Social Justice Session: Place and Space

During our Friday sessions, some of our time has been set aside to discuss issues of social justice. Each of us will have the opportunity to lead the conversation on a matter that’s important to us, and Chloe continued the series by sharing about Place and Space.  


Place and Space

“How could our hearts be large enough for heaven if they are not large enough for earth?” – Scott Russell Sanders

Close your eyes and think of your favorite place besides your home in a town, city, or village that you’ve spent a lot of time in.

Open your eyes and reflect on the place you chose. Why did you choose it? Do you have a memory or memories associated with that place? What makes that place comforting, exciting, or necessary to you?

When geographers talk about “place,” they aren’t just talking about a physical location. In fact, there are three fundamental aspects that create a “place.” First, there is the fixed, objective aspect of place: it is a location that can be found on a map. Second, there is the “locale” of place. Locale refers to both the materials that make up the place whether that be bricks and mortar or grass and swing-sets as well as the history of the place.  And finally there is the “sense” of place: the subjective, emotional, and personal attachment that individuals have for that place. Place is a meaningful location formed through ritual and routine. It is the local library down the road or the grassy public park behind the school. Space, on the other hand, is an undefined area without these layers of personal and shared meaning.

When we think about “environmental issues,” sometimes our minds go straight to Nature, or the idea of wild animals living in far-away lands untouched by humans.  When we think about Creation Care, we might think about protecting endangered species or national parks. It isn’t about people.

In his essay “Buckeye,” Scott Russell Sanders describes his childhood home in rural Ohio, now scarred and polluted. Grieving for the destruction of this place he loves, Sanders says:

“We had no shared lore, no literature, no art to root us there, to give us courage, to help us stand our ground. The only maps we had were those issued by the state, showing a maze of numbered lines stretched over emptiness. The Ohio landscape never showed up on postcards or posters, never unfurled like tapestry in films, rarely filled even a paragraph in books.”

This destruction of places is deeply connected to our nation’s racist history. White settlers, for example, saw this land as empty space, while the Native Americans that already lived here saw the land as a place, full of memory and meaning. What might be empty space for us, might be a sacred place for someone else.

The way that we see place and space has everything to do with the racism and ecological devastation built into our system. The theologian and pastor, Dr. Willie Jennings describes in his lecture “The Origin of Race,” the relationship between race and place, and he reveals the Church’s involvement in creating the current system of injustice. Sanctioned by the Church, White settlers forcibly displaced both Native Americans and the Africans that were brought to the Americas as slaves, violently separating them from the places that were steeped in generations of meaning and cultural identity. Jennings says this trauma has become a part of the land itself as well as generational trauma of those peoples. And he reveals what our role can be in addressing this injustice and generational trauma.

First, he tells us to both learn the history of our places and the spaces and to tell their stories. We must start asking questions like, who lived here before I did? What was this building before it was a library or a church? And who are my neighbors, past and present? Through her placement at Messiah College’s Center for Public Humanities, corps member Elisabeth connects with students who work on a project called Digital Harrisburg, an online curation of the social history of Harrisburg, which includes interactive historical maps of the city as well as a series of place-based oral histories called the “Finding Home Collection.” You can learn more about the history of Harrisburg as a place and the ongoing efforts to tell those stories here: https://digitalharrisburg.com/

Second, Jennings urges us to involve ourselves in what he calls the geographic shaping of our cities, towns, and villages. The fact that poverty can lie across train tracks, or a river, or sometimes just a few streets over from wealth is no accident. It is all based on human-made decisions that become policy through city planning and zoning. And because they are human-made, we can speak out and change them. You can learn more about racially-discriminating practices like redlining here: https://smartasset.com/mortgage/what-is-redlining, or find a City of Harrisburg planning commission or zoning hearing board meeting here: https://cityofharrisburg.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/115002346628-2019-HARB-ZHB-and-Planning-Commission-Schedule

And finally, Jennings says that we must reframe our theological and cultural ideas around Christian discipleship to focus on the here and now of place. He asserts that the Church’s historical emphasis on time and God’s kingdom as a future reality in a “New Heaven and Earth” is a heresy, declaring that space and place are just as important to God as time. Because of this, we need to develop a vision for the redemption of our spaces and places, of cities like Harrisburg. For Episcopalians, we have spiritual disciplines and practices, like prayer in the Daily Office or the liturgical calendar, that focus on the temporal aspect of our incarnate faith. But what about the spatial? How do we embrace our local places and spaces? What can you do now in the season of Lent to learn, confess, or fight the injustice within your city, town, or village?

If you have any comments or questions, be sure to start the discussion below. We will be continuing our social justice session next week with a discussion led by Katie about mental health.


Dr. Willie Jenning’s lecture “The Origin of Race” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5ZGwuwcHV0&t=2542s

Scott Russell Sanders, “Buckeye,” https://www.terrain.org/essays/29/sanders.htm

Tim Cresswell, Place: an Introduction

Above image by Manchester Archives+ in the public domain.