I was 24 years old and a brand-new pastor when I had my first experience with sexual assault in my congregation.*
A new member, a delightful woman nearing middle age, originally from Turkey, pulled me aside at coffee hour. I could hear the anxiety in her voice as she asked if she could talk to me privately. “Of course,” I answered.
I was thrilled that this woman had joined our small-but-growing congregation. She was lovely to be around, and had immediately volunteered to serve on our congregational care team after she joined the church. She was part of the “new life” of this congregation that we were all hoping would happen, this congregation that had been on the brink of death for many years.
We stepped into my office, a small, dark and windowless room covered in wood paneling. Before I could even ask her to sit down or even ask her what was going on, her story tumbled out. Tears formed in her eyes.
It was an older white man in our congregation, a man much older than she was. She had agreed to spend an afternoon with him, thinking that he was old and lonely and needed company. He had forced himself on her. She had gotten away, jumping out of the car, but was shaken. Now, she told me, she was terrified and didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to be around him. She didn’t want to tell anyone about it because she didn’t want anyone to think she had acted inappropriately or was (in her words) a “gold-digger” that had spent time with him for nefarious reasons.
“I don’t know what to do,” she was saying, as my head was spinning with the reality of the story. What the hell am I going to do about this? I was thinking. The man she was describing was a long-time member, an established person in the congregation.
She continued. “I’m thinking, should I leave the congregation? Should I just go away? I think I just need to leave.”
Those were the words that cut through my shock. “This is not your fault,” I said, jolted into the training I had received as a crisis counselor in college. “This is not your fault. I am so sorry this happened.”
I paused. “But don’t leave. We can make this right.”
What I was trying to say: You are such a wonderful human, and I love that you are here. This was not your fault, and you should not have to leave because of his actions. Please stay, because you did nothing wrong here. Please do not let this guy ruin the goodness you have found here.
I know now, looking back, how tone-deaf my response was to her. How, in that response, I showed her that I cared more about her role in the institution than the terror of her story. How quickly I skimmed over her own feelings of shame, guilt, panic, and fear – the emotions that come so quickly when one has been the victim of a sexual assault. How quickly I centered my own emotions of anger, failure, disappointment, and fear of incompetence over her experience and emotions.
She was wiser than I was. She did not come back. She did not answer my phone calls or emails when I tried to reach out in the coming days and weeks. She made her decision to protect herself, and stuck by it.
She was so much wiser than I was. Wiser because ultimately, when I brought this situation to the leadership of the church, nothing happened. The man was never confronted. The assault went unnoticed, silenced, invisible. With no victim present in the congregation, no one seemed to know what to do. I was left wringing my hands, stewing in my anger at the inaction, but also completely at a loss as to what should happen next.
I was, after all, a long-haired and lovely 24-year-old woman, and I certainly did not want to confront this man alone. So I choked on my own silence, and tried to move on.
Do you know what it feels like to be burned, when the steam from cooking rice rises against your arm, or you grasp a pan on the stove without an oven mitt?
Do you know how that burned part of your skin then for days cannot tolerate the most gentle of touches, even the soft sleeve of a cotton shirt, or the gentle touch of your lovers hand? And that wool sweater that you could barely tolerate before the burns – well that’s just not even an option anymore.
That is what my own experience has been like over the past two years, and in particular the past two weeks, with regards to sexual abuse and assault. I suspect it is the same for many white women. I say “white women” because my sense is that women of color have been experiencing this for many many years, and that in so many ways white women have long-identified themselves with the power and success of white men, and thus have neglected to recognize, until now, the way(s) that they suffer under the highly patriarchal systems that are endemic to our society. Women of color have not had that luxury, and thus, are not necessarily experiencing the “awakening” in the same numbers that white women are. In other words, what feels new and horrible to white women I suspect is old (and still horrible) to women of color. Women of color by and large have been “awake” for a very, very long time. In many quarters, it has taken the election of Donald Trump, an admitted sexual abuser, to the office of president, for white women to start really listening to themselves, and to others.
Thus, it has not been an easy time, recently, for women in the church – in part because our stories are finally being seen and heard. And not just women, either – with the cases of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, children too are being noticed.
We aren’t liking what we see. And it makes it so much harder to participate in things that used to feel good at best, or harmless at worst.
For me, I feel this acutely when I am in church.
I was seminary-educated by Baptists and PhD-educated by Catholics – two groups who are not well-known for being affirmative of women in leadership. I have had to make a lot of room for the opinions and language of men (and a few women) with whom I disagreed. I have never loved the highly-gendered nature of some religious language; I have always known that using a male pronoun for God could be idolatrous. But I have also accepted it in many cases as harmless and something that I could tolerate in order to be in community with other people. I am a pastor, and part of my life’s work is staying in the room even when I disagree with the people in it.
Over the past two years, that tolerance has begun to disintegrate. This is where my skin – burned so many times over my life by disrespect, abuse and assault by men – is becoming exposed, and I am finding it increasingly difficult to sit in spaces where God is referred to exclusively as “He,” where the only visual images are ones of men, where the only bodies who stand and speak are male bodies. What used to feel harmless has gradually been becoming intolerable, and I cannot sit peacefully in these religious spaces right now. It does not feel good anymore.
It’s not that anything has changed, really – it’s that I have been slowly realizing how radically inhospitable some of our religious spaces are – to people of color, to white women, to LGBTQ persons, to people who are differently-abled.
To sexual assault survivors.
Have you ever wondered why the many stories of sexual abuse and assault in the Bible are papered over, silenced, never read in church?
Did you even know those stories were there? They are. Many of them.
Why do you think the Church has demonstrated such inability to tell the actual stories that are in the Bible, instead opting to sanitize and “clean up” (silence) the voices of victims and survivors that are part of our holy scriptures?
Do you think it might be the same reason we have failed so often in providing support and care for real-life survivors?
You don’t have to stay.
If you are someone who, like me, is finding church to be incredibly difficult these days-
If you are someone for whom things that used to feel comfortable are suddenly feeling wrong –
If you are someone with a story to tell that has never been told before-
I suspect I am trying to make amends with my own past, with the first woman who ever came to me about sexual assault in church, by saying this to you: You don’t have to stay.
You need to do whatever feels safe for you. You don’t have to keep rubbing that wool sweater up against your burned skin. You are allowed to protect yourself. You do not have to stay.
And you are not alone. If you do need to take a step back, or take some time off, or leave altogether, people will be sad. Pastors, like me, will be sad. We will feel all kinds of complicated things because we desperately want and need you in our congregations. And our congregations will miss you, and be poorer for the lack of your presence and voice.
But if we are worth anything we will support you in taking care of you. And, if you’re open to it, we will go out of our way to maintain a friendship and relationship with you. You are not alone, and you won’t be.
I will be staying, for now. But I have left before. I have taken time off, not knowing if I would return, in the wake of trauma and tragedy. I have decided that I would never come back. I did come back, but that’s just my story. It might be yours too, but it doesn’t have to be.
And if you do stay, if leaving feels like it would be one more “win” for your abuser and you aren’t willing to do that – know, too, that you are not alone. There are many of us who have your back. Find your tribe. Find those with whom you can speak truth, even when it’s not pretty. Find those who can hear your anger and hold it with you. Find those who can grieve with you.
Because you are so valuable, in or outside of the organized religion. Your story matters. And your present health does, too.
I’m in your corner.
*note: identifying details of this story have been changed in order to protect the privacy of those involved.