Susan has a death in her family, and friends from church line up with casseroles. Marcia has breast cancer, and her name is added to the church prayer list. Shana is going through a divorce, and her Bible study class offers to help with her kids. Debbie is going to therapy to deal with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, and she sits silently in the pew, for she realizes this kind of pain is not voiced in the church. She feels alone and abandoned in her pain. Not able to call on others and not able to sense that God hears her silent cries.
Debbie is not alone. There are other survivors sitting in the pews every Sunday for the reality is one and four girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, and one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. These staggering statistics pertain to our congregations, yet the church operates as if these facts are not reality.
As one way to confront this epidemic of silence in congregations, I created a support group at my church for survivors of abuse. The women who participate in the group are all ages and stages of life, and they are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, rape, and clergy abuse. They bring their fears and their shame each meeting in hopes of discovering they are not alone in their secret nightmare.
When Marion first started participating in our group she sat with her arms wrapped around her legs and a hoodie pulled over her head. It was the only way she could feel safe enough to be in the group. Six months later she was able to enter the group and slowly begin to share her story. If you saw Marion in the church you would not see this side of her, for she has learned to hide it well. In the safety of the group, and in the presence of other survivors, she is now able to speak her secret and be present to that part of herself that is frightened and filled with shame.
Each week as we meet, I see resurrection happening! Those who were dead are finding new life, and those who had given up on God are able to connect in new ways with our God who does hear their cries. They move from just surviving to thriving as they discover they are not alone, and they are not as “abnormal” as they once thought they were. This is a journey that takes time, support, and healing, and it is a journey the church needs to acknowledge and affirm.
If you find yourself in the place where you are being entrusted with the story of a survivor, please remember the following things:
- If you don’t know what to say, simply offer support and compassion. Don’t indict God by trying to explain why God would allow the abuse to happen or say it happened for a reason. There is not a reason good enough to explain or justify the trauma of abuse.
- If you have been trusted with a survivor’s story, don’t share it – not even under the guise of sharing a prayer request. It is not your story to tell. It takes great courage for a survivor to speak the secret they have held for so long. Don’t betray the trust that was placed in you.
- If the person is not in therapy, offer to help them find a qualified therapist who has experience working with survivors of abuse.
- Know that in sharing their story, the survivor will most likely enter into their shame that will cause them to want to pull in and hide. Reassure the person you believe what they are telling you, and assure them it was not their fault.
- Above all, reassure the survivor of your care for them and ask how you might support them.
Walking alongside those who have been oppressed can seem overwhelming at times, and often people feel ill equipped to help. Yet Jesus calls us to be agents of justice speaking up for those who are oppressed and wounded. My prayer is that we, as the church, can speak more loudly and insistently for healing and justice in situations where children, youth and adults, are violated and abused.