This election has been frustrating for me, mostly because of the rash of evangelical faith leaders who have spoken out in favor of Trump. Recent revelations about Trump’s behavior have caused a number of them to withdraw their support but there are a few, especially Jerry Falwell, Jr., who continue to endorse Trump, even to the point of saying the allegations don’t matter. If I think about it for very long I get so angry that I am almost boiling hot because I cannot understand how a faith leader can support anyone who openly admits to sexual misconduct, and when I say sexual misconduct, I mean sexual assault, unwelcome sexual contact, and voyeurism (Trump has admitted to walking in on Miss USA pageant contestants while they were changing clothes and partially or totally nude.)
While Trump’s behavior disgusts me, Jerry Falwell Jr’s continued endorsement of Trump infuriates me. Does he not perceive how his continued support for Trump also endorses the idea that women are objects to be used? Does he not understand the message he sends to victims of sexual assault? Does Graham not perceive that God calls ministers and priests to be the protectors of the weak and defenseless, not the yes-men who kowtow to the rich and powerful?
The saddest part is that I know, intimately, the power of a preacher’s words. My own story and my recovery from sexual abuse was heavily impacted by the words of a preacher. I want to share my story with you because I believe that we need to fully understand how our words (both spoken and unspoken) have a profound impact and the power to change lives.
Shortly after I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I began to have memories of being sexually abused. My abuser molested me sporadically from the time I was approximately 3 years old until I was 8 years old. Trying to deal with the memories was very difficult because the emotions were overwhelming and the memories so disturbing that they impacted my ability to function on a daily basis. I no longer felt safe in the world and every man (except my husband and my father) seemed threatening. I was always on the edge of tears and struggled to not fall back into the eating disorder that I had struggled with as a teenager. I was so consumed with fear and overwhelmed emotionally that I had difficulty thinking clearly and focusing at my job became almost impossible. Combine all that with the hormonal fluctuations that go with pregnancy and what you get is a hot mess, and let me tell you that I was a hot mess every day for months on end.
Despite the difficulty I had functioning, I did my best to maintain my routines and one of those routines was going to church on Sunday mornings. As worship began that particular Sunday morning, a woman in the back of the Sanctuary rang a hand bell. The sound of the bell resonated through the room and then we stood for the call to worship. I forgot all about the woman with the hand bell until she suddenly rang it again in the middle of the announcements, which was odd because she rang it while the pastor was speaking and the pastor didn’t seem to notice. She continued randomly ringing the hand bell throughout the service: once during a hymn, once during the Scripture reading, and even several times during the pastor’s sermon. It made no sense and I was rather jarred by the sound even though the sound of hand bells is normally soothing to me.
The pastor’s sermon was a bit odd as well. He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 13:1-22, the story of the rape of Tamar. Who preaches on that? And considering the hot mess that I had been for several months by that point, I didn’t really want to hear about sexual violence against women. I had enough to deal with just trying to deal with the sexual violence done to me.
The sermon focused on Tamar’s rape for quite a while. The preacher highlighted the ways that Amnon (the rapist) treated his sister Tamar as an object to be possessed and used for his needs and his pleasure without regard to the consequences for Tamar. He stated that not much has changed since then and pointed out the ways that women are still objectified, possessed, and used by men. He preached about the ways that society devalues women and children, counting our lives and our experiences as less valid than those of men. He especially focused on how society silences women and children when we speak up against the violence done to us because it’s just so unpleasant to hear…and then how they ask how we came to be alone with the man who abused us, as if his choices were our responsibility. The whole time he spoke, the woman in the back of the sanctuary kept randomly ringing the bell.
The preacher highlighted to us the many ways that the Church has silenced victims of physical and sexual violence by insisting that we need to stop complaining and forgive our abusers, often before we have actually had a chance to recover from the abuse. He became visibly angry as he spoke, accusing the church of refusing to be a refuge for victims because dealing with their suffering makes us uncomfortable and God forbid the Church should have to bear a little discomfort in the face of human suffering and exploitation. He reminded us that our demand for the victim’s silence was nothing more than another act of violence against the victim. The bell rang again.
By this time, I could hardly contain myself. I was doing everything I could to remain seated and hide my tears. Then the preacher explained the bell ringing in the back of the room; it had rung every six minutes since the service had begun because every six minutes another woman or child in the USA becomes the victim of violence or exploitation. He said that the worldwide statistics were much worse, and as he said that, the bell rang faster and faster…
I ran out of the room and into the church restroom where I hid in the stall sobbing and trying to breathe. It was close to twenty minutes before I could calm down enough to sneak out of a side door and sprint to my car.
Later that day I called the preacher at home. When he answered the phone all I could choke out was “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” and then I hung up.
Years later I found out that he was called before the leaders of the Church and heavily criticized for his sermon. They told him that nobody needs to hear a sermon like that.
I did. I needed to hear that what happened to me mattered, that it mattered to God and that God expected it to matter to the Church. I needed to know that the Church was supposed to be a refuge for me, a place where I didn’t have to hide the mess I had become because of the abuse.
That day, that one sermon…that sermon saved me more than I can say, and I have never forgotten the power of the pulpit to welcome someone into the safety of the Sanctuary or to shackle them in silence and shame. The words spoken in the pulpit are so powerful that they can even lock someone outside the door of the Church and make it clear that they will never be welcome.
Franklin Graham Jr, are you listening?