Creating Sacred Cyberspace

I invite you all to come with me now to a sacred place. The room is large, the ceilings are high, dotted with recessed lighting – turned down low. The room is overlooked by a balcony, full of people greeting one another, smiling and laughing as they await the event to begin. The room below is teeming with life as well, people milling about, talking with one another, finding a place to alight as they anticipate what is about to take place here. Wisps of smoke float toward the ceiling. Music fills the empty spaces. Just outside the room, those taking part in leading the waiting participants are preparing, performing their personal rituals that will carry them through the evening.

Finally, the moment comes. The background music stops and the crowd becomes reverently silent, coughing politely or shuffling their feet on the floor. Suddenly, the music begins to swell and a matronly woman and two men emerge into the room, bringing the crowd to their feet as they break into a rousing rendition of “Let’s Have a Revival.”

Looking around the room, you know you’re standing on holy ground. Along the front row sit a crowd of men who know the words to every song, and sing along with gusto. People raise their arms in praise, some burst into tears of joy, others tap their feet or clap their hands and sway to the music. The lead singer shouts, “Amen, somebody,” and the crowd responds enthusiastically, “Amen, somebody!” God’s presence is being felt – this is a sacred place.

Where do you think we are? A church? A chapel? A concert hall? A revival at a country church? Actually, we’re in a place called Burkhardt’s – a gay bar in Atlanta. The congregants are not church members dressed in their Sunday best, but thirsty locals bellying up to the bar in short shorts and tank tops. The wisps of smoke are not from fragrant incense, but from the many cigarettes smoldering between nicotine stained fingers. The background music is not from the hymnal, but from popular secular artists, meant more for dancing than for singing along. The event is not a church service or a revival, but a show by the Gospel Girls – a trio headed by a drag queen named Morticia DeVille. The juxtaposition is jarring – a drag queen and two gay men singing Southern gospel in a gay bar, transforming a place traditionally viewed as profane into sacred space, even if only for a night. “Amen, somebody!”

When we think of sacred spaces, we don’t normally think of bars, either gay or straight. We can’t fathom how such places could even be made sacred, unless they were no longer bars. But, when the Gospel Girls sing in Atlanta’s gay bars the places become sacred. They become infused with the Spirit. Men and women who would never set foot in a place like a church – that we immediately consider sacred – are swept up in the Spirit, planted on holy ground right there next to the bar, beer and cigarette in hand.

There’s another place that people don’t associate with the word sacred – the Internet. It is home to some of the most profane things imaginable, pornography depicting any combinations you can imagine, chat rooms where twisted people troll for innocent young people, and probably the most insidious inhabitants of cyberspace – spammers who choke our email boxes with foul pictures and “phishers” who try to con us into giving up our bank account numbers and Paypal passwords. Some mighty profane and perverse things take place along the information superhighway – it’s hard to fathom how one could create a sacred place – sacred cyberspace – in such a wasteland of depravity.

But, like the Gospel Girls, Whosoever has been endeavoring to do just that – transform a place normally held to be profane into a place where the sacred can thrive. For the past decade Whosoever has strived to carve out a sacred space where we can build Christian community for those who have been rejected by mainstream religion – rejected by those who believe they know the sacred when they see it, and Whosoever‘s community builders are definitely not within their definition of sacred.

Defining the Sacred

What is it that makes a place sacred? Why do we revere places like the Dome of the Rock, the Lincoln Memorial, the Taj Mahal, and other famous spots? What makes these places sacred and others profane? Think about some of the places you hold sacred – what is it that makes them sacred to you. Are there any places you consider sacred that may be considered profane by others?

Sacred places are “thin places” where the visible world and the invisible world meet. What makes these places sacred, however, can be something very personal. Thomas Bender, in his essay “Making Places Sacred” writes that “all places live through the reverence with which we hold them. Without that reverence, they crumble into pieces unloved, unmaintained, abandoned, and destroyed” (p. 321).

In the March 2006 edition of Shambhala Sun magazine, a letter from a reader in New Orleans illustrates beautifully how without reverence, a sacred place can literally crumble into pieces. She wrote about her meditation room that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. She was trying to deal with the “impermanence of the sacred objects” she had collected and the sacred space she had created. She wrote about stacking up the wood that had once formed her altar and how it suddenly lost all its meaning.

“It was just a pile of semi-moldy wood,” she wrote. “I had attached meaning to objects that only had meaning once they were put together in a certain order, and I could label them and how they made me feel: the meditation space that brought me peace.”

But, without that reverence, her altar crumbled “into pieces, unloved, unmaintained, abandoned and destroyed.”

This is how a bar, or a Web site, can be made sacred – simply because those associated with it approach it with reverence. It reminds me of one of my favorite books, which was adapted into a pretty good movie – which doesn’t happen too often. In the book Shoeless Joe, which became the movie “Field of Dreams,” Ray turns his cornfield into a sacred space – a baseball diamond – because he is inspired by a voice that tells him, “If you build it, he will come.”

For many people, baseball fields are already sacred spaces – a place where great battles take place. In Shoeless Joe, author W.P. Kinsella writes lovingly of the stadium in Milwaukee.

“As I look around the empty park, almost Greek in its starkness, I feel an awesome inarticulate love for this very stadium and the game it represents. I am reminded of the story about the baseball fans of Milwaukee, and what they did on a warm fall afternoon, the day after it was announced that Milwaukee was to have a major-league team the next season. Accord to the story, 10,000 people went to County Stadium that afternoon and sat in the seats and smiled out at the empty playing field – sat in silence, in awe, in wonder, in anticipation, in joy – just knowing that soon the field would come alive with the chatter of infielders, bright as bird chirps.” (p. 142)

The people brought a sense of reverence to this place, making it sacred. But, not everyone understands that sense of reverence for a baseball field – or for a bar or a Web site for that matter. It’s interesting that in both the book and the movie, Ray’s brother is blind to the dead legendary players that populate the field. All he sees is Ray throwing his life away for a silly baseball field – until a miracle happens. Ray’s daughter begins to choke on a hotdog. One of the players on the field – who has returned, in death, to his state as a young ballplayer, steps outside the field and turns into the old man he grew into – a doctor. Witnessing this man coming from nowhere to save his niece, Ray’s brother is transformed. He looks around at the field and says, “Hey, when did all these ballplayers show up?” Suddenly, he too, sensed the sacredness of the field.

The players themselves understood the sacredness of the field right away. In one of the best lines in both the book and the movie, Shoeless Joe surveys the field and says to Ray, “This must be heaven.”

Ray replies, “No. It’s Iowa.”

In the book, we get more of Ray’s thoughts on the matter:

“I feel the night rubbing softly against my face like cherry blossoms; look at the sleeping girl-child in my arms, her small hand curled around one of my fingers; think of the fierce warmth of the woman waiting for me in the house; inhale the fresh cut grass smell that seems locked in the air like permanent incense; and listen to the drone of the crowd as below me Shoeless Joe Jackson tenses, watching the angle of the distant bat for a clue as to where the ball will be hit.

‘I think you’re right, Joe,’ I say, but softly enough not to disturb his concentration.” (p. 16-17)

The baseball diamond is heaven, because of their reverence for the game and the place.

However, Bender goes on to say that “What is significant about sacred places turns out not to be the places themselves. Their power lies within their role in marshalling our inner resources and binding us to our beliefs. Our act of ‘holding sacred’ is the root, not the place where we choose to carry out that act” (p. 324).

This is how a bar can be transformed into sacred space, even if it’s only for a night. The people in the bar were bound together in their beliefs – they held this Gospel Girls performance to be sacred and their time spent together made the bar a thin place where the visible and the invisible worlds intersected. There was a feeling of transcendence as people felt the spirit move within themselves and within others in the room. The experience brought them all together – it was a sacred communal event. These people formed community – even if just for one night – where they personally felt the sacred but also experienced it as a group. They were community, united by the spirit, bestowing sacredness to a place viewed by most of the world as profane.

What Makes Whosoever Sacred

Readers of Whosoever seem to agree with Bender that it’s not the place itself that is sacred but what we bring to that place – even if that place is in cyberspace.

Reader Angela Rose commented: “The concept of sacred space isn’t, to me, anything particularly specific to location or situation. Being behind the piano keyboard, at church or at home, often fits that description. My living room has a candle given to me by my ‘adopted mom’ to remember my mom – lighting that as a time to pause and reflect is a sacred space and time.”

Other readers have said similar things – what makes Whosoever a sacred place is the attitude they bring not only to the magazine itself but to the online chat groups that we host through Yahoo. To Whosoever‘s readers and list members there are many things that make it sacred cyberspace including a feeling of safety and support, a place where they are not judged, a place where they are challenged to think about God in new ways, and most importantly, Whosoever is sacred because it provides them a sense of community.

I’d like to share with you some of the comments from readers on why they consider Whosoever sacred cyberspace:

Reader George McCullough writes:

Whosoever is a place of sacredness because it brings about a calmness to my soul. I have peace knowing that I can go to the site and find calming, peaceful, information and even joy. It is great to be able to read how much God loves me just the way I am and that there are others out there who feel the same way. It is great to have a place to go and find peace and not hate – to find acceptance and not judgment.

Aaron Angel writes:

Whosoever has given me a place where I am not judged for who and what I am. A place that accepts me and allows me to define my own way of accepting and relating to the Sacredness of all around me. The “occupants” (if you want to call them that) of this ‘Online Sacred Garden’ are tender souls that have helped me to take the time to rebuild my identity with the Creator and to see how others view things in a non-confrontational way.

Gary Simpson puts it this way:

Sacred places do not exist in the presence of fear and hatred. The families of GLBT individuals may reject them. The rejection can be so strong some people feel they cannot easily handle going to major family functions such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Some queer people feel completely unaccepted in their families. They may come to Whosoever to feel affirmed by the sacred cyberspace during the really painful family times of the year.

Other queer Christians find the churches they attend or serve are very hostile to gay people. There is no safety there, so they find a sense of a sacredness in the sacred cyberspace at Whosoever. I think Whosoever creates the sacred space that queer Christians need to grow and mature in the Lord.

Sheri used Whosoever mainly as a resource when she lived in California. Now that she’s a new minister serving in rural Wisconsin, Whosoever has become more sacred to her. She writes:

Whosever gives me a place to hear from GLBT and supportive straight people in a Christian context and a place where I can freely speak to others about GLBT issues. In that way, it is a sacred place for me. Not just because of the theological context but the safety and freedom inherent in Whosoever.

Somer Taylor says she hasn’t found a church home in her community, so Whosoever serves as her spiritual home:

With Whosoever, I think that “sacred cyberspace” has been created because people can share their ideas, their prayer requests, their trials and joys and find someone who can relate to them. One does not have to be in the closet to share their ideas, their spiritual journey, as is often the case in other religious settings.

I think, for me, I experience God through Whosoever by hearing the testimonies of other people, the difficulties they face being gay and Christian and the triumphs that come when there is a positive bit of news about changing social/religious attitudes about GLBT people. These positive changes are really an answer to my and many others’ prayers.

I could share these kinds of letters for quite awhile, but like pictures of a new baby, it could get a little tedious for the audience, but not the parent. Let me share one more from Deanna who does a great job of summing up what all the other readers have expressed.

1. Whosoever is safe. You and all the rest of the board and staff (such as it is) attempt to create a place where people are not threatened merely for being different. When David moved the tabernacle into the city of Jerusalem, he did it for a couple of reasons, but at least part of it was the exposed nature of Shiloh. The tabernacle could not be defended, and at least a few priests died as a result. Sacred space must be safe from outside harm.

2. Whosoever is challenging. I always find myself mulling over an article or a bit of wisdom from a colleague. Like Moses at the burning bush, we meet God in the unexpected places and find ourselves pushed outside of ourselves.

3. Whosoever is communal. The people who share here share out of deep need to be heard and to listen. Though it is possible to worship in a closet, it is best to worship with two or three others (at the very least). Sharing heartfelt need is a fundamental part of prayer and worship.

So, even in cyberspace, a place not widely considered for its sacredness, these people approach Whosoever with a sense of the sacred. They meet God in the articles and in the community that they find at Whosoever. What makes Whosoever sacred for them is its safety, and only in safety can you truly allow your beliefs to be challenged, and they find others with whom they can share their thoughts and be vulnerable enough to explore their faith with other believers. It is not the physical place that is sacred – it is how that place is regarded by the people who visit that makes Whosoever sacred cyberspace.

The Challenges of Creating Sacred Cyberspace

That’s not to say that we’ve invented some form of cyber Utopia. If building sacred cyberspace were easy and the results perfect, everyone would do it. There would be no more need for church buildings or Sunday services. We could all just do it online, without leaving the comfort of our own homes.

There are some drawbacks and some severe limitations to cyberspace, and no matter how much we accomplish at Whosoever, and no matter how sacred the Web site is seen to be by its readers, Whosoever cannot fulfill all the spiritual needs of the GLBT community online.

Through Whosoever, I have done some spiritual direction online, using instant messaging programs to meet with directees. Before we begin a session, I’ll light a candle and spend a few minutes in silence preparing for the session. I ask the other person to do the same thing so we’ll both be in a place of peace when we begin the session. I’ve heard from directees that they get a lot out of online direction, but the complaint I hear most often is that they miss the bodily presence of a director. Somehow, doing direction online isn’t completely fulfilling to some people.

That is, I think, the biggest challenge to creating sacred cyberspace. We all need that bodily presence of other believers. At Whosoever, we’ve created an online community that prays together, laughs together, loves together, challenges one another and looks out for each other’s spiritual safety. But, we’re missing a key piece – bodily presence. Being present with one another online has a certain level of comfort, but it can’t compare to a hug, a smile or just the presence of another person in the room with you. The power of presence is what is missing from otherwise sacred space.

I understand this problem keenly myself. When Whosoever was in its first few years of existence, I was living a hermit lifestyle. I had left an 8 year relationship and had cut myself off from friends and church community. I had to leave the house for work and classes at seminary, but otherwise, I stayed home and barricaded myself off from the world. I felt like I had no need for community. God and I were doing just fine – and I had Whosoever. We had just begun our online community and I was very involved. Why did I need a church or other people’s bodily presence as long as I had my friends online?

During that time I was living in Atlanta and there was a service called “Webvan” which would deliver your groceries. You could go to their Web site, shop for groceries and have them delivered the next day. The delivery person would run your debit card through a handheld machine, you’d sign and they were on their way. If I could have found a telecommuting job and Webvan could have brought me beer, I don’t think I would have ever left the house! I think it was a year before I set foot in a grocery store again and that’s only because Webvan went out of business. But, there I was, living almost completely online, talking with people online, ordering my groceries online, doing whatever I could to form community without having to deal with the messiness of actually being with people.

I was lonely. Terribly lonely. I had great friends online, people who supported me, loved me, challenged me and made me feel safe. Whosoever was sacred to me and the community that formed there was a place I loved to be – but that bodily presence was missing and in the final analysis, that was one of the most important pieces of being spiritually whole.

So, I have arrived at the conclusion that no matter how sacred the cyberspace is that we create at Whosoever, we cannot provide all the tools for spiritual wholeness, because we can’t provide that bodily presence – not online anyway.

This challenge, however, has helped Whosoever come into a new phase of growth. We recently began what I’ve dubbed “Rainbow Fish” groups online. These groups are divided up by regions of the country. We do have two international groups that encompass Australia and New Zealand as well as the United Kingdom. The name, of course, comes from the “ichthus” (That is an acrostic which has many translations in English. The most popular appears to be “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” 16 [Iesous (Jesus) CHristos (Christ) THeou (God) Uiou (Son) Soter (Savior)] )that early Christians used to subversively point to their meetings. We use the sign of a Rainbow Fish to point to our meetings. My vision for these groups is that people will get to know others in their region of the country and that local, real life groups will spring from these groups. Already, we’re seeing success. A small Whosoever Rainbow Fish group is meeting in Tacoma, Washington and two other groups, the Southwest and the Southeast have talked of planning regional retreats – inviting people to come together for fellowship and fun. My hope is that interest will continue to grow within these groups and we’ll one day see a meeting on a national level – where Whosoeverans from all over the world can come together.

In this way, Whosoever is facing and overcoming its final challenge to creating the sacred – we can incorporate bodily presence into our ministry through local Whosoever Rainbow Fish groups and periodic national meetings. But, Whosoever‘s continued long term success can only be measured by the level of sacredness that people continue to hold for this ministry. I believe the moment that Whosoever‘s leadership and readers lose that sense of the sacred is the moment that Whosoever will no longer be an effective ministry. Whosoever relies on its readers and its leadership to bring their own sense of the sacred to the endeavor for it to continue doing God’s will in the world. This is something that, as the founder of Whosoever, I must always keep in the forefront of my mind.

Fascinated by the little things

As I stepped out of the shower recently, I pulled back the curtain to reveal our newest addition to our furry family, a caramel colored tabby kitten named Xena, sitting on the toilet seat. As I exited, she carefully stepped onto the damp rim of the tub and watched with focused attention as the water swirled down the drain.

I called her name a couple of times and tried to get her attention, but it was no use. Not even a few drops of water on her head could drag her attention away from the water as it flowed down the drain.

“Soon you won’t be so fascinated by the little things,” I laughed as I began to dry off. Suddenly, those words hit me and I was immediately overcome by a sense of sadness. Isn’t that how we all lose a sense of the sacred, by no longer being fascinated by the little things? We start to take the sacred for granted and it no longer holds meaning for us.

I’ve experienced this myself with Whosoever. Talking with my spiritual director recently I realized that no matter how others felt about Whosoever, it was no longer sacred to me. Instead, Whosoever had become a job, a chore – something I had to get done. I was making lists, scheduling time to get things done and generally feeling annoyed that I had so much work to do. In short, I had stopped be fascinated by the little things associated with maintaining Whosoever – updating pages, sending out information, talking with my volunteers, tending to my writers. It had become work. It was no longer a joy.

I had to stop and reassess my own feelings toward Whosoever. Ten years ago, I felt a little like Ray in Shoeless Joe. He heard a voice, “Build it and he will come.” I had that same sort of experience. I was prompted by a vision to build Whosoever – and over the past decade they have come. The number of visitors has increased each year. Now, we receive more than half a million visitors each year.

Ray also heard another voice later in the book which said, “Ease his pain.” This too has been Whosoever‘s goal – to ease the pain of those GLBT believers who have been hurt deeply by the church. I receive plenty of email from people who have discovered Whosoever and feel its sacredness. Their pain has been eased by the resources they have found within the pages of the magazine and they write to tell me so. Sure, there are those who are like Ray’s brother who don’t understand the sacredness of Whosoever and only see it as profane. I pray that one day they too will experience a miracle like Ray’s brother and begin to see Whosoever with new eyes.

Beginning Whosoever was a sacred act for me, but it had turned into work instead of worship. I had to decide if it was even sacred to me anymore and if it was, how could I recapture that sense of sacredness? My online community came to my rescue. I posed the question to them about sacredness and Whosoever. I’ve already read many of their responses to you, but reading about how other people view Whosoever and how sacred it is to them renewed my own sense of awe in this ministry. Now, I realize, every duty associated with the ministry is sacred from updating pages to sending out information to talking to volunteers and writers. It can all seem like little things, but if the little things are no longer sacred, how can we find sacredness in the big things?

Recently, I was compiling an email list of churches that were open to GLBT people, not just Metropolitan Community Churches, but mainstream churches that welcomed us. This was a tedious task that involved looking at church Web sites and finding email addresses for their leaders. As I engaged in this chore, I was overwhelmed by a sense of awe. When Whosoever began ten years ago, there were very few mainstream churches out there who accepted the GLBT believers among them. Over the past decade, however, there has been an explosion of inclusion in mainstream churches. There are some days that I despair over the church, believing that GLBT people have not made many inroads into mainstream denominations, but there I was visiting Web sites of Presbyterians, Methodists, United Churches of Christ, Lutherans and probably the most surprising, Baptist Church Web sites that were all open and affirming of GLBT people. I had to stop and cry. It filled my heart with such joy to see that over the ten years that Whosoever had been toiling in the field, working to assure GLBT people of God’s love for them, you all were working right along with me. My tedious chore turned into worship – a sacred exercise of watching God grow the hearts and minds of thousands of people. It’s a wonderful experience to be completely surprised by joy.

Ultimately, I think this is the key to the sacred – it doesn’t have to be a particular place, but the sacredness of anything in our lives hinges on how we view it and what sort of awe and reverence we bring to it. That way, anything can be sacred, even places we might not think of immediately as being sacred – a bar, a baseball field, a Web site.

Thomas Bender puts it this way:

“In the end, all that really matters is that we approach wherever we live with full attention and an open heart. We must let our hearts guide us in deciding how we will inhabit that place. An open heart will embrace any new place and bring to it what is needed for a good life. It will find and make in it the ‘wholiness’ that brings us to hold our places sacred.” (p. 333)

I submit to you that it is the full attention and the open hearts that create sacred cyberspace at Whosoever. We encounter the sacred when we feel safe, when we feel accepted, when we feel peace, when we feel inspiration and awe, when we are able to be vulnerable enough to be challenged and to grow, and when we feel part of a community. Despite the shortcomings of the Internet, Whosoever has created a sacred cyberspace where its members feel safe and have found ways to rekindle their relationship with God.

I challenge you to renew your fascination with the little things, approach all parts of your life with full attention and an open heart, and begin to see with new eyes the sacredness that is all around you.