Let There Be Light | Sojourners

Let There Be Light

When sexual abuse occurred in their church, Rev. Heidi Hankel and her congregation refused to let it stay hidden.
Rev. Heidi Hankel. Photo by Colin Lenton

DURING REV. HEIDI Hankel’s interview for the lead pastor position at Philadelphia’s Bethesda Presbyterian Church, she learned that one of the church’s deacons was under investigation by law enforcement for allegedly sexually abusing a member of the youth group. Hankel was later offered the job.

No one would blame even the bravest of pastors for turning it down, but fortunately for that small Presbyterian church, Hankel is a reverend who likes to hop down in the trenches to be with her parishioners. She was afraid, she said, but also propelled by her faith to address the violence openly and holistically. She took the job.

“I didn’t know if they would fire me,” said Hankel. “But I felt at least I could stand before God one day and say I handled this well.”

Hankel had a simple answer for why it is so important for church leaders to loudly and actively work to prevent and address abuse: “God isn’t silent. And if God isn’t silent, we as his body—his hands and feet—should not be silent.”

During the past couple of years, silence has given way to a chorus of abuse accusations against Christian leaders across the country: More than 300 priests in Pennsylvania, 100-plus Southern Baptist youth pastors in Texas, a handful of megachurch pastors across the country. While Christians have grieved these revelations of violence, those in leadership have often prioritized the perpetrators over the victims—the reputation of the church over its mission. In summer 2018, reports emerged that the then-president of a prominent Southern Baptist Convention seminary, Paige Patterson, had counseled abuse victims to stay with their violent husbands, once advising a survivor of rape to forgive the assailant instead of reporting the violence. In response, the seminary thanked Patterson for his longstanding commitment to the SBC and appointed him president emeritus—with compensation. (A week later, after an outcry, the seminary board stripped him of that title and of all “benefits, rights, and privileges.”)

Transparency isn’t easy

Before Hankel was hired, the pastor and appointed lay leaders of Bethesda Presbyterian had already taken a few important steps to support the victim. First, they ensured separation of the perpetrator and the victim, though this was made easy when the perpetrator submitted a formal letter of membership resignation. The church offered to pay for professional counseling for the victim and the victim’s family, which Hankel considers an important form of reparations in sexual abuse situations. And they informed the denominational leadership.

Around the time that Hankel began her position as head pastor, law enforcement’s investigation closed, with the abuser accepting a plea deal. Until that point the abuse had been kept confidential within the church’s leadership team. But after talking with the victim and the family, Hankel decided that members of the church needed to know what had happened. Without disclosing the victim’s identity or gender, Hankel called a congregational meeting to tell them how the church failed and the specific steps they would take to try to ensure no one was ever victimized again.

That was precisely the moment when Bethesda Presbyterian distinguished itself from other churches: Where other churches have tried to cover up this type of violence, relocate the perpetrator, or dismiss a leader without explanation, this small church insisted on pulling back the curtains on the abuse to bring it fully into the light. That kind of light leaves no room for ambiguity about God’s preferential favor to the vulnerable and abused. It is an Ephesians 5 kind of light: “for while it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly, everything exposed by the light becomes visible, and everything that becomes visible is light.”

Such transparency isn’t easy. “I will never forget the look on the faces in the congregation, the deep grief,” Hankel said, remembering the day she told them about the deacon’s actions. “The place that they treasure, that they love, has become a place of trauma for someone so vulnerable.”

Was David redeemed?

Not a single person withdrew their membership that day. Nor would anyone leave when Hankel began an eight-week sermon series on abuse, using King David as the entry point. David, she explained to me, is “this guy after God’s own heart,” but he has committed “an incredible depth of sin.” He rapes Bathsheba, then murders her husband after impregnating her. Two chapters later, David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar and David, her father, remains silent on the matter.

“God is so vocal about abuse and rape,” said Hankel. She cited the prophet Nathan’s rebuke of David in 2 Samuel 12 (“Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites”). “I don’t think you get it any clearer.”

In one of Hankel’s sermons from this series, she points out that David, shamed by Nathan’s harsh words against him, confessed to sinning against God. But he failed to acknowledge his sin against Bathsheba, the victim and the survivor who would become queen, who Matthew would include in his lineage of Jesus, and who would become the mother of King Solomon.

“Do you think David was ever redeemed?” I asked Hankel. She laughed, “I’m probably not the one you want to ask.”

She was exactly who I wanted to ask. Hankel is a survivor of childhood sexual violence in a church setting, now leading a congregation to face and redeem the abuse that occurred under their own sacred roof.

“Personally, I still struggle with David,” she said. “I have a hard time calling him ‘the great King David,’ ‘the man after God’s own heart.’ I say it very sarcastically, as you can hear in my tone. Even when David hears Nathan’s rebuke, he only half-repents.”

The broader church has received an earful of “half-repentances” from powerful faith leaders over the past year. From the defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, under investigation for sexual abuse: “While I have absolutely no recollection of this reported abuse, and believe in my innocence, I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through.”

And from Bill Hybels, the former pastor of the prominent evangelical megachurch Willow Creek, accused of several accounts of sexual misconduct: “I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable.”

These read less like genuine statements of repentance and more like press statements of self-preservation.

Jesus is a survivor

I learned from Hankel that there are no shortcuts in repentance. True repentance, she explained, requires that a person fully acknowledge that what they did hurt someone else and damaged their own relationship with God. And then it requires change. Bethesda Presbyterian installed windows in all their doors except the restrooms. The congregation collectively decided that two adults—rather than just one—would accompany the youth at all times. And they acknowledged they didn’t have to figure this out all on their own.

There are a number of organizations and resources available to equip churches to respond and prepare for these types of situations, including Faith Trust Institute, Northwest Family Life, and the “Healing the Wounds of Trauma” course offered by the American Bible Society. Bethesda Presbyterian called Boz Tchividjian of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), a nonprofit organization that empowers and trains Christian communities to recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse.

Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a lawyer, started GRACE after prosecuting several hundred sexual abuse and sexual assault cases for the state of Florida. He noticed that churches rarely responded in a way that prioritized the victim, and he wanted to help change that.

“So many people who had been wounded in the church fled from it,” he said. “They didn’t see it as a place of healing and refuge. They saw the church as a place of pain and sorrow and hopelessness and, oftentimes, marginalization. I don’t blame them.”

Tchividjian is unabashed in his insistence that the church has continually failed to prioritize survivors and lead with transparency. “Are we willing to expose our own failures in order to identify those who are hurting people and to demonstrate repentance to those who have been hurt?”

I asked if this work has changed him, and he spoke of a new personal depth for empathy and compassion. He told me that he now has more theological questions and has lost his taste for any answers dressed in absolutes. But still, Tchividjian said, he is hopeful. Mainly because of Jesus, who he considers to be “the most outspoken child advocate of his time.”

Hankel also believes that Jesus is uniquely equipped to minister to survivors. After all, he is one.

“There really isn’t much that [Jesus] doesn’t endure or doesn’t know about our human experience,” she explained, referencing the passion narrative. “He’s stripped naked, he’s beaten, he’s mobbed, he’s publicly tortured, publicly abused. People do not listen to him. They don’t want the rest of the population to hear what he has to say. They’re afraid it’s going to stir up discontent and conflict. We see the same current problem that we’re seeing with sexual abuse happen to our savior.”

But abuse isn’t the end of the story. “Every scar, every moment of that abuse is redeemed in some way in the belief in the resurrection,” Hankel said, before seamlessly beginning to address survivors directly as she spoke with me, a shift I noticed in many of her sermons as well.

“God [through Jesus] experienced what you experienced, and he was not believed. He was chased out. He was pushed away. You are not alone. Your God and your savior has experienced this too and is still with you.”

A changed congregation

Since my conversations with Hankel and Tchividjian, I’ve been wondering what it would look like for the church to fully repent of our sins of abuse. Following the model of Bethesda Presbyterian, it might look like a continued and transparent unearthing of the violence that has already happened in our sacred spaces. We will need to lament and confess while simultaneously working to better ourselves and our protocols to diminish the frequency of this type of violence.

It will require prioritizing those who have been victimized, while ministering to both survivors and perpetrators. Hankel explained to me that ministering to survivors means listening to and believing them. Ministering to perpetrators must be done carefully. Faith leaders can help them see and acknowledge the truth of their sin and its impact. “It is a merciful and graceful and loving step to separate the perpetrator from the thing by which they are enticed,” Hankel said, insisting that ministry to someone who has committed violence against women or children should be done by men and away from the site of the abuse. “We don’t put alcoholics in a bar to do ministry. We don’t put perpetrators around the thing that entices them.”

Full redemption would also look like every seminary training their students how to respond to sexual and domestic violence. The 2018 Broken Silence 2.0 Survey, commissioned by IMA World Health and Sojourners on behalf of the We Will Speak Out coalition, revealed that even though 90 percent of pastors encounter domestic or sexual violence situations through their ministry, only 50 percent feel equipped to respond well. Now that #ChurchToo has shown us the pervasiveness of this violence, said Hankel, churches cannot “just wing it. And you can’t just say ‘This won’t happen to us.’”

After Hankel told her congregation about the abuse that happened in their church, members responded in various ways. Some didn’t want to believe that the deacon they respected could be capable of this darkness. Others opened up to Hankel for the first time about the violence they endured in their lifetimes. And the church changed. They have become “more protective and caring,” she said, “a center for hope and healing.”

Once you see the scriptures through a lens of abuse, Hankel told me, you can’t unsee it. This lens makes us cautious to use biblical phrases such as “turn the other cheek” and further complicates traditionally venerated biblical figures—even the “great King David.”

When we preach or write or offer counsel, this lens prompts us to ask ourselves, Would these words be healing and empowering to a person facing violence? And this lens changes the way we see Jesus: publicly abused, but wholly liberated. And if this is how we see Christianity’s central figure, how might we re-center the vulnerable at every level of the church?

This appears in the July 2019 issue of Sojourners
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