#metoo & what can the clergy do?

More than ten years ago activist Tarana Burke created a hashtag, #metoo, with the goal of helping survivors of sexual violence and harassment find solidarity, to know they are not alone. (Please read more about Ms Burke’s work in this article from CNN and you can follow her on Twitter at @TaranaBurke).

Over this past weekend, in response to allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag went viral and Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms were swimming with #metoo posts. The idea was that everyone who had experienced sexual harassment, abuse, discrimination, rape, and other forms of violence should put this on their status to draw attention to the scope, the reality of the problem.

As with all things, the controversy started immediately. What should have been a movement for survivors to break their silence, to tell their own stories, to feel as if they were not alone in the world dealing with the repercussions of someone else’s actions, turned into a debate about who was allowed to use the hashtag (could men who have been harassed/abused also participate?), and more.

Some people were unprepared, shocked to discover that folks they know and love had experienced this violation. They were overwhelmed to discover that nearly every woman they know has a story.

Some were jerks, claiming people were only doing this to get attention, and contributing to rape culture by saying that if women would only dress modestly, or behave themselves, or not put themselves in dangerous situations then it wouldn’t happen. Mr Eric Trump even went so far as to say that if a woman can’t handle the harassment, she “doesn’t belong in the workforce”. (See reference here).

And for survivors, it was a mixed reaction. Some people were able to immediately embrace the hashtag and publicly claiming their story. Others were afraid, and rightly so, because of the public risk of being outed as a survivor, of the repercussions where they work, and with their family and friends. Some, myself included, felt a bit guilty or shamed if we didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon and tag ourselves #metoo (and sadly there was more than a bit of shaming of those of us who didn’t make a post, including one person who told me I was “betraying the sisterhood of survivors” by not participating).

There was a lot of ranking of experiences with survivors saying “well it wasn’t that bad” or “my friend had it worse” and “it didn’t matter too much”, all ways we’ve learned to normalize predatory behaviors as part of our everyday life. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t the oppression Olympics … your experience didn’t have to end you up in the hospital for it to be valid, and it’s not a competition on who had it worse. None of us should have to have experienced what we did. Period.)

And then just about every survivor I know was somehow triggered by the posts, their own stories brought back to them in fear, memories we thought we had safely stored away dragged back without any warning on a random Sunday in October, causing us to lose sleep, relive our worst moments, and question everything all over again.

Amid all of this there has been some commentary from church communities. I thank the UCC’s general minister and president, the Rev John Dorhauer, for the words in his blog Into The Mystic.

But, it also brought up something that had been stirring in my mind long before #metoo made it into everyone’s consciousnesses – that clergy need something to say, to have a statement they can post on their Facebook pages, on their church websites, outside their office doors, or wherever they can to make sure survivors know they are someone committed to hearing their stories with dignity, and respect. We needed a Break The Silence Sunday promise from the clergy, a few well chosen sentences that would be our promise – to survivors, to God, and to ourselves – that we will wade into the hard work or honoring survivors, of listening, and of believing.

With the help of some good friends I’ve wrestled this week with the words. It’s not perfect, far from it, but it’s a place to start. I’m including it here, in full, and also a link to a PDF form of the document here: BTSS Clergy Commitment

If you choose to use it, I would appreciate you letting me know how and where you’re using it. If you choose to adapt it, particularly significantly, please check with me in advance. If you have ideas, thoughts, suggestions, questions, or criticisms about how it could be better in its next version please let me know that too. You can send me messages on Facebook or an email here.



Break The Silence Sunday Clergy Commitment

As a Christian pastor, as someone who tries to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, and as a human being committed to working for the dignity and equality of all people, I declare to survivors of sexual violence that:

  • I am a person to whom you can tell your story of sexual abuse, harassment, assault, violence, and more.
  • I will listen without judgement, and without condemnation.
  • I will hold all you tell me in sacred confidence, within the bounds of law.
  • I will listen to whatever you need to say, and however you need to say it.
  • I will honor your story, and remind you of the dignity and worth you have as a child of God, created in God’s own image, and I will remind you that you are more than your story.
  • I will walk beside you on your healing journey, accompanying you as best as I am able, and as you need to counseling appointments, court dates, or wherever else you need me to be with you.
  • I am here for you, and with you.
  • I stand with you.
  • I believe you.

© Break The Silence Sunday, the Rev Moira Finley, October 2017

 

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) 2017 ~ #3

IMG_0022The second year of Break The Silence Sunday (BTSS) has now been observed in several congregations, though I’ve learned that others will be remembering it in the next couple of weeks because of their parish schedule. I find myself, as I did last year, a bit spent after the work (physical, emotional, spiritual, liturgical) of preparing the materials, distributing them, and then leading the service in our parish. It surely didn’t help this year that BTSS was just a week after work of Holy Week, and Easter.

The observation of BTSS in our parish was good, and Spirit filled (I’m including my reflection/sermon from the service at the end of this post). After the services three people shared their stories with me, things they hadn’t ever told before, and for that I am deeply honored, and grateful, a reminder that this work is important regardless of the number of congregations and communities participating. If even one person has the courage to break their silence, to speak their truth, then BTSS has achieved its goal.

But still I find myself disappointed, and angry. At least two churches that participated in 2016 didn’t this year because, as one of the pastor’s said, they “dealt with that once and they don’t need to do it again.” Other communities didn’t participate because they say there are more important issues, that they can’t talk about things that will upset their parishioners, that it doesn’t affect anyone they know, that it’s too complicated, that it’s private … and the excuses go on, all things I’ve heard before. I try to be patient, remembering that everyone comes to the work of justice and love at a different time, from a different place, with their own experiences, fears, doubts, and more. But my patience is wearing thin at the moment. I’m sure I’ll get it back with some more time in the garden, and another couple weeks to remember why this work matters.

The bigger part of my disappointment and anger, though, comes from my denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC). They were good enough to include the materials for BTSS on their Worship Ways website (though it might have been nice if they’d told me directly that they were going to do so). However, in watching the UCC’s e-mails, justice alerts, and Facebook pages we have a sum total of THREE posts that are marginally about rape and sexual assault. One was an infographic about what consent is, one was a reposting of an animated video about consent, and the final one was a picture on the personal page of our general minister & president of UCC folks with our partners from the United Church of Canada observing Thursdays in Black (a project to bring awareness to sexualized violence … FYI, the Canadians are amazing at posting a picture of their staff every Thursday throughout the year to bring attention to rape and violence). None of the UCC’s posts ever mentioned Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and only the picture actually used the word rape. For a denomination with such strong ties and commitment to justice for all creation, for all people, we are collectively doing a terrible job standing with survivors, speaking up about changing the culture, and creating new theologies that challenge ideas of redemptive pain and suffering. I wish I could say I was surprised. My experience with trying to get BTSS going, to find a listening heart in the national leadership has been full of this same silence, and disappointment.

At this point, it’s important for me to once again thank our Wisconsin Conference UCC minister, the Rev Franz Rigert for his support, encouragement, and help with all things BTSS. He has been, and continues to be, a tremendous ally and I am grateful beyond words for his help. Yeah Franz!

I’m not entirely sure what to do with the disappointment, and anger, other than to keep at it, to keep producing BTSS materials, to keep speaking out, to keep writing, to keep listening to stories, to keep breaking the silence. I suppose I just need to sit with these feelings, to continue to hear the stories of where BTSS made a difference this year, and to think about what more might yet be done. I welcome your thoughts and ideas, and it’s never too early to start writing something for next year’s materials – a prayer, a plea, a song, a poem, a sermon, a survivor reflection on a scripture.

In the meantime, I give thanks for the people of the Tri-Jo Parish UCC, my parish, who allow me the privilege of being their pastor, and of bringing this quest (passion? obsession?) of mine to them. They are more amazing than they will ever know.

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Moira’s reflection/sermon from BTSS 2017

Luke 8.42b-48 (from the New Revised Standard Version)
As Jesus went out, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Jesus, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Last year, as we first observed Break The Silence Sunday, I said that I desperately wished we didn’t have to, that there was no need for the church to have a day set aside to demonstrate our support of survivors of sexual violence; no need to have this day to be reminded of our call, our obligation, to speak up and work for change.

But, of course, there is a great need for a day like today, a day to listen to hard stories and statistics; a day to remember that people we know – our friends, family, coworkers, classmates, and people who sit next to us in these pews – carry the violence of rape and sexual assault in their hearts, and minds, and bodies every day.

There is a great need for today because the suffering continues, the fear of reporting continues, the unwillingness of prosecuting attorneys to take cases to court continues, the lack of convictions continues, and in the few cases that get that far, the short sentences handed out continue. And the victim blaming and shaming continue, the questions about what they were wearing, why they were out after dark, why they were at someone else’s house alone – all of that continues too.

In the year since we last gathered to observe Break The Silence Sunday there have been several cases that have made national news, a high school in Texas where sexual violence was routinely used by the football team to haze new members, and most recently in the last week with Bill O’Reilly being fired from his television show because of repeated sexual harassment, inappropriate touching, and more.

There has been more coverage in all kinds of media of sexual assault, rape, and abuse. More and more people are talking about it, and that is, I believe a good thing. It’s hard, surely, and sometimes we want to turn the television off, walk away from the newspaper, and think that it simply isn’t happening, that it’s not in our towns, not in our schools, not in our churches.

I understand. I pay a lot of attention to the cases in the news, for both personal and pastoral reasons, and even I want to turn away, to hide from it all, sometimes. But I believe our call as Christ’s disciples requires us to pay attention, to the cases that make the national news, and maybe even more to the ones that don’t, the ones that only make it to page six of the local paper, to that two minutes after the sports report on the nightly news.

Our gospel reading this morning may seem like a strange choice for today. There was a woman who had suffered for twelve years with something no doctor seemed able to do anything about. Then, as Jesus is walking by, she reaches out and touches his cloak and is healed. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus knows that somehow power has left him, been transferred to someone else, and so he looks around, and questions the crowd.

Eventually the woman stands up and confesses that it was her, that she was the one who touched Jesus’ cloak. And it’s really at that moment I believe she is healed, when she tells her story, owns what has happened to her. In front of the crowd, and the disciples, and Jesus himself she tells of her experience without shame, or guilt.

There is incredible power in being heard, in having someone listen to us, to what we have experienced, and even more power when that listening, and hearing takes place within our community of faith, in the midst of people who share this journey with us, who trust in the same G-d who has named and claimed each of us, who keeps our lives.

Because I am a bit outspoken about this, I am honored to hear a great many stories, from people I know and love, from people who reach out over the internet, from strangers at the grocery who see me wearing my This Is What A Rape Survivor Looks Like button. The stories are all different, but they share one thing – almost always the survivor has never told their story, has carried the pain of their experience in silence.

Whether it’s the man at the church supply store who was abused by his neighbor when he was a child, or the woman at the grocery who was raped by her husband, or the shop clerk who was assaulted during college, they’ve all carried their stories in silence because they were afraid of the judgement, and shame that would be thrown at them. They’ve lived in fear of telling their stories, particularly in the church, because of how people respond, with bad theology, and with guilt.

I have no doubt that I will continue to be on the receiving end of people breaking their own silence, sharing their stories, but we all need to be in one way or another. We all need to be paying attention, opening our hearts, and minds, and spirits to change the culture we live in, to create spaces in society, and in our church, where people can share the pain of their experience, and receive the healing love of G-d.

Earlier this year, just after the worship materials I had prepared for today were sent out to the churches, with a pastor who called and asked why we were doing this again, why did we need to have another Break The Silence Sunday. They wanted to know if we couldn’t leave it alone. They said we had done it once and that should be enough.

I wanted to cry, and to scream, at the same time, but what I said is that the process of breaking the silence isn’t something that we can do once and think we have done all that needs to be done. It is a continual process, and that the church needs to continue listening, hearing, standing up, speaking out, until all of G-d’s children are free from the pain, shame, and misplaced guilt of rape and sexual violence.

So today I congratulate all of you for being here, for witnessing to what is difficult, and heartbreaking, for participating in the work of mending the tears in the fabric of society, and I remind you that we will keep doing it, year after year, day after day, until rape and sexual violence are no more. Amen.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) 2017 – #2

This morning, before my brain had been adequately caffeinated, and while I was thinking about the list ahead of me for the Tuesday of Holy Week, I ended up in an internet conversation with another UCC pastor about Sexual Assault Awareness Mont (SAAM) and my work with Break The Silence Sunday (BTSS). I asked this other pastor if they would be observing BTSS in their parish this year. Here’s how the conversation went:

Other pastor (OP): Well, no, it won’t do any good would it. We’re never going to change things, and it doesn’t affect anyone I know anyway.

Me: Yeah, I guess you don’t really know me do you?

OP: What? Oh yeah, but that happened a long time ago, you must be over it by now.

Me: Um…

OP: Plus, it couldn’t have been that bad. Look at everything you’ve accomplished.

Me: Well, I’ve got to go. Food Pantry board meeting this morning. Bye.

I wish I could say that I were surprised, but I’m not, and I don’t think I’m even disappointed either. I’ve come, sadly, to expect reactions like this from people who are otherwise reasonably self-aware. My heart hurts, and I’m angry, but not because these words were said to me, but because they might (and probably are) said to other survivors who don’t have the support systems to help them understand what kind of nonsense (B.S.) this is.

I’m also angry, sad, mad, disappointed, frustrated, and exhausted because this kind of thinking is part of the public narrative about rape and sexual assault. A good rape victim will have tried to fight back, will have resisted and screamed, and will have documentable physical injuries. And then, of course, the good victim will put it all behind them, move on with their lives, put the past in the past, and become delightful, productive members of society who don’t remind anyone that they were ever assaulted.

Sometimes it works that way, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some survivors fight back, and others don’t. Some aren’t able to resist for a lot of reasons. Some have physical injuries, and some don’t. For some survivors their experiences become the defining moment in their lives forever, and for others it works differently. Some of us become advocates for survivors, others heal quietly on their own, and still others hide their story because it’s not safe to tell anyone, sometimes not even themselves.

And here’s the thing … all of those ways of being a survivor are OK. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. Whatever you did, and do, to survive is fine. The important thing is that you are still here, that you did survive, and you continue to do so. That’s the message we need to be giving to survivors, one of acceptance, and love, rather than judgement and denial.

Late last week I posted on my personal Facebook page wondering where my allies were, where the people who aren’t survivors, who haven’t experienced the abuse and violence are who are willing to speak up, to stand with us, to do the work that needs to be done in changing the culture we live in. Not surprisingly, a fair number of survivors spoke up , but thankfully some good non-survivors did too, thanking me for the reminder that they have work to do. And then a couple of other people sent me messages asking what they could do. They were afraid of saying the wrong thing, of saying something that would cause more harm than good, that would trigger, or offend a survivor. So I thought maybe it would be good to start a list of ways allies and advocates can speak up about changing rape culture. These are my thoughts, and I welcome your ideas & input.

Ways To Be A Good Ally In Changing Rape Culture:

(1) Believe survivors. Seriously, just believe us. Somewhere around 2% of reported rapes are determined to be false, and considering that 2 out of 3 rapes are unreported, the false reports are statistically tiny. So if someone tells you they were raped or assaulted, believe them. Tell them you believe them. Say the words, “I believe you.” Really, say it. They need to hear it.

(2) Challenge your own assumptions. When you think about a rape what do you think of – a stranger jumping out from a dark alley? In reality, seven out of ten rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. What are your ideas about how a victim should behave, if they should physically fight back, what and how they need to say or do in order to express that what is happening is not consensual? When you hear about a rape case on the news, do you ask yourself what the victim was wearing, why they were walking where they were, why they had so much to drink, or other things that pass judgement on the victim rather than the perpetrator? Think about where you got these ideas – movies, TV, your family home, media coverage of high profile cases, your own experiences. Think about how you got your ideas about victims, and perpetrators, and how you might challenge yourself to think differently.

(3) Start noticing rape culture around you. When you open your eyes to it, you’ll start to see it everywhere. There’s a terrific list of twenty-five everyday examples of it here http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/examples-of-rape-culture/ … it’s things like songs that talk about blurred lines when people say that no means yes; school dress codes that focus only on what young women are wearing that causes distractions to young men; politicians talking about “legitimate rape”; thinking that rape is about sex when it’s really a crime of violence and power; rape prevention that focuses entirely on the actions someone can take to prevent themselves from being raped rather than teaching people not to rape; rape jokes of any kind; coverage of rape cases that lament the lost futures of perpetrators; advertising that objectively uses women’s bodies (and to a different degree men’s bodies); and so much more. You can read more here about it at this link: http://www.wavaw.ca/what-is-rape-culture/

(4) Educate yourself. Learn about the scope of the problem. Visit some websites and discover how rape affects survivors. Here are a few to try out:
Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
It’s On Us
Men Can Stop Rape
Joyful Heart Foundation (with links to the No More campaign)
Just don’t forget to look critically at the websites you visit to make sure that you’re learning from an organization that supports and empowers survivors. RAINN will also help you find an organization in your area that works with survivors.

IMG_0022(5) Speak up. Use your voice. If someone makes a rape joke in front of you, stop them and ask them to explain why it’s funny. If they use derogative words to describe so
meone, or say “she was asking for it”, interrupt, and ask them questions to find out why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make yourself heard on social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Write a post saying that you stand with survivors, you believe them, and you want to change the culture that contributes to rape and sexual violence. Go to the pastor of your faith community and ask them if they’re participating in Break The Silence Sunday.

As I said, these are just a few of my ideas of ways that non-survivors can be good allies in the work of supporting survivors & changing our culture. Let’s generate a huge list of ways we can all work together to end rape & sexual violence forever.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) 2017 – #1

It’s April which means that it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).

I had a dream last year that I would write a post here every day during the month, but then reality snuck in, and that didn’t quite happen. So this year I decided not to even try to make a daily post. Instead I’m working on twenty or so posts for this month. It might be more, or less, depending on the news, whether or not I’m really ready for Easter in our parish, and my own strength (physical and emotional). 

Last Friday (March 31st), President Trump made did something that presidents do – he made an official pronouncement declaring April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

SAAM was first observed in 2001, and President Obama was the first to make a formal declaration of this month seeking to support survivors, and change the culture that contributes to rape and sexual violence. 

There is, however, a tragic and painful irony in this year’s proclamation. That is, of course, the man making it. Mr Trump’s history as a sexual predator is long, stretching back to the 1990s, and varied, with complaints from the well publicised Billy Bush interview about grabbing women by the pussy, to innumerable counts of groping and unwanted touching, to sexual harassment, to voyeurism (walking in on the dressing rooms of Miss Teen USA contestants), to the rape of a twelve year old, and the rape of his ex-wife Ivanka. 

In the days since Mr Trump’s election, every survivor I know has struggled with what it means that our country elected him, how so many of our fellow compatriots could ignore or deny his history, putting behind the desk in the Oval Office a man who has shown such disrespect for women. It’s been, and continues to be, difficult to look at Mr Trump and not see the faces of the men who raped me, to see in the face of the man who’s job is to see to our common welfare the face of someone who has used his power to control, victimise, and violate so many. 

And it stretches, of course, far beyond the White House, to every part of our society, and indeed our world: 

  • A judge in Mexico cleared a man of sexually assaulting a 17 year old girl because the man didn’t enjoy it;
  • Reports from the Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are that, amid the famine and war, cases of rape are increasing with young boys being the newest victims; 
  • News of systemic long-term sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics program 
  • More and more colleges with high level athletic programs are being investigated for ignoring, and actively covering up sexual violence perpetrated by their athletes; 
  • The settlement of a set of sexual harassment lawsuits against Mr Tim Lynn, director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Law Enforcement & Security, who defended himself by saying it was “in his nature” to harass female employees (Mr Lynn continues to hold his job); 
  • News from LaVernia, Texas where at least ten current and former high school students have been arrested in an ongoing investigation into sexual violence and hazing in their athletic department; 
  • The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimating that the average lifetime costs associated with being a rape survivor – including criminal justice costs, properly loss and damage, lost work and productivity, and ongoing physical and mental health treatment – comes to $122,461 per person.

It’s enough to make me want to scream, throw things, pull the covers up over my head, eat all the cake in the universe, and never leave my house again.

But instead, dear reader, I sit here at a coffee shop in Appleton, wearing my “this is what a rape survivor looks like” button, fielding the strange looks, the pity, and the idiotic comments because eventually it happens that the button makes a difference. 

Today it was a woman and her small son, maybe age five. Watching him pick out his juice, she said, holding back tears, “someday I’m going to have to tell him, I mean where he came from.” 

I invited her to sit down and share my table, and we set her son up at the next table with some crayons. She told me her story, and I told her mine. And I said that yes, someday she would need to tell her son where he came from and that when the time was right she should say that he came from the deepest, strongest part of her soul that nothing could ever destroy. 

I wonder some days if this work is worth it – worth the long uphill climb against what feels like insurmountable odds; worth the frustration, the fear, and the utterly baffling resistance to change of my fellow humans; worth the heartache, the sleepless nights, the continually breaking open of memories. 

But when I see a momma who has long carried a story she thought no one would listen to look over at her little boy, conceived in violence, and see in him hope big enough for the both of them because someone finally cared enough to listen, to remind her that she is not alone, that she is a survivor, stronger than anything that happened to her, that’s when I know this work matters.  

That’s when I know Break The Silence Sunday makes a difference, and when I am reminded that we can indeed create a world free from rape and sexual violence. As my momma taught me, it will take everything we have, but we have everything we need.

Thinking about hats & words…

Content advisory – curse words (derogatory words for women), rape

*******

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about words. Truthfully, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about words: working to find just the right one, balancing the familiar with the obscure, arguing in my head with my high school literature teacher about whether or not judgement should have an E in it. But there are a set of words that I’ve been worrying about more than usual because they seem to have become part of our wider social conversation.

There is a debate (or is it an arguement?) about the words, about taking them back, reclaiming them from their previously pejorative usage. But I’ve run into a problem – I’m trying to write about these words without actually naming them because I’m so clearly on the side of not wanting to reclaim them, of never needing to hear them again. So, I suppose, I shall have to write the words, despite my visceral dislike of them, and then perhaps I can banish them again. 

It all started with the hats. Well no, it started when the then candidate, now president, was heard on tape saying that if he wanted a woman he could do whatever he wanted because he was famous, “grab them by the pussy.” The statement sparked outrage in some circles, and in others was dismissed as nothing more than locker-room talk, the kind of banter men share with each other when they don’t have to be bothered with the presence of women. It also gave rise to the hats, mostly some shade of pink (presumably because all women like pink?), with pointy ears to make them seem like the other kind of pussy (cats), worn by many at the Women’s March on Washington, and sister marches around the world, on January 21st.

So the word became part of the common vocabulary. Newscasters said it on live TV. Papers printed it above the fold. It was all over the internet, and I even heard the pastor at the church I was visiting the day after the march in St. Louis say it from the pulpit during her sermon … “a sea of pink pussy hats”.

And every time I hear or see it, it feels like my heart stops, and my lungs collapse, and I have to consciously remember how to move while a firestorm of fear and anxiety threaten to overwhelm me. 

You see, I’m a rape survivor, and the men who raped me were quite free with their language, using every pejorative they could think of, lobbying at me every derogatory, insulting, belittling word they had in an attempt, I think, to justify what they were doing to me. If they could use their words to make me less than human then the things they were doing to my body could be excused – I was less than, a thing, an object, unworthy of respect, only to be used. 

So when I hear these words – pussy, bitch, cunt, whore, slut, nasty – I hear the voices of the men who raped me. I hear them, and then I remember. I remember the terror, how their hands felt on my body, the smell of their breath, wondering if this would be how I would die. Any one of those words and I remember it all. 

People on the other side of the debate, those who would seek to reclaim these words have told me that I’m being overly sensitive. They tell me I should just get over what happened to me, to leave the past in the past, and to move on. They tell me that these words are empowering to women, allowing us to reclaim some source of our, thus far suppressed feminine power. They say we can turn these words around, against those who would use them to denigrate and diminish us. It’s powerful, they tell me, to call myself a pussy, or a bitch, or a nasty woman because it takes away from the person who thinks it should make me ashamed, or embarrassed. It gives me naming rights over my own life, puts me back in control of who I am by taking away the words that others are using against me.

Intellectually it makes sense, at least to some degree. But that’s only intellectually. My heart, my soul, my spirit don’t get it at all. 

Why, when there are more than 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, would I choose the dozen or so words that have been used so intentionally to wound me? 

Why, when trying to name and define myself, would I use words of those who have sought to control and limit me? 

I’m not generally a fan of banning things. I think it often leads to giving them a kind of cult status, and more power than they deserve. So I don’t think a global ban on these words is such a good idea (though I enjoy dreaming about it) because it might well do more harm than good. 

But that begs the question – what do we do instead? 

First, we become better bystanders. We don’t let those words go by, no matter how casually. We interrupt people who are using them as jokes. We stop people who think they’re funny and ask them to explain why. Women have been doing it, but we need men to help us as well. We need men to be in those places like locker rooms, and back rooms, and sadly too often board rooms, and stand up for the women in your lives, the women you know, the women who are important to you. Don’t let the sexist jokes, the stereotypes, the catcalling, and the slurs go by. Don’t let women be judged by their physical appearance or their sexual experience (or lack thereof). 

Second, let’s get creative. So many of these words are used when women challenge the assumptions of how we are supposed to behave, challenge the male-dominated power structure, speak our minds when we’re supposed to be quiet. Fair enough. I do those things a lot because the patriarchal system is killing us. But surely we could find some other words to fling at me when you think that’s what I’m doing. What about powerful, strong, courageous, persistent, passionate, outraged, angry? How about frustrated, fed up, brave, zealous, inspiring? And if you’re looking for words to describe a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, who enjoys her body, try confident, expressive, free, impassioned, or spirited. You can easily attach any of these words to woman or person.  

I understand the symbolism of the hats, and things that unite us are desperately needed in these hard, divisive days. I understand the importance of the pictures of a group of an estimated half a million people marching in Washington, D.C., but uniting ourselves behind a word that has been used against so many of those people falls flat, and leaves me wondering if I have a place in that crowd. 

So, for me, and many of my survivor sisters, I beg you. Let’s leave those derogatory words where they belong – in the garbage bin.

Call me by my name, and if you need an adjective to describe me, call me passionate, or angry, or courageous. 

What we each can do…

Yesterday was an interesting day. I was doing some visiting of people, and running errands (even pastors have to go to the grocery store). I stopped for lunch and ended up right in the middle of a mess – a family torn apart by misogyny, slut shaming, and hatred. I wrote about it on my personal Facebook page, and I link here for the full story…

Many people kindly said how brave I was. Thank you. I defer to your thoughts on that because I’m not sure we (I) ever think of ourselves as brave at the time. We just do what we do when we need to, and other people see it as brave. Upon considerable reflection, and not too much sleep because my heart and brain couldn’t get themselves slowed down, I am grateful it didn’t occur to me at the time that Wisconsin is a concealed carry state, though it probably wouldn’t have changed what I did, it might have changed how I did it.

A quick update on the family I have been in contact with them. Grandpa did come and get things from the house while the granddaughter’s fiancé was there, and her father as well. They have also been in touch with the counselors at the local abuse shelter whose numbers I gave them. The family, except grandpa, seem to be quite supportive, and I’m praying for all of them.

However, all this got me thinking about what we are called to do in these challenging days.

At least once an hour there’s a comment from someone on my Facebook page about the Women’s March on Washington, invitations to call our congressional representatives, petitions to sign, letters to write to advocate for various things, and more. It’s all incredibly important work, participating in the world, showing up, making our voices heard. Personally I’ve written the sitting president every week since I was eleven, and I intend to keep that practice up with the new administration. I have my congressional reps (both state and national) on speed dial on my phone, their names and numbers taped to the front of my computer. I have marched, and participated in sit-ins, and been arrested for civil disobedience. And all of that is good, vital work.

But there’s an interesting turn that’s happened in the last couple of days. People have seemed to demand that there’s only one way to do the work – that we must all attend the march, or must all make phone calls, or must all do whatever it is they’re calling for. And that’s simply not true, nor possible.

I won’t be at the march on Washington. Partly because I have a long planned trip to St. Louis to work on the materials for the 2017 observation of Break The Silence Sunday. Partly because I think that right now, given all the other things I’m juggling, the huge crowd would send my PTSD over the edge, and I’m not sure my lupus would allow me to march for very long in the cold. Then there’s a financial consideration as well – getting to and from Washington, and housing in between, plus all the other expenses of traveling.

I’m not the only one in that boat, where time, distance, finances, health, and other obligations (jobs, children, partners, caregiving, and so on) need us to be in other places. There’s no shame in that, and we need to stop harassing others who aren’t able to make it to Washington, or participate in their local supportive events either. We aren’t helping the cause of justice and peace if we’re shaming people who can’t participate in the same way we do.

But I got distracted. That’s not actually the point of this post. Back to the encounter at the restaurant in Green Bay…

Two things occur to me most – one about the church, and the other about all of our roles as good bystanders.

First – the church. If you’re paying attention to the story, the grandfather assumed that I, as a clergy person (obvious from my choice of clothes – quite intentional on my part, to make clergy, and particularly women clergy, more visible in the world) – he assumed that I would condemn his granddaughter for having sex before marriage. He simply assumed that is the stance of the church, that we’re in the business of condemnation, guilt, and shame. We have allowed this to be, and we (clergy mostly, but laity too) have to get off our buts and be more vocal, more visible, and more passionate about a G-d of love, and grace, and compassion. We have to challenge every hate-filled, hate-fuelled Christian preacher the media chooses to be the voice of our faith. We have to get busy with spreading our understanding of the gospel – writing alternative columns for our local newspapers, offering interviews to the media, talking about our faith with people at the gas station, and the grocery store, and the restaurants we frequent. It’s our job, our calling, and should be our passion.

Second – we need to be good bystanders. Several people remarked that they wouldn’t have felt comfortable intervening in the situation at the restaurant the way I did. I understand, and as I said about if I had stopped to consider if the grandfather might have had a concealed weapon, I might well have reacted differently. As it was, I was by myself which means I didn’t have other people to look after, and could give myself to the situation without knowing how much time, and energy it might require. But there are ways for all of us to be good bystanders, to intervene in such situations, and we need to start thinking about how we’re going to do it. As I said, not everyone can go to Washington for the march, but all of us can challenge sexism, toxic masculinity, misogyny, and patriarchy at home.

  • We can ask people to explain to us why jokes about women earning less than men are funny.
  • We can challenge people who catcall, or call women “sweetie”, or say “you’re pretty smart for a girl”
  • We can interrupt people who are in the middle of rants like the grandfather was – one of the most useful things to do, in my experience, is to ask someone who has gotten stuck in one of these rants what time it is, or where the nearest McDonald’s is, or anything that will make them stop and think about what they’re doing and saying; it might give just enough time to someone else who can step in with other resources, and ideas.
  • We can call the police (if that’s a safe thing for us to do – understanding the complicated nature of police relations).
  • We can seek help from others around us, in this case the wait staff at the restaurant, but in other circumstances, the other people at the bus stop, or waiting in line at the grocery, or wherever you happen to be.
  • We can befriend the person who is being attacked – for example, the pregnant young woman might have come to the buffet and you could have offered a kind word, an “I’m sorry for what you’re going through”, or a friendly smile.
  • You could talk to the youth and children in your life (all of them, regardless of gender) about treating one another with dignity and respect.
  • You could carry the numbers for your local shelter, abuse crisis center, or other such places with you, so you could hand them out to people in need.
  • You could carry the number for RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) that provides phone, and online counseling … 800-656-4673 or http://www.rainn.org

These are only a few things, and this post is getting long enough, but there is something each of us can, and should be doing, to be better bystanders. The world will change through huge movements like the March on Washington, and through countless small steps we each take in our day to day lives. We need to “be the swedes”, the two Swedish students who intervened, stopping Brock Turner’s rape of an unconscious woman at Stanford. They saw something. They did something. They were good bystanders, good neighbors, good people to share this planet with. May we all be the same, to everyone in need.

P.S. There’s still plenty of time for you to contribute something to the 2017 Break The Silence Sunday worship materials. Drop me an email at breakthesilencesunday@gmail.com if you’re interested, or just curious.

 

An Invitation

As I write this, it’s a brisk +11F (before the wind chill which brings it down to a nice round zero). We have a pleasant amount of snow on the ground, and it’s less than two weeks to Christmas. So naturally, my thoughts are turning towards the time after Easter, and the 2017 observance of Break The Silence Sunday on April 23rd.

When I dreamed up Break The Silence Sunday, in the summer of 2015, I had hoped that five or six churches would participate. In our very first year we had nearly 50 communities participating! I hesitate to set a goal for a number of participating congregations this coming year, but I shall instead decide to be grateful for every community that, in whatever way they can, lifts up the voices of survivors, opens a little space, allows a story to be told, and stands in solidarity with those who struggle with the aftermath of rape and sexual violence.

These are challenging days to be a survivor, more so than usual. The election of Mr Trump has reopened a lot of wounds survivors thought were healing. His history of denigrating and objectifying women, abusive and misogynistic speech, and inappropriate physical contact with women as young as fourteen leaves me with a lot of questions that have no satisfying answers: how did this happen – that someone with such a history, such an overt contempt for half the population, could be elected to the highest office in our land?

In the aftermath of the election, as a pastor, my phone has been ringing more than usual with survivors trying to make sense of what’s going on, and what might happen next. They’ve got questions about their safety in a country that already doubted, questioned, and ridiculed them, and now doesn’t seem to care about them at all, putting an abuser in power. These aren’t just political questions the survivors are asking, but there are deep faith questions as well – where is G-d in this? Has G-d given up on us? Is it safe to tell my story anywhere, particularly church?

And in the midst of all this, I have personally had people tell me that the concerns of survivors will just have to take a back seat to the “real” issues facing us, primarily racism and the rights of GLBTQI folks. I’ve been told there’s no threat to women in the new administration, and that, in one person’s mind, all rape victims must surely have done something to make it happen, must surely have wanted it somehow. The number of times I’ve been called a b**ch, and other such names has increased in the days since the election, and I live in rural Wisconsin. My friends in larger communities report the same – name calling, unwanted touching by people on public transport and on the street, harassment online and in person. We have failed, somehow, to see the interconnectedness of our struggles, that racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all the other isms are bound up together, and that we need each other, all of each other, to help dismantle the system that has allowed this hatred to flourish.

But, amidst these challenges, I have hope because people are reaching out to find out how to help, to ask how they might support survivors, to make their communities places where survivors can ask questions, tell their stories, and be heard with dignity and respect.

That’s where you come in dear readers.

The time has come to put together the materials that will be distributed (and available on the website) for Break The Silence Sunday 2017. 

  • Do you have a prayer?
  • A poem?
  • A litany?
  • A sermon?
  • A song?
  • A work of art?
  • A dance?
  • A resource for helping talk to children or youth?
  • An idea for any of the above you’d like to share?

And specifically for survivors…

  • Are you willing to share your story (either with your name attached or anonymously)?
  • Do you have a poem, a prayer, anything that tells your story that you might be willing to share (again, anonymously is always an option)
  • Would you be willing to share your picture with us for our growing collection of “This is what a survivor looks like” gallery?

So get out those pens, dust off the computer, put on your dancing shoes, polish up the ukulele, sharpen those crayons … whatever you’ve got.

The working deadline for you to submit your materials is Monday January 16th, 2017, a little more than a month from now. You can send your work, and any questions you might have, by email to  breakthesilencesunday@gmail.com

My deepest gratitude for all your support with this work. Together we are unstoppable.