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.

*******

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.

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