How to Run a Special Needs Ministry

My first piece of advice when running a group for people with special needs or any mental health condition is contrary to the typical rhetoric surrounding these things in contemporary culture. The first rule of safe spaces are to set boundaries and expect delicacy. That’s a problem for the obvious reasons that when handling mental health and special needs issues, they’re going to cross those boundaries and then get in trouble or feel ashamed. The sentiment is counterproductive to a demographic famous for its lacking social skills.

The culture needs to be tolerant of deviancies and when someone makes another uncomfortable, that should not be admonished in the minor cases but tolerated. Because if it is not tolerated, then it is not going to be a safe space for anyone prone to offend. The manner in which one forges a community for special needs people is not to sanitize the discourse of all things unseemly but to create a place where, barring extreme circumstances, everyone is accepted and we endure one another’s flaws and annoyances out of love.

With regards to the protection of minorities and other marginalized groups, the tendency has been to protect them from symbolic oppression like blackface and appropriation or disturbing an old aboriginal site with a residential development or celebrating a ceremonial monarchy and things like that. In that context, the precise words used are important but it does not actually foster a society where people love each other despite differences. In fact, that makes it all worse because if a cultural difference makes someone more prone to offend then they cannot be loved and accepted.

Conservative Muslims and old fashioned Southerners are going to have some homophobia and some feminists are going to have some transphobia and so on. Hobos are going to catcall, that’s what they do, but if we deride them as misogynists, we’ll never be able to help them. In the end, if a safe space is a place where no one can be flawed or uncouth then everyone will be fake and everyone will be afraid and the entire aim of the safe space will be defeated. The aim of a safe space should be a place of Danish hygge, Southern hospitality, where we party like the Spanish, and eat like the Italians. Not a place where everyone is somber, crying, and telling each other they’re brave because no one’s serotonin goes up that way.

A safe space is a refugee camp where the broken can be broken and have a smash being it. Where our less polite qualities may be exposed without fear and where we all forgive one another because we’re family and that’s what family does. Saturnalia at the Calais Jungle to give a happy ending to a Steinbeck novel. Famously, the marginalized have never conformed well to bourgeois standards of conduct and giving the old Victorian rules a veneer of social justice is not going to cheer those people up. It will suffocate them, censor them, and it won’t cure their sorrows. What will bring hope to the metaphorical Calais Jungle is a Saturnalia. Well, a cleaner version of Saturnalia.

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