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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship and Director of Ministrieslab providing tools and resources to churches, clergy, and lay people to meet need. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book to read.

That’s not “just John Doe.” That’s Sexual Harassment.

Sexual harassment lives in systems like workplaces, family, and communities of faith because systems always aim to keep homeostasis or a place of stable equilibrium. If there is something that threatens that stability or equilibrium by asking for changes, a system resists those changes.

It’s why in systems like families, workplaces, or communities of faith, it is common to hear comments that are sexual harassment responded to with, “That’s just John Doe.*” It may be a co-worker or an uncle or a grandfather, but almost always John Doe holds a position of power in the system. Therefore, questioning or challenging John Doe would be detrimental to the individual who challenges John Doe.

But that’s not “just John Doe.” That’s sexual harassment.

When sexual harassment goes unanswered because of the position of the person who sexually harasses, we teach those who are victims that if you have enough power and privilege, the rules don’t apply to you. The issue of sexual harassment in our culture is so prevalent that it is going to take a concerted effort to eradicate it from our systems, from our families, and from our speech. This can’t be done by single individuals. This has to be all of us working together to challenge systems harboring and protecting sexual harassment.

Together we can do this. We can imagine better systems. Systems that protect creativity and kindness. Sytems that change the world for the better.

 

 

*John Doe is a placeholder name.

That’s not a compliment. That’s sexual harassment.

It was not long after Ben was born that I was attending a minister’s conference. Ben was in tow, but it was still wonderful to be able to speak about the changing dynamics of church and congregations and to feel like a professional again.

I was riding high on conversations with good ministers when someone stopped in one our conversation and said, “Wow, look at you, you’ve lost all the baby weight. Good for you.” I forced a smile on my face and made my way to a different part of the room.

There was no part of the conversation I had been in that he had joined that had to do with weight loss or post-partum recovery. The conversation this male colleague joined just long enough to make “an unwanted or obscene sexual remark” was about that how to rethink giving patterns as ministers.

“But he was offering you a compliment.”

No, that’s not a compliment. That’s sexual harassment.

His comment revealed that not only had he checked out my body in that professional conference, but he had enough knowledge of the way my body looked before I had our baby to compare before and after. I had not made public any goals for weight loss on social media. I had not been discussing post-partum weight loss in that setting or in the conversation he joined. He didn’t see me as a colleague in ministry nor did he, in that moment, treat me as a colleague in ministry.

Why didn’t I say something? Because as a young minister just getting started in what purports to be a welcoming and affirming Baptist world, I didn’t want to cause waves. This is where reporting sexual harassment is difficult for those who experience it. Inevitably, there are ramifications for the person who reports sexual harassment and because sexual harassment occurs in a professional setting, those ramifications directly have to do with job security and income.

Sexual harassment won’t stop occurring until those with power and privilege step up and take a stand for those who have little power in the systems and networks of professionalism. Sexual harassment won’t stop occurring until we come to an understanding that sexual harassment happens everywhere: in churches, at minister’s conferences, in doctor’s offices, in business offices, in Hollywood, and in the tech industry.

Will we have eyes to see? Will we have ears to hear the stories? Will we have mouths that say enough is enough?

That’s Not a Joke, That’s Sexual Harassment

I was filling my car up with gas, when I heard a car drive by. The male driver yelled, “Hey, hey can I take a pretty Mama to lunch?” My back was to the car as it drove by, so I didn’t turn around. I was worn down. I didn’t have the energy to face sexual harassment, name it, and fight it in the parking lot of a gas station.

Sexual harassment is defined as:

harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.

But too often when I have pointed out that a comment is sexual harassment, the response I’ve received is, “It was just a joke. I was only kidding.” It’s not a joke. It’s an attempt to make a person feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It’s testing boundaries of professionalism to see how someone will respond and react. And it’s always directed at an individual, usually a woman, to exert power over that individual.

It’s not a joke. It’s sexual harassment. It’s sexual harassment when it’s spoken out loud. It’s sexual harassment when it’s sent in a text message. It’s sexual harassment when it’s sent in a DM on social media.

Until we, as a society, can be brave and courageous enough to name sexual harassment when we experience it and when we hear it, we will continue to have 1 and 3 women who report that they have been sexually harassed in the workplace. We will continue to have to wrestle with the fact that

Every 98 seconds someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. That means every single day more than 570 people experience sexual violence in this country.

We have created a culture where sexual harassment, violence, and abuse is normal. It doesn’t get us riled up. It’s so common, we just gloss over it, explaining, “We all make mistakes.”

I want to create something new. I don’t want this to be the culture my children grow up in. I don’t want to have to tell my girls that they should report these incidents, but they probably won’t have any action that follows the report.

Thanks be to God, for good people working and hoping that we can together create something better.

 

Rethinking What We’ve Always Done

Last night, I took Ben to his first football game. No, it wasn’t college or an NFL team. It was the game between two of the youth who and another youth who was cheering. He loved it!  As I sat there in the bleachers with families from our church, I realized it was Wednesday night. I, as a pastor, should be at church. These families should be at church, right? Isn’t that the way we’ve always done it?

The almost five years I have served as a pastor has been unconventional, to say the least. It’s part of being a bi-vocational minister and part of being a pastor to relatively young churches that started out as church starts. We’ve had Maundy Thursday services on Wednesday and Ash Wednesday services on Tuesday. There is a flexibility and an understanding that schedules don’t always match up with the church calendar.

I know churches are struggling to rethink how to bring people, especially young families, into the church, but what if we started rethinking church? What if instead of always trying to bring people in, we sent ministers out to football games, to cheerleading competitions on Saturday mornings, to violin recitals? What if we rethought what it means to be a minister of a church?

I know the pressure is great to bring people into the buildings we are paying for. I know it comforting to have ministers in the offices we have decorated, but the model we’ve used for over fifty years doesn’t fit the lives and the experiences of the community in 2017

Church membership is declining, church attendance is declining, what will it take to rethink what we’ve always done? When will we allow space and conversations to dream about the future of the church? The future of the church that is meaningful and relevant to families and individuals who are living right now.

 

When We Change the Rules

Yesterday as I was running errands back and forth across Columbia, I encountered five different drivers over the course of the afternoon who pulled a U-turn or three-point turn across a double line. I don’t mean they went up to a stoplight and turned around. I mean they pulled across a five-lane highway in one case, a two-lane road, a three-lane road, a four-lane road downtown, and in one case held up traffic on both sides of the road as they made a three-point turn in the middle of the road.

I was flabbergasted.

If anyone can understand missing a turn or getting turned around, I certainly can. It happens to me frequently because of my terrible sense of direction. When I miss a turn or miss my opportunity to change lanes in order to turn where I need to turn, I turn at a light, loop around a block and make my way back to where I was trying to go in the first place or pull into a business off the road and turn around.

It says something to me to encounter this number of people who not only put themselves in danger but also other drives in danger. I can’t help  but wonder whether we are living in a culture in which people believe the rules don’t apply to them or don’t apply to the particular circumstance they find themselves. Insisting that where we are going is so important that we can’t take the time to take a proper U-turn signifies tunnel vision in our own experience and agenda. It leads to an unwillingness to reflect on how our decisions impact other people and indeed a community. When we see patterns of complaint and patterns of ignoring rules meant to keep drivers safe, we forget the way our actions and decisions create ripples in the waters of our community.

The only way I know how to combat these phenomena is to be kind. Not nice, but kind. It is so easy to fall into bad habits and patterns whether it’s when we are driving or as we are interacting with people at work, school, or in a place of business. It takes active engagement and forethought to renew our minds and create new patterns: patterns or love and peace, patterns of respect and empathy.

I can’t think of a better time to start.

Reading Beyond Your Experience

I’ve always believed that reading transports and transforms you, not only in the way it introduces you to new worlds and new experiences but also in the way it endears and entices you to characters while causing you to wish for the death and destruction of other characters. Reading reveals your true nature. It reveals how within you there is both love and hate. It reveals your assumptions, your privilege, your generalizations and challenges you to confront your true self.

Reading, this very magical, mystical experience is why I trained as a reading teacher, why I represented authors as an agent, and ultimately why I launched Harrelson Press with Sam. We believe reading transforms and transports and that language has the power to heal and challenge even the most difficult and ingrained beliefs.

The reality of our culture today is that the majority of our population doesn’t read. We skim searching for sources, posts, and people who agree with us. When your mission is to be affirmed, you will find affirmation because of the myriad of content that exists and is readily available. When your mission is to never stop learning, you will open yourself to words, stories, and experiences of other people and to the possibility to you are in fact wrong about some things you were pretty sure you were right about.

I can’t help but think about the cosmic, divine coincidence that I finished a young adult novel called How It Went Down the night before I awoke to news of the largest number of people killed in a mass shooting in American history. I read this book as part of my commitment over the past year to purposefully read books written by authors who have been systematically discriminated against in the world of publishing, including women, people of color, and people from lower socioeconomic status.

This journey has led me to recognize and analyze my own privilege. Privilege I was sure I didn’t have. Privilege I was sure hadn’t had anything to do with my pursuing and achieving two Master’s degrees, accepting a Fulbright scholarship, or living into a call to minister as a woman in the Bible Belt. Privilege I was sure everyone was afforded.

I was wrong. I discovered I was wrong by reading stories written by people whose experiences I have never had and quite honestly probaly will never have.

People like Cheryl Strayed.

People like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

People like Yaa Gyasi.

People like Toni Morrison.

People like Margaret Atwood.

When we don’t read, we hear our own beliefs, our own privilege in our hearts and minds echoing, “You’re right. You’re right,” again and again. Reading changes that voice to, “Are you right? Are you right?” Asking you to reflect on how you see the world and why you see the world the way you do.

What we need more of is not certainty, but uncertainty that leads to reflection asking us to question what we have always thought was true; asking us to question who we are and who we will become over and over again as we learn more and understand more about other people’s experiences.

This is the Day the Lord has Made?

Part of our morning routine includes singing:

This is the day, this is the day.

That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.

We will rejoice, we will rejoice

and be glad in it, and be glad in it.

This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.

In the middle of our singing this song this morning, I heard the news that over 50 people had been killed and over 400 injured and that those numbers would climb throughout the day. I read accounts and listened to interviews knowing that the people who experienced the horrific tragedy in Las Vegas last night would never, never be the same because The Body Keeps the Score of trauma.

This is the day the Lord has made? Certainly not.

This is the day we have made. We have made this day by insisting, demanding, and defending on protecting and preserving our own rights without reflecting or acknowledging how those rights can be transformed into massacre and madness in the hands of certain people; not willing to sacrifice our rights and our privilege for the sake of the common good so people can enjoy an outdoor concert, so kindergarteners can go to school to learn and teachers can go to school to teach, and ministers and congregants can have Bible study on a Wednesday night without losing their lives.

What most of us don’t understand about privilege is that we also can give up or sacrifice our own privilege for the sake of someone else. It isn’t that we lose our own voices, not that we speak on behalf of people whose experiences we haven’t had, but rather that we sacrifice what we think we deserve knowing that by sacrificing we, in turn, give someone else an opportunity, a chance, and indeed hope.

Most of us aren’t willing to do this.

Most of us aren’t willing to give up our privilege for the sake of other people’s safety or other people’s well-being because we’ve been taught in this individualistic culture that is America to stand up for ourselves, our beliefs, and our rights, which requires competing and ultimately trampling other people.

I have a right to bear arms as an American, but I give up that right.

I give up that right out of respect for the families who lost their children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right out of respect for the families who lost their loved at Bible Study and the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right out of respect for the 59 people killed last night and over 500 people injured, fighting for their lives, and for the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right to try to solve the problem of gun violence and the fear and division it causes in our country.

What will you do with your right?

Spiritual Abuse and The Power of Silence

Since I started writing about spiritual abuse two years ago, I’ve been asked more than once to stop. I’ve been encouraged to stop talking about spiritual abuse because it causes questions and conversations that people are uncomfortable. I’ve been encouraged “to think about the people this impacts” and “to think how people will respond,” but the gnawing understanding that sweeping things under the rug and allowing these instances of spiritual abuse be handled internally only perpetuates rather than eradicates the occurrence of spiritual abuse in communities of faith is something I have to write and talk about.

Each time I’ve encountered this pushback, I am reminded of the times I was told to doubt my instincts, to question my gut, to keep silent as a child and teen. It happens in subtle ways as Michelle Obama points out in her recent address to a marketing and sales event called Inbound:

If you have been socialized to think your voice doesn’t matter…there’s so much going on that shushes us and it’s hard to overcome when you need to defend yourself because it’s hard to drum that stuff up…and keeps us from fighting the fights we need to fight for ourselves and for our children.

We have to overcome the socialization that has taught us not to talk about those things that we see and experience like spiritual abuse that people don’t want us to acknowledge, wrestle with, and ultimately overcome. We have to be open to hear people’s stories of being abused and molested in our communities of faith in years past and in the present if we have any hope of making it stop in the future, but the vast number of people who have shared their stories with me after sharing them with leadership in these communities of faith have been encouraged to do one thing:

Be silent.

Keep this quiet so that we can protect the community. Don’t talk about this because his reputation is on the line or the church’s reputation is on the line. Don’t share what you’ve experienced with anyone or we will take legal action. Again and again the recurring message: We don’t talk about this.

I do. This is spiritual abuse.

I hear you saying, stop talking about it and focus on the good things in communities of faith, but that’s what we always do. We always look for the good overlooking the systematic, entrenched culture of spiritual abuse in our communities of faith that causes a lifetime of trauma in children and teens and adults. Until I stop hearing story after story of spiritual abuse, I can’t stop talking and writing and asking questions trying to restore hope for those who have survived spiritual abuse.

Hope in a God who doesn’t use silence and oppression as tools for submission, but invites us to join in the work of healing and wholeness here on earth.

 

 

One Year Ago…

One year ago, I accepted the Interim Pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship. The joy in my face is evident after months and months of rejection emails from churches that led to self-doubt and uncertainty wondering whether the sharp turn I took in my life in order to pursue a MDiv and become an ordained minister was what I was supposed to be doing or whether I had indeed “heard wrong” as some suggested when I shared a call to preach.

And I know you’re out there. You ordained ministers, without a place to serve right now. I know you still check the lectionary passages and your weeks still move around sermon prep and Wednesday Bible Study prep. I know you’re out there wondering the same thing.

I had the privilege of serving on an ordination council for a young Baptist woman in ministry this week and I wanted to say so much but culled it down to this:

Hold fast. Remember this moment of affirmation and confirmation right now because you’ll need them during the restless, sleepless nights of self-doubt and uncertainty. 

Hold fast. Minister and preach the gospel any way that you can in the homeless shelter, in the lives of friends going through difficult times, to your own heart, keep doing the work God has called you to do and you’ll find your way.

A Culture of Complaint

I didn’t sit outside today at the coffee shop, but rather at the point in the store where customers pick up their drink. I see the barista behind the counter working hard trying to keep up with the influx of Friday morning orders. I see him trying to smile as not one, but one after another, four people walk up and complain about their drink.

“Is this how this is supposed to be?”

“This was too milky.”

“This was too bitter can you sweeten it?”

“Why don’t y’all put the sleeves on the cups anymore? I don’t like having to do it.”

“I ordered light ice. This has too much.”

And I wonder how he does it. Person after person complaining about being served a beverage they didn’t have to make. I wonder about the customers too. Why did they order a drink that was full of espresso rather than sugar and then complain it was too bitter? Why did they order a latte and then complain it was too milky? The cynical part of me wonders if they are just trying to get two drinks for one since the barista patiently remakes and remixes drink after drink while new orders pile up.

We live in a culture of complaint. Our first reaction is to express what we don’t like before we express gratitude to the person who has served us. We expect that when we don’t like something or something differs from our expectations for someone to solve that without question.

Our first reaction is to express what we don’t like before we express gratitude to the person who has served us. We expect that when we don’t like something or something differs from our expectations for someone to solve that without question.

“I’m a paying customer. I deserve…”

Even as communities in Mexico City work together to search through the rubble; even as communities in Puerto Rico wrestle with the reality that they may not have power or water for six months or longer; even as people are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, we complain about our coffee.

Thanks be to God for a lectionary text about a complaining prophet this week who is angry when God spares a people. May our eyes be opened to our own anger and complaining and give our mouths gratitude first.