One Tuesday morning, I step up to the pulpit. The room is heavy with silence. The faces before me are streaked with tears, all eyes on the casket before us. The pink, blue, purple flowers are mixed with hopeful greens and studded with sequins – appropriate for the 19 year old girl we are gathered around.
I stand behind to the wooden pulpit, to preach the funeral sermon for a young woman who took her own life. Deep breaths, I tell myself. Deep breaths, I practice. Deep breaths, even as I speak. Because really, holding beautiful silence, making room for mystery and grief, allowing the myriad of muddled emotions – that’s about the best you can do at a time like this.
A couple of weeks before, this young woman from my community had taken her own life. She came from a difficult background, but despite set-backs she earned excellent grades in high school. She was putting herself through college, and she needed money.
So she went to Las Vegas to appear in a pornographic film. Once word got out within her social circle, the comments came flying. Facebook and twitter and gossip chains roared into action to cover this girl with shame and blame. When it all got to be too much, this woman decided that suicide was her only option.
Her family was not connected to a faith community, but because of the large turnout expected, they contacted our church. My co-pastor and I decided that it would be best if I led the service, partly because of my unique perspective as a young woman.
A week before the funeral, I met with the family to learn about their daughter and sister, to make arrangements for the service, and to tend to their grief. I was honored, and overwhelmed, by the task of preaching at her service. What could I say to people this brokenhearted? What is there to say in the face of such tragedy? What can you do in the face of such injustice, if I may claim it is so?
The very worst part is that I can, to an extent, understand how she felt – out of options, out of hope, out of help. The incredible isolation of shame, the sadness and loneliness of despair, the power of hurtful and harmful words – it is no wonder to me that she chose what she did. And I don’t blame her one bit, in fact I believe that she is at more peace now than she has ever been.
In a room rife with a wide diversity of perspectives, in a time so close to tragedy, in the setting of a church, it’s hard to know what to say. It was hard to know what to preach. At the time, I attended to grief, I spoke to hope, and I hinted toward ‘activism,’ as it were: “Prove it to yourselves and the world that being real and vulnerable and honest and compassionate is a better way to live. Show her sisters that the world can be a beautiful place, that people will not always disappoint you. You have the power to choose what kind of world you want to live in – why not make it a good place?”
We could not ignore the circumstances that brought us there, and yet, speaking to those injustices was not the purpose or the place of that day. But now, months later, the story continues to be passed around and posted by all kinds of people, and I want to put in my two cents. Because before we aren’t talking about this anymore, there are a couple of things that need to be said.
While it’s so ‘sexy’ to push the porn angle, to vilify the porn industry (but never seriously point the finger at the producers/consumers – only to shame and blame the female performers…), there is so much more at stake here. I want to make sure we’re talking about what really matters. Because we need to be upset by this.
Bullying is a serious problem. In fact, it’s deadly. Fatal. Lethal. Whatever your word, the fact is that our youth are being killed by bullies. (The list, unfortunately, does not start with Matthew Shepard, nor does it end with this particular young woman.) And between social media, gossip, and peer pressure, the killers are so numerous and so subtle they may not even know what they’re doing. Every time you say ‘that girl dresses like a slut’ – even if it’s just you complaining to your mom at home! – you’re hurting another person. Whispers may fade, but the anonymity and perpetuity of the internet seem to be having effects for more lasting and powerful than any of us know how to handle. And I know you know this. But what I want you to hear again (and again and again) is that IF YOU DON’T SAY SOMETHING, NOBODY WILL. And you become part of the problem.
There’s a saying within the environmental movement that applies here – What If Everybody Did? So, sure, you can throw one piece of garbage into the river, but what if everybody did? Sure, you can call someone names behind their back, but what if everybody did?
I may not be in that pulpit, in that moment, any more, but I continue to use my voice to speak up, speak out. To speak words of encouragement, healing, hope, and peace. As a pastor, as a friend, as a young woman, I am doing all I can in my sphere of influence to support, heal, and change our community. Deep breaths, I carry on, sharing words of love, hoping and working for light in the midst of darkness. Praying that, if nothing else, you internalize this:
Your small actions matter. Your words matter. Your courage matters. YOU matter.
If you or someone you know is thinking of committing suicide please contact the Suicide hotline 612-379-1199.