Last Thursday (April 4), I heard Nicole Bromley, the founder of One Voice Enterprises, an organization dedicated to both raising awareness and providing resources on issues surrounding sexual abuse, share her story at Calvin College. It was a story of years of sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father, and a slow journey towards healing and purpose for her life. There was a lot that stood out from Nicole’s presentation: her courage and integrity, the ways in which her own suffering opened her eyes to the suffering in the world and gave her a bold mission: “Purpose can call us out of hiding.” Nicole gave a powerful call for all of us to wake up, get our heads out of the sand, and face the reality of the suffering around us, the suffering in “good Christian homes,” and the gaping wounds of sex trafficking and enslavement in both our country and cities and throughout the world. In her words, “A collective shout against injustice is what we need.”
But for some reason, it was a brief reflection shared in the question and answer part of the discussion that stayed with me. Someone in the audience asked Nicole what her journey towards healing looked like, particularly how she found enough healing to start dating and to dare to love again. Nicole shared that, like many women abused by men as a child, she had very thick emotional walls when it came to her relationships with men.
For her, a tentative journey towards healing began simply by choosing to release in part her sweeping attitude towards all men and observe the men around her, looking for exceptions to the rule. Men who didn’t make crude jokes or stare disrespectfully at women. Men with self-control, who treated women like people instead of objects, who cared about women even when they received nothing in return. In a comment both sad and hopeful, she said most of the time she was right in her cynical assessment of guys only caring about sex and not respecting women—but she wasn’t always. That small percentage of men whose integrity and compassion she couldn’t deny was enough to bring some healing into her life and a journey towards trust.
There is something both incredibly sad and powerful in this story. It is heartbreaking that it can be so hard for someone who has suffered trauma to the extent Nicole had, just to find men of integrity who she could trust to have no ulterior motives in their kindness. The story of how she found gradual healing just by finding some men who she could trust, echoes what I’ve heard from many others - everything can change if you find just one person who sees past the lies our culture tells us and chooses to simply value people unconditionally. Conversely, some people can never seem to find people who are worthy of trust, who will not judge and dismiss them by the shallow and self-serving standards of our culture. In many ways it is this element, a culture that does not care, that is the greatest obstacle to healing.
I wonder how many people realize the extent to which degrading attitudes about women and sex further traumatize and wound the most vulnerable around us. To someone who doesn’t know better, the crude jokes and inappropriate looks, the constant dehumanizing thoughts and words we use in a hyper-sexualized culture, might not seem like a big deal, just a coping mechanism for our desires. To someone whose life has been destroyed by sexual abuse and who just wants to be treated like a person, those destructive attitudes are everything that has hurt them.
I think part of what Nicole’s story reveals, beyond the desperate need for the church to wake up to abuse and to shout against injustice, is the overwhelming need for communities of faith to create communities of compassion. Communities of people who see past the barrage of labels we use to dismiss and discard people and see instead the image of God. In such a community, the rare kind of men that were essential to Nicole’s healing might not be so hard to find. Men who ignore the constant messages that train them to be sexually predatory and selfish. Men for whom it is normal, not heroic, to see women as persons first without any agenda. In such a community, we might not always be able to prevent every instance of abuse.
But we would create a culture where people of compassion would stand up against injustice and be agents of healing. We would be used by God to create spaces of healing and new hope for victims of trauma who simply need someone they can trust. In this kind of community, the kind of “one voice” Nicole is fighting so hard to see in the church, one voice of faith in solidarity with victims and in protest to abuse of any kind, might not be a distant hope, but the only kind of voice we would expect from the family of God.