We are A Royal Priesthood (Part 2)
Rev. Renita Green, Columnist
Congregations also need to heal when a person in the body has been victimized by a spiritual or other trusted leader. Members of a church will be in mourning. Their grief can be centered in their own unhealed pains to their sense of vulnerability and culpability. Praying about the violation and pain is a great idea. We must remember that works ought to accompany our faith. A professionally trained grief therapist should be brought in to do congregational care.
I have been careful to use gender neutral terms in most of this writing. While statistically the majority of sexual predators are men, men are not exclusively predators. Women are also guilty of sexual offenses against children. It is important that “our souls by on thy guard.”
Over the years as a youth development professional, I have attended and led workshops in creating and maintaining safe boundaries and practices for various groups—including churches. Payne Seminary requires boundary training as a full course—this is amazing. As trusted leaders, we are charged with keeping watch over the sheepfold. I will posit that this watch includes educating ourselves and our congregations as well as empowering the voices of our children.
One practice I have adopted is to empower children with the right to refuse hugs and kisses. I observed (mostly elders) chastising children (or their parents) for rude behavior. However, when we empower children to say “no” and make them feel safe in our presence, they are more likely to have the courage and confidence to say “no” to a predator and confide in a trusted adult.
In smaller churches, especially, child safety is not always a top concern—mostly because everyone feels safe around each other. Children are often in unsupervised spaces or left to an older teen’s care. Children play outside after service, in the fellowship hall, and go to the restroom alone or with the usher’s assistance. These are all potential dangers.
Those who would see a small membership church as easy prey will expect to be granted easy access to children. Forming policies, communicating frequently, requiring background screenings, and maintaining an “all eyes on children” policy will help keep children safe and reduce the risk of liability for a church.
Church must be a safe place—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Church must be a place where victims can find refuge and that the innocent are protected from harm.
Church must also be a safe place for those who have committed crimes—even sexual crimes against children. I have been confronted with the ethical dilemma of allowing a sex offender to attend church. First, if the victim or their family is an active member of the church, I would not allow the sex offender to attend. I would, however, assist them in finding a place of worship.
Providing a safe place of worship for a sex offender, to me, means that the individual should never be allowed the opportunity to reoffend or to be accused of offense. For the brief time a sex offender attended church, he was buddied with a trusted male church officer. He was never left alone in the building or on the property. We did not act like we did not know. We knew. He knew we knew. The open dialogue created a safe environment for all.
Another aspect of keeping safe space is knowing your state’s minimum age of consent. In the Long case, grooming began when the boys were under the age of consent—sexual contact happened at or over the age of consent. Legal and moral are not synonymous.
Know the signs of grooming. Maintain high standards and expect people to operate professionally. I say professionally because we would never let a school principal get by with what we accept from trusted leaders in the church. It is as unacceptable for an adult in the church to be in relationship with a teenager as it is for a school professional to be in a relationship with a teenager. We must not lower our standards or expectations because we are in church.
After the abuse I endured from my youth pastor, my life spiraled. Pastor Bob was not the first man to take liberties with my body. From the time I was eight or so I experienced abuse from three different men—one a teen cousin. I was always in trouble in school. I took a lot of risks (like climbing buildings and exploring the train tracks).
Know the signs of a hurting child. During the incidents, I kept my eyes closed and pretended I wasn’t there—somehow this tactic made it seem as if it never happened. Church was my safe place until the youth pastor took that from me.
After the incident, I did not return to church much. I got a “boyfriend” who was my secret. He was over 20, I was 14. I allowed him to be promiscuous with me—but no sex. Somehow, I thought that if we didn’t “go all the way” that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I suppose I was trying to take back some sense of personal power.
One night he showed up at my sister’s place where I was spending the night. He forced himself on me as I kept my eyes closed. No one questioned why a 14-year-old was pregnant. I was labeled and ostracized and sent away to have my baby in a place that facilitated her adoption.
For the next 10 years I would be in physically and sexually abusive relationships—one of which was a marriage I barely escaped with my life. It was in church—an AME Church—where I heard the story of deliverance at an annual conference. The preacher told the story of Joseph and his dreams, how he was left for dead and of Joseph’s trials and tribulations before becoming who God purposed him to be. That was the moment I remembered who I was. That was the moment I knew I had a calling to fulfill.
For about three years before this sermon I was going through the motions at church—feeling like I was supposed to be there and resenting every minute of it. At this point, I had answered my call to ministry, feeling like I was supposed to be doing this but not feeling “clean” enough to be used by God for such high a calling. However, that message—From the Pit to the Palace—set me on a trajectory that could not again be altered.
Church is a powerful vessel for life shifting encounters with the Holy Spirit. Church must be safe. The purpose and promise of the spiritual house of worship must be vigilantly guarded. The vulnerable must be protected. The space must be secure. We can do this! Remember, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
The Rev. Renita Marie Green, M.Div., has served as pastor in the AME Church for the past 16 years. Pastor Renita has contributed writings to The Huffington Post, The Christian Recorder, CNN, St. Louis American and the local patch.com blog site. Her favorite role in life is being mom to Chrissi and Darren (Danielle).