In July 2014, I participated in the dedication of the first ever translation of New Testament into the Arsi Oromo dialect. My ministry, in partnership with the Ethiopian Bible Society, did the translation work. Since the Bible is for all people we invited leaders from all churches including the Orthodox and Catholic denominations. We initially rented a public hall but later on changed to a church because the hall could not accommodate all our guests. However, this made some of our non-evangelical guests unhappy, especially the Orthodox priests who see Protestants churches as their antagonists. For this reason, the Orthodox priests declined our invitation. Thus, in competing religious communities like mine, space is understood not as merely as the objective bodily surface where social relations and events take place, but in relation to the social identities of the people who belong to the space. So, what is the practical approach to bridge the social divide between these communities?
In his book Social Geographies: Space And Society, Gill Valentine discusses how geographers and social scientists have evolved in thinking about social relations. In the past, Gill states, space “was conceptualized as an objective physical surface with specific fixed characteristic upon which social categories were mapped out. Likewise, social identities were taken for granted as “fixed’ and mutually exclusive” (p.7). However, Gill tells us that geographers are shifting from dualistic way of thinking and increasingly ‘imagining a somewhere else’, a ‘paradoxical space’ or ‘Thirdspace’(p.6). These different conceptualizations of space, Gill contends, “represent ways of thinking about the world which focus on ‘the production of heterogeneous spaces of ’radical openness’” (p.7). It is obvious from my story above that people would feel much more comfortable in a thirdspace because it provides a social environment away from the usual meeting places, such as a church. The author references Susan Smith who argues the concept of Thirdspace:
Turns our attention away from the givens of social categories and toward the strategies process of identification. It forces us to accept the complexity, ambiguity and multidimensionality of identity and captures the way that class, gender, and ‘race’ cross-cut and intersect in different ways at different times and places (p.7).
Thus, if thirdspace is importance to community building as it is separate from usually social environments of places I wonder what it takes to convince churches leaders to seek out thirdspace as a current social need? In my experience, our church’s leaders often push back on the ideal facilitating ministry in the thirdspace. We would like others to come to where we are as opposed to meeting them where they are. About three years ago, I suggested to our church leaders to have an open-community meeting not in the church but at a public space so that our non-Christian community could come to the music concert I helped organize. I was told, “it is not right to close the house of the Lord on Sunday.” Well, a couple months later we had to move from the church building because it was on sale. I am not judging my leaders level of understanding but simply to show that it makes them uncomfortable to be in the thirdspace. Along with the idea of thirdspace, it is equally important that people are trained in how to engage with others in thirdspaces. When I think about how my community of believers in matters of faith engage with others in thirdspaces, such as facebook and other social medias, due to lack of relevant training, people are engaged in an unhealthy discourse. How does your church utilize a thirdspace? What are your challenges?