despicable street corners in Oakland. Miracles do happen.
This experience left me deeply aware that those who attend Sacred Space feel seen, no longer invisible to others, which is often their experience. Being seen is an empowering experience that revives a sense of dignity. I would say that Sacred Space is not about hand outs, but about standing together hand in hand. 
As people of faith we do need to be involved in policy work. But we also need the experience of seeing others face to face and simply being with them in the presence of God. Much to my surprise, Sacred Space was not the distraction from community organizing I had expected it to be. Instead, the experiences I have had in this ministry have helped me remember why I organize in the first place.