Safe Facilities: Places

Where the light is brightest, the shadows cast are the longest. Faith and values-based organizations lend to those who take part in them an air of goodness. 

The language, associations, and vows made through church membership are no exception. Trust is a natural part of working within a congregation. It should be. Trust must not be an excuse for avoiding tackling the difficult challenge of abuse. The light must shine on all that we do. The purpose and history of our church are profound. These can be lost through wrongful acts in the shadows.

Summary

  • Recognize predators target organizations where they are assumed to be “good” through membership.
  • Utilize light, light control technology, and line of sight to reduce the availability of spaces where harm can occur.
  • Utilize sound for detecting atypical activity.
  • Know the people and facility while letting the spirit guide you.

Membership Vows of The United Methodist Church

“To renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of their sin;

To accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression;

To confess Jesus Christ as Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord;

To faithfully participate in its ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness;”[1]

Who would not believe those engaged in these commitments are good? How can one “resist evil, justice, and oppression” while committing abuse? Remember, where the light is brightest, shadows are the longest. That is for good and evil. It is hard to understand what you cannot see on the backside of the “good person” perpetrator. It becomes even harder to identify them once they stand in the light. They know the right words, put on the right clothes, and share time with us. When the truth is revealed, the damage stretches far beyond the victim or the immediate group. It does not start with the worst offense but slowly and innocuously creeps into the frame. Keep the light encompassing and bright with the caution high.

We need to move from thinking about rules to protect the vulnerable into a protection culture. We look at all the aspects of what might open the door to abuse. Our culture needs to become a way of seeing every situation. We must look through this lens at the buildings, facilities, and places we minister. 

Three parts will always be present when abuse occurs. 

  1. The opportunity 
  2. The People [both abuser and victim(s)]
  3. A Place

The United Methodists constructed most of our buildings before the awareness of the prevalence of abuse. In 2007, the CDC issued its guidelines for youth-serving organizations to prevent child sexual abuse. [2]  A checklist for evaluating our spaces is on page 36. But before you take the checklist in hand, consider three more ideas. 

The thing that makes a facility available for abuse is a lack of detection. There are gifts God has given to us: sight, hearing, and feeling. Use these primary gifts in evaluating how to change or manage a facility.

Considerations for visibility

Lighting is a primary element of vision. Lighting needs to be proper so that the whole space within a room is visible. Look to remove shadows and dark spaces. Take special consideration with basements, closet spaces, or low-traffic areas. For infrequently used spaces or specially controlled spaces, use a motion sensor to control the light. The light being on gives those passing by a quick sign of activity. Lighting in hallways, bathrooms, stairwells, basements, and closets is also important. People need to be conscious of the lights that are on.

Line of sight is the next consideration. Can you stand at the door and see the entire space with good lighting? Do the doors have windows? With the door closed, a monitor should be able to see the whole space. Adjoining rooms or closets, need to be in a clear line of sight or inaccessible. 

Conversation spaces need to be available. These spaces are open for viewing and allow a degree of privacy in the conversation. Never be alone. Be visible. Utilize this possibility for discretion with safety.

Signage and education are also in the visible tool kit. “No Youth Allowed” or “Restricted Access” messages signal a victim being taken to a secluded area to not go. These signals are only valuable if the reader understands them. Teach the whole congregation about the spaces that are for their use. Share why the others are not. Utilizing color-coded signage is an effective technique. Green means go. Red means stop.

Considerations for hearing

Sound allows us a second tool for identifying problems. Become mindful of the typical sounds of the ministry. Listen intently at varying times. Vary the locations where you listen. This awareness will aid in finding potential abuse and other problems. 

There are low-cost sound monitoring devices that can allow for the monitoring of isolated spaces. These tools are available for safety well beyond protecting the vulnerable. They can assist in the early detection of water leaks, fires, or other hazards. Posting notices of cameras or sound devices also alerts a potential predator that you are vigilant. Check your local and state laws about the use of these tools.

Considerations for feeling

The gift of discernment is a gift of the spirit. While discernment is different from intuition, the two are cousins that can also be assets to the work. Discernment is the ability to judge well, informed by knowledge. In Christian contexts, it is a perception in the absence of personal judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual guidance and understanding.[3]  While using our knowledge is a vital resource, discounting a feeling or gut response may be an error. This is the most difficult part of protecting the vulnerable. It requires both thought and feeling, listening to the spirit while acknowledging we all have biases. Walking with a bit of extra caution throughout the building because something does not feel right, is a faithful response.

Where humans are there will be harm. The first siblings, Cain and Able, are examples of the need to protect from the sin crouching at the door. God calls us to care for those in need and to protect the vulnerable. We need to utilize the natural gifts we are given, paired with research and technology to do all we can. This is not just about the vulnerable but also those who would fall into sin by harming others. We live into the grace of protection and prevention.

[1] https://www.umc.org/en/content/our-united-methodist-vows, retrieved April 26, 2022. The listing here is not a full quote.

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/preventingchildsexualabuse-a.pdf Retrieved April 26, 2022

[3] Google’s English dictionary is provided by Oxford Languages.


Published by Steven Scheid

Dir. Center for Scouting Ministries

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