Rape is in the Bible.
A prince named Shechem raped Dinah. Tamar was raped by her half-brother, Amnon. I know because I've listened over the years to preachers talk about the shame, the violation, the destruction that followed. I've heard the “amens” as listeners absorbed lessons from those sermons, and I've said a few myself.
But today I'm left to wonder why it's so easy for church folks to talk about Bible stories while ignoring the effects of sexual assault against women who sit among them week after week.
The issue resonates as my church prepares for the Overcoming Conference. The citywide event at Come As You Are Community Church includes a free community conversation and education night for men and women this Friday to raise awareness about sexual assault. Saturday is a day of healing to help women survivors deal with the trauma.
The church hired licensed counselor and trainer Arlene Story to oversee the effort, bringing years of education and experience to many women who've never sought professional help.
Only later did we realize the struggle in getting the faith community to prioritize and rally behind such a cause.
But more on that later.
First, you should know how this all started. The concept has simmered for several years, ever since lead pastor Anthony Payton preached a powerful sermon that touched on the topic of sexual assault. As he concluded, he invited those affected to the altar for prayer. The mass that emerged shocked him. Afterward, even more visited his office secretly, including men. They wanted to talk to someone and release the trauma they'd experienced. Pastor Payton knew something needed to be done on a broader scale.
“Church has to do a better job of helping people to understand and process the reality of their pain,” he says. “So many people are living in the closet of their pain, but closets are better suited for clothing, not pain.”
Fast forward to the #MeToo movement, to women emboldened to speak their truth on TV or social media. Cries for justice and healing bellowed from media, celebrities and advocacy groups. On the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, Oprah Winfrey's voice resounded from the stage, “A new day is on the horizon!”
And the sound from leaders of faith?
Well, at least it seems that way locally.
On a national level, a #ChurchToo movement developed and gained some traction. Women spoke up about outdated and harmful leadership practices that encouraged abusive relationships for the sake of biblical “submission.” Several high-profile pastors tumbled from glory as women came forward with experiences of misconduct.
Regardless of whether people believe specific reports of harassment or assault against their favorite preacher, actor or high school teacher, can any of us deny that many women have been sexually violated and continue to be? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women has experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime. That's 33% of women.
Now, back to Fort Wayne.
To expand the impact of Overcoming, I met with women's ministry leaders. Not only were we organizing the conference, but also offering churches and nonprofits the chance to join us in training sessions with Story this summer. (Story trained women to lead support groups citywide that could continue after the conference for sustained long-term healing.) In a one-on-one meeting, a ministry director expressed surprise at our pastor's boldness in touching such a sensitive topic. But she was hopeful about what might come of it. She'd talk with her pastor about a possible partnership, she said. I never heard from her again.
At a local coffee shop, three ministers finished their meeting with heads bowed in prayer. I stopped one as he exited and introduced myself. I told him a little about the conference and offered a flyer. He forced a smile and handled the sheet like it was a dose of kryptonite.
We contacted Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, non-denominationalists and charismatics. Some agreed to run off flyers and stuff them into their church's bulletin. They made announcements and leaders said they'd pass the information along to those they thought might be interested. But most told us that leaders were too busy with other scheduled events or never responded at all. We're sure the reasons are varied.
Yet, nonprofits were more receptive. Leaders actively sought ways to take advantage of the conference for struggling clients. Some agencies set aside funds for the effort. Local companies donated food and other goods for the Saturday women-only healing session, helping to alleviate a portion of the conference costs.
The discomfort in talking about the topic was even felt within our own church. For instance, one woman shared that she wanted to attend the conference but felt she would be outed and fellow church members would suddenly “look down” on her. To create an atmosphere of transparency and support, we asked three women leaders who had been violated to tell their stories during Sunday service and to express their journey to “overcoming” the trauma. One woman shared how a music leader tried to fondle her as a teen while giving her rides to choir practice. Later, she'd been raped at gunpoint by a distant relative. In time, men in the church stepped forward to encourage other men to attend the community conversation in support of their wives, sisters, mothers who had been abused. Also, there are men who have been abused, as well, and could benefit.
Our main goal is not simply to boost attendance at our event, but to bring this important issue to the forefront. Surely, we didn't reach every church in this designated “City of Churches,” or even the majority. Many are learning about Overcoming for the first time. The most important question is this: What are you going to do about the 21st Century Dinahs and Tamars in your house of worship?
Sharon Tubbs is an author, speaker, and a women's ministry leader at Come As You Are Community Church.
The Overcoming Conference
"And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death." - Revelation 12:11
Come As You Are Community Church
7810 S. Anthony Blvd.
Sept. 6: Community Conversation and Education. Includes opening skit, discussion, and informational session led by licensed counselor Arlene Story, of Healing Heart Connections. General public (men and women) invited. 6:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Free.
Sept. 7: Healing Session, led by counselor Arlene Story. Women only. $25. Includes materials, group counseling session and lunch. 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (breakfast snack available at 9:30 a.m.). Register at www.CAYACC.org. Women who can't afford the fee should email firstname.lastname@example.org regarding possible discounts.