The latest incarnation of #metoo unfolded recently at a megachurch in Chicago, and my thoughts have been with the woman who brought her dark secret to light. I am in awe of the strength it took for her to reveal abuse perpetrated by such a highly respected pastor.
Church power structures have long tried to make the victims the problem, but that lie is being revealed for what it is. When any institution, including the church, operates as if normal rules do not apply to them, they open themselves up to sexual abuse. It is inevitable
The stories coming from Willow Creek confirm what so many women within church walls have known forever: being sexually assaulted within a sanctuary carries additional confusing burdens beyond the universal trauma of violence. The burdens include worrying about breaking up congregations, knowing the minister is revered, and holding a deep desire to live faithfully with the ideal of forgiveness.
I know. I was a victim of sexual abuse by a church leader. After my father, a beloved pastor, was killed by a drunk driver, I became a target for a church elder who preyed on the most vulnerable. I was six years old when the abuse started. My first memory of assault happened during a spaghetti supper in the fellowship hall. The assaults continued over the next three years, but I kept it a secret from everyone. I believed it was my burden and my duty to forgive. And move on.
Women have been assaulted by pastors and elders in every denomination and in every generation. I envision them applauding Pat Baranowski and the other brave women of Willow Creek who have come forward. I can almost hear the murmur of prayers offered by women who have suffered in silence for generations. They are strengthened by truth being revealed and praying that younger women will be spared the burdens of abuse and silence. I’ve said those same prayers.
Shortly after I was ordained I opened Thistle Farms, a sanctuary for women survivors of trafficking, assault and addiction. Our community’s mantra is simply #loveheals, and the healing I still needed became clear. It was time to tell my story and acknowledge some of my oldest wounds. I found the courage to confront my abuser. I offered the secret story back to him – as well as to a community of women bearing their own trauma, resentment, and fear. In giving my story back, in finding loving communities that respect the dignity of all people, and in doing the work of helping others, I have found real freedom and forgiveness.
I applaud the women who break up dysfunctional communities with the ploughshare of truth. I applaud communities which speak out about sexual abuse within sacred walls. And I respect the guts it takes for survivors to say, “#metoo.” The hallowed and hard ground of abuse within the church requires us all to begin a complicated and delicate walk towards healing. Abuse survivors who come forward need allies. They need spaces to speak the truth – where the only question is “tell me what happened to you.” Women’s stories, like those revealed at Willow Creek and like mine, can transform brokenness into compassion. They can transform blame for victims into support for survivors.
I pray that more women and men find the freedom to move from silence to acknowledgement of #churchtoo – as they support survivors on a path of healing. Healing is close to the heart of God. Truth makes the wound visible. Love heals.