For the past two Sundays the folks in our adult discussion forum at First Church have been talking about sexual harassment. It’s an uncomfortable topic for some, but in light of the flood of allegations that have surfaced against high profile celebrities and politicians, we knew it was necessary to ask what might the Christian faith have to say, and how might our behavior as Christians be held to account?
I was particularly struck by the women in the room who came with a variety of experiences and were courageous enough to share their stories. One such story was told by a woman for the very first time in her life. (She has given me permission to write about it in this space without revealing her identity, knowing those who attended the classes will know who she is.)
When she was young – as so many other girls and young women did, and still do – she babysat for a variety of families. During that time she was accosted by more than one adult man in ways that would certainly be considered sexual assault or harassment. She said these experiences have left life-long emotional scars, and that she spent a good deal of time working through the shame she felt. She carried these experiences with her for a lifetime, not even sharing them with her husband or closest friends.
Yet she said she felt moved to talk about them in a Sunday School class, where she felt safe, and free from judgment or reproach. She trusted that her Christian sisters and brothers – some who have known her for many years and others only for a short time – would show compassion. Later she told me that the impetus for her decision came within the context of our discussion about why women wait so long to speak up. Many times women fear their stories will not believed, or their careers will be negatively impacted, or they will be blamed for bringing unwanted behaviors upon themselves. Telling her story for the very first time became a way to stand with those victims. Personally, I’ve known this woman for over 25 years and for so many reasons I have developed a deep and abiding respect for her. She is even more highly revered now because it took great courage for her to reveal that part of her life.
God was at work in these classes, reminding us that the church – while often maligned and burdened with its own sexual abuse scandals – can still be a place of refuge where deep bonds can be formed and the value of community can be accentuated. In a day and age where the church is being pushed farther and farther toward the perimeter of society, and new generations are struggling to find connection and meaning, there continues to be more than just a glimmer of hope when people invest their time and energy in regular and consistent participation in the Christian community.
I found myself wondering how many other women in the congregation have been impacted and what experiences do they carry with them? What are they thinking when they hear scripture about forgiving our enemies? Or when we pray for victims of violence and oppression? How can we be more sensitive to their pain, and what might we do to move the healing process forward?
And what of the men in our church? What can we learn from the stories of brave women who choose to bring into the light their awful tales of pain and suffering? We (men) need to learn that our behaviors matter, especially the ones we have attributed to the “boys will be boys” mentality. We need to be more mindful of our words and actions, and how they are perceived by the women in both our personal and professional lives. And we must hold one another accountable. The time of brushing aside hurtful comments or locker room humor has to come to an end. We can’t stand by quietly while others continue to make tasteless comments. We actually have to speak up. It’s true that many men continue to be in positions of power, but now is the time to use that power to change the culture in a way that reflects the intentions of the God we serve.
I will be forever grateful to the woman who shared her story in our Sunday morning forum. I hope by drawing attention to it in this space she will also become an inspiration for others – women and men – to open themselves to the power of community and the value of standing with one another in the streams of change and healing.