How does a minister cope with her own history of surviving, forgetting, and then remembering and healing from years of trauma and sexual violence? Rev. Peggy Haymes knows. And in her 2014 book, I Don’t Remember Signing Up for This Class: A Life of Darkness, Light and Surprising Grace, she tells her story in a beautiful, at times funny, and grace-filled way. I sat down with Haymes to have a conversation about her story and the book.
Since October of last year, the #MeToo movement exploded. Literally, millions of women are finding the courage to speak up, speak out, and to confront those who have abused, raped, harassed and violated them. Yet women and girls like Haymes, who was ritually traumatized as an adolescent and teen, have experienced sexual violence throughout human history.
In 2003, blogger, artist, and activist, Tarana Burke started a non-profit to help girls and women connect with each other and find safety — and then healing — from domestic violence and sexual assault. She named her non-profit Just Be, Inc. In 2007 she dubbed the movement “Me Too.” In a recent article, Burke said, “The work is more than just about the amplification of survivors and quantifying their numbers. The work is really about survivors talking to each other and saying, ‘I see you. I support you. I get it.’ ”
I Don’t Remember Signing Up for This Class is an empowering #MeToo story. It was a story that remained buried for decades, even while Haymes pursued seminary and a calling to ministry. The power of the remembering, healing and then giving public voice to her experience comes through in Haymes’ careful and forthright account. When I picked it up to read it, I literally could not put it down.
Interview with Peggy Haymes (Part I)
EC: Tell me about how you decided to write this book?
PH: Friends kept urging me to write when I had time. They said, “This is going to help a lot of folks.” I had just finished another book last year, and was planning others, but this one jumped ahead in line. It kind of wrote itself in six weeks’ time. It was ready to come out!
EC: You spent many years processing–long before the book–and you tell about that healing work in the book. What would you say were the most important features of healing for you as you processed what happened to you as a child? Once you regained your memory and began to work through it, what was most helpful for your healing?
PH: I was really fortunate to have several really good therapists who could provide a safe space and a container for my memories to start coming up. They could hear whatever I needed to say, and I didn’t have to worry about overwhelming them. They could go with me where I needed to go. It’s a slow process. They didn’t hurry me. I could take the pace I needed to take. Week in and week out–several times a week in the early days–I processed everything as it came up.They supported me in very caring and loving ways. I was also able to do Safe Harbor workshops–intensive weeks of focus on my healing. Really gifted staff worked with me. And I had supportive friends who kept encouraging me and caring about me. And when I couldn’t see anything that was good about me, they kept reminding me of what was there.
EC: That’s a real gift of friendship. I know a major part of your life story is that you were called to ministry. And you were one of the early pioneers among women in ministry in Baptist life. I’m curious, from your insider’s perspective on the church as a leader in several congregations. Given your story of childhood sexual abuse and harm, looking back through your own story, what are some of the ways the church was helpful to you in your healing process? And what were some of the ways the church was not so helpful? I ask this question because I think the church could learn a lot about how to be more helpful in the healing process of its members who have lived through violence and harm.
PH: That is some of the next work I want to do. I want to help churches figure out how they can create a safe space for people who are healing. I had a great gift of growing up in a church that was very affirming and blessing of me. I heard a lot about God’s grace and God’s love. I never heard that I was slime, horrible, or depraved. That was really important because that would have been really hard with what I was hearing from my abuser. It would have made things harder if I was hearing that from God, too. The church really celebrated me and welcomed my gifts. Since high school, I was working on the church newsletter and transcribing and proofing the pastor’s sermons. They recognized my writing skills early and gave me chances to use those gifts. And they just kept telling me that I was a good person and how much God loved me. They really loved me…the ministers, the volunteers, Sunday school teachers and other leaders.
They celebrated seminary with me. When I was ordained in 1981, I was the fifth or sixth woman ordained in that church. So they were ahead of the curve on that issue! They even moved the Lottie Moon offering to accommodate my ordination.
EC: you got to share the stage with Lottie Moon! My goodness.
PH: The hardest part was after seminary when I only had one interview with a church and I didn’t feel called there. So I declined. I didn’t interview again for almost a year. I felt like I had all these gifts and this calling, and I was selling clothes in a women’s store. Each morning I thought: “three years of Greek, two years of Hebrew, do you need a blouse with that skirt?”
I had a chance to be an interim pastor. I wept when I gave the benediction on the last day when I left that church because it was so wonderful. And so short. Not long after that, I was called to a ministry staff position at another church, where they let me be their minister, and friend, and real person. So when my memories started coming there were people I could lean on and allow them to minister to me.
EC: Has there ever been a time when in your observation or experience when the church has been less than helpful? So many people are recovering from significant harm or abuse from someone in their lives. What could churches do better?
PH: I know – even in my case, one place the church has really neglected is celebrating our physical bodies. Paul’s injunction that the flesh is bad and we are afraid if we talk too much about our bodies, then we might have to talk about sex. And God knows we don’t want to have to do that! To celebrate the sacredness of the body and to be good stewards of the body … One of the things that happens with abuse is so much shaming around the body.The church really doesn’t speak up and affirm that our bodies are God’s amazing gift to us. The church needs to speak out against that kind of shaming rather than participate in it. One of the early arguments against women in ministry was if women stood in the pulpit to preach then men would have to think about sex.
EC: Yes, a holistic perspective would recognize that women had been thinking about men when they stood in the pulpit for hundreds and thousands of years. The tables turned.
PH: There is a temptation in the church to always be in the place where we try to look good. And we don’t share the really difficult stories of our pain.
If you are reading this, and you need help today, start with professionals who can offer you a space to be heard and seen. Confiding in a trusted person is a good way to begin telling your story. Visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call their Hotline at 1 (800) 799-7233.
Sometimes when people are dealing with abuse the pain and shame can feel very overwhelming. The national suicide hotline is available at 1 (800) 273-8255.
When others share their stories in the #MeToo movement, women are empowered to share. Just be sure you share on your own terms and in your own time.
Tune in on January 18, 2017 for Part II of this interview with Peggy Haymes.
Rev. Dr. Eileen R. Campbell-Reed (she/her/hers) is the author of Anatomy of a Schism. She is Coordinator for Coaching, Mentoring & Internship and Associate Professor of Practical Theology at, Central Tennessee. She is also Co-Director, Learning Pastoral Imagination Project and blogs at Keeper of the Fire. You can follow her on Twitter: @ecampbellreed