April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Throughout the month, Baptist Women in Ministry will share survivors’ stories, sermons that address sexual abuse, and information and resources. 

I loved going to church as a child. I was intrigued by the ritual, mesmerized by the stained glass, inspired by the music, and loved by people across multiple generations. I did not have the language to express feeling called to ministry as a child, but as I look back, I recognize that this calling was deeply rooted in me from a young age. I was a very shy child, and I could not envision myself doing the one thing I saw ministers doing on a regular basis—standing up in front of people and speaking—so I stayed quiet and kept my theological questions to myself.

 When I went to college, I was surrounded by friends and professors who challenged me to ask the theological questions I had been keeping inside for so many years. I was given opportunities to teach, preach, and lead in churches. But I felt like I was pretending—impersonating a minister and playing church. I could not believe I might be called to ministry, because I was holding a secret inside of me that had depleted my self-worth and kept me on the verge of panic, anxiety, and depression for years.

I will never forget the day that a mentor gently asked me about the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. I didn’t answer immediately. I was sitting in an over-sized chair scanning the titles of the hundreds of books on the bookshelves around the room. I was anticipating how this person would respond to the thoughts racing through my mind. I was wondering whether I was going to run away, stop breathing, disappear into the chair, or finally share the truth.

I shared the truth. Or at least a small part of the truth. The few words I could get out at the time.

I was sexually assaulted.

Those words were spoken in a whisper. I was not prepared for what would happen after I said them out loud for the first time—the intensity of the anger, grief, sadness, and shame. I had spent years ignoring and controlling these feelings, keeping them contained just enough to prevent them from bubbling to the surface. Speaking those words to another person made them feel real. I could no longer pretend that everything was okay. The emotional walls I had built to protect myself began to crumble and eventually came crashing down.

I tried to make sense of what was happening with more and more information. I read books—lots of books—desperately searching for a step-by-step guide to explain how to bring order back to the emotional chaos I was feeling. Hopelessness began to set in as I realized that steps, stages, and how-to lists could not absorb or heal the pain and trauma I was experiencing. They could not explain why I jumped every time I was touched. They could not explain the deep sadness I felt. They could not explain why simple tasks seemed to require all of my physical and mental energy. They could not explain the disconnect I felt between my mind, body, and spirit.

I found myself obsessed with organization and cleanliness, trying to order the internal chaos brought on by trauma. My shyness turned to silence. I found myself withdrawing from people because it was impossible to tell who I could or couldn’t trust. I found myself fearful that if I couldn’t make the abuse stop the first time, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop it if it happened again. I felt every ounce of the heaviness and every moment of the slowness of the work of re-discovering wholeness in my mind, body, and spirit.

Over time, the turmoil that had consumed my every waking and sleeping moment began to feel slightly less urgent. I was able to process the trauma a little bit at a time. The number of people who knew my story grew from one to a small handful—a close friend, a mentor, a professor, a therapist, and a yoga instructor—and continued to grow from there as I found more and more people who were willing to step into pain and vulnerability with me.

As I was in the depths of working through the trauma, I also found myself discerning a calling to ministry. I thrived in religion classes that gave me language to talk about God and humanity in expansive ways. I found my voice while preaching, teaching, and leading worship. I discovered my love for the messy and beloved community I experienced in the local church. But I struggled to silence the shame that told me that a calling to ministry was reserved for people without my particular kind of woundedness. I struggled to quiet the voices that told me that if I was called to ministry, I should never mention the trauma in the church. I struggled to envision how my experiences could be integrated into my ministry in an authentic and healthy way.

It was many years before I was willing to give up the fantasy that I would eventually find the sort of healing that would erase the trauma and allow me to go back to life without the experience of sexual assault. The wounds and scars of untangling trauma were now a part of me. But so was the resilience I was developing. And the understanding that I was more than what happened to me.

Slowly and with a lot of support, I found new rhythms of stepping into the trauma and stepping away from it, remembering the pain and living with and beyond it. Flickers of hope began to emerge:

Connection. I found myself gravitating towards people who were willing to hear my story and step into the tangled mess with me. These are the people who taught me that it is okay to cry and who handed me boxes of tissues when I couldn’t stop crying. These are the people I can call, email, and text anytime, day or night. These are the people who check in with me when the news cycle is dominated by stories of sexual assault. These are the people who see light in me (and tell me so) when I feel trapped in the depths of shame. These are the people who hold me accountable when I try to minimize or avoid feeling strong emotions. These are the people who hold my story so that I do not have to carry the pain alone.

Creativity. I found myself engaging in creativity in ways I had never allowed myself to experience before. In the midst of some of the most difficult days of this journey, I had the opportunity to create mosaic art. I had no background in art and had always been intimidated by the most basic of art supplies, but I suddenly found myself cutting glass tiles, gluing, and grouting. I needed the visual experience of putting seemingly random pieces of glass together to create something new. I needed the physical experience of breaking glass and making something whole out of the broken pieces. I needed to be able to imagine that wholeness could happen at the spiritual—the soul—level too. And so I created. I created, I prayed, I cried, and I found myself emerging from the deep places that had overwhelmed me. I felt that still, small voice and nudge of God again.

Calling. For many years, I put a tremendous amount of effort into sanitizing what I shared when people asked about my calling to ministry. I convinced myself that people would be overwhelmed by my story. Part of me was still holding on to shame. Part of me was still holding on to fear. Fear of people’s responses. Fear that the people who offered their (unsolicited) opinions that this might make me unemployable in churches if anyone found out might be right. Over time, I have been reminded that it is because of this journey that I am able to be present with people in the most tender and sacred moments of life. Ministry invites me into the awareness of the deepest parts of my being—the depths of my soul. And it is in these depths that I find compassion for those who are weary and wounded. It is in these depths that I am reminded that woundedness and compassion, sorrow and joy, and despair and hope are co-companions on the journey of life.

The parts of my life that trauma has tangled are finally beginning to loosen—often in new and unexpected ways—with some strands missing and some newly formed.

The chaos is unraveling,
and I am able to find moments of peace.

The darkness is unraveling,
and I am able to see a way forward.

The instability is unraveling,
and I am able to listen to my body when rhythms of work, play, and rest are out of balance.

The shame is unraveling,
and I am able to step into vulnerable places with people in the joys and sorrows of life.

The fear is unraveling,
and I am able to trust other people and my own instincts.

The pain is unraveling,
and I am able to see glimpses of joy and resurrection.

As someone who was quiet for so many years, it is now part of my job to stand up in front of people and speak. But even more so than speaking in front of people, it is my job to stand up in front of people and be seen—to share my heart, my fears, my struggles—and to proclaim how I see God at work in the world. It is my job to share the Gospel—the Good News—a message of embodied faith. A faith that is embodied in life, in death, and in resurrection. A faith that is often expressed with our bodies—our voices in word and song, our embraces in fellowship and care, our hands and feet in serving and building beloved community.

The more I share my story and acknowledge my own pain, the more fully I find myself living into this embodied faith and calling. I find myself sitting on the floor playing games and reading stories with children. I hold fragile, tired hands during prayers in nursing homes and hospital rooms. I embrace those who are celebrating and hold those who are grieving. I sing. I pray. I laugh. I cry. My body is no longer numb and lifeless as it was for many years after the trauma. I can be silly, expressive, spontaneous, and joyful. I am more attentive to the painful memories and current struggles of those around me and am able to respond with compassion. I can breathe more deeply. I can love and allow myself to be loved more fully.

A mentor once reminded me: “With enough distance, time, and reflection, you can almost always find light, even in those moments where you thought the darkness would overwhelm you.” Finding glimpses of hope while also acknowledging and tending to the depths of my pain has been my personal work for many years. Unraveling trauma has taken time and intention. It has involved stepping away and returning. It has meant living in community and retreating alone.

The work of untangling and healing continues—I suspect it always will. There are still days when the memories hurt. There are still moments when I find tears in my eyes or a tremble in my body. The memories and experiences are a part of me, but they are not all of me and no longer consume me. The work is not finished, but holds a new sense of sacredness as I am able to imagine a new ending to my story.


People who have been willing to deeply listen have been the most valuable companions on this journey. Below are some other resources I have found helpful along the way:

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

Rising Strong and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships by Bonnie Badenoch

In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter A. Levine

Brittany Riddle serves as associate minister at Immanuel Baptist Church in Paducah, Kentucky.