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Spiritual Abuse and Failure to Follow Up

Last week I wrote about another story of spiritual abuse. This story involved the woman being told to keep quiet and to let the men handle things. It’s not an uncommon story. I know it’s happened to many people who have experienced spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, but this isn’t the only thing that happens to victims of spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

In many cases, victims are strong and resilience. They don’t listen to the people telling them to keep things quiet and to not report what has happened to them. In many cases, these courageous and brave victims report their experiences. They share the abuse they have been through even though it’s painful and traumatic to recount. They overcome their fears and their shame in order to make it better for someone else.

Even though they show incredible courage and bravery, these victims are often met with people who fail to follow up. Over the past couple of weeks, the tech industry has been reeling from story after story of  women entrepreneurs who have sought advice and investment from men. The story for these women was that they had to endure sexual harassment, groping, and unwanted sexual advances in the midst of trying to grow their businesses and procure funding to make their ideas become reality. When they reported these investor’s and advisor’s behavior to their businesses or firms more often than not, the business didn’t take their accusations seriously or follow up at all. Years of reporting, bravery, and courage on the part of these victims has finally brought to light the engrained sexism and privilege that exists in the tech industry.

But it’s not just the tech industry.

Women who are in fundamentalist and conservative communities of faith often are counseled and encouraged to stay in abusive marriages in order to protect the sanctity of marriage and avoid divorce. Women who are beaten, raped, and told they are worthless again and again are told to remain with their abusers because it is “God’s will.” This is spiritual abuse. There is never, never a reason to tell a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. There is never, never a reason to blame God for the abuse a woman is experiencing. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a matter of life and death:

 More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to intimate partner violence — and in 10 percent of those cases, violence shortly before the killing might have provided an opportunity for intervention.

It would be easier if we just continued on our way without worrying about these deep issues and how deeply engrained sexism, sexual harassment, and spiritual abuse are in our churches, in our business, and in our country. It would be easier, but it would be failing to follow up and we’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

On the Road Again

I glanced at the notification that popped up on Waze. “Congratulations! You’ve driven 500 miles this week.” 500 miles? I thought to myself. That can’t be right, can it? I thought back to Saturday where I drove to Asheville and back to Columbia with two tired girls who had just rocked a swim meet. I thought about Monday where I had the honor to lead Bon Air Baptist in The Privilege Walk and a Bible Study related to their work with Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church in the Myrtle Beach area. Then I thought about the annual worship gathering for Baptist Women in Ministry in Atlanta.

What a week.

It was the kind of week that has left me road weary. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to lead the privilege walk with this group of youth, I know there so many who don’t want to engage or examine their privilege much less use their power and privilege to help others. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to gather with Baptist Women from around the country, there are still only 6.5% women who hold senior pastor or co-pastor positions in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

There’s still so much work to do and so few people who are willing to do the hard work of breaking down privilege and breaking down gender stereotypes. There are even fewer people who are willing to acknowledge their privilege (rather than defend their privilege) and use their voice to dismantle institutional sexism.

Even though I’m road weary, I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for the women who have survived sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace and have been in tears this week because of the blatant reminder that America is still a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those in socioeconomic situations whose voices are ignored and whose healthcare needs are decided by power and privilege. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those two tired girls and their younger brother to have a healthier, more whole way of living and being themselves.

“Do not resist an evildoer.”

This week’s gospel’s lesson is not an easy one:

5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

5:40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;

5:41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

5:42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

This is as an important lesson to us as modern day disciples as it was to Jesus’ disciples. Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for the resistance they would certainly meet as they followed him. Bringing the kingdom of God here on earth was not going to be met without tension and conflict.

And as I read these words in preparation for our weekly chapel service at Transitions with ministrieslab, I knew I had no words, no divine inspiration to offer to a people group who had experienced so much systemic discrimination.

And so I didn’t.

I read God’s word, the word of Jesus to his disciples aloud, begging the Holy Spirit to let these words and truths find a home within my soul and mind and then I listened. I listened to story after story from this makeshift, ever-changing congregation who shared of the times they had encountered people at gun point and had not attacked or responded in kind. I listened to stories of domestic abuse and wondered with the person whether it was wrong to leave that relationship when the gospel says to turn the other cheek. I listened to stories of loved ones stuck in cycles of abuse and heard the hope for their future in the words of their significant others. I heard stories of regret and resurrection lives changed because they finally learned to turn the other cheek and love the very people they didn’t want to talk to, eat with, or be associated with.

I heard God’s voice again and again in the voices of God’s people. God’s people in a group room crowded with too many chairs in a homeless shelter on a rainy Wednesday morning singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” and I knew this is what we must do.

We must not resist evildoers, but love them, really and truly love them, not merely tolerate them.

We must give generously to anyone who begs from us without judging them for how they might use what we give.

We must turn the other cheek, again and again, as Jesus did, even unto death.

This is the word of the Lord to his disciples.

A Case of Privilege: A Pastoral Confession

There were reasons to believe that one of my students need to be referred for testing to be considered for additional resources. There were trainings engrained in my mind that told me as a third grade teacher part of my responsibility was to catch these types of situations to give students the best opportunity to access their potential and their abilities.

And so I did what teachers did and scheduled a parent teacher conference. I knew that there was something that had happened to my student during his mother’s pregnancy. I knew that the symptoms I was seeing were textbook examples of fetal alcohol syndrome or a drug-related infiltration from mother to child.

I knew.

She filled out the paperwork and when the question asked, “Was your pregnancy normal?” she checked yes. As I watched her glide over the form, my eyes bore through the little check she had just made. As I tried to keep my demeanor welcoming, my anger flashed. How could she say she had a normal pregnancy? There is absolutely no way that her child was not exposed to some kind of drugs or alcohol. It’s just not possible. She’s lying because she doesn’t want to confess to what she did while she was pregnant. 

I knew I was right. I knew she was wrong.

I told colleagues my righteous indignation flaring. How could we do what was best for her child if she didn’t answer honestly? How could we get anywhere if she lied to us, the very people trying to help her child?

And suddenly I was sitting in a chair at Transitions Homeless Shelter across from a woman who was pregnant. A woman who was pregnant and homeless. A woman who was pregnant and starving. A woman who was pregnant with no healthcare, no access to birth control, and with very limited access to prenatal care. A woman so consumed with the exhaustion of survival of finding food every day or finding a place to sleep each night that she could not even consider what was best for the child growing within.

My God, forgive me. I confessed.

My privilege was so blinding in that first year of teaching that I couldn’t imagine a woman who was pregnant who didn’t know any other community, but a community with alcohol and drugs. I couldn’t imagine a woman, a mom who didn’t know how to best care for her body while she was sustaining another life. I couldn’t imagine a woman who couldn’t read or research to find out about what her body needed to help her child. I couldn’t imagine a woman so scared of losing her child that she filling out of form in front of mandatory reporter overwhelmed her with anxiety. I couldn’t imagine because of my vast amount of privilege.

Instead of peace, I offered her anxiety. Instead of hope, I offered condemnation. Instead of scaffolded learning, I offered her resentment and belittlement calling her ill-informed. Instead of love, I offered her disdain.

Thanks be to God for second chances, years later.

Conflicted Identities

Citizenship is the common thread that connects all Americans. We are a nation bound not by race or religion, but by the shared values of freedom, liberty, and equality.

Because of the choices my ancestors made, I am an American citizen and as an American citizen I have certain rights:

  • Freedom to express yourself.
  • Freedom to worship as you wish.
  • Right to a prompt, fair trial by jury.
  • Right to vote in elections for public officials.
  • Right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship.
  • Right to run for elected office.
  • Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Because of the choices I have made, I am a Christian, a disciple of Christ:

23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

I am an American Christian. I am an America who is a Christian? I am a Christian who is an American?

Identity isn’t easily defined as we live, work, and engage with other people in the communities in which we live. Circumstances can suddenly change our identities from spouse to widow, from employee to unemployed, from homeowner to homeless, conflicting our identities and understanding of who we are.

I have a bit of experience with conflicted identities. I introduce myself by saying, “Hey, I’m Merianna. I’m a Baptist minister,” and more often then not my self-identification in the Bible Belt of SC doesn’t make sense to people. A woman who is Baptist and a minister is not an identity many people have heard of and certainly not met. And here I stand.

But I’m not only a Baptist minister, I am also a publisher seeking out stories to share with communities and people. Stories that transform and challenge. Stories that shape and guide as the many books I’ve read have shaped and guided me. Both of these professional identities are central to what I believe my calling is in this world, but these identities are conflicted identities. Sometimes the formatting has to wait until the sermon is written. Sometimes the grant writing has to wait for the manuscript to be edited. I balance both of these identities in an attempt to be fully and wholly who I was created to be.

I am a stepmother and a mother. I have three children whom I strive to love, challenge, and guide. Both of these identities are central to who I am at my core, but these are conflicted identities. At times, I choose to be stepmother first forgoing a 14 month old bedtime for dinner with cousins or a drive in movie with friends. Still other times, I choose to be a mother first rocking a 14 month old to sleep listening to squeals in the bathtub. The only way I am able to balance these conflicted identities that threaten to rip me apart as I watch our children leave each other with prayers and hopes that videos, pictures, and Facetime will sustain their relationship until they see each other again is because I have a partner in Sam who is walking beside me, challenging and pushing me not to see the conflict and tension, but what comes from the wrestling: a new identity.

Maybe the quarrels among us over what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be an American are outward manifestations of inward struggles of conflicted identities. Perhaps we have never considered giving up our birthright as Americans because we have never been as hungry as Esau coming in from the wilderness taking a bowl of stew from his brother’s hand while giving up his birthright with his own hand. Maybe we have never considered that to be an American and to be a Christian might actually be conflicted identities rather than harmonious identities.

We must all wrestle with who we have been and who we will be. Perhaps it won’t be in the night as it was for Jacob who had to return to those he had deceived, those he had taken advantage in his pursuit of the happiness of securing his future. But the wrestling will come and the choice will be presented again and again: who are you?

If I have to choose, I choose God over country. I choose bringing the kingdom of God here on earth by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prisons of homeless and exclusion.

May God grant you the guidance and strength as you wrestle with your own conflicted identities. May God grant you the perseverance to get up, even as you limp away from the wrestling, and walk towards the new identity of who you will be.

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Small Great Things

It just happened to be my turn on the hold list at the library to read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. It just happened to be my turn to read this incredible book on the week of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday when the title of the book comes from a Martin Luther King, Jr. quotation:

If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.

It just happened to be my turn to read this book that tells the story of a black woman who has struggled against racism her whole life, but has never wanted to admit it. It just happened to be my turn to read this book when women all across the country are preparing to travel to Washington, DC to march and if they can’t go to Washington, DC, then to join together in their own communities to march and walk together.

It just happened to be my turn to read the inner thoughts of a white supremaist who tells his story from his perspective in this book on the week we elect a new president. It just happened to be my turn to read this story of a black women, a privileged white woman lawyer who is a public defender, and this white supremaist and how their stories and lives interact.

It just happened, this week, of all weeks that this story enters my life reminding me that the small things that we do to listen to stories we don’t want to hear, people we don’t agree with, and try to understand each other better can indeed be truly great things.

“What are you doing all the way out here?”

“What are you doing all the way out here?” I asked her as we both shirked from the cold wind.

She started to tell me and then stopped, “Hey, wait I know you. You’re the lady who gave me that bread that you dip into that juice in that tall cup.”

“That’s right,” I smiled realizing I had recognized her before she had recognized me. “You know the cold weather shelter is open tonight. Don’t you want to go there where it’s warm?”

“There’s too much drama there,” she explained.

I hesitated not knowing at all what to say. Wasn’t it worth enduring drama to be warm? It was below freezing outside, surely it was worth dealing with people so that you didn’t have to sleep outside.

“There’s always someone who is looking for a fight and it’s just not worth it,” she continued.

I was trying really hard to understand where she was coming from, to understand the world as she saw it, knowing that privilege was hindering a connection. I was trying to respect her voice and choice, knowing that telling her what she should do would disrespect her humanity in ways she had experienced over and over again.

I had seen first hand what she was talking about, people in desperate situations guarding their reputations and their identities fiercely. I knew she was speaking truth, but I also knew there was no way I’d ever completely understand.

A humbling realization.

She had seen more death than I had seen. She had felt more desperation than I had seen. She had felt more hunger than I had. There was a gap that divided us, a gap I’ve been working for eight month not to eliminate or justify or defend, but simply understand.

But maybe on Wednesday I would see her again and that gap would be bridged for just a moment as we worshipped and fellowshipped and celebrated the Lord’s supper together, side by side.

Sometimes You Forget…

Sometimes you forget that what you’ve experienced and been through is not what everyone else has experienced and been through. Sometimes you forget that sharing your story and experiences might be exactly what someone else needs in that moment. Sometimes you forget that you can offer hope and understanding by just sharing who you are.

I hold a Master’s in Literacy, something I forget about in my day to day being because teaching isn’t my profession. I also hold a Master’s in Divinity, something that is more in the forefront of my mind as I prepare to preach and worship with the amazing community of faith, New Hope Baptist Fellowship.

Sam also has teaching experience and theological education and as we journey together as parents, we are trying very intentionally in what we do and say to raise and foster kids who are compassionate, aware of the needs that surround them, and who understand that they each have something they can offer no matter how old they are to offer love and hope.

One way we do this is by what we read to them and in front of them. Here’s what we’ve been reading lately and why we chose it:

I love this book a teaching friend gave us when Ben was born because it teaches kids that even when you have always seen yourself to be a certain way, there is always a chance that you will encounter someone who will change and transform you.

 

Peter Reynolds is brilliant in how he addressed the magical, mystical element of creation for young readers. This one in particular shows that even when the people around you try to discourage you, you shouldn’t give up what you love to do. Also, being the voice of encouragement to someone can change their whole perspective.

 

Not only does Mo Williems write the Elephant and Piggie series incorporating the 100 site words for first graders, he also hits the nail on the head in topics. This is one of our favorites for teaching that waiting and patience often allow us to experience something miraculous.

 

 

We love this one for the way it plays with rhyme and meter, but also for how it reminds us that there is always need surrounding us. When we barrel over other people, they won’t be quite as willing to help us when we need help.

 

Looking for specific age suggestions for your own children or grandchildren? I’m happy to help! I love talking about children’s literature and the powerful impact it can play in teaching our children.

A Hand Reaching Out

masjid

When Ben and I arrived to jummah prayer service at Masjid Al-Muslimiin, we were immediately welcomed by women of all ages. A teenage girl approached asking what Ben’s name was and then helped me with my headscarf. As I looked around the community gathered in the courtyard, I was speechless that there was a whole community of faith who gathered right off the busy street of Garners Ferry in Columbia on Friday afternoons whom I had never encountered. How many times had I passed the sign and not wondered about this community?

And as we gathered in the small room designated for the women sitting on the red-carpeted ground, I was overwhelmed by the sense of community that was palpable in the body heat of the women and children gathered. I resisted the urge to keep Ben close and let him wander through the sea of arms and legs just as the children for whom this was their faith family were doing. He tried to follow another little boy out of the door, but before he escaped, a hand reached out to stop him. It was a hand of an elderly woman in a burka and as he turned to look into her face, her smile spread across her face. She passed him a lamb stuffed animal to play with while whispering to him in Arabic. He sat beside her mesmerized and I stopped and watched as I held back tears.

We insist on so many boundaries and barriers in our American culture. We insist and protect our privacy, our right to free speech, our right to worship or not worship, our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are missing so much life-giving, life-affirming love that comes from sitting together and reaching a hand out across those boundaries and barriers. Thanks be to God for this community of faith for their courage in inviting us, outsiders, into their community of faith for truly this is divine, mysterious, transformative, radical hospitality.

“I’ll Keep Getting Stronger”

I know some of you were left nursing reopened wounds in light of the presidential results and the discussions and rhetoric that has followed. I certainly was knocked off balance, but sometimes you’re watching your one-year old dance to a Sesame Street song and you recommit yourself to the work of reconciliation that you have been called to do.

“I’m never going to give up…I’ll keep getting stronger.”