Editor's Note: This is one of our Top 15 CBE Writing contest winners.
[Sexual Assault Trigger Warning]
I claimed a familiar seat in the chapel of the seminary I’d attended, one I‘d sat in many times before and for many meaningful moments. Seminary was formative for me, a place where I found a new community and a depth of spiritual learning I’d not yet experienced. I moved from my hometown to attend, which was, in part, an attempt to distance myself from an abusive relationship.
My community at home was enmeshed with my abuser, and it was difficult to extract myself from their influence. Being in close proximity to my abuser prevented me from seeing what was driving his actions and how damaging they were to me.
So I moved. I learned, and grew. And now, I’d come back to visit, having graduated the year prior.
I sat in the pew, familiar prayer books in front of me and stained glass to the side. My abuser stood at the front of the chapel. Not in a memory, or an impression—but in the flesh. He held the cup. He was to serve wine during the Eucharist.
I‘d been confronted with his presence there before. My final year of seminary was his first year, and I saw him in the halls, and even in a class. Still trying to put words to past experiences, seeing him made me remember the force of his hand on me. I remembered trying to push his hand off me as he touched between my legs. I couldn’t move it. Each time he nodded to me in the hall, I was forced to relive what he did to me.
These were the actions of someone who told me he loved me. So when he got mad at me for telling him how I felt about a given issue, I believed it was truly my fault that he was angry. When I wrote him a letter to explain that I didn’t appreciate being called an idiot, it seemed like a reasonable disagreement to have to hash out with a boyfriend. When he fumed because I didn’t put the laundry into the dryer in time, I was made to think it was my fault, and that I’d ruined the day.
When I told him that I was uncomfortable with the pressure he was putting on me to have sex, I was lumping him in with rapists and monsters. How could I say such a thing? I needed to be more sensitive in the future. When I again expressed that I felt pressured after a sexual encounter, he yelled that he didn’t rape me.
I lost my voice.
That word didn’t enter my vocabulary until years after our relationship ended and years into a healthy relationship with my husband. As perspective brought clarity, I progressed from "he didn't always treat me very well" to "emotional abuse" to "sexual assault" and, eventually, to "rape."
But this acknowledgement came with a whole host of other questions: would my friends be friends with a rapist? Would my pastor respect and put a rapist in leadership positions? Would God love my rapist? It seemed like the answer to all of those questions was: “yes.”
During our relationship, we met with a pastor about our difficulty in resisting having sex. It was true—we had consensual sex at times. However, matters of consent were muddied for me by Christian ideas around sex—by the guilt and shame of being a Christian having premarital sex and the loneliness that came with my female friends not understanding this struggle. When we toed the line of sexual sin, resistance became a regular precursor; I knew it was something we ought not to be doing.
And yet, there were times that I didn’t want it, and told him that I didn’t want it and he continued anyway. I would even physically move his hands off me, only for him to put them back on. When I confronted him afterward, he stated that I could’ve gotten up off the bed to avoid that.
There were times I was assured that we would just cuddle, and my hands ended up restrained behind my back, him trying to penetrate me. This time, I was able to yell enough to make him stop. Our confused boundaries of what we “should" be doing blinded me from seeing that I wasn’t always a participant in this "sexual sin." As a Christian, admitting to being raped feels similar to admitting to just having sex. But rape is not sex.
I told the pastor that I felt that the burden to stop things was completely on me. And that when we "messed up" by going too far, it was my fault because I couldn't stop him. He had urges that I couldn't understand, his own sexual struggles. My pastor’s practical solution to the “problem”? I was to wear longer shorts.
Following years of emotional abuse, I’d finally made a home in a new place, in a new community. But he came there, too. So, I spoke to our chaplain about his presence there. Even then though, I still wasn’t able to name what happened for fear that I was wrong. Was I slandering someone? I’d been wrong so many times in our relationship—according to my abuser. How could I trust what I remembered, what I felt? I told the chaplain what I thought I knew, what I thought I’d experienced.
She told me that they take these matters seriously. Then, she asked if I’d considered the part that I played in those incidents.
Terrified of making a false claim, I was silent. I didn't have proof. I had emails written to friends asking: "Is this normal?" I had my own idea of what happened, which I of course didn’t trust. My word against his. My word—that I couldn't even speak.
And so, next to my husband, in my familiar, now-tainted chapel, I pondered what to do at the crux of the liturgy. I knew I couldn’t accept the wine from him.
Why did he get to dispense God's grace? Did God's forgiveness of his sin minimize my suffering, my cry for justice? If I couldn’t take the wine from him, ought I to take it at all? How cruel—to demand that I partake in the body by submitting to the hand that abused mine.
No one saw this inner drama as I simply stepped to the line on the opposite side of the aisle, to receive Christ's body and blood from an unknown deacon. No one, that is, except my husband and my abuser. My abuser looked on, seemingly perplexed.
I tell this story today, because it’s cracking out of my chest. Now that I’ve found the words, I’ve written to my abuser, telling him my side of the story. I haven’t heard back.
I’m not the only woman with a story like this sitting in your pews. Looking at me on Sunday morning, you wouldn’t know this was my experience. Many other women in the church carry similar painful stories. We’re asking the church to share our burden. We’re looking for support, empathy, and mere acknowledgement.
Church, we need to take the mantle off those who’ve been abused. Survivors shouldn't need to tell the darkest parts of our stories to inspire empathy or raise awareness about this issue. As a community, we need to explore how Scripture can speak into a sexual ethic that includes consent, grey areas, abuse, grace, and accountability. We need to explore how to practice forgiveness without silencing victims' voices or absolving abusers of consequences.
Pastors, I urge you to bring my story and others like it into your ministry. Give the women in your pews the care and support they need.