Every day, I offer a space of silence during my congregation’s Morning Prayer time for us to offer God “the things we don’t know how to name and the things we don’t even dare to name.” Little did I know that I had been offering that space for myself all this time. There was a reality of my life that I didn’t dare name out loud for over 30 years. Until today.
When I was in middle school and attending a Southern Baptist church, I was sexually abused by my youth pastor. All the news this week about the decade’s long sexual abuse cover-up in the Southern Baptist Church has brought my own experience to the forefront of my mind, and I feel like it’s time to talk about it publicly.
This experience is not something I’ve ever repressed or denied, but it’s also not something I’ve ever allowed to take up a lot of space in my brain. To my knowledge, it has not been a conscious part of my identity, and I don’t see ways it may have produced any sort of unhealthy “pathologies” in me. All that said, I feel a great amount of shame.
As I told my wife this morning: even though I know the feelings of shame I’m experiencing are not accurate to the situation, it is a reality I’m going to have to process. I know I am loved and worthy and whole and not the cause of what happened to me. I still do not understand why I feel shame. I will at some point – I have confidence in that – but today I am sorting through the feeling that I will be seen as inferior and damaged because of what happened to me. And I know I am not alone. I have walked through the after-effects of abuse with others, both as a friend as well as a denominational leader seeking to help the PC(USA) come to terms with its own complicity and to heal wounds. I have heard other stories of abuse. Shame and fear are the most common emotions we all feel, almost to a person.
To that point, I want to acknowledge and thank the commissioners of the 222nd PC(USA) General Assembly (2016) and the Rev. Kris Schondelmeyer. Kris’s courage to tell his story of abuse in our own denomination was one of the main catalysts for the GA establishing a denomination-wide requirement that all levels of the church have a policy protecting children, youth, and vulnerable adults.
As I begin this work, I confess I’m worried about two things:
1) How much energy is it going to take to sort through all of this? I am so not looking forward to finding out. I have so many exciting and wonderful things going on in my life (my family, the church I get to serve, my photography, my writing), I really am not eager to be sidetracked or depleted.
2) I’m honestly a little worried about unpacking the ways this has shaped me. As I said, I like to think I’m a self-aware and healthy person, but I know this is a part of my story.
I have recently shared this with my family and friends, and I am gratified and unsurprised that their responses have been, without exception, ones of care and grace. I already feel better and more whole as a result. I may talk about this more or I may never talk of it publicly again. Whatever I do, I hope my story gives others the courage to speak of their experiences without fear of shame. That is my prayer.