"Nothing will Separate Me from the Love of Jesus": Southborough Safe Spaces

"Nothing will Separate Me from the Love of Jesus": Southborough Safe Spaces

In each month's Discipleship Matters newsletter, SNEUCC's Faith Formation team works to showcase the good works and best practices present throughout the Southern New England Conference of the UCC and beyond. If you're interested in having the work of your church/faith body or para-church organization showcased next month, please reach out to Faith Formation Program Support Associate Sean Amato for more details.

This month's Spotlight on Service is on Southborough Safe Spaces, a unique and life-affirming interfaith youth group. Coordinated by the team of Dawn Sorensen, MID (Member in Discernment), Sarah Hile, LMHC, and Sarah Whiteman, Southborough Safe Spaces is a vital ministry that aims to enrich, educate, and introduce both participating youth and their parents to what a 'safe space' can truly represent.

I had a chance to interview Dawn Sorensen and Sarah Whiteman on the one-year anniversary of Southborough Safe Spaces' founding; we spoke about their ministry, the matters that led to the creation of Safe Spaces, and the future of their ministry work. During our Zoom interview, Dawn and Sarah were preparing food for an anniversary dinner to be held that night - a display of their dedication to this important initiative.

Sean: Dawn and Sarah, could you tell our readers about Southborough Safe Spaces?

Dawn: We're an interfaith group that aims to serve youth from grades six through twelve. We work to provide a safe space for people to come and be who they are, to to explore whatever they need to explore within our space. That includes pronouns, outfits, names, learning about other places for them to get support. In our space, people know that whatever they say is perfectly fine.

Sarah: We're doing what we're doing because so many LGBTQ+ people don't have a safe religious space, or have had a very negative religious experience. We're trying to counteract that as gently as we can, in our own way.

Dawn: People might know me from my work in Christian education and faith formation. Within the first six months of being at my current position here at Pilgrim Congregational Church, I had a youth express that they were feeling unsafe; they sought help. In that moment, I said, "this is something I know about - this is the ministry that I've been called to do, somewhere I can help." That turn of events formed the basis of where I'd want to go next with my ministry, which is this initiative.

Sean: What led to the formation of Southborough Safe Spaces?

Sarah: About two years ago, Pilgrim's congregation voted in favor of working toward becoming formally designated as Open & Affirming within the UCC; that coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, as well. When we made the decision to begin Southborough Safe Spaces a year later, we decided that we'd really need to push the boundaries of that Open & Affirming vote.

Dawn: Some moments were difficult, and harrowing, and brought up questions of why we were even doing this work. But this environment has allowed people to grow - us, and others - and that's the point of the ministry. Now our group includes kids from the surrounding area who come to events on Friday nights, people who have heard through networking with other LGBTQ+ groups as well. We've met LGBTQ+ pastors, had kids go to Pride Camp at Pilgrim Lodge, and have made a real effort to involve kids who weren't - and still aren't - comfortable with being 'out.'

Sarah: We've also taken steps to help parents navigate how to support and understand what their kid might be going through. Not only as those kids better supported here but, with parental education, they're also better supported at home. Our parents can answer to their communities more solidly.

Dawn: Ministry to parents is central to our mission. We try to give parents the ability to better advocate for their kids in the school system, specifically. Some nights are "parents only," where we talk about navigating matters such as mental health, schools, and community resources. From my experiences as a faith formation minister, I can affirm that ministering to the whole family is very important.

Sean: What keeps your ministry going?

Sarah: The kids keep it going. My kid came out three and a half years ago, and this drives me. The group is important to my kid, who they understand themselves to be, and how they develop. It's so critical that we counteract the messages that society is sending. Though we live in such a liberal area, many people are raised in systems in entitlement and white supremacy. It's really important for my kid to have as many experiences as possible to counteract those influences.

Dawn: I don't know how to do it any other way, personally. I've done LGBTQ+ advocacy work my whole life, since coming out at 18 years old. As an MID going through field education, I benefit from the assistance of supervisors and advisors who can help me process the challenges of ministering and being in relationship with those to whom I minister.

Sarah: We're blessed to be able to facilitate between our kids and the community - to shine a light on the kids, their struggles, their celebrations. We find ways to share their joys and their experiences, and to do it in a way that is multi-faceted and empowering.

Sean: What effect has your ministry had upon your community, and your congregation?

Dawn: Our church is pretty different, a year out. Lingually, we no longer have "moms and dads" or "brothers or sisters" - we avoid gendered language when talking about divinity, too. At first people weren't sure what to think of it, and now other people are doing it. We're the New Century Hymnal, instead of the Pilgrim Hymnal!

Sean: What's next for your ministry?

Sarah: We've done a lot of foundational programming, and now we're figuring how big a chunk we should bite off this year. We're currently trying to figure out how to do an afterschool program, based on the need for support and desire for participation we've discovered amongst kids in the 6th - 8th grades. Our goal, eventually, is to create and lead workshops about how similar initiatives can take place at other churches. We'll be presenting a workshop on the Safe Spaces curriculum at the UCC Women's Celebration in March, actually.

Dawn: We continue to engage in photography projects and gallery shows, like our Voices Carry Gallery Exhibit on October 15th in Framingham, MA. After an incident some time ago in the next town over, in Hopkinton, we engaged with the Hopkinton Center of the Arts to discuss a photography project. We found out that the Center had lost their public funding due to protests about their previous attempts to center LGBTQ+ perspectives; we felt bad about this, because it could've been such a good opportunity for us to offer a "counter-Christian" response to that kind of bigotry. We've started working with the Southborough Community Center so that we can be a more actively involved and represented in the local community.

Sean: What would you say to people who say that this isn't a 'church matter?'

Sarah: How is it not? At the recent Racial Justice summit, they talked about how unpopular Jesus' teachings were during his time - and Jesus was a radical progressive who engaged with marginalized people. He told them that they were loved. If we're not doing that, then what are we doing?

Dawn: I just refer to Romans 8:38-39. Nothing will separate me from the love of Jesus - it sure isn't going to be the church, and it sure isn't going to be you. The kids who I minister to don't say that God doesn't love them, or that Jesus isn't important.

Sarah: God is not a building. If you want me in your church, I want to do this important work together with you. If you want people to come into your church, you have to do the important work in the first place.

Sean: Do you have a message for folks in Southern New England who do faith formation work?

Dawn: If you're not doing what you're passionate about, do something else. There's no space in the world right now to do things half-heartedly. There's lots of room in the UCC to follow your passion. Find like-minded people who want to jump in your canoe, or jump in theirs, and paddle together to make something happen.

Sarah: The reason why we're doing this, why it's happening, is because we have one another. We bring out a rebellious side in one another, serve as safe spaces for one another. Together, we regularly process new ideas, decide on what to do, and work toward these new missions together - and bring new people into our group, too. Additionally: it's becoming more and more apparent how damaging our continually buying-in to social constructs can be. Be flexible in what you're assuming about people based on their appearances, be flexible with pronouns. "They/them" is a norm way to refer to people you've never met. Plant as many little seeds to spread open-mindedness as you can.

Sean: Do you have any recommendations on literature, or any other sources of inspiration for your work?

Sarah: People on social media, YouTubers, TikTokers - some folks online drop these nuggets of wisdom, and I do my best to pick them up and let them incubate. I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to become more 'bookish' in the future!

Dawn: Omnigender by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is a big one for me. OtherWise Christian by Mx Chris Paige, who's doing amazing things with chaplaincy in New Jersey, is a source of inspiration from someone I regard as a peer. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, too, is a big one. We're actually in the process of building a 'banned book' library for the kids with the assistance of a librarian in the congregation. I'm also very much inspired by the life and work of Bishop Yvette Flunder.

The Faith Formation team would like to extend hearty thanks and congratulations to Southborough Safe Spaces for their good works and ready engagement with their community. How is your church putting faith into action? Share your stories with Program Support Associate Sean Amato, and you may just be spotlit in the next issue of Discipleship Matters!
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