Dear Southern Baptist Convention,
It seems strange to write a letter to a convention, when what I really want to do is sit across from a person and make a plea. It is in that type of context you could hear my heart and see my brokenness over what has been revealed over the past month from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Star’s investigation.
We have met before, as this picture attests. I had the privilege of sharing my story under the watchful gaze of a relentless Dallas sun in front of your yearly convention, hoping-upon-hope to raise awareness of the plight of those abused. So many people walked on by. So many said nothing. Only the media seemed to pay attention to the words being spoken from a grassy stage.
Telling a sexual abuse story is not popular, but it is necessary–not for my own catharsis (it is hard to talk about rape of a five-year-old) but for the sole purpose of helping others realize they’re not alone. It is a story I steward, though it seems to take a little out of me every time I recount it.
My story is not one that occurred in the walls of a church. I did not have the painful conundrum of having to out my abuser (I was only in kindergarten and very un-listened to when I told someone in authority). But I ache for those who have this #churchtoo story because I can’t help but think that when abuse happens in the context of church, a human being is violated twice–in their body and soul at the time of the perpetration, then in their spirit once they reveal the abuse and nothing happens. (Or they’re maligned, sanctioned, dismissed, villainized, or asked to leave).
I firmly believe we heal better together, but how do sexual abuse survivors who experienced abuse in a church context find their healing tribe if that very tribe betrayed them?
While I am utterly grateful for the initial responses to this crisis from Baptist leaders, I realize this is an institutional issue and involves the long road of changing people’s hearts and minds about the nefarious nature of abuse. We see backpedaling already, sadly.
Today I read Jesus’ words in John 10. Consider them, please, as you weigh options and form committees, and make rules, and hastily pardon.
“A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep” (John 10:11-13, emphasis mine).
Simply put: sexual predators are wolves–and, sadly, they can sometimes don the apparel of a preacher or a youth pastor. So often we have seen wolves protected, sheep slaughtered, and money within the structure of churches preserved. This should not be.
In the opening chapter of We Too, I write about the Good Shepherd and the Good Samaritan, unearthing the wisdom of the metaphor and the story as they relate to our current crisis. I recently recognized something in Good Samaritan narrative Not only did the priest and Levite walk by the attacked victim, they also never alerted authorities. They couldn’t be inconvenienced to act justly, even if that meant doing relatively nothing, except to simply tell someone else.[i]
This is the crisis we face—a crisis of lackadaisical inertia. My heart in writing this post is not to merely highlight our current plight within the Southern Baptist Convention, but to inspire truth telling, boots-on-the-ground advocacy, and a conspiracy of active empathy. We can do better. We must do better.
Please let us not lose heart in doing good, as the Apostle Paul encourages us in Galatians 6:9. Let us persevere in learning what it means to be good shepherds and Samaritans for the sake of the broken in our midst. It seems pretty simple to me.
Report crime to the authorities.
Provide resources for survivors.
Be honest about what happened.
Care more for those harmed than the reputation of the one who harmed.
Apologize if you mishandle a situation.
Welcome independent investigations.
Don’t provide recommendations for known abusers.
Censure churches that violate these simple guidelines.
Today I had to take a long walk to shed the ache I seem to carry constantly between my shoulder blades. I needed the sunshine to lift a story-saturated soul. I walked grieved and wounded, realizing that some who name the name of Christ have disguised themselves as shepherds, only to steal, kill, and destroy their prey. I thought about the patron saint of Southern Baptists, John the Baptist, and how he said these words to the Pharisees.
“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10).
In our sanitized Gospel, we don’t much like words like these, but Jesus Himself utters a similar soliloquy throughout the gospels. Peter reminds us of the same: “For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household” (1 Peter 4:17).
Peter frankly says “the buck stops here.” The church must be sifted, challenged, and shaken in this area. We must recognize the very real weight of spiritual authority that we have used to harm others. We must repent–to turn from the secretive way churches have handled abuse to a transparent, open pathway forward.
I don’t know how to change an institution from the inside out. I am just one voice of someone attending an SBC church in the Bible belt, but I do know this: I know how to pray. So I’ll end this letter with a prayer for and on behalf of the SBC.
Dear Jesus, thank You that You are the Good Shepherd. Thank You for teaching us all what it means to be act justly, love the broken, and take care of the flock You entrust to us. I pray for the SBC today that You would shed further light on the darkness, expose predators, and reveal how our systems and leaders have harmed the sexually abused. Empower us, through the Holy Spirit, to listen, empathize, and apologize. We choose to repent of preferring the institution to the individual, for valuing reputation to reparation, of running to cover up rather than exposing evil. Forgive us. In light of this repentance, we ask You to lead us toward becoming people of light and justice. We cannot do that in our strength. We want to be kindhearted representatives of Your uncanny grace, powerful healing, and hope-filled story. Where there has been mean-spirited denial, may we repent and confess. When survivors have been maligned and shunned, may we apologize in person. When perpetrators have prevailed on our watch, may we educate ourselves about their counter-intuitive conniving. We want to be a church that represents You, Jesus. We are afraid of millstones, axes that cut the root of trees, and judgment that begins in Your house first. Help us live in holy awe of your ways through a recognition of our failures and a humble reliance on the Spirit within. Do something new in our midst, we pray. Amen.
[i] I’m indebted to Doug Lay’s Facebook post that read: “Jeopardy: The priest and the Levite did not tell anyone about the man bleeding on the side of the road. What is a church cover-up?” https://www.facebook.com/proflay/posts/582849044832