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.

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.

Yes you have…

The world, or at least the internet, is up in arms about the paltry sentence given out by a judge in Santa Clara county, California last week. We could call it the Stanford University Swimmer case in which Brock Turner, age 20, raped an unconscious 23 year old woman behind a dumpster. The judge, Aaron Persky, sentenced Mr Turner to 6 months in jail (not prison) and three years of probation (which could be three months based on good behavior). The survivor wrote a stunning victim impact statement and authorized its release to the media. You can find it here, but be prepared as the statement has graphic descriptions of rape and medical procedures. To make the situation all the more complicated, Mr Turner’s father wrote a pre-sentencing report to the judge in which he laments, not his son’s actions, but that “these verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life. … He has no prior criminal history and has never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of Jan 17th 2015.”

The internet’s comment sections are not places for the faint of heart on a slow news day, and that is doubly true with anything revolving around the Stanford case. While many people are outraged, others are taking Mr Turner and his father’s side arguing that since alcohol was a factor it should mitigate responsibility, and that this promising young man’s life is forever ruined by what the survivor accused him of (not what he did). Still worse are the people hoping that Mr Turner will be raped in prison so that he can experience first hand what he did to someone else. Let me be perfectly clear … that is NOT ok. It is never, ever, ever acceptable to advocate anyone being raped, ever. It’s not a joke, it’s not a punishment, and acting as if it is perpetuates rape culture just as much as anything the judge, or Mr Turner’s father have said in this case.

Meanwhile, over in Texas there’s another storm brewing at Baylor University. Several players, and at least one coach, of the university’s championship winning football team have been accused of violence, and sexual assault. The allegations are that the university knew about what was going on, and covered it up, silencing victims, and working with the Waco, TX police department to make sure nothing was “leaked”. You can read a summary of the case from the Dallas News here.

All of this, plus the case against Mr Cosby, the brutal gang rape of a young woman in Brazil, and more, can leave you sick to your soul. It has made me want to scream, and cry (both of which I’ve done), and resort to some violence of my own (which I haven’t done and won’t do). And more than anything it has made me wonder a bit why I bother with all this Break The Silence Sunday work. The problem is so overwhelming, so big, that my little drop in the bucket seems utterly pointless against the ocean of rape culture, and violence.

But then, there’s the gentle, unexpected moment that reminds me what you can do with a bit of compassion, and one voice.

I have a friend who runs for fun which is something I do not understand at all, but she runs in all kinds of charitable events, and I go along to cheer her own, hold her jacket, time her races, and make sure she eats her pre-race banana.

On Saturday last, in the midst of a drizzly rain, we went off to one such race in Green Bay to benefit the Tourette’s Foundation. After my friend and the other runners set out I sat on a bench with another woman who was there to support her family members who were running. When the drizzle intensified we took to the nearby shelter where they had the pre-race bananas, and coffee, and rather delicious rice krispy treats. We talked about a whole range of things, and discovered that we knew several people in common, and then it was time to go to the finish line to cheer on the returning racers.

After the race we were standing around talking – the woman and her family, my friend, and I – and that’s when the woman noticed my “This is what a rape survivor looks like” button.

She was visibly stunned and said, “I’ve never met a rape survivor before.”

A slew of responses ran through my head, from frustration, to outrage, to anger, to laughter. A huge part of me wanted to shake her and scream.

Instead, as calmly and evenly as I could, I said, “yes you have.”

It wasn’t a moment to rail at her in outrage. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything.

It wasn’t the time to scream statistics at her. She wouldn’t have been able to listen just yet.

Instead, it was a time for one calm, even voice offering her the truth in a way she might be able to hear. “Yes you have.”

You’ve met a rape survivor because we sit next to you at church, and work in the next cubicle, and shop at the same grocery store. We’re on the PTA, the soccer dads, and the moms who bake cookies for the little league.

As we stood there, after the race, this woman and I, something in her heart changed. I don’t know where it will lead her, or what she will do with her new information (she was eventually open to the most basic statistic … one in six women in the U.S. in their lifetime will be raped or assaulted). But I do know that something changed in her. She has had an invitation to open her heart, and her mind to an entirely new way of looking at the world, and the people around her. She has my card, and the link to this blog, and I imagine some challenging days ahead of her as she re-evaluates what she used to believe.

Sometimes I wish that BTSS was moving faster, making a bigger change, ending the universally damaging system of patriarchy and rape culture overnight. But I am enough of a student of history, and just enough of a realist, to understand that’s not how lasting, true social change happens. It’s the relentless persistence of one conversation, and then another, of one heart being opened, and then another, that eventually moves mountains.

One of the most amazing things about the survivor’s statement is the final paragraph which I quote here. She writes to girls, but I would remind us all that men and boys are victims as well…

And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats dos ave; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.

Her courage, and her solidarity to stand with all survivors, is what BTSS is about. And yes, this work is agonizingly slow at times, but it is the only way, to stand with my feet firmly on the ground, trusting in the hesed (unfailing love of G-d) that I cannot see, and saying:

“Yes you have, you have met a rape survivor, because I am one.

Yes you have, you have met a rape survivor,
now let’s do something together so no one else ever has to wear this button.

Yes, you have.”

What happens next?

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is over. Our collective attention turns to things to remember in May  – brain cancer awareness, lupus awareness, and mental health awareness month to name the ones that are closest to my life.

Sadly, SAAM came and went without a word from the national leadership of the UCC. Not a facebook status (on the national page, or the justice & witness page); not a blog post; not a mention in the keeping you posted emails. There were a few pictures of the national staff wearing black on Thursdays (#thursdaysinblack – a campaign to end violence against women), but even those stopped being posted about mid-April.

It’s left me sad, and more than a little disillusioned, unsure where I fit in my denomination, one that proclaims enthusiastic welcome of all, who talks the talk about embracing us all wherever we are on life’s journey, and yet … there is silence about something that affects so many of the people who sit in our pews, and do the work of our churches. It breaks my heart to see all the justice issues we lift up (which we surely should be doing – all of them incredibly important, and interconnected), and to see no mention of something that affects about 1/4 of the world’s population. I don’t know what to make of the silence of the national church, but I have to be honest with myself (and with you dear reader) that it hurts my heart, and my soul.

I am trying, however, to find focus and hope with the good news of courageous congregations that opened their worship spaces, and their hearts to Break The Silence Sunday this year.

The Wisconsin Conference of the UCC has been fabulous, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic support Break The Silence Sunday has received from our conference minister, the Rev Franz Rigert. Word is still coming in from congregations that participated, or will be soon when it fits their liturgical calendar. The feedback has been incredibly positive, and life-giving. (There’s still plenty of time to send in an evaluation, a few notes about what you did, how you did it, how it was received, and so on … drop us an email please.)

And there have been other places where BTSS has found a listening reception – Congregational UCC in Decorah, IA; Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO; Rincon Congregational in Tucson, AZ; and more.

I am grateful to each and every congregation, and pastor, and lay leader who took the brave step of opening up this conversation that matters so very much.

As we look ahead, it will take some time to gather information, worship bulletins, and evaluations from congregations that participated. Then the work begins – of writing new materials, adapting what we did this year, gathering prayers, and artwork, and music, and resources for congregations. New materials will be produced every year until rape is no more.

We will have a display at the Wisconsin Conference UCC annual meeting at Green Lake Conference center, June 10-12. You won’t be able to miss our very purple display. You’ll be able to get your BTSS buttons, and stickers, and order a t-shirt or twelve. You’ll be able to look at materials from congregations that participated in 2016, consider statistics and ways to integrate the ideas from BTSS into your worship and education programs throughout the year.

If anyone reading here is interested in creating something to be included in the 2017 materials, the deadline will be sometime in early December, but there’s no need to wait – get out the paint brushes, the dancing shoes, the banner making materials, the composition paper, the pens, and pencils. You can send materials via email at anytime.

And for now, let us pray together that the silence of the church about rape and sexual violence, which we have successfully broken in small, but meaningful ways, might continue to be broken, and that the perhaps deliberate silencing of survivors might come to an end.

Arundhati Roy

BTSS 2016 ~ In The Books

Well, we did it. The first Break The Silence Sunday is done. It was an important day in the life of our parish, a hard day for many, but one where we opened up space for the holy to come in and renew us with grace and mercy.

Word is starting to trickle in from other congregations, and communities that observed Break The Silence Sunday. My deepest gratitude to everyone who helped plan, and lead worship in these places, and to everyone who even read the materials that they might be useful in the future.

If you, or your community, used the resources for 2016 in any way (or are planning to in the coming months), please help by filling out the survey at the end of the packet, or emailing your notes about what you did, creative ideas you employed, hymn changes you made, and all those things. You can send it by postal mail to the address in the packet, or just drop us an email.

I took a few days off after months (years really) of working on BTSS. I had some nice naps, and read a novel, and let someone else cook for me. Now, back at my desk, a kitten sleeping nearby, I’m reminded that it’s time to pick up the work again, to start thinking about BTSS 2017 and what kind of materials we might need to create, new prayers to write, new songs to sing, and so much more.

Save this date now – Sunday April 23, 2017

New materials will be available in mid to late January (if you’re interested in writing a prayer, suggesting a hymn, offering an idea for story telling, designing a banner, or contributing in any way, please drop us an email … it’s never too early to start).

In the meantime, several people have asked what I said as a sermon reflection during worship in our parish so I include it here for you.

Reflection for Break The Silence Sunday 2016The world suffers because of the silence
Rev Moira Finley
Tri-Jo Parish United Church of Christ

I desperately wish we were not gathered here today for Break The Silence Sunday. I wish it was something we didn’t need to do, to honor the stories of survivors of rape and sexual violence; to admit that the church has often failed to stand with those survivors, to help them through their pain, accompany them in their grief, and offer them the promise of G-d’s incredible grace. But we need to be here, gathered together as G-d’s people, facing our fears, letting the tears flow, and opening ourselves up to the work before us that someday a day like this will not be necessary.

The work of Break The Silence Sunday is something that I have been trying to get to happen for nearly fifteen years. My hope that the church, in every place, could be a place of healing and hope for survivors, a place of advocacy and social change has been met with resistance, and hostility. I am too stubborn to stop sometimes and so I kept pushing, even though it felt like the door to even have a conversation about rape in the church was firmly shut. That was, until our conference minister, the Rev Franz Rigert, offered to help me open the door. And so Break The Silence Sunday was born, and today with churches in Wisconsin and a few other places, we are experimenting with this idea of committing ourselves to listening to survivors; to facing the pain, and heartache without judgement or pity; and to working for a change in our society, and around the world, that rape might someday be a thing of the past.

I thought about telling my story of being a rape survivor this morning, but I have done that in this place, surrounded by your great love, before. I did, for those of you who may not have heard it, print a few copies of my story, or at least part of it, and you can take those home, and ask me questions about it later.

But what I realized I really wanted to say today is why this matters so much to me.

I have these buttons that say “This is what a rape survivor looks like”, and I wear them on most days. They are quite something, and they engage people in ways I would never have imagined.

There was the woman in front of me in the check-out line at the grocery store. I smiled and said hello, and then she paused for a rather long time and read my button. She looked at the button, and then at my face, and back to the button, and back to my face and then she said, “you should be ashamed of yourself.” I was confused, so I asked for some clarification. She said I should be ashamed of advertising that I was broken, damaged, and a loose woman. It took about every ounce of patience, and faith I had to not start screaming at her that I have nothing to be ashamed of, that the only ones who bear shame are the men who raped me.

But then there was the woman at the Fleet Farm. I was browsing in the candy and nuts aisle, and a woman was there stocking the shelves. I said hello, and she stopped to read my button. Then she started to cry. She sat down on the floor, her head in her hands, and managed to whisper, “I’ve never told anyone what happened to me.” So I sat down on the floor with her, and held her hand until she caught her breath, and there, in the candy aisle, for the first time in her life, a beautiful woman named Carol told me what happened to her nearly forty years before.

Those things, like what happened with Carol, are far more common than things like what happened with the woman at the grocery story. I have found that the button is a little bitty opening of the door for people who have lived for so long in silence, carrying within them the stories of pain, and heartache, and violence that the world thinks we should be ashamed of. And every time I encounter one of those angry, shaming, hateful people, I remember Carol and so many others who need today to happen even if they aren’t here with us this morning.

I have heard stories from people who were abused as young as three and four, from people who were raped in their sixties and seventies, and everything in between. I’ve heard from people who knew their assailants, because they were members of their family, or a trusted friend, or a member of their church, or a romantic partner, and people who were assaulted by strangers, and those who were somewhere in between, someone they kind knew was the one who raped them. I’ve heard from women, and men, from people of all races, and faith traditions, and economic status. I’ve heard from people who prosecuted, when through the struggle of the judicial system to try and find justice, and from people who never told anyone what happened.

And over, and over again what I have heard, and what I know from my own experience, is how hard the stories are to carry alone, in shame, and in silence. A story that we are afraid to speak, or ashamed to share, or one that we have told and it has been met with disbelief, doubt, and scorn – those stories, inside of us, given no voice, receiving no true compassionate listening, those stories have the power to destroy us.

But a story told, and heard, and listened to; a story met with gentleness, and love, and grace; a story that is honoured, and respected, and believed – those stories, even if they continue to haunt our dreams, even if they sometimes still overwhelm us nearly almost thirty hears later, they have still lost some of their power over us because now it is a burden shared.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that there comes a time when silence is betrayal. The church around the world has, for far too long, betrayed survivors with their deafening silence. Survivors have been offered platitudes at best, and bad theology at worst, told that their suffering is making them stronger, or more faithful, or that they have to forgiven quickly and unconditionally, and that they should endure whatever has happened to them quietly, because this is a private issue, it’s personal, it makes people uncomfortable, it’s about sex and we can’t talk about that.

But none of that is true. Rape and sexual violence are not about sex, but about power and control, and yes, what happens to an individual survivor is private, and personal, but it’s also corporate, and happens to all of us. The body of Christ has been broken, and torn, and beaten, and raped, and abused. But it can be healed, made whole, renewed with G-d’s love, and the courage of congregations willing to do what we are doing here today, willing to Break The Silence. Amen.

SAAM Days 13 & 14 – Rape Culture

A few days ago I got into a discussion with someone about rape culture. That’s a phrase used to describe the ways in which society blames victims of rape and sexual violence, and normalizes that violence (particularly male violence against women). It comes through reporting and discussion on rape cases, through jokes that perpetuate the idea that women should learn to expect violence, and through anything that sexualizes women to the point where they don’t exist as human beings, and that which makes coercion seem acceptable.

The person I was talking with (online) about rape culture denies that it exists, or at least not in the United States and other, in her words, developed countries. It might be, she conceded, a reality in the third world, or in places where women aren’t valued, and don’t have equality. (Again, all this person’s words, not mine.)

Eventually, tired of beating my head against a wall, I gave up trying to persuade this person that rape culture is real. I had more efficient ways to spend my time, like trying to persuade my kitten that she doesn’t need to knock everything off the dresser at night.

Meanwhile I offer you these two amazing spoken word poets on the question of rape culture & consent.

First, “I’m Sorry Poem” by FreeQuency

 

And then, “Word Choice” by Imani Cezanne

 

And if you would like to read more about the reality of rape culture you can start here:
What Is Rape Culture – Women Against Violence Against Women