Earlier this summer, the Mennonite Church USA held its annual conference. The unofficial theme was something no organization wants to print on promotional materials. Over and over, Anabaptist leaders at the gathering repented of the denomination’s complicity in their most famous theologian’s sexual abuse.
John Howard Yoder is thought to have victimized nearly 100 women during his tenure at a Mennonite seminary in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was forced out and later disciplined by the church, but without anyone revealing why he’d faced censure. He died in 1997. What makes Yoder’s abuse all the more grotesque is the theology that made him—and his church—famous: Pacifism.
Yoder’s legacy serves as a powerful reminder for all kinds of Christian organizations. Abusers don’t always appear to us as heartless monsters. They can be smart, thoughtful, well-loved Christians. They can hide inside our own churches. God recognizes our naiveté about human nature. As Diane Langberg put it, “We think we know people. God says we do not. He says we do not know ourselves.”
Last weekend, I sent my daughters to Sunday school at church. It’s the same church I attended growing up. It’s where I was married and my kids were baptized. It’s also the same church where my best friend was raped repeatedly by a youth pastor in high school.
During worship, the head pastor (who was not on staff back then) raises a hand of blessing over the kids before they make their way to class: “You are valuable because you are made in God’s image.” I still feel nervous every time my daughters, 5 and 8, leave my side.
I love this congregation, the place where I came to know Christian community and grow as a believer. But bitterness and cynicism had become regular companions in the sanctuary. I had been hurt by what had happened to my friend years before, as well as sexual violence in my own family. (My siblings were both assaulted, one of them also within a Christian organization.)
To tell myself that their cases were merely anomalies brings a false sense of comfort. I know how often these things happen, and I know that even seemingly good leaders like Yoder and our fun youth pastor can hurt those under their care. So what now? Is my only option to mistrust everyone?
Hurt and grieving, I finally met with our senior pastor to talk about what happened and to discuss a way forward in our congregation. As he listened to my toughest questions and addressed my concerns, I felt the bitterness leach out of my bones.
Before I made my appointment with him, it felt easier to keep mum. I worried about ruffling feathers; I worried about him blowing me off. But the conditional peace I had before speaking up was not the deep shalom of God.
Even Christians who have not been personally affected by child sexual abuse are concerned about it. We all watched the devastating cases coming out of the Catholic Church over the years. Back then, Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) predicted that the Protestant church would have even further-reaching scandals. We’ve since discovered leaders and organizations guilty of such violations and cover-ups.
It’s right for us to be angry over this. It’s right for us to be brokenhearted. But more than that, we must do better. I’ve realized that true community is only possible with complete honesty. We can only chip away at any sense of mistrust if the church reciprocates with accountability.
People are still uncomfortable talking about sexual abuse. Bring it up anyway.
For years, I shied away from discussing my youth group experience. I wasn’t the primary victim; I was afraid of distressing others; and I wasn’t sure my experience would be taken seriously. But as I began confronting the issue, I realized, really for the first time, that my church had handled the abuse well once they discovered it. I also recognized how much others at my church grieve over it too.
Sexual abuse destroys trust and shames everyone involved. The only remedy is open communication. In addition, such blunt discussions protect our children. In their FAQ, GRACE describes how to encourage church kids to disclose abuse. The main advice? Talk about sexual abuse. Mention it in sermons. Conduct classes for kids and parents. Sexual abuse is going to happen, even in some “good” churches, unless we’re all intentional about confronting it directly.
Let healing be an ongoing process.
Speaking to my senior pastor was only a first step. Picking up my eldest from Sunday school, I pulled aside the children’s ministry director, and asked if we could grab coffee later. I told her I wanted to talk about current policies in light of our church’s history. She nodded enthusiastically. “We need lots of people in this conversation.”
One-off discussions aren’t enough—for me, or for the church. Pursuing a church where all kids are truly valued is an ongoing discipline for us all.
My church attendance was spotty during the year I wrestled with grief. But after I felt my anger and mistrust addressed, a hard knot in my chest loosened, and it became easier for us to return week after week.
Not long after, my family sat in the balcony as our worship band sang Gungor:
You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of the dust,
You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of us.
Overlooking the congregation, I wept. Yes, we had been ground down by trauma and betrayal. But God was beginning to make something new out of our mourning.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego and Redbud Writer’s Guild member whose work has been featured at Relevant.com, (in)courage, and SheLoves Magazine. Her free ebook, “Five Ways to Hack Your Bible Hangups” is available here.