Sound the Alarm: Breaking the Silence Together
When God created humanity, God did so with the intentions for us to be in community with one another. Being together in community is how we are able to accomplish God’s agenda. It’s how we are able to do good works. And it’s also how we are able to help one another when something happens – something so gut-wrenching that it renders us voiceless and silent because often times, the shock of the situation is so overwhelming that we aren’t sure who to tell and how to tell it.I know. It happened to me when I was the repeated victim of “unwanted touch” by a male member at the church where I served as an associate pastor. After reporting it to the senior pastor, to my District Superintendent, and to my senior pastor once more, and then another more, I was so overwhelmed by the trauma of it that I was not sure who else I could trust with this information.
Choosing how and when to sound the alarm can be challenging.
Choosing how and when to sound the alarm can be challenging.
Then I knew that I had to share the impact of my situation because I needed to begin the healing process. I also knew that there was the possibility that someone else in my same ministry setting could be suffering in silence as well – potentially even a minor, at the hands of this same male member.
So, I broke the silence and shared it in a staff meeting. It was there in the staff meeting that I learned that this same man had uninvitingly approached a young woman who had joined the choir. He showed up at the rehearsal, sat beside her, took her hand and placed it on his genitals.
I can only imagine the suffering that this woman encountered. I never had the opportunity to talk with her, but at some point, she either broke her silence or her situation was made known because others at choir rehearsal witnessed it. In my situation, the senior pastor witnessed one of the times that it happened to me.
Much to my chagrin, some of the staffers were not at all surprised by my encounter with this male member. In fact, before I even said his name, someone said, “you must be talking about…something must have happened to trigger this. He was doing so well.”
He had a history, and they knew his history. Now my present situation was being added to that history.
It turns out that by breaking the silence of my situation, I exposed an unfortunate situation that had been going on in this church for some time, long before I arrived last July. This male member, who had a history of doing this to women, and who had been assigned “handlers and shepherds,” as the senior pastor announced, was still allowed to be a part of the worshiping community, and for all intents and purposes, be allowed to continue in this damaging behavior.
I had to break my silence about my situation because I didn’t want the situation to break me. I also knew that when the senior pastor announced that this man needed to remain a part of the worshiping community so that the church could respond to him, it was clear to me that breaking the silence about my situation didn’t ensure that this man’s behavior would stop. Because he was not being stopped. He had done it before. And now he was doing it again. To me. And the fact that it was even a topic of discussion in our staff meeting was evident that breaking the silence was not enough to make it stop. It was already known and still happening.
And that’s alarming. Alarming enough that I had to request to be removed from that setting. I had endured enough over four months.
As I sounded the alarm and began to talk with clergy colleagues who had served in that same setting before, they, too, knew who I was talking about without me ever uttering the name of the male member. They shared their own encounters about this ongoing situation. The way I understood it, the perpetuation was commonplace and allowed.
My narrative is my own, yet in sharing my story, I learned that my situation was not an isolated one. It turns out that other clergy women (not connected to this church), had their own stories. I was dismayed to learn that they, too, had experienced either sexual harassment or sexual assault in their church settings. And the more alarming part is that when they reported it, nothing was done. The response they received was “well, this is just what happens.”
It’s time to break the silence on all of that. It’s time to hold people, systems and our churches accountable for whatever part they play in allowing the perpetuation of sexual harassment. Whether it is a woman being harassed or a man being harassed, it’s wrong. Whether it’s an attack on their sexual orientation, or gender identification, it’s wrong. We can no longer continue with “business as usual” in any setting and take a “do nothing” approach when improper behaviors are witnessed, reported, shared in staff meetings, etc. This goes for schools, churches, companies, non-profits, anywhere that has people present.
That pretty much sums it up.
So, for anyone who has been intruded upon, this is your invitation to break the silence. For anyone who is in a position of authority and you know it’s happening, and have turned a blind eye to it, stop perpetuating it. Use your position of authority to make it stop.
There are friends, co-workers, and even family members in our midst, who are unsure if they can break their silence of sexual harassment. As you are reading this, please be intentional about reaching out to those around you to assure that person that they do not have to go through their situation alone. Be especially intentional about listening to the children and youth in your midst. It is their voices who are usually overwhelmingly silent because they are afraid to speak their pain.
The time is now to sound the alarm and break the silence together. Especially in the church. If we don’t sound the alarm, then we will continue to see far too many people who are hurt in the church, and who equate that church hurt with God-hurt. God does not condone this. And neither should we.