The word that comes to mind with the word “sanctuary.” Life, light, love come to mind, too. In recent weeks, I’ve read two excellent reflections about gay bars as sanctuaries, (Broderick Greer, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/soloish/wp/2016/06/13/gay-nightclubs-and-black-churches-are-sanctuaries-heres-how-to-make-them-safer/; Hunter Ruffin, https://ajourneyinfaith.com/2016/06/17/unexpected-hope-a-small-town-gay-bar/) and now I’ve just seen a video of a man dying outside a convenience store–shot in a quick burst of brutality–that part of me wishes I could un-see and part of me doesn’t. I want to add my voice to those trying to make sense and meaning.
My paternal grandfather owned a lovely stretch of rural land along the shores of the Iowa River, and spending time with him meant one of the best sanctuaries I knew in my young life. Catching crawdads, digging potatoes out of the huge garden, riding in the back of his Chevy pickup along the gravel roads between the two small towns each set of grandparents lived in–boy, summers couldn’t get any better. My grandpa spoiled my sister and me; he’s responsible in part for my love of cats and concern for animals. Folks around the area would bring him their strays and in his generosity, he kept trays of food and water in the big shed/garage; the cats wandered and lived in the vicinity. Everyone knew him; I loved him as a kind, generous man who loved food and his family. He passed away many years ago.
One vivid spot of memory is not so bright–at a pig roast somewhere in the 1970s, he showed me a large metal slingshot. He gave it a name: n— shooter. Being not even a teenager then, not even in middle school, if I remember correctly, I was too naive to understand all the implications, though I think I felt a bit uneasy. How could my grandfather be a man of violence; surely, he was joking about the name. I know now that this same man who spoiled me so easily also yelled at my parents when I was three or so because my mother bathed me in the same tub, at the same time, as the African-American little boy who was one of my playmates. And in doing research on which camps my grandfather trained prior to serving in WWII, I sometimes speculate about what kind of violence he might have been a party to while in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Kings and Queens, a LGBTQ bar downtown in a city in Iowa, served as a sanctuary for this middle-aged, straight-ish, white woman just a few years ago. Served as a place for me to come out–not out of the closet, but to live, to be myself, to continue healing from a damaging marriage. Not what one would expect from the dingy little space in a less-than-safe part of town. The brave, the exotic and beautiful drag queens and the one who was so damaged by sexual abuse as a boy talked to me and I listened, at home and welcome. Nothing really spectacular in this as I look back, but that ramshackle place lit mostly by brightly-colored stage lights held as much light and life as that idyllic place alongside the Iowa River. Despite the warnings about the glory holes in the bathrooms, the hookups going on in the back (I may still be naive, but not entirely so) and drugs, I could have stayed in that sanctuary forever just to be myself. Just to be a safe presence for others.
Dull anger comes over me when thinking of the violation of sanctuaries–the medieval notion of them as impregnable; outside forces shouldn’t interfere, whether place of worship, gay bar, or Iowa countryside, still holds. Sanctuaries, though, can be easily rent by violence, can be raped, as we’ve seen over and over. Alton Sterling’s sanctuary outside the convenience store; the Orlando nightclub, Pulse; movie theatres, schools, other places of light, life, love, safety.
To be honest, I’m not sure where these words (another favorite sanctuary of mine) are taking me, or where I hope they take those who read this. An image of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback, as portrayed in the 1990s’ film, The Pagemaster, runs through my head. He’s goofing–the fool, the other–crying “sanctuary, sanctuary.” My mind tries to slide into silliness, looking for poignancy. My grandfather, who offered safety and play to his granddaughter, but who offered violence to those he deemed less because of their skin color. This, and the release and fluidity I found at Kings and Queens, flow right along with the animated Hunchback.
An eagerness to destroy sanctuaries seems to plague humans when we should simply be sanctuaries to one another. Ring the bells loudly and invite each other in.