Strings and things – a project

820

That’s the number of stories shared with me (and Lella) by survivors since Break The Silence Sunday began not quite five years ago.Seventy-eight of those have been since the beginning of General Synod on June 20th.

I’ve kept track of every story, usually initials, sometimes a name when they’ve asked me to use it, and maybe a little note as an aid to my memory about who they are and the story they carry. I’ve tried to respond to every story with gratitude for the sharing, knowing myself how hard it is to tell, to not want to be a burden, to share something that many people can’t begin to imagine, much less live with.

Lately I’ve found myself replying with words something like, “your story is heard, and believed, and held in God’s grace”. (Yes, I know that last bit might not work for everyone … so could we maybe agree on grace as a concept, in this case like tenderness and love combined, that holds the story without judgement, shame, or blame?) I’m finding those words comforting to survivors, and to myself, maybe because they’re the words I heard, and still need to hear even all these years later.

And that got me to thinking about some sort of tangible way to symbolize this with survivors come the next General Synod, 2021 in Kansas City.

The answer, clearly, is string!

If I knit one shawl every month from now until the next Synod, I’ll have 24 of them.

If I recruit other people to knit, crochet, weave string into scarves, shawls, and wubbies (more on that in a minute) then I could have oodles and oodles of objects, soft and cuddly objects, for survivors to have when they share their story at the Break The Silence Sunday booth. Because as sure as I’m sitting here, and as sure as the kittens are demanding I get up and feed them, there are gonna be a whole lot more stories now that BTSS is moving to the national stage, now that we’ve taken down the door, now that we’re all working together to break the silence.

So, here’s the plan (if you aren’t a string type creating person, please skip to step three where we need your creativity in naming things):

Step One: You – fabulously wonderful string artist type person – commence making objects in whatever pattern you like, by whatever technique you like (I am an utter failure at crochet, but I’ve been knitting for 40 years)

Object Suggestions

Shawls – something like 24″ x 60″, give or take

Scarves – well, you know, a scarf is sometimes skinny, sometimes not; sometimes long, sometimes not; variety is key here, but scarves are clearly skinnier than shawls in width

Wubbies – my William had one of these when he was little, they’re about 12″ square (big washcloth?) and get carried around in backpacks and purses and such so when you need to know it’s there, you just reach in and pet it; the person who gave us William’s called it a wubbie and so here we are

Object Requirements

Soft, seriously soft. Don’t go into debt buying cashmere or something, but we want snuggly.

Probably acrylic or a blend thereof; if your string has wool in it, please let us know (see further steps); washable is really useful, particularly for wubbies.

Colours – somewhere in the purple-ish range of things. Purple is our theme colour for sexual assault awareness (my living room looks like Barney the Dinosaur exploded), but please think of this broadly. The string I’ve started with has loads of yellow and pink in it. And remember, purple is a whole range of colours. It doesn’t all have to be lilac and lavender pastels.

Step Two: You – fabulous string creator person – arrange to send me your creations. This step needs some sorting out. If you’re near me I can collect in person and bring you a snack. If you’re further away we shall conscript the postal services into delivering, and give the carriers a snack (and probably mail you a treat too). But, we’ll get to this when we do because it’s going to take some time to get the creations going.

Step Three: We attach a note to your creation that says something like

your story is heard, and believed, and held in grace
with the BTSS logo
maybe your first name or initials as creator
and some sort of name for this project

(hello non-string people, this bit is where we need you and your use of words to come up with what we’re calling this work). I had thought of “Comfort For Survivors”, but the more I said it in my head the more it sounded like the comfort women of World War II and I just don’t want that (if you don’t know about it, please go here … https://www.history.com/news/comfort-women-japan-military-brothels-korea).

So, the project needs a name … what shall we call it to convey the meaning that these objects are symbols of the courage of the survivor for sharing their story, it being received by our BTSS team, and it being held in the loving grace of our hearts?

Step Four: We give out these objects to survivors. Perhaps it will all be when we get to General Synod in 2021, or at the Wisconsin Conference Annual Meeting in 2020 (where I’m sure to hear many stories), or they become part of our website outreach to folks, or ??? In any event, the objects eventually end up in the hands of survivors.

Step Five: You relish in the support you’re offering to survivors you may never know, but who now feel a whole lot less alone in their stories, and in the world.

Step Six: You make more objects, and repeat the entire process until rape culture ends.

If you’re game to help, even one scarf or wubbie would be great, drop me a note: at breakthesilencesunday@gmail.com, through the comments here on the website, or on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/breakthesilencesunday/

Same goes if you’ve got ideas about what we can call this enterprise. Drop me a note and let’s get a good name going.

Also, you don’t have to be any good at this. We’ll take your best efforts. This isn’t about perfectly knitted, crocheted, or woven objects. This is about you expressing your love for survivors of rape and sexual violence.

Looking forward to all your creativity. ♥ Moira

What happened on the Synod floor

Hello friends, We’re still processing everything that happened in the incredible 691 yes, 10 no, 0 abstentions vote a week ago at the UCC’s General Synod in Milwaukee. We’re still figuring out what the next steps look like, lots of questions: how to liaison with the national church and a reasonable timeline for that; how to gather the writers, and resources that we need to make Break The Silence Sunday the best it can be, offering support and opening the door to healing for people in every community; how to prepare for the next General Synod in 2021 in Kansas City. While all of that happens and a thousand post-it notes go up in my front room (completing its transition to campaign headquarters), we wanted to share with you what we’re calling “The Speech That Made All The Difference”. Our incredible committee chair, the Rev Cheryl Lindsay, allow the committee to do what it needed to do – open space for healing, stories, and hope; brainstorm dreams and ideas about implementation before we’d even discussed if we were supporting the resolution (that seemed a foregone conclusion in committee from the beginning); calling attention to communities that might be underserved, or underrepresented by BTSS’s work to this point including communities of color, LGBTQAI+ communities, and people with disabilities. (An apology … In an effort to be avoid a gender binary we discussed, but neglected to include specific wording about male survivors. This was an entirely unintentional oversight and despite the fact that this language isn’t in the final resolution, we will definitely be working on including those resources in our materials going forward.) So, our incredible chair made all that happen and then she was tasked with three minutes on the Synod stage to make the case for adopting the resolution. She was AMAZING!!!!!! The video is here (taken from my mobile phone, from a distance, with shaking hands) and I’ve done my best to transcribe the video as well. Please take a few minutes and listen. This is why the work is so incredibly important.


Transcription of The Speech That Made All The Difference by the Rev Cheryl Lindsay

emphasis (bold) added towards the end because that’s a seriously important question she asks…

Moderator (Mr Norman Williams): Does the committee wish to speak to the motion?

Rev Cheryl Lindsay: Yes, thank you. The Gospel according to John tells the story of Jesus encountering a person who had been hurting for a long time, who was in the midst of the community of faith, suffering, on the sabbath day no less, but whose pain had become a part of the landscape, but not acknowledged or addressed in any way. But Jesus sees and asks the question, “Do you want to get well.” Siblings in Christ, our congregations are full of survivors of rape and sexual violence who are in desperate need of the body of Christ to open the door to healing, to make space for their stories, to be seen and heard, to be acknowledged and believed; waiting for the church that proclaims that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here; waiting for that church, that not only welcomed their presence, but the totality of their lives, their story, their pain, and their truth; for the church that boasts of a still speaking God to no longer be complicit and instrumental in the silencing and shaming of her members. The silence is a disease in the church making us unwell in immeasurable ways; the silence magnifies the hurt; the silence deepens the pain; the silence kills; the silence has to go. It’s time church to break the silence. It’s time to show up for survivors. It’s time to demonstrate our love and support, to educate and equip ourselves to be faithful allies, companions, and friends, so that survivors may know that they don’t have to leave a part of themselves outside of their faith journey or their faith community; so that a congregant does not reach her 90s before hearing words of healing and restoration for the deepest, and longest held hurt of her life, from the pulpit of the church to which she has belonged from the cradle. And as that congregant told her pastor, who happened to be a member of our committee, to tell the General Synod that the God who is still speaking needs to break the silence today. Break the silence to make way for healing. Break the silence to make room for hope. Break the silence because rape and sexual violence are more prevalent than we realize including within our congregations, and if we cannot bring the good news into this part of our life together what gospel do we proclaim? If we cannot break the silence our faith communities will never be whole, will never be healed, will never be well. Do we want to be well? Break the silence. I strongly encourage the 32ndGeneral Synod to vote yes on resolution 9, Supporting Survivors Of Rape and Sexual Violence Through the Ongoing Church-wide Observance of Break The Silence Sunday.

[clapping and shouting]

 

Synod committee day & my speech

My friends, today was … you know I’m not sure I actually have words to describe today, so I suppose I’ll settle for amazing. This has been, many of you know, a long journey filled with more than a few (thousand) setbacks, naysayers, disappointments, and more Today General Synod 32’s Committee 9 met to discuss and deliberate the resolution for Break The Silence Sunday.

The members of the committee opened their hearts, and minds, and spirits and truly did God’s work. They listened to each other, some sharing their own stories of why this work is important. They asked questions, not about IF we should do this work, but rather about HOW to do this work in different congregations, communities, and contexts. They thought through ways to make sure we are paying attention to the needs of different groups of survivors. They even added back in words about the church’s complicity in protecting perpetrators and perpetuating rape culture that I had taken out in previous drafts (in hopes of making the resolution more politically acceptable to a broad audience).

We still have some hurdles ahead. The modified resolution will be put before the full body of the synod either Monday or Tuesday. Our incredible committee chair, Rev Cheryl Lindsey, will present on behalf of the committee. I cannot say enough about how wonderful Cheryl was in facilitating and guiding the committee’s work. She framed our work with prayer, nurtured and listened to all who were present, gave me time to speak and answer questions, and truly showed what a chair can be.

After the vote by the full synod (presuming it’s a positive decision), the resolution will move to implementation and an entirely different set of challenges will face us – the work of taking BTSS to the wider church.

I ask for your continued prayers. I have been at this such a very long time and it’s strange to think I won’t have to push for this part of the process much longer. That will take some time to get from my brain to my heart, and then an even longer time to adjust to a new and different kind of work of advocacy and supporting survivors.

In the meantime, several people have asked for the text of what I said before the committee today so I include it for you here:

Address to the General Synod Committee, Moira Finley, 23 June 2019
(FYI, the number of stories heard that are referenced below needs to be updated to include seven more stories Lella and I heard today.)

Good morning. Thank you for your time, and your commitment to our denomination, to the work of helping shape the life and ministry of our churches.

And I thank you in advance for what I know is a difficult conversation ahead of us today. Rape and sexual violence are challenging topics for us to talk about because they ask us to be vulnerable with each other, and to face things that many of us would rather not.

I have to tell you that today feels a bit like a moment when the church I love, the one that professes extravagant welcome, will pass judgement on whether or not I, a rape survivor, am truly welcome.

In July 2003 the General Synod met in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I attended as a visitor and had the luxury of lots of time chatting with folks, particularly in the exhibit hall. In one of those conversations, at the Justice and Witness ministries booth I asked the national staff member what the UCC was doing to support rape and sexual assault survivors.

He told me that it didn’t really happen to people in the UCC, and that even if it did it was a personal, private problem that we, a church that claimed to offer a prophetic word and witness to the world, didn’t have time for because it just wasn’t important.

I wanted very much to quit, to hand in my ordination, barely a year old, and go off somewhere without the church, to find life in a place where, even if I wasn’t accepted, if my life and experiences weren’t welcomed there wasn’t the hypocrisy of saying I was while, in practice, I was asked to be silent.

I can say today that I am grateful the dear friend I was traveling with, Sharon MacArthur, wouldn’t let me quit. She said I couldn’t for two reasons, first because I just don’t know how, and second because we, the church, needed me not to. The church, if it was going to be true to its calling to follow Jesus, needed me to stay, to struggle for what I know we can be when we live as fully as we are able.

So here we are today. Sixteen years later, after a lot of pain and tears, and more patience than I ever imagined I had, thanks to the support and encouragement of some remarkable people.

I want to thank my friend, my support pit bull, Lella Baker for taking her vacation time and own money to be here making sure I get snacks and water and tissues.

And I want to thank my Wisconsin Conference minister, the Rev Franz Rigert, who helped me dream up Break The Silence Sunday five years ago, taking off its hinges a door that had felt firmly closed and bolted shut for more than a decade.

In thanking them I am aware that I am here, in many ways, because of the actions, both good and bad, of other people.

The men who raped me set my life on a path I did not choose, and do not want.

I did not ask for this to be my story, for this to be the work of my life, but having it set before me I have chosen to pick it up, and to use the horror of what I experienced, the pain I live with to this day, and the incredible grace of the people who have helped me along the way to do what I can, to do something to further the transformation of the world, in the hopes that my work, however small it might be in the grand scheme of things, might be my part in following in the footsteps of the man of Nazareth.

While I acknowledge that I was set upon this path by men who did almost indescribable harm to me, I have been held together, nurtured, strengthened, encouraged, and loved beyond measure as well.

I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to my momma, Nancy, who found a way to support me despite the grief and pain of seeing her daughter in such physical, emotional, and spiritual agony.

And a huge part of why I am here today, why I am so committed to what the church can be for survivors, is due to the love and nurture of some people at the church I grew up in, First Congregational UCC Albuquerque, New Mexico.

They held me and my family together through the most unimaginable of hells, helping with food and rides and more when nothing else could be done, waiting until we were ready to talk despite their million questions, and simply holding us in the light and grace of God’s gathered people.

I have been told I am too hard on the church, demanding we meet an unattainable standard of support for survivors of sexual violence, but I know it isn’t unattainable because I have received – from those folks in Albuquerque – the support I seek for each and every survivor, in each and every congregation in the UCC.

They didn’t get it all right. There were missteps and ill timed or badly worded moments, but they tried, and showed up, and kept showing up over and over again being the living presence, the hands and feet and hearts of Jesus in my life.

And I stand before you today a pastor of three UCC congregations, places where incredible healing and transformation has taken place because we have opened space for stories of the places where our lives haven’t been perfect, where the mask we show the world has fallen away and we have dared to be what we are – fragile, vulnerable, beautiful, and human.

But this resolution isn’t about me, or my congregations. We will continue to speak out, to break the silence. This is about us, the Body of Christ, the church together, and how we will respond to survivors.

Because I am who I am, and I have lived through all that has shaped me in these going on forty-six years, people talk to me, sharing their stories. When Break The Silence Sunday was born, in the fall of 2015, I started keeping track of everyone who told me their story. My list is now 778 stories long, 36 of those being since I arrived here at Synod on Thursday at about noon.

Survivors are desperate to find someone who will listen, who will treat them with dignity, and their story with the sacred respect it deserves, not trying to fix it.

They are looking for someone who will sit with them in the mess, in the uncertainty, with the struggles, doubts, fears, dreams, worries, hopes, and questions.

My survivor siblings, and I, are waiting for a voice from God’s people to say “we believe you”, and we cannot wait any longer. The silence of the church is deafening, and it is killing us.

Conservatively speaking at least a quarter of the people you share your pews and potluck tables with are survivors of sexual violence.

We live every day with the reality of our stories and we need to know, from the church, that we can bring that story to the community to be heard without shame or pity, that what we tell you will not face the victim blaming and shaming, the what were you wearing or why were you there alone or why did you wait to tell someone or why didn’t you try to get away, or all the other questions society is so quick to ask when we disclose what we have lived through.

We want to know that in the church we will find a place where we won’t be offered theologies that reinforce archaic ideas of purity, tired and hurtful theologies about suffering, and simplistic theologies about forgiveness that fail to understand the depths of pain survivors experience, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The resolution before you isn’t a timely response to the #metoo movement in our society, but the work of my life, of more than thirty years of wrestling with being a rape survivor AND a person of faith.

This resolution asks our church to start talking about the reality of rape and sexual violence, but not as something we can fix by teaching consent, healthy sexuality, and constructive means of dealing with anger. Those are vitally important things for us to be doing, but they come too late for me, and for my survivor siblings, because we are here, living with the reality we bear in our bodies and our hearts of the most intimate violation of the body of Christ.

It asks us, the United Church of Christ, to be true to our calling, to truly be Christ’s people, to bind up the broken-hearted survivors in our midst, offering the love and grace of God without judgement or pity.

It asks us to be prophetic, not in the ways we usually understand that word, but by learning to listen, really and truly listen with our hearts and our souls

It calls us to the holy work of lament, of hearing stories that will unsettle us and upend things we thought we knew for sure, hearing pains that can be healed, not through our actions, but through our openness, our willingness to sit in the midst of the mess.

It invites us to be brave, as our survivor siblings are brave each and every day of their lives, to trust, deeply and completely, in the One who calls us each by name, opening space in our congregations, our communities, and our hearts for survivors to share their stories and experience the grace that carries us all.

I thank you for your time, and your prayerful consideration.

2019 Break The Silence Sunday Materials

“There is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”

~ Ernest Hemingway

I’m not a huge Hemingway fan, not the least because he seems to have a hatred of commas, writing all those short staccato sentences that feel like gunfire when I read. But this quote has come back to me over and over in the past couple of weeks, a reminder that the work of writing is intensely hard, and at least for me, costly in body, mind, and spirit. It is also work I am honoured and privileged to do.

This is the fourth year I’ve written materials for Break The Silence Sunday. Every year I think it should, somehow, get easier, and every year it seems like more is required of me, as a pastor, as a survivor, as a human being.

Part of this is, of course, because of the world we are living in, the stories on the news every day about rape and sexual violence, and the general state of society here in the United States.

Part of it is also that I want to do better every year, make the liturgy, and commentary, and everything else the best it possibly can be. I remember a class in seminary where we were discussing the purpose of the church and how what we say about Jesus’ life and ministry shapes that purpose. I was frustrated because my classmates seemed to be having an intellectual exercise, all hypothetical ideas about some ideal church. I went to my professor to share my concerns. He listened with a pastor’s heart and said something like, “well, the problem, my friend, is that you know these aren’t just ideas, they’re matters of life and death.”

I want these BTSS materials to be their best because lives really, truly are hanging in the balance. In these days where sexual violence is a story on the news, a joke at the comedy club, and a derogatory meme on the internet, survivors are desperate to be heard, to know that their stories, and their lives matter.

So here they are my friends, the 2019 materials for Break The Silence Sunday, as both BTSS 2019 WORD and BTSS 2019 PDF.

I hope you’ll pray about ways in which your community can support our work, and support the survivors in your midst.

 

 

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 – #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.

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.