As I write this, it’s January and we are nearly at the two year mark of living with the global health crisis of Covid-19 that has changed everything. In responding to the virus, we have changed the way we live with practices of social distancing and isolation. In many places in my part of the world, school became virtual and many who could were required to work from home, but both of those practices revealed problems in our society including lack of broadband internet access, lack of childcare, and the classism that resulted in someone telling me that “the important people” were working from home while store clerks, delivery drivers, utility workers, farmers and farm workers, factory workers, and more, the people on whom our society depends were on the front lines, often with little or no sick leave, having to work through whatever ills came their way.
And all of that is even before we consider what happened in other countries: places where social distancing simply isn’t possible; places where basic hygiene is challenging because of limited or no access to clean water; places where there isn’t internet so schools simply shut down completely. And, as I write this we are in the midst of the surge of the omicron variant in my part of Wisconsin. Infection rates are the highest they have been throughout these two years and our medical facilities and workers are overwhelmed, exhausted from fighting not only Covid, but the stream of misinformation that has made their work all the much harder. In the midst of this some churches and communities have returned to online only worship, while others have not returned to in-person worship since the initial shut-downs. So, what do we do about Break The Silence Sunday (BTSS) in 2022?
BTSS isn’t something that, at least in my personal and pastoral opinion, moves online well. It’s something that I believe needs the human presence, the being together in the same space. Much of being a survivor of sexual violence relates to how we honor and reclaim our physical bodies, how we occupy space with bodies that have been cruelly mistreated by others. That said, there are communities doing incredible work with their online worship experiences that could well provide a BTSS service within that space with care and integrity.
So, BTSS, like all things these days, can be itself in many different ways, in many different spaces – both physical and online. The most important thing is that every community that engages with Break The Silence Sunday does so carefully, with the knowledge that it is a difficult, sensitive, and essential topic for the church and that there is a plan for follow-up and after-care for whatever they do.
And that’s something I’m learning that BTSS needs. We started in 2016, providing complete liturgies each year since, but I’ve come to realize that perhaps that’s not enough, not the only thing we need. In 2021 we provided a couple of prayers in written and recorded formats that could be added to worship. They were well received. So this year I’m thinking of just stand-alone prayers, things that can be incorporated perhaps on April 24th, but also perhaps throughout the year, smaller parts of the service that can provide repeated encouragement to folks in the pews (or at home on their sofas) that they, as survivors, are welcomed and embraced by a community of faith.
I will be writing these prayers over the next month or so, hoping to have them all to you by way of our website and Facebook page by the beginning of March. To use them faithfully in worship you’ll still need to do some preparation, making sure folks know that they’re coming, that you’ll be dealing with some hard subjects, allowing survivors and their supporters to prepare their hearts and minds, or absent themselves if they need to.
The need for Break The Silence Sunday is greater than ever. The years of the pandemic have made a lot of things worse. Survivors have, in many cases, been obliged to isolate with the person who is abusing them. Financial pressures have made already complicated situations even more volatile. With medical systems overwhelmed, survivors aren’t able to get to the physical care they need, and access to mental health resources, already incredibly difficult, has become near to impossible for many. Yet the need continues. In the first year of the pandemic, the number of calls I had from survivors needing to talk tripled. In the second year, that number has tripled again. Survivors are struggling, and the church is deafeningly silent.
For those of you who know me well, you’ll be able to testify that I am a card carrying optimist, a belief founded in the essential goodness of who we are and who we can be. But my optimist heart is tired, tired of trying to understand why the church, and the United Church of Christ (UCC) in particular since that’s my tradition, can’t seem to speak out in support of survivors. To be clear we do good work advocating for change, for teaching about consent culture, for the work of ending rape culture and those are all incredibly important things, but they come too late for me and for my survivor siblings. We’re already sitting in the church’s pews, and viewing the church’s online services, carrying with us in our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our spirits the wounds the church doesn’t seem willing or able to address.
I was raped in 1987, and ordained in the United Church of Christ in 2002. When I have asked questions about the church supporting survivors I’ve heard the same things across all these years – it’s personal and private and it makes people uncomfortable – and then the platitude that we have lots of important things we have to address as the church, we can’t possibly give our time to everything, and it’s just not important for the church to address (that’s been said quite literally in those words).
Idealistically I believed when I was told that the secret to getting on the national church’s radar was to have a resolution passed at General Synod. So we did, the resolution to make BTSS part of the national church’s calendar passed overwhelmingly at General Synod in Milwaukee in 2019. But then the pandemic came, and the great social upheaval of the summer of 2020, and the election of 2020, and despite sexual violence being repeatedly in the news with the #metoo movement and more, and with a resolution about supporting survivors, the message of the national church was about preventing sexual violence, about consent education, an about Thursdays in Black (an important symbolic gesture started from the World Council of Churches … Wear a pin to declare you are part of the global movement resisting attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence. Show your respect for women who are resilient in the face of injustice and violence. Encourage others to join you.”). Again, all of those are incredibly important things, but they do little if nothing for those of us who are already survivors.
Supporting us, speaking to us about our holiness, saying overtly that we are welcome in the Body of Christ with our wounds, with or without forgiving our perpetrators, with the struggles and questions we have about where God was when we were victimized, helping us to find a way forward that honors our past without blame or shame – those are the tasks of supporting survivors that I believe are being done on the local level, in communities of care, but aren’t being addressed by the wider church, and I can hear their silence.
Last year I wrote:
The Body of Christ has been raped and abused and the Body of Christ must stand up to witness with and support survivors, saying repeatedly and clearly that they are believed, loved, and valued as they are.
We must continue to do the work of education about consent, and healthy relationships, and all the hard work that needs to be done to prevent future rapes, but we must at the same time stand in solidarity with those of us for whom consent education and prevention didn’t work, who bear the scars in our bodies and souls of other people’s violence.
I know that what I’ve written today might sound critical, but it is because I want the best for the church, because I know what the church can be when it gets it right, when it’s willing to stand up for and support survivors. I know this from first-hand experience – I wouldn’t be here today without the support of the church I grew up in and the encouragement of the churches I serve.
BTSS is a movement of hope, even if this moment seems to be a bit of the valley of shadows. That’s because it’s a movement and movements take time. We can do this, even if it requires a long view. We believe that, as individuals, as congregations, and as the wider church we can do better in supporting survivors, creating space where they feel safe sharing their stories, and honoring their courage and resiliency. We can find new ways of thinking about, and talking about our faith that don’t glorify suffering and don’t perpetuate the abuse that so many have suffered. And we believe that we can work together to change the culture that allows sexual violence to happen, building a future where survivors can share their stories without shame, and where all can live free from sexual violence.
And if nothing else gives us reason to hope it’s that you, yes you, are sitting here reading this material. Maybe your community has a supportive pastoral staff and all you need to participate fully. Maybe you’re the pastor who is going to invite your congregation to observe BTSS for the first time and you’re anxious, but also confident, that it’s what your community needs right now.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking you’d like to suggest it to your pastor or worship committee or whoever in your context might be most supportive, and you’re just not sure any of them will be. Maybe you’re a survivor who thinks you’re perhaps, possibly ready to share your story and hoping your faith community will receive it with grace and love.
Whoever you are, whatever the situation you find yourself in, you are the reason Break The Silence Sunday will ultimately make healthy, sacred space for survivors in our faith communities.
The suggested date for Break The Silence Sunday is the fourth Sunday of April. This keeps us within the national observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), but it is just a suggested date. In 2022, that date is Sunday April 24th.
This is, in the UCC’s calendar also Pacific Islander Asian American (PAAM) Sunday, a vital part of the diversity of our life together. There are also churches that will observe Earth Day events at the weekend, particularly given the current state of climate crisis. Please feel free to pick a time that works best for your community.
Some have held observances in October during the observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, remembering that much rape and sexual violence occurs within domestic relationships. Other communities observe during the summer, and still others find Lent an appropriate time to take on the challenging work of learning about sexual violence and creating space for survivors. Whatever date you choose please feel free to adapt these materials, use them for inspiration, and craft whatever you need – worship, prayer, study – that best fits the needs of your community, particularly in these days of living with Covid.
If you’ve been with us from the beginning, thank you. The archive of materials is available on our website and you are welcome to change and modify them so they work best for your community. All we ask is that you use proper attribution for those who have written these materials.
Please, whatever you do, we would appreciate feedback about what you liked, and didn’t like, about these materials, what worked for you, what was a challenge, and what could be provided in coming years to help you better implement BTSS in your community. There’s a feedback form at the end of these materials if you’d like to mail it in, of you’re welcome to send questions and comments to our email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, please be in touch if there’s anything here you need to talk through, if you have questions or concerns, if you need to share your story, or if you just need a cheerleader as you work towards bringing Break The Silence Sunday to your community.
Thank you for your openness to this work, welcome, and God’s blessings.
Peace and grace, Rev Moira Finley