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You’re the Good news

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Yesterday I had the distinct privilege of talking with domestic violence advocates about a cross-cultural approach to research.  It turned into this incredible brainstorm session complete with tons of energy and passion and grit.  I was blown away in the best of ways!  And when the session starting winding down an advocate looked at me and said, “Uggghhh this is so hard.  There are so many hurting.  Please tell me there is good news”.  I sat there for a moment I looked her straight in the eyes and I said, “Yes indeed there is good news—that good news is you—all of you and these women and the communities being built despite limited resources and broken systems—The good news is you”.  And then I said, “here’s the context”:

A few weeks prior I met with a survivor to interview her for a study.  This woman shared the barriers she faced with unwavering integrity.  Her husband had stolen her children and taken them to another country.  He left her destitute—not knowing the language or the housing system—she was evicted in a few weeks’ time.  Every-single-aspect of life was stacked against her but she persevered.  She, with the help of friends and advocates, got her children back, learned English and secured a three-bedroom permanent housing apartment.  When I looked at her I said, “if you hadn’t met your advocate where would you be or what do you think would have happened”?  And without hesitation she said, “I’d be dead”.

 

“I’d be dead”.

 

So you see, this is the good news—the good news is women showing up to do the gritty work; to stand in the gap with one another; to build cities out of dust; to shout at the top of their lungs that anything less than human rights will not be accepted; to demand justice and fairness and equitable communities for all; to sweat and toil on hands and knees; to cry, to laugh, to dance and to weep in all that life serves; to be alive for and in all of it.  On International Day of Women we celebrate the literal blood, sweat and tears of women who have been doing this throughout history to ensure a better future for our daughters and our sons.

 

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What I wish I would have told the church (where I pastored for 10 years) to help other women

The life that I had known for all of my existence came to a screeching halt in the same year.  It was the year that I resigned from my position as a pastor at a local church, while simultaneously ending my marriage of fifteen years.  I didn’t tell anyone about my marriage (with the exception of a few close friends and my family).  I feared that sharing the demise of my marriage would just lead to more pain and scrutiny so I focused on what I could– the good that came out of serving the church.  But more pointedly, I chose not to share about my marriage because it was in keeping with what I had been shown and told while growing up in the church and then even more so while I was a minister—to keep the broken to myself.  There is a model of ‘keeping secrets’ that the church has become effective in teaching through strategies of shaming and an over reliance on church leadership.

I wish I’d had the courage and the vehicle to have told people about my marriage.  If I could go back I would— if for no other reason than for the sake of other women who hold their own shame & secrets of domestic violence to themselves.

In the second year of serving the church, the lead pastor learned of the circumstances of my marriage.  He sat us down for a talk to confront us on the matter.  I was choked with fear and then with shame.  I remember feeling the need to not only preserve my marriage but also to preserve my job at the church and so I swallowed my shame and I promised that my marriage would not come before my role at the church.

After that conversation, the relationship with the lead pastor never was the same.  We (my family) were never regarded in the same manner.  The relationship between myself and the lead pastor became more and more distant over time.  I learned from these cues to not bother him with my worries or concerns and maintained this status quo.

Shame became such a familiar cloud.  I learned how to be available for others while also hiding my own pain and my own face.  I became incredibly adept at this skill.  My availability was completely sincere, but my insides were melting.

One night things got out of hand at home.  I remember so little of the circumstances other than the fear and shock.  What I do remember is that I grabbed my two and half year-old daughter and with no shoes ran out of our apartment to a friend’s apartment.  My friend took my daughter and I to a hotel for the night.  The next day we returned to her studio apartment and I took refuge in her bed for a week while she helped look after my child.  When Sunday rolled around I emotionally, mentally, & physically dusted myself off—returned home to the huge hole in the wall and showed up to my pastoral duties at church that morning.

 

No one ever knew about that week with the exception of that one friend.

 

The roller coasters of instability would continue throughout my marriage and I would do what I learned to do keep it to myself, show up for others and never complain.  I was wracked not only with incredible waves of shame, but isolation.

My story is not really all that special or unique.  It is an unfortunate thing to realize that between 25-33% of women (in the U.S.) are dealing with domestic abuse in all forms of physical aggression, financial deprivation, emotional battering and psychological warfare.  Think about it church and church leaders—that means that every 3rd or 4th female and every 10th male is dealing with some form of domestic violence while showing up to church every Sunday and maybe never telling a soul of the pain that they are in.

There are certain aspects of pain that the church is willing to do deal with that involve: biological illness and disease or a loss of a loved one through death, but the more sticky areas of pain having to do with mental illness or domestic abuse are overlooked—never to be spoken of.  In part, I believe it’s because the church doesn’t know how to respond.  They get so mired in the awkwardness and discomfort that it becomes easier to distant oneself from it then learn about appropriate ways to respond to not only the survivor, but the entire family system.  And so whether they mean to or not their distance communicates to the survivor and the entire family that something is fundamentally wrong with them and that they are not worthy of engagement.

For many survivors, who already have frail and shattered identities, they take that message to mean this is the best that they are gonna get—so they take it.  Community is incredibly important to survivors—a sense of being connected—even if it is not authentic is important and meaningful and gives even the smallest sliver of hope.

But you know what?  This-is-not-okay.  It is not okay for the church to slough off the awkwardness of domestic pain—maybe with the hope that someone else (a social worker, family member or government program) will intervene.  It’s not acceptable for the church not to learn culturally sensitive ways to interact, support and engage survivors who are experiencing DV.  It is not okay for the church to think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that will be adequate for how it supports partnerships and families.

And so church leaders, you have some work cut out for you and one place you can start is by telling people that you believe them and that the circumstances do not change how you love them, embrace them or continue connection with them.

And then go get some training on domestic violence as well as a multi-cultural/inclusive approach to family systems.

New Beginnings is offering community-wide trainings and something they call courageous conversations: http://www.newbegin.org/courageous

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCDV) offers trainings and online courses: http://wscadv.org

Most importantly, Dear Survivor: you are not alone.  Your story, your experience… well it is real and valid and true.  You may question whether or not there is anyone that could understand or accept your experience.  You may even blame yourself.  You may be in a community or in a family where the norm is to keep secrets and you don’t think anyone would believe you if you came out and shared.  You may feel all kinds of love and confusion about the relationship and unsure of what the choices or options are.  You may be hearing all kinds of voices of judgement about why you stay or why you don’t leave or that it is immoral for you to end a marriage.  You may be feeling scared for your children and their futures.  You may be fearful about where you would live or how you could financially sustain.  You may be struggling with the belief that this is the norm in relationships.  You may be scared to your very core.  You are right there are no easy answers.  One blog entry and a few words are not going to be a balm for all you’re feeling and experiencing.  But I want you to know that I believe you.  I believe all of it and I know that there are others out there that do, too.  You are worth working through the hesitation to reach out.  Here are some safe places where you can do that:

New Beginnings: http://www.newbegin.org // 24-hour helpline 206.522.9472

DAWN: http://dawnrising.org // 24-hour helpline 425.656.7867

Lifewire: https://www.lifewire.org // 24-hour helpline 800.827.8840

 

 

 

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Our bodies are our own

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Recently, I was writing a paper on violence against women and Women’s Rights and again was hit with the staggering statistics on violence against women worldwide.  In all of the world, 35% or approximately 1 in 4 women are brutally beaten, psychologically demeaned, sexually assaulted or verbally abused by an intimate partner.  In some parts of the world these statistics rise to a heart-wrenching 70% of women.  Over 120 million girls are raped, sexually violated and molested.  Get this, 200 million girls have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) (UN Women, 2016).  FGM has significant long-term consequences on a woman’s health.  FGM makes it difficult to have intercourse, to bear and birth children and to urinate without excruciating physical pain.  The psychological pain in all of these instances of violence is immeasurable.  Studies are scant and have yet to gather the psychological consequences, but one can imagine that the emotional suffering one bears runs incredibly deep.

Here’s why: violence against women in any form (physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional and psychological) has perpetuated the ideological view that a woman’s body, personhood and mind are not her own.  The terms have been determined and set for her.  Her personhood can be violated and used at any point because her body is not her own— she is property of someone else (i.e. family, culture, community, husband, boyfriend, father).  And because she psychologically and physically belongs to someone else she can be bought, sold, rejected, suppressed and oppressed and it is all justified under this socially accepted ideology (that exists in nearly all parts of the world).

I talk about all of these issues a decent amount and it always surprises me when people say, “oh no that doesn’t happen…” or “well maybe that happens but only in developing parts of the world” blah blah blah.

I implore you to explore what the denial is about, because this ideology exists in nearly all parts of the world.  This ideology is thriving here in the U.S.  Sure, the U.S. doesn’t practice FGM, but we have our own forms of female subjugation practices that promote the ideology of external ownership of a woman’s body and mind.

In the United States 1 in 4 or between 25% to 33% of women are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.  

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In the 21st century with 30+ years of the women’s movement researching and educating society on the harm of rape culture we still have more than a quarter of our female population sexually violated and dismissed.  (Rape culture- is the cultural norms and behaviors that reinforce the notion that it is okay for a male to rape a woman because she must have done something to bring it on herself.  Male’s violent or sexual aggressive behavior is viewed as a normative aspect of being male.  These behaviors are not viewed as criminal or even wrong because the behavior is to be expected among men.  As is demonstrated in the old adage: “boys will be boys”).

This socialized reality and the consistent threat in the air send a message to women that their bodies can be taken and violated at any point and that her voice does not matter- not before, not during and certainly, not after.

Social media has been blowing up (as it should) about the Stanford swimmer who was given a 6-month jail sentence for raping a woman while she was unconscious.  There is so much wrong about this.  The man was found guilty for THREE counts of sexual assault.  His punishment was to be up to  14 years in prison, but the judge felt that this was too harsh and would be too damaging to him… So he was given 6 months in county jail.

Where is the justice for the damage that was done to her?  Where is the concern about her damage?

The thing is I can’t stop hearing the pain in her voice when she shares the suffering with her perpetrator’s complete disregard for her.

I can’t stop hearing her pain when she describes how her lack of consent was scrutinized and called into question.

I can’t stop hearing her pain when she talks about the year of life lost.

I can’t stop hearing her pain when she shares how she was the one put on trial.

I can’t stop hearing her pain when she says:

Never mentioned me voicing consent, never mentioned us even speaking, a back rub. One more time, in public news, I learned that my ass and vagina were completely exposed outside, my breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris, my bare skin and head had been rubbing against the ground behind a dumpster, while an erect freshman was humping my half naked, unconscious body. But I don’t remember, so how do I prove I didn’t like it.

I can’t stop hearing her pain when she describes:

I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.

I can’t stop hearing her pain when she shares how someone outside her, her perpetrator, places meaning and value of the events that happened to her:

To sit under oath and inform all of us, that yes I wanted it, yes I permitted it, and that you are the true victim attacked by Swedes for reasons unknown to you is appalling, is demented, is selfish, is damaging. It is enough to be suffering. It is another thing to have someone ruthlessly working to diminish the gravity of validity of this suffering.

Her entire letter is here.

The outcome of this hearing is a loss for all us women.  It is an invalidation of our worth.  It reinforces what women have been saying for so long that economically, socially, legally and intellectually we are less than in this system.

Our society has a form of sexism that systematically vilifies, diminishes and deconstructs the female experience.  This brand of sexism is reinforced in every institution of society.  We can’t even rest assured that criminal acts against our bodies will be dealt with justly.  We can’t be confident in knowing that our voices will be heard and believed.

The battle is for our bodies.  Society wants to hold our bodies for it’s own.  Society wants the commodity of our bodies to use for their benefit and gain.

The battle is for our bodies.

The survivor in this case took back the narrative… She changed the societal narrative that her body was not her own– when she courageously spoke to just how wrong and despicable it is for her perpetrator to invalidate her experience.  She spoke to the seriously wrong actions of him defiling her body and then diminishing his sins against her.

And it is unfair that she bears the burden of having to take back the narrative… It is unfair and she is a courageous example of what it looks like to take back the narrative.

I stand with her.

Changing the narrative:

When I was a small girl I was sexually abused by someone I trusted.  When I finally was able to tell my family, they didn’t know what to believe so it was business as usual.  My abuser continued to be invited to family events and get togethers.

I began to think maybe I couldn’t trust myself… I couldn’t trust my memory or the way my body felt when the memory would invade my thoughts.  If no one else believed me and it was expected to continue as though nothing had happened maybe there was something wrong with me.

Then five years after I had shared my experience my abuser came forward and confessed what he had done.  This didn’t change the situation much with the exception of: 1) my brain was finally validated and now I knew that what I remembered was true and 2) there was pressure to “forgive” my abuser.

The narrative I internalized was:

  1. My body is not my own. (In exchange for just the slightest bit of attention my body was his to control, touch and explore.  My body was for his pleasure and so my body must not be my own)
  2. My body betrayed me.  (As an 8 year old I couldn’t physically defend or protect myself.  Furthermore, I didn’t understand what was taking place– so maybe it was my body’s fault)
  3. My voice is not my own. (People outside of me created a narrative that fit what they could handle and be comfortable with)
  4. The terms and boundaries were not my own. (The pressure to forgive seemed more important than my need to protect myself and process my feelings.  I didn’t even get to choose the path of reconciliation.  To not forgive was to be unkind and unChristian.  My abuser could and would corner me at family events to explain his actions… to try to get me to understand his situation… This seemed normal to everyone around me.  I wasn’t even afforded the right to dictate when and if I wanted to speak with him)

After embarking on a great deal of healing work I was able to take back the narrative.  In a way every day is an exercise of taking back the narrative that my body is not my own.

Taking back the narrative invited me to recognize that I inhabit a body of dignity.  Even when I’m not feeling great in my body or particularly self-loving toward my body I believe that I, just as everyone else, is born free and equal with dignity and rights (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

My dignity affords me the freedom to:

  • Choose who I am with
  • Set the terms and conditions for how I need and want to be treated
  • To be unapologetic in my voice– to speak my truth

I’m not sure when a change will happen in society.  It needs to happen in our society. I am tired of the battle, but I am committed to it, too.  I am committed to using my voice for myself, my daughter and my sisters from all over the world.  I am committed because I believe that we all inhabit glorious bodies of dignity.

I am committed because there is just too much at stake.