On Choices, Belhar, and Child Protection Policies
Tonight was an historic night for the Presbyterian Church (USA). Maybe you read about it. For the first time, we passed a denomination-wide Child/Youth/Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy (CYVAPP). You thought I was going to bring up The Belhar Confession, didn’t you? Don’t worry. I’ll get there. This policy is the first of its kind in our denomination. Some Presbyteries had a policy. Some individual churches had a policy. But there was nothing uniform. The closest we came was a prescription from the denomination that we should all have something, and that didn’t happen until the 221st General Assembly two years ago . . . and it didn’t go into effect until one year ago. But I’m getting you bogged down into Presbyterian polity, and that’s not what you signed up for, is it?
So why the change? Why did we FINALLY pass a uniform policy instead of leaving it up to individual congregations? A survivor shared his story. Sadly, stories will always be more persuasive than statistics. It’s easy to ignore a statistic, but it’s hard to ignore the face in front of you. The Presbyterian Church is blessed to have Kris Schondelmeyer, who was sexually abused by a chaperone at a youth retreat. We are blessed that Kris didn’t leave the church; that he became a Presbyterian pastor; that he didn’t give up on us; that he sued the church to make us listen. Yes, we are blessed that he sued us, the church he loves so much. Kris’s courage in sharing his story has changed our denomination forever, for the better, for good.
So let’s return to Belhar for a moment. This Confession was written in South Africa as a response to Apartheid. For more historical context, turn to Jack Rogers. This is the first addition to the Presbyterian Book of Confessions (one of our governing documents) that comes from South of the Equator. We rejoiced in its passing with songs and cheers and plenty of ugly cries. As a denomination, we took a HUGE stance on racial justice. I’d like to highlight one section of Belhar in particular (gendered language changes are my own):
"4. We believe • that God has revealed [God] as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people; • that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged • that God calls the church to follow [God] in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry; • that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind; • that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly; • that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering; • that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right; • that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; • that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others."
Do you see the connection? Do you see how the Holy Spirit worked her magic tonight to bring these two pieces of “business” together? Following the unanimous? (it was hard to tell on the live stream, but I don’t think I heard a no) passage of the CYVAPP, Retiring Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons issued a public apology to Kris Schondelmeyer, stating that it was time to live out the Belhar Confession. There was not a dry eye in the room or in the Twittersphere.
So why am I talking about this? Why am I choosing to focus on this for the second entry of what I promised would be a queer-focused blog? We’ll delve into this another time, but for now, I need you to understand what I believe about sexuality: some folks are born gay; some folks are born straight; and most of us float somewhere in the middle. I’m one of those lucky middle folks. The beauty of bisexuality (as I see it anyway) is that I get to choose hearts, not parts. That’s right. I get to choose. I said it. I was not born gay. I chose to be in a relationship with a woman for six and a half years. I could have chosen to be with a man, but I didn’t because that didn’t feel safe to me. I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse, and until now, I’ve never told my story. But if I learned anything tonight, it is that my voice not only matters but is needed.
My first memory of my dad touching me happened when I was in second grade. I don’t know if it happened before then. My last memory of him acting inappropriately was when I was in seventh grade. Shortly thereafter, I made the decision to never see him again, and aside from a few family events, I haven’t for almost 15 years. I never shared my story with anyone (aside from a few close friends) because I didn’t think anyone would believe me.
A year or so after I stopped seeing my dad, he started looking into becoming a pastor for the Disciples of Christ Church. I was sickened by the thought of him having access to youth, to children. I called him. I told him in no uncertain terms that if he pursued a career in the ministry that I would call every church he applied to, every committee he interviewed with, and I would tell them exactly what he did to me. I told him I had stayed silent. I hadn’t ruined any of his relationships with his family (in fact, I gave up my own relationships with them as a result – people I miss dearly). But all of that would change if he pursued this career (I refuse to say “calling” because I will never believe he was called to ministry). He ended his pursuit.
Here’s the thing: I have no proof. There was never a criminal investigation or inquiry. Nothing would ever show up on his background check. There would have been no reason for a church to believe me. I knew that, but I prayed that he didn’t.
Tonight, the Presbyterian Church chose to recognize the voices of those suffering from racial injustice, from any injustice. Tonight, the Presbyterian Church chose to protect our most vulnerable. Over the past few years, Kris Schondelmeyer chose to share his story. Tonight, I choose to tell mine.
I am a survivor of child sexual abuse.
My abuser was my father.
I am a child of God, my beloved Mother and Creator.
I believe “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”
I believe that my story is important.
I believe that as survivors, we must find ways to heal and speak out; to tell our stories so that others feel less alone; and so that the institutions around us make appropriate changes to make sure this never happens again.