The conversation started innocently enough. I was sitting with friends chatting over lunch about the events of the day and our lives when a comment I missed hearing resulted in a serious conversation about sexual harassment.
First one friend, than another, spoke of the pain and loss of trust they had endured within their lives. I felt tears come to my eyes as this truth was spoken in such a matter-of-fact fashion – and that was as much a horror to me as the telling. I was understanding at another level how widespread and pervasive sexual abuse and sexual harassment are in our culture – and how we need to speak this truth into the light.
Can it really be less than two months ago that Twitter, Instagram and Facebook were flooded with over 12 million posts using the hashtag, #metoo? This hashtag ripped apart the silence which held so much pain for too long. It was as if a tidal wave of reality washed over us, leaving many of us breathless, stunned, and searching for a way to respond with compassion, support, and genuine care for what people had experienced.
But what is also true of #metoo is that it wasn’t born in October. The knowledge of sexual abuse and harassment were really not well kept secrets, but acts kept in silence through fear and knowledge that over time stories might not be believed. In 1996, Tarana Burke began the movement “to help young women of color who had survived sexual abuse, assault and exploitation." As this new wave of response spreads around the world its message is gender, age, and national-origin inclusive. And this, for me, brings home the profound truth that every church in our annual conference is impacted by this and the stories of friends and strangers are our stories.
In my role as Safe Sanctuaries Coordinator for the Oregon Idaho Conference, I can’t remain silent, just as our conference and leaders can’t remain silent as voices are heard and both women and men come forward with their stories. As a follower of Jesus, I can’t keep silent and I have talked to others who feel the same way and have acted on those feelings.
How do we break the silence? This isn't just my challenge, but one that every pastor, leader, and member of a United Methodist Church should take as a personal cause.
What ways can we create safe places for those who have spoken or want to tell their stories? What ways can we create safe spaces to prevent abuse, insult, harassment, mental and physical assaults for our children, sisters, brother, wives, husbands, and co-workers? Our Conference has put in place policies and processes to begin creating places of safety but only when we change our culture, our words, and our actions will we be truly responding to Christ’s commandment to “love one another.”
When the first young girl shared her story with Tarana Burke back in 1996, Tarana said she whispered, “me too” as the girl walked away after sharing her secret.
Safe Sanctuaries Coordinator
Lydia Henry is the Columbia District Lay Leader and Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference's Safe Sanctuary program.
The Safe Sanctuary program has been enacted by the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference to provide model policies for churches and raise the awareness of the need to provide safe places for all. Policies, worship material and other resources are available at www.umoi.org/abuseprevention.
Clergy and lay persons leading churches are held responsible for following a conference sexual ethics policy including ongoing training and testing. The Board of Ordained Ministry administers that program.
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Lydia Henry is the Columbia District Lay Leader and Safe Sanctuaries Coordinator for the conference.