By Bette “Cupcake” Crawford

We’ve pretty much had it with the usual arguments about “faith in the public square.”  

No matter how lofty they sound, most “faith in the public square” arguments boil down to “My faith gets to be front and center all the time and yours doesn’t.” In laws, policies, practices, signage and statuary in and around public schools and government buildings. This is supremacist thinking, thinly disguised as “courageously standing up for morality.”

We have been through it all, including battles around “separation of Church and State” and whether the Constitution even actually guarantees it. Whether it does or not, the town finally decided to support the idea. Some of that support was grudging, but after a long history of Backwater Bay conflict, most of us thought it really was for the best. 

It didn’t settle our trouble. We aren’t immune to the temptations and adrenaline surges of the politics of polarization, self-righteousness, and supremacy. We’ve fought over issues: abortion and other reproductive justice matters, environmental protection, inclusion of LGBTQ people, Black Lives Matter signs. We were at sometimes ugly odds over trans access to public bathrooms and protection of Indigenous sacred sites.

Then it got worse. We went through a horrible extended time, with various groups getting vandalized and firebombed and death threats.

No one was killed or seriously maimed, but we were lucky. There were some injuries and damage. People were shocked and hurt and distrustful. Everybody began to see themselves as being hated, though not hateful to others. But when you’re feeling attacked, siege mentality sets in. And that sometimes stokes the idea that the people who feel hated need to destroy the haters.

This wasn’t just “Us” and “Them.” It was “Us.” We were doing it to ourselves and each other. Who should be held accountable for actual and threatened violence? How?

Should we accuse, arrest, and jail each other in round-robin incarceration frenzies? But

we were already in the process of converting the old jail to a greenhouse for the public medicinal plant garden and weren’t about to turn that clock back. We could hold people accountable for harm they actually did, but what about the bigger problems?

Most of the adults in our community (including me) were too jaded and cynical at the time to be of much use. At the suggestion of Aurelia Gold, public school principal and teacher, we asked students in our K-12 schools to take a crack at coming up with fresh ideas.

The basic approach came from Aurelia’s 7th graders, but suggestions from other classes were also incorporated into plans. Then they were fleshed out in conversations with students, a local architect, and representatives from all of Backwater Bay’s religious and spiritual communities, plus the LGBTQ dance club.

Details were hammered out at many meetings, all of them featuring delicious refreshments and none of them lasting longer than 90 minutes.

Here’s what the kids said:

  • Shut up. We’re sick of it.
  • If you don’t do something differently, we’re the ones most likely to get hurt.
  • Do it without cops.
  • Instead of acting shocked when something horrible happens, make everyone responsible for having it NOT happen.
  • Do this by making it so that if something terrible happens, it happens to everybody.
  • That way, people don’t have to like each other. We just have to decide that safety is something we are always having to make happen together.

The basic idea is that “what affects one of us affects us all.” The Backwater Bay approach addresses this, literally, in a structural way.

We won’t reveal all the design secrets, but now our spiritual/faith/agnostic/atheist communities, plus the LGBTQ dance club and the local I-Ching study group have located their congregations/gatherings in one big, interconnected, architecturally diverse structure. We either go down together or flourish together. In the meantime, we all see one another more than usual, and we have to work together to share use of the common spaces.

It’s been iffy at times. On the other hand: things are changing in unexpected ways.

This is where we are. What about you? We’d love to hear.