Recently, a friend and I decided to get some work done at a coffee shop in downtown Grand Rapids, and picked at random Lantern Coffee Bar on Commerce, a place we knew had a great atmosphere. What I wasn’t expecting to see was Lantern’s full investment in Sexual Assault Awareness Month (full month of April). Prominently displayed in the window, a poster read, “We Support Survivors.” Another nearby poster said “You are Safe Here.” Though not explicitly in reference to sexual assault awareness (the phrase “you are safe here” is a phrase often used to demonstrate support for marginalized groups), the signs together created a compelling image of an organization comfortable with openly advocating for survivors.
Once inside the coffee shop, Lantern’s investment in participating in the month’s assault awareness initiatives became even more prominent. Right next to the espresso machines was a stack of coloring pages; with various designs, each page had the words “Believe and Support Survivors.” Next to the coloring pages were teal ribbons to tie onto car antennas or in other places. As part of the YWCA’s Teal Ribbon Campaign, these ribbons are intended to be displayed prominently in the hopes of sending “a powerful message that there’s no place for assault in the homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, or schools of its citizens.” As you go further towards the steps leading towards the downstairs lobby, a shelf contains stacks of other materials – more crayons and coloring pages, but also a handout with the facts about the epidemic of sexual assault and how to be an advocate for survivors. Even the bathroom contained a flier on how to care for someone who discloses abuse.
The approach seemed both effortless and effective. People were chatting and coloring on the tables downstairs, and the ribbons and handouts were being taken home.
Lantern’s investment in these initiatives, while it certainly felt unique and special and must have meant a lot to both survivors and their advocates, was not extraordinary or heroic. Most likely Lantern was one of several businesses who made a decision to partner with the YWCA of Grand Rapids and use their resources, all free and easily available. Yet their decision to actually do this, instead of letting the opportunity pass by, created a space that felt powerful and healing—safe.
I think churches have a lot to learn from initiatives like these. I've attended many churches throughout my life, but have yet to see a church make such a concerted and visible effort to raise awareness about the reality of abuse and how to be an advocate and force for change. Occasionally, I meet and hear from advocates who are raising awareness in their churches and prominently displaying resources and materials, but it’s still not the norm.
I’m not exactly sure why abuse awareness and advocacy isn’t more common; there’s likely a long list of reasons why churches often feel uncomfortable raising the issue or perhaps are resistant to the reality that these initiatives are crucial. But if one factor is fears that it would be too time-consuming, emotionally exhausting, or uncomfortable, models like this initiative show that it really does not have to be that difficult. There are numerous painless ways for a church to prioritize survivors and create a space that feels safe for survivors, and is a deterrent to abuse. Churches don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or create elaborate strategies; numerous organizations already have excellent and life-changing resources freely available (many of the best of these resources and strategies are already compiled and easily accessible at Safe Church’s resource page.)
All we have to do is take the initiative to actually take these steps, to break the silence so that it is natural and normal to talk about preventing assault as well as how to support and care for survivors. When we do, we start moving towards the vision at the heart of Safe Church’s work: “They will live in safety and no one will make them afraid” (Ezekiel 34:28).