Monday, June 1, 2015

A Safer Place (May 31, 2015)

In order to become a safe community, we have to do something that feels unsafe. We have to acknowledge that women and children and men too are physically and sexually assaulted every day. For too long churches full of caring, well-meaning people have been silent to the reality of this abuse.

Feeling safe- feeling that people will respect your boundaries, your choices, your body, your freedom – feeling safe is important everywhere. But when a violation of that safety happens in your faith community, as too many people have told us is the case, then community becomes unsafe, religion becomes unsafe. Even our relationship with the divine can be broken, sometimes beyond repair. Too many survivors have sought help from their church or from their minister and are sent back into an abusive situations counseling patience, counseling forgiveness, calling it a “cross to bear.” But the suffering of an abused woman or man or child cannot be compared to the suffering of Jesus. As Marie Fortune, who was a pioneer in equipping faith communities to address sexual and domestic violence, writes in her book Keeping the Faith, Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abuse: “the suffering of being abused in one’s family is very different. It has no good purpose. It never brings forth a greater good. It is not God’s will for our lives. To accept it as purposeful, as your cross to bear, as God’s will for you, is to allow yourself to be a victim. You don not deserve abused at the hands of a member of your family.” [p. 20] or I might add, a member of your community.

So let’s be really clear. Unitarian Universalists believe that human sexuality is part of what it means to be human. We believe that there are as many ways of expressing it as there are people. And we believe deeply in the freedom of the individual to consent and to say “yes” but just as important is the freedom to say “no.” We know that if the power differential is too great, consent is not really possible. For example a child cannot truly consent to sexual acts with an adult. We know this not just in theory, but because men and women have come forward telling us how such interactions have affected them the rest of their lives. Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, former head of St. Luke's Institute, a treatment center for clergy said in an interview that “the abuse of minors, of course, is especially abhorrent and awful, but there are more cases of sexual exploitation of adults in all the churches, and that gets less air time …”[i] We know that ministers have a special role, whether they serve congregations or as hospital chaplains, and so something that might have been within the bounds of a healthy relationship between consenting adults, in the context of clergy and congregant can be coercive and harmful. We know this because after generations when people kept such things secret, were afraid to come forward, were silenced or shamed when they did come forward, we are finally hearing their stories and hearing what the cost was to their spirits, and to whole congregations. That is why in the UU Minister’s code of conduct it says clearly: “I will not engage in sexual contact, sexualized behavior or a sexual relationship with any person I serve as a minister. “[ii] Unfortunately, when their minister is accused of abuse Joe Trull, Professor of Christian Ethics at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, says congregations usually “circle the wagons to defend the accused minister, blame the victim, or even blame the minister's wife.[iii]

It is time for churches to become part of the solution. We began creating a safe congregations policy for this church not because we were in the middle of a crisis, but precisely because we want to prevent a crisis. Congregations which have suspected clergy or staff misconduct, congregations where a registered sex offender ask permission to attend worship, or congregations who suspected that a child in their community was being abused those congregations that had a policy and procedure in place felt more empowered to handle the situation in a way that felt safer for everyone.

We have to start by speaking the truth. As Rebecca Parker, who was the minister of a small church before becoming the president of SKSM, and was a survivor of sexual abuse as a child, described so beautifully in our opening reading, truth is important to safety and it is important to healing after abuse. 

First, we need to make this a place where people can say the truth of where your boundaries are. We get messages from a very young age that it is more important to follow societal norms than to feel safe. We tell a reluctant child “don’t be rude- hug your aunty” and we get versions of that message all our lives. Sometimes women and men end up participating in sexual acts when they don’t really feel comfortable because there is a sense of expectation, because they want to go with the flow. Or as we have seen in these clergy sexual abuse cases, and cases of employees or interns coerced into sexual relations with their supervisors, sometimes we create a culture where it feels impossible to say no. Some of you have probably heard in the news about a blog for women in the film industry in which they detail the sexual harassment they face daily in their industry[iv] Sometimes our cultural norms make speaking out to protect safe boundaries a herculean feat.

I’d like to try something, and I want you to know before I even describe this exercise that you will have an option to opt out. What I’m going to suggest is that you pick a partner, someone sitting nearby you that you might know or not know. I want you to start out about10 feet apart, and then I want whomever is older to stand still and whomever younger will walk towards their partner. The person standing still- their job is to raise their hand when their partner gets to the boundary of their personal space. And the job of the person walking is to respect that and stop.  

Now take a moment to talk to your partner about how it felt to be the person whose job it was to say stop, and how it felt to be the person who was told to stop

[pause for conversation]

Now lets all come back together

Does anyone want to share with the whole group their feelings about that exercise?

[pause for conversation]

Now a word for those folks who decided to “pass.” When I was in seminary, students loved to create innovative worship where congregants would be asked to make eye contact, or hug, or dance. I had a theology professor who always sat those things out. It was critically important, he felt, that we always have the freedom to opt out of community activities that don’t feel right to us. Is there anyone who decided to pass who wants to tell us how that felt?

[pause for conversation]

This is part of being a “safer congregation” I think -- that we can express our boundaries to one another. It needs to be culturally normative in this congregation that it is okay to say no to one another, to be able to say “here is where my boundary is.” If we can practice on the easy things, maybe it will be possible to express our boundaries when it is really difficult to do so.

Next, to be a safer congregation, our goal is to be a community where we feel safe telling someone when our boundaries have been violated. So, for example, if that exercise didn’t feel safe to you, and it didn’t feel safe to say something to everyone in the middle of the service, I would hope you could come talk to me later, or talk to the Committee on Ministry. This is what we were trying to express in the lesson for all ages earlier. And that is why there are three members of our Safe Congregations Team. You can talk to your minister, of course, but if that doesn’t feel safe, you can talk to a different member of the team- Elaine or Katie. Of course if you experience or witness “seriously harmful, abusive or harassing behavior toward any UUCAS member, friend or visitor, and you feel the behavior cannot be successfully diffused, you are asked to call 911 or the local police department, requesting immediate assistance.” 

This brings us to the third way we that speaking the truth can create the safer community we desire. We must be advocates for those who have been abused. Especially for those who have been silenced. I want to tell you about a remarkable program that was born in India. It is called “bell bajao” which is Hindi for “ring the bell.” It is a public awareness program designed to encourage men and boys in particular to “do something” when they hear or witness or suspect abuse. The message is remarkably simple- just ring the bell. I’d like to share one of these videos with you:

What I love about that video, is that the man who rings the bell is clearly nervous, he’s not an expert. He’s not an official. But just by ringing the bell he is able to interrupt the abuse he suspects. What he does requires courage, but is something any of us can do. We do need to ask “why didn’t he notify the police as his next step?” but we know that there are many places not only around the world but also in the US where police consider abuse a private matter, and will not only fail to prosecute, but will fail to protect and will even blame the victim. I believe our justice system has made great strides responding to domestic and sexual abuse in just one generation in this country, and that is why we encourage you if you see a “seriously harmful, abusive or harassing behavior” to follow up “ringing the bell” with calling authorities you trust.

Think back to the reports we heard about Penn State case. Part of what is so horrifying about that whole story, is not only that the abuse happened, but that so few had the courage to say something. [v] What could have been different if any of the many people who knew or suspected what was happening had just done what that video suggests--just let coach Sandusky know that he was being observed- making a difference in the life of a child. Think of the compound of wound on wound- to not only be assaulted but to know that people knew and would not help you. And if any of those people who knew or suspected what was going on had gone to the police- they could have made the difference in the life of many.

Finally, as Rebecca Parker suggested in her reading, as a community of faith we encourage people to speak the truth of their experience -- both survivors and those who have hurt them. When Survivors speak the truth of their experience, they facilitate not only their own healing but the healing of others. I believe it is also important for perpetrators to speak the truth. At this moment in our culture we demonize perpetrators of sexual abuse like no other kind of person. And truly there are people who have committed horrible devastating acts. But when our laws create a situation in which it is impossible for convicted sex offenders to find housing, to find jobs, to be part of community, is that really better than having a community that knows the person and can hold them accountable for their actions? Rev. Debora Haffner, director of the Religious Institute which provides guidance to congregations and people of faith around these issues, told us that 87% of sexual offenders will not reoffend after prison or treatment. She says the person who comes to church after treatment and tells you is not the primary threat to our congregations. The primary threat are those folks who still live and act in a cloak of secrecy. I believe our current process of responding to sexual abuse leaves the work of restorative justice unfinished. An act of sexual abuse or violence is not just an infraction of the law, but an injury to a person, and to the web of relationships. Jennifer Llewellyn, Viscount Bennett Professor of Law at Dalhousie and an international expert in restorative justice tells us [vi] “Restorative justice is an idea that says, at its core, justice has to be about repairing or addressing the harm caused to social relationships when wrongdoing happens.” I think “restorative justice” is a big enough topic for another sermon, but in the words of Rebecca Parker, “we told the truth about our lives because telling the truth restored us to the human community. It brought us back from the dead. ... It made us free.”

To be a safe congregation, this must be a place where we speak the truth. Where we learn to articulate our own boundaries, and support others who express their boundaries because this is how we will help prevent abuse, and how we will help in healing from abuse. In our Lesson for all ages this morning each of us was asked to think of someone to tell if something bad happened to us. I hope that each us will also aspire to be “someone to tell” so that whenever a child or a woman or a man in our community feels unsafe, that this will be a safe place to speak our truth. 

[ii] Standards 
[iv] read more about it here: