Nearly three weeks ago, I sat in a conference room with a reporter, a photographer, and two women from Reading Berks Council of Churches (RBCC). I was being interviewed about my upcoming workshop to educate churches regarding sexual abuse survivors.
It was an opportunity I hadn't expected. I mean, who am I? I may have written my memoir and a Bible study for survivors, but I'm not known. Our nonprofit is still in it's infant stages. Yet, somehow this reporter from the local newspaper found this event - and me - interesting enough to write an article about.
The morning's questioning went really well. I have nothing to hide so I didn't mind answering whatever the reporter asked me. He was kind and affirming, which also encouraged me to speak more. Sometimes it's easier for me to stay guarded, even when I know the person is supposed to be on my side. As a survivor, I'm used to being told a person is trustworthy only to be misled and betrayed. But I decided to trust the women who invited me to have the workshop even more than the reporter who wanted to promote it.
As the conversation neared the end, I finally asked a big question on my mind.
"How many people have signed up so far?"
The workshop had been promoted by the RBCC for two months as a resource and tool for church leaders and volunteers. I had been posting about it on social media, encouraging my friends in the ministry to attend. In my heart I'd hoped there would be at least a dozen registered two week prior. In my head I would be surprised if there were five. The answer?...
Wait... what?... Three?!
I smiled calmly and said, "Oh.... I mean, I didn't expect a big turn-out. And we still have over two weeks."
Hearing that number out loud, I felt completely insignificant and unwanted. All those old demons speaking lies into my head about who I am and what my value is based on were pounding into my thoughts. I am a Nobody talking about a subject people don’t want to discuss.
I told my husband when I returned home that I didn't want to do the workshop anymore. I couldn't. What was I thinking? I was a fool for thinking this was how God wanted to use my story. I was delusional in thinking I could make a difference.
And then a still small voice, a Voice I was very familiar with, one I constantly craved for direction and guidance, reminded me what I already knew.
"Just one, Liria. You are to do this as if just one will listen."
And I remembered. That was the entire reason I began to tell my story two years ago, not even a year after the memories started resurfacing. I hadn't even been fully recovered from the pains of my past when I remember knowing I had to talk about my experience for just that one person who needed to hear it. I made the choice to risk so much for the opportunity to help just one move towards their healing.
Those thoughts came gently back, weaving their way through the lies, the shame, the fear. And I knew I was going to do this workshop regardless of how many showed up.
Four days before the workshop, three more signed up for a grand total of six.
Then the article was printed and I was on the front page of the Lifestyle section. As I walked through my church the next day, so many people stopped me to comment. They loved the article and were so proud of the work I was doing. I was encouraged and excited again for the opportunity to educated those within the church about sexual abuse survivors.
Within 36 hours, we went from six people to twenty-eight. That's a great turnout for something like this. I was beyond pleased and so was the rest of my team and the staff at the RBCC, especially when we thought it was church leaders and staff that were attending.
The workshop itself went really well. Aside from a few absolute statements I didn't intend to make (whoops), jumping ahead of myself on a slide, and a missed opportunity for a Q & A time, I felt really good about it. The feedback that evening confirmed that as well.
At the end of the event, some of us were discussing all the people who came out. There were abuse advocates, counselors, a worship leader, survivors, and a leader from Hope Rescue Mission.
And one pastor. Just one.
Our invitation was to church leaders yet so many others came instead of those leaders and I'm left to wonder: Where were they?! Where were the leaders who are examples to the church of what protecting the oppressed should look like? Where were the leaders who should be on the front lines of protecting the weak? Are they all so educated in seeing and speaking to sexual abuse survivors that they didn't need to listen to someone who's had experience in this?
It's heartbreaking, really. Victims of abuse are desperate to find safety, many coming to the Church thinking we'll find what we need there, but are being rejected, dismissed, and ignored. And what did we expect? Our leaders are too busy, too afraid, too prideful, or possibly too uninterested to see us. My heart hurt not simply for these leaders' missed opportunity to be better, but for all the abuse survivors in their congregations who need them to speak healing words.
Many of those attending the workshop came up to me afterwards and thanked me for educating them about such a difficult topic. Some shared their own painful experiences in the church and how they don't think anything will ever change. And a few told me they'd never return to church because of what a leader said to them when they disclosed their trauma.
I get it. I have been hurt repeatedly by Christians who thought they were saying the right thing, "speaking words in love," but all they did was heap on more shame and keep my mouth closed longer. I understand why survivors of abuse don't bother to attend church much less talk to their pastors about their most intimate pains.
We are told "community" over and over and over again, but this community is kept in the dark, overlooked and blatantly ignored in some places. What kind of community is that? Where the ones violated have to talk in whispers? That's "doing life together?" Finding abused pasts in common then being asked to wait to the side so others can be seen first?
Our leaders - as a community - are missing it. They are getting it wrong. They are commanded by the One they serve to chase after the oppressed and weak, to vindicate the victims, to speak up for the broken, but they are missing this. They are still missing us.
I love my own church, but I don't depend on them to boldly and publicly speak up for abuse survivors. I know steps are being taken to protect our children and I am so grateful for that, but in the meantime there are hundreds of people who have already been sexually abused and are sitting in our own congregation, hoping each week their pain will be acknowledged.
And what about the churches who are doing little to nothing to protect their children from predators? How are those abuse survivors surviving each week?... Or maybe they aren't.
It takes almost no effort for our church leaders to say the words 'sexual abuse' from the pulpit to make predators uncomfortable, yet they don’t. Maybe because it makes some of our church leaders uncomfortable. And maybe because some our church leaders are the predators.
It just takes one. One pastor to speak boldly against sexual abuse to make one predator uncomfortable enough to leave that church, to set one victim's path to healing in motion and change the trajectory of their life.
Maybe that one pastor who showed up at the workshop will take the next step to show up for survivors. Because it just takes one brave person to reach one broken one.
Liria Forsythe is the founder and president of Speak Truth Ministries. Her blogs are reflections of her experiences and struggles in the aftermath of her past abuse as well as how she chooses to thrive now.