It was a topic for a presentation, “Is Someone Missing?” When your congregation gathers for corporate worship, is there a demographic from your community that is missing or under-represented? How can we intentionally better represent the body of Christ in full, active, participation? Safe Church Ministry, along with other specialized ministries, was asked to contribute resources about this theme from our perspective. My mind immediately thought of many, many conversations with people who have survived sexual abuse. A common theme expressed is that church was not a place where they felt comfortable or safe.
One woman’s story stands out. She had been raped and won her case in court against the one who perpetrated the abuse, which is very rare (most cases of rape go unreported, and the conviction rate is low when they do end up court). However, she said that relationships in her congregation changed when people found out that she had been raped. At work and in other contexts she said that she felt accepted in her healing process and gained confidence. People did not seem to blame her for the abuse she experienced but placed blame where it belonged, on the one who perpetrated the rape. But in her congregation, she said things were very different, “There, I’m shunned; I feel like I’m a terrible person, and have done something very wrong. I had to stop attending for the sake of my own healing, and no one reached out to me.” It’s sad to hear stories like this – of people who have left their congregations, the CRC, or even their Christian faith – because of the way they were treated as they struggled with the aftermath of sexual abuse. Church became too painful, a place where they felt re-victimized. It happens so often that there’s a name for it: secondary wounding. It shouldn’t happen in our congregations.
One in four females and one in six males will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18. Are they missing from our congregations? Is there a place for them among us? When we think about safe church ministry, we often think of children and policies to protect them from abuse at church; that’s so important. And it’s a good place to start. We also need to consider whether our congregations are safe places for adults to disclose abuse they’ve experienced. What will they find? Will it be a compassionate listening ear, understanding, healing prayer, walk-alongside support, and helpful referrals to other resources? Or will it be hurtful judgment? Or will those who have experienced abuse suffer in silence, fearful of what might happen if they disclose?
Safe Church sometimes uses the symbol of bleeding hearts because the flowers remind us of pain, but also of beauty. Our Lord is amazing in the way he brings beauty out of brokenness and vibrant faith out of deep pain. We may be missing these beautiful stories by keeping silent or by not welcoming those with painful stories to tell. May the Lord make our congregations places of welcome and refuge for everyone, including those who have experienced abuse.