One year ago, I was living halfway around the world — in a place whose mere mention made many inquire, “Is it safe over there?” The answer to their question is “Yes.” As for the answer to mine, I do not know.
Just before leaving to go “over there,” I was in a place not unlike here — a retreat center in rural Pennsylvanian woods. It was a place and a time of preparing and anticipating, shared with 50 other soon to be international volunteers. We were from the United States, Canada, Germany, Bolivia, Egypt, and maybe half a dozen other countries. We were members of many different church traditions — mainline Protestant, Anabaptist, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic. When we first arrived at this retreat center, we were all strangers, but over the course of our far-too-short time together in that serenely simple setting, we became family. This, we all knew, was a safe place.
Over the course of those few days, it seemed that everyone listened well, gave and received support, conversed in flawless cultural sensitivity, proclaimed the justice of God with one heart and mind, somehow managed to set aside their personal fears and abide in a nearly palpable peace. Time and time again, volunteers, including myself, sang the praises of this place and time: “I know it sounds kinda strange or, sappy, or whatever, but it just feels like the Kingdom of God here!” “Yeah yeah, I know exactly what you mean!”
On our last night together, just before leaving in the morning to serve the church all over the world, we put on an uproarious talent show — followed by a spontaneous 50-person dance circle. We are moving, clapping, chanting, cheering. The joy in the air feels contagious, and my smile feels solidified on my face until one of the young men grabs the arm of another young man, pulls him into the circle’s center, where the two start to hop around in an intentionally awkward embrace, performing a fast-paced mock-waltz.
And immediately, the group explodes in laughter. Everyone here, it seems, finds the very idea of two men dancing together inherently funny. It is, it will always be, something to point at, something to laugh at, it is, it will always be, nothing but a joke.
My smile cracks and slowly crumbles under the mounting force of the pain hidden behind it. I leave the circle in silence, unable to voice my question: is any place safe?
William Stell graduated from Wheaton College with his BA in 2012.