Resilience, Love & Gratitude

A couple of years ago, just as Break The Silence Sunday was being born, a dear friend asked me if I thought I might ever be able to say that I was grateful for what happened to me. My answer, without any hesitation, was a firm “no”. Two years, a lot of work, a lot of advocacy, and the reality of the world we’re living in, my answer is still no, but it’s much more nuanced.

It turns out that, like many things relating to being a survivor in the world today, I need a different word. I’m hoping that in some known language in the galaxy the word I need already exists, but maybe it’s up to me to create a new word. I need something that describes this:

I am not grateful for what happened to me, but I am finally grateful for the person I am today who would not have existed without what happened to me.

This is a strange place to be, this feeling that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for the horrible things I endured. I don’t know if I would have been able to love so relentlessly, to open my heart and allow it to be broken day in and day out, over, and over, and over again, if it were not for what happened to me. It is a peculiar feeling to think that what the men who raped me tried to do failed so spectacularly. They tried to convince me that violence, and hatred were stronger than love, and grace. And they were wrong. The effect of what they did, the outcome of their actions thirty years later is that I understand how deeply I am able to love this broken world because of what they did.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this feeling except struggle to find a word to describe it, and live into it being my new reality. But it does also have me thinking about resilience and our capacity to love.

In the days since the Weinstein scandal broke, and the #metoo hashtag went viral I have been honoured to listen to more than sixty stories, nearly all of them told for the first time. Women (and a few men) have read my “This Is What A Rape Survivor Looks Like” button and responded with their own stories of dates and partners they thought they could trust, of parents and other adults who exploited them as young children, of things they didn’t even know how to describe until recently, of events that took place in the last few months, and nearly fifty years ago.

Through all the stories runs one unifying theme – the incredible strength and resilience of the human spirit. The people who have shared their stories with me, and all of the survivors I know, are stronger than they can ever imagine. They are taking what has happened to them and not letting it destroy them. Yes, there are hard days (weeks, months, years), but they are all looking for a way to see themselves as more than what they experienced. Most of the folks I’ve listened to are just beginning their healing journey, and are uncertain about where it will lead, but almost all of them want this to be something that changes them, but doesn’t define them.

These are hard days. I’m trying to pastor my parish, stay informed about the world we’re living in, contact my senators and representatives often enough that their staff know me by name, advocate for people being trampled on by the system, listen to survivors, advocate for change, keep the laundry at least under reasonable control, snuggle my kittens, and take care of myself. I cry myself to sleep, and I don’t think I’m doing enough because there’s so much that needs doing.

The odds seem insurmountable, but then I remember that I shouldn’t be here. Seriously. The things that the men who raped me did should have killed me, but they didn’t. I’m still here, still breathing, and still believing in the relentlessly beautiful, gentle, transformative power of love.

I’ve written a poem about this, and it’s still a bit raw. I think I’m inclined to leave it untitled because every title I try to come up with seems to fall short. A writer friend said that the grammatical tense of the poem is a bit muddled – moving between past and present – and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. What they did happened more than thirty years ago, and I’m only now realizing some of what it means for how I live today. And I must confess that the poem feels ugly to me because I don’t want the images of what they did to me to haunt you, and I live with the shame that many (most) survivors feel, that if you knew, really knew what had been done to me you would think less of me. My head knows that’s irrational, but my heart isn’t so sure, but it’s time to stop playing it small. The system of oppression depends on my silence and I’m done with that. As the writer Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Untitled, 29 November 2017
by Moira Finley

They tried their best,
laying hands on me,
violating,
beating,
breaking,
demanding
what they believed
they had a right to take –
their power,
anger,
control
all trying to destroy me,
break my body,
convince me
that violence and hatred
would win the night.

But they hadn’t reckoned
on the invincibility
of my soul,
that every blow,
every wound
would root me
ever deeper
in a grace I do not understand,
every insult
and intimate violation
would strengthen
my capacity to love.

 

 

#metoo & what can the clergy do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Break The Silence Sunday Clergy Commitment

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

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

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

 

Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) 2017 ~ #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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.

An Invitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where you come in dear readers.

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

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

And specifically for survivors…

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Mr Trump, being a survivor, and what’s next…

This may ramble a bit, but hopefully it won’t be too stream of consciousness for you to follow. The rambling comes because it’s hard in the face of these days for even me, who loves putting words together, to figure out how to say what’s in my heart and on my mind. I am grateful for all of you who give it your best to read what follows…


It’s been an interesting season in America. In case you were living in a cave (an idea that becomes increasingly attractive by the minute by the way), you have heard the words on an old recording of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump where he says essentially that, because he’s a celebrity, he can grab women and force himself on them. People were shocked by Mr Trump’s choice of words, pussy apparently being a word we aren’t supposed to say. Thankfully many more people were outraged at what Mr Trump was describing – his sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and his casual description of sexual assault. Of course, for those of us who have been paying attention this recording came as no great surprise. It is who Mr Trump is, and this was just the latest in a long line of his denigration of people who aren’t just like him.

This revelation from Mr Trump, about his total disrespect of women, raised the visibility of  rape and sexual assault. Conversations were had on every morning TV show, and just about everywhere else. The phrase “rape culture” became a talking point. Legions of athletes – professional, amateur, high school, college, men, and women – stepped up to say that the things Mr Trump dismissed as “locker room talk” had no place in their locker rooms, or in their lives. (My deepest gratitude to all those athletes who lifted their voices – it gives me hope.)

But there has been another side to Mr Trump’s words. They have reopened wounds that many survivors thought had healed, or at least scarred over. I’ve had an average of twenty, yes twenty, calls a day since the story broke. Survivors are trying to keep going, to live their lives, but it’s damn hard when every story on the news drags you back through some of the worst moments of your life. We’re listening to people talk about sexual assault and rape as hypothetical things, when in reality it’s our lives, our every waking breath. I’ve found my own coping skills stretched to their limits, and many nights ending in tears of frustration, fear, anger, confusion, grief, and so much more.

A well-meaning person told me I should be grateful for Mr Trump’s words because it’s opened up this conversation that we so desperately need to be having. Thankfully I have a lot of practice in finding a quiet, peaceful place inside my soul and I didn’t smack this person upside the head with the nearest candlestick. I can not be grateful to Mr Trump, or all those who are like him (because there are so many more just like him who don’t see anything wrong with violating consent, and who don’t have the media watching them). I cannot be grateful. I can only listen when my survivor sisters and brothers call, crying in the night, because they have been triggered, are dealing with flashbacks, are afraid to even leave their homes because they know full well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the actions that follow words like the ones Mr Trump used.

I am glad to see the public conversation about rape and sexual assault, but as I write this the public’s attention is beginning to wane. Non-survivors tell me they’re tired of it being the lead story, that it’s time to move on, that they don’t want to talk about it any more. I get that, I really do, and I don’t care. If you’re tired of hearing about it, try living it, for even an afternoon, and then we’ll talk about whether or not we should change the subject.

While there has been a great deal of conversation about this in the public sphere I must  note that there has been deafening silence from churches (particularly my tradition, the United Church of Christ, one which prides itself on advocating for justice) about Mr Trump’s words. In theory this has to do with maintaining neutrality during the election, and not taking on a political position. However, this is NOT a political issue. This is a moral issue, one that the church needs to be addressing alongside all the other things we so proudly, and rightly take a stand about.

And that leads me to the question of what next? Where do we go from the revelations of Mr Trump, and all those who have apologized for him, and excused his words and behavior?

Let’s pause to consider a story … today (Monday, 24 October) I was running errands, in and out of many shops, and I had two drastically different encounters.

At the Barnes & Noble, I was checking out and the clerk (a woman) noticed my button that says “This is what a rape survivor looks like”. She paused for a minute and then thanked me for wearing the button, for trying to show the world that there is no shame in being a survivor. Then she took a breath and said, “maybe someday I’ll be brave like you”.

Later, I was leaving the grocery store and stopped to rummage in my purse for my keys before I went outside. A man stopped and said, “good for you, staying safe out there”. I asked him what he meant and he said that it is important for women to protect themselves because you never know who might be out there. I asked him if it was important for men to control themselves and he said no, that women have to protect themselves, it’s the woman’s responsibility. Truly the guy made my skin crawl, but thankfully the whole exchange took place near the customer service desk and the manager came over, asked me if I was ok, and walked me to my car, just in case the creepy guy decided that I wasn’t being careful enough.

These two encounters rather neatly sum up what it’s been like lately – a moment of healing and hope followed by a moment of entitled idiocy.

So what do we do? Where do we go from here?

Listen to survivors – I think this would be a great place to start. There are several public personalities (celebrities, authors, athletes, and so on) who are survivors and they’re talking, and being listened to, but I guarantee there’s a survivor or two or twelve in your circle, much closer to you, who needs to know someone is listening. If you have not experienced rape or sexual assault I am grateful for that, and now I need you to open your ears, and your heart to those you know who have experienced this violation. Listen to what  it’s like from someone who has been there. Listen to the fear, and the uncertainty, the triggers, the flashbacks, the confusion, the misplaced guilt and shame. Listen. Don’t try to fix it. Just listen. Let our stories get inside of you, carry them with us that they might not be such a weight on our hearts.

Ask survivors what survivors need – I have been at a couple of events lately where well-meaning people, who are not survivors, have explained to me how best survivors can be helped. They’ve had great plans, and even some ideas that seem good, but when I asked if they’d talked to any survivors about their ideas they said no, and they didn’t see the sad irony in what they were doing. Now every survivor is different, and we all do this surviving thing differently, but surely if you’re thinking of opening up space to support survivors, or looking to do advocacy on our behalf, it would be a good idea to talk to one or two of us before you go giving us things we may not need, or want, or that might re-traumatize us in the process? So stop and think. If you have questions about rape and sexual assault, turn to the experts, the people who’ve been there. And if you don’t know any survivors well enough to ask (though you’re reading this so you could ask me, just a thought), you could turn to places like the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (http://www.rainn.org) as a starting place.

Change the conversation – I don’t want to talk about prevention any more. I don’t want to see lists of ways women can protect themselves, not only because it’s not our responsibility,  but because it also implies that men and boys aren’t victimized as well. I don’t want an ad for a self-defense class because not everyone feels comfortable doing those kinds of things, nor should they have to. I don’t want dress codes to police women’s bodies so that men aren’t tempted. We’ve been having that conversation my entire life. I’m 42 years old. It isn’t working. It’s time for us to have a different conversation, one about changing the culture we live in, about respecting every body, about not raping or assaulting people. Let’s talk about challenging the rape jokes because they aren’t funny, and teaching all our children about consent alongside safety lessons. Let’s recognize that racism, sexism, heterosexism, poverty and all the other oppressions are intimately connected problems. Let’s own our responsibility for having created (or allowed) the culture we live in to exist, and claim our ability to together create a new culture.

As for me, and the work of this part of The Revolution, I’m starting to gather materials for the 2017 Break The Silence Sunday worship. If you like to do things liturgical I’d love for you to contribute a prayer, a litany, a few words, some original art work, a song, whatever you’re inspired to do. I’ll be taking a writing trip to Eden Seminary in St Louis in mid-January to gather all the materials together so that they’ll be in the hands of churches near the beginning of February. Put the date on your calendar now – Sunday April 23rd, 2017 – so you and your community can participate. Of course, you’re welcome to participate on any other day that works for your community’s calendar as well – a couple of communities have just had their observations of BTSS in the last several weeks. If you and your community would like to participate, and you’re not a part of the Wisconsin Conference U.C.C. (who will all receive materials automatically), and you’d like to receive the new materials, please drop me an email at breakthesilencesunday@gmail.com so I can make sure you get added to our list.

I invite your thoughts, comments, ideas, hopes, dreams, visions for how we might move Break The Silence Sunday forward, and create the new culture we so desperately need. And I welcome your prayers for me, and for all my survivor sisters and brothers who struggle through these, and all our days.