Every time there is a new allegation of abuse in the church, I catch my breath.
The problem with trauma is that it’s always there, under your skin, re-living in the experiences of others. I do this work both as a trauma survivor and a daughter, of a pastor and of evangelicalism.
I remember my own story.
“You’re going to lose your job,” I told my dad, who was also my pastor. I was 24 years old.
“No, not necessarily,” he said.
I had just caught my Dad traveling out-of-state with a woman in his congregation, after finding receipts of dinners out, flower purchases, and her furniture in our garage. The latest woman he pursued outside marriage, and his last.
I never once tried to cover up what he did.
This week we saw the daughter of Bill Hybel’s, the former pastor of Willow Creek Community Church who sexually assaulted women in his church, Shauna Niequist issue an apology.
Reading it I had complicated feelings.
Shauna Niequist’s apology is three years in the making. Three years of sexual assault survivors trying to naviagate their healing. Three years of a church reeling from the pain. Three years of clergy abuse survivors being re traumatized.
I was initially grateful to see this public acknowledgment, one that took ownership that her silence communicated that she defended her father Bill Hybel’s actions, former pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, and his ongoing silence, though this was not her intention.
I was even sympathetic toward her situation, as I also have remained in relationship with my father, who abused his family for years without the church ever knowing.
But then I found out that she blocked the survivors’ accounts and her PR team very swiftly removed any comment that remotely challenged or confronted the silence she was speaking to.
This silencing of survivors struck such a deep pain in me.
First, I will speak as a survivor, then as a daughter.
As a survivor of white evangelicalism growing up, I learned early that my story does not matter.
I was locked in a tiny room with the janitor who stood over my 7-year old body and demanded to know why I didn’t like him. This was terrifying.
And when I told my family about it, I was told I needed to be more polite to him. Another man called my house to tell me what his favorite dress was and what I should wear on Sunday, while he made me sit on his lap, next to his daughter.
In high school, I was given a massage by a church member, who I had gone over to his house to teach piano lessons to his daughter. She was not there.
When I graduated, his calls were endless. I went on a business trip to baby-sit, but he told his business partners I was there to watch him. Sexual harassment was my normal and I never had a name for it.
Centering survivor stories is the refrain I hear on repeat. And it has to be.
There absolutely needs to be an acknowledgment of the women who suffered at the hands of Bill Hybels.
And Shauna also has a story inside her she is not telling, ostensibly because it would shatter her image, and her family’s. She learned like me, that to survive, you must protect white patriarchy.
Better to prop it up than for it to crush you.
Survivors learn to conceal abuse, protect their abuser, to keep them settled, lest bad things happen. So I have grace for her as a survivor of this system, as also a victim of her father’s manipulations. I am a therapist, who is always told that we can’t change something we do not understand.
So I hope to hold a bit of light on her experience, before calling her into something better and more reparative.
Evangelicalism has a long and storied history of covering abuses. This is nothing new. And I would contend that we also have a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.
We are told to remain in an alignment with our abuser, who in these cases is often a pastor or other leader often wielding power unchecked.
And what is more, protecting the church’s image, because the church after all is supposed to be Christ’s witness in the world.
What would it mean, if that image were tainted or ruined?
Who would we become?
What would people think of us?
We talk about the need for collective repentance, but when it’s time to practice it, it sounds like Bill Hybels’ son Aaron Niequist on Twitter saying, “Why am I responsible for my father-in-law’s sin?”
He is and he isn’t. He did not commit this. And his career is built on the back of an abusive man, and a system that perpetuates that abuse with or without his knowledge.
Taking ownership sounds like, “Yes. This happened. It was awful. We stand with and believe these women and grieve their stories. And we are repairing to ensure this does not happen again.” Again and again and again. If no one takes ownership, the stories of survivors get mistrusted, or worse, erased. Patriarchy will always protect itself; it knows no other way.
If survivors are brave enough to come forward, then people who hold this power need to be brave enough to stand with them.
I never got the opportunity to tell my faith community what I experienced both at the hands of my father, or in the pews I sat in. Perhaps the worst sin, was that when my mother was questioned, she was confronted with a false allegation my Dad had created as a way to justify their separation.
This is why outside investigations are so important, because a woman need not sit there and try to convince her friends otherwise. Our family’s story deserved to be held in tenderness, in sacredness, believed, heard fully, and protected by a neutral party who could weigh in.
This did not happen.
And so we look to Jesus.
Jesus who grieves with, who believes us, who steps toward the margins of those who have been abused and exiled by the power structures.
Jesus who hung out with sex workers.
Jesus who sat at Jacob’s well, defying all odds, befriending a Samaritan woman in broad daylight, a welcome scandal he started to ensure that this woman knew, she was invited too.
Despite what society, empire, or the temple said about who is and who is not the children of God.
As a public figure, this is what Shauna Niequist is being invited into.
To break with the status quo that protects these same power structures even under our own roof, in our own house, in our own religious establishments.
She need not do this work alone, but she must be part of this work. It may cost her greatly, her career, her image, her influence, the one she inherited, shattering. So that new ways of being, of contending, and flourishing can be established.
We can have grace for her experience. Accountability for her behavior. Shauna Niequist’s apology was a genuine starting place, that had consequences, and must be followed by action and reparation.
She has given us a template for naming a wrong, that I hope we can step into more deeply, more quickly, when other voices bravely speak out. And more can always be done to protect, repair, prevent.
For the sake of the survivors like me, we must do more.