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Creating Space for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Your Church

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Our worship service two Sundays ago focused on violence against women as well as men, transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming persons.

This summer, we’ve been exploring uncommon Old Testament texts. Our subject two weeks ago was the story of Hosea and Gomer, illuminating a divinely ordained abusive relationship, which has historically been used to support patriarchal world-building.

In preparation for the service, we discovered a statistic that every 107 seconds an American is the victim of sexual assault.

That data was a few years old, so on Sunday morning, I notified our worship team that the statistic had been updated – it was now every 92 seconds.

We planned to have the equivalent time pass in silence with a chime ringing on either end.

Upon sharing the recently updated number, one of our members remarked, “It’s supposed to go up, not down.”

A difference of 15 seconds meant an increase of 132 victims of sexual assault and rape every day in the last three years.

In my 11 years as a pastor, I’ve never led or attended a worship service fully focused on the reality of sexual violence.

Like some of my colleagues, I spoke out in the wake of the #metoo movement from the pulpit, but this was something different.

Our entire service – songs, readings, prayers, Scripture, sermon – sought to educate congregants about the horrific truths of sexual violence.

We addressed difficult Scriptures and harmful theologies of the church that have justified such violence, and we created space for survivors of physical and sexual abuse to know that we are here to listen to their stories, to support them and to affirm that they are valued and loved.

Churches do not often like to talk about topics such as sexual violence and abuse. It makes folks in the pews uncomfortable. Let me tell you what happened when we did talk about it.

Saturday evening, in response to a social media post on our private church page letting folks know that Sunday’s content might be triggering for people, one of our church members shared her story.

She had been sexually abused by a parent when she was a child.

Other church members extended words of love and thanked her for trusting them to hold her story.

In response to her courageous vulnerability, more church members began to share their own stories of being victims of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse.

Sunday morning came and women, men, transgender, genderqueer and nonconforming individuals heard from the pulpit that they are loved, that they should not feel shame, and that the church shares in the responsibility of perpetuating such violence and victim shaming.

More felt safe to share their stories. Some repented for helping perpetuate the cycle of violence through the harmful theologies they had taught in the past. Others listened, prayed and held the stories of those around them.

It may have been uncomfortable in the pews, but it was clear that we were being the church.

We had created space for people to tell their stories and not just on Sunday morning, but whenever they might need to do so.

If we can’t talk about it on Sundays, how will folks know it’s OK to talk about it in safe settings in our society? How will survivors know the church is a safe place to share their story?

Folks in our congregation and community now know we are ready to listen, to create sanctuary for them and to love them fully.

For too long, survivors of sexual violence have been silenced, dismissed and even shamed by the church. Stories such as that of Gomer, the wife of Hosea, have perpetuated the dominant patriarchal narrative that anyone in a position of power has the right to control and abuse another human being.

Christians have a responsibility to speak to these troubling Scriptures and the harmful theologies that have justified sexual violence, even if these scriptural challenges make the folks in the pew uncomfortable.

We have a responsibility to comfort the afflicted and to challenge the stories and theologies of our own faith tradition that continue to oppress, silence and harm God’s children.

Jesus did much the same thing, extending compassion to those who were suffering and rattling the cages of those who stood comfortably in the crowd.

It’s not easy work, but it needs to be the work of the church if we’re to preach the liberating love of Jesus.

Stephanie Swanson

Stephanie Swanson is the pastor of Crossroads Church in Kansas City, Missouri.