I work for a University. It’s not hard to figure out which one; I draw very little attention to where I work, because, DUH, public forum. I like where I work. It’s a very different world from where I grew up, and how I grew up; it’s a very different way of functioning from what I’m used to, and I’m very grateful that I have the opportunity to be here. It’s time for our Annual Title IX Training, and I have a few things to get out of my system…
I grew up in a small town (no stoplights!), and I graduated from a small, private school (in a class of 6 people, I was the valedictorian!). When I went to college, I went to my third- or fourth-string pick of a Bible college in Florissant, Missouri, not too far from where I’m currently employed.
I still don’t know why I wound up there. Honestly, it was down to the wire to make a college decision, and my choice of a school in Tennessee was firmly shot down, as was my choice of a school in Webster Groves, so here I was, in this tiny, little Bible college at 17, feeling out of place and completely on my own.
I grew up in a charismatic church, and was partially sold on my Bible college by a man who told me the school was “non-denominational.” This was, in fact, technically true…but not practically true. Sure, there wasn’t a governing body or a synod, but the Bible college was full of people from what’s called the Independent Christian Church, which I was unfamiliar with. The basic theology was the same amongst 70-80% of my peers and professors, which was fine at first, but the longer I was there, the more it rankled me. Even as I went on to represent the school for over 3 years in various events and committees, the cracks in the foundation became wide-spread faults, and by the time my academic career ended with the school, I was in counseling as a devastated, spiritually-void trainwreck.
I was a shell of who I’d been just 4 years earlier.
As a freshman, I’d been excited to learn new things, and try out new clubs, meet new friends, and start a life outside of Franklin County. I sang, I taught Sunday School, I received decent grades, and even though I lost 1 scholarship my freshman year, I made up for it with 4 different scholarships over the next 3 years. I pushed myself harder than I should have; I got sick more often than I should have. I made terrible financial decisions, and I brought a lot–A LOT–of hard times upon myself…but not all them came by my own hand.
I loved (love) Jesus, and I wanted to serve Him. I wanted to reach out to people, to work with teenagers and junior-highers, and to eventually parlay that into a writing career. I didn’t really have a career trajectory, but I knew I wanted to work in the public speaking circuit. More than anything I knew I wanted to be a wife and a mother, which really played to the whole, “get your MRS. Degree” stereotype that every woman heard as she went through Bible college. None of us, of course, could ever hope to make it in ministry without a husband, didn’t you know that?
So, I got a boyfriend.
That was a mistake.
Between the emotional intensity of being 18-19, the lack of maturity, and the understanding that as a woman, I was automatically an inferior being, I was not prepared for the level of temptation that came with autonomous free time and a boyfriend at that age. I made some bad decisions. When I tried to rectify those decisions, my right to decide was taken away from me, and after that point, I knew God didn’t want me anymore.
I didn’t want me, either.
Wouldn’t you think that in a Bible college, a woman would have solace in knowing there would be someone she could identify with? Someone she could talk to, someone she could pray with? Doesn’t God have forgiveness and healing for all of us, not just for men? Nope.
I had no one, and I was nothing.
Although I never came forward with my story, I knew of 2 other girls that had similar situations happen with a guy. One actually had the bravery to come forward, and the shame she endured from leadership is TEXTBOOK for what NOT to do. Since my college years at that “fine” establishment, I know of a professor who was terminated because he dared to speak up about the inappropriateness and lack of proper reporting amongst students and faculty, and has basically been blacklisted because of his willingness to take on the topic. I know of at least 10 other people, men and women, who have endured sexual inappropriateness and harassment at this same institution, yet the school itself refuses to acknowledge any incorrect behaviors, responses, or situations that have repeatedly been reported to them, and has in fact taken great pains to silence them. Taking the time-tested path to “sweep things under the rug” seems to be their modus operandi; I’m assuming their Bible takes Luke 8:17 and chucks it right out the window.
There is something to be said for the simple acknowledgement that a wrong has occurred. There is something to be said for the basic acceptance that “bad things have happened,” and “we failed to respond, we failed to acknowledge, and we failed to provide a place of healing in an institution based on the very grace of a loving God.”
The level of sexual harassment I endured on campus over the course of 4 years would not be tolerated today. I know this, because I’m current on my Annual Title IX Training (which, at last check, my alma mater does not require…but they sure do appreciate those government dollars for student loans and grants, don’t they?). It was common for women to be shamed for ANY kind of dress, thought or words deemed to be sexual, but for the guys? It was practically honored. The girls were actually subjected to an entire evening of “well, we’ve heard rumors of sexual activity,” that was nothing more than an attempt to get us to rat out our friends, and an overwhelming reminder that impure thoughts and behaviors meant that we were unlovable and terrible human beings. We were shamed for even THINKING about sex, and if we’d already had it?!? OMG, we may as well surrender any thoughts, hopes, or dreams we could ever have, because we were “Damaged Goods.” It was purity at the cost of hope, and more than a few of us lost both.
So much for being a “place of healing.”
I’ve been working on a series of blogs this summer about the “Pesky Umbrella Graphic” which firmly places women at the bottom of the totem pole of the Good Christian Family. My goal is to redefine this graphic, and place men and women in the roles God designed. I have one blog left to write, about the Role of a Woman in the Church, and it’s been simmering. I believe this blog had to come first–I had to get this out of my system, because for me, my role as a woman was never so undermined as it was over the course of 4 years in Bible college. It took 4 years to wreck who I was as a person, as a Christian, and as a woman; it took 13 years to heal, to hope, and to have a clearer understanding that as a woman, Jesus loves me, He understands me, and He sees me as relevant, with all of my hormones, emotions, and crazy detours that paint anything but the “perfect” Christian life.
My Annual Title IX Training is often referred to (by me) as our Annual “Don’t Be a Terrible Human Being” Training. I think we take it for granted that people understand that sexual inappropriateness of any kind is wrong, but we have people in national leadership and in Christian leadership that consistently prove us to be incorrect. People don’t understand inappropriate sexual behavior. Now, I could launch a diatribe on how the media takes a turn on this; how the rampant rise and access to pornography takes a turn on this, and how being scientifically reduced to molecular accidents takes a turn on this, but that’s an entirely other conversation. The reality is that EVERYONE needs annual training on abuse, discrimination, sexual inappropriateness and how to report it, how to respond to it, and how to understand that IT’S NOT OKAY.
It’s not okay for “no” to mean anything other than, “no.”
It’s not okay to make the “joke” or the inference.
It’s not okay to make women feel inferior. It’s not okay to discriminate against anyone, and it’s not okay to make someone feel differently or to be robbed of opportunities because of their gender, religion, skin color, race, or orientation.
Your (My) Christianity does not give you a “Get out of Jail Free” or a “Bypass” card. Your (MY) Christianity does not give you the right to play judge or jury to that person who comes to you, or to that person that is reporting an issue.
Your (MY) Christianity requires that you treat people with honor, integrity, and respect. ALLLLLL of these verses tell us how to treat people. NONE of these verses tell us to shame someone or to throw a blanket over bad things and act like they didn’t happen.
Above all, your (MY) Christianity tells us that our Father is close to the brokenhearted…that He is a strong tower, that He is a refuge, and that HE LOVES US.
For me, Bible college should have been a place of spiritual growth and encouragement. Instead, it became a place of private shame and hopelessness, and to be honest, I do not look back on a most of those years with fondness (although I’m grateful for the relationships with friends that I still maintain). Bible college was where I learned how to pretend that everything was fine, even as it was falling apart. It was where I learned to speak fluent “Christianese,” and where I learned that Jesus was not big enough to love me through my darkest days.
In the years that followed, I went through an intensive breaking process of learning to be very, very real in my relationship with God . It’s an ongoing process, and one I think I’ll always work on. I also went through a healing process that involved counseling (the first of several encounters with counseling that I’ve been through) with a pastor who was AMAZING. He restored my faith in church leadership and in the compassion of Jesus, and I’ll never forget him. I was directed to him by a professor at my Bible college, who was overseeing an internship that ended halfway through–it almost cost me my college degree, but that’s another story. Either way, between that professor and that pastor, they saved my life physically and spiritually, and they became the light at the end of the Bible college tunnel. They had the concept RIGHT–Biblical counsel and healing, and GRACE over shame–and they were a blessing. I’m still grateful. They showed me there could be good, kind men in Christian leadership, and I needed that hope restored. T
I know this is a lot; I know I’ve written a lot more than I intended, but the Annual Title IX Training has “bothered” me for the past 7 years that I’ve been required to take it. Where was this training when I was in college? Would it have saved me, or saved the 10 or more other people that I know of? Would it have saved our professor, who gave up his career in order to speak a truth that no one wanted to listen to? Would it have saved the others who never told their stories?
I don’t know.
I’m not upset that I “have” to take this training. I’m not upset that we’re creating a Culture of Compliance over a Climate of Fear or a Climate of Shame or a Culture of Arrogant Ignorance. The more Christians that stop thinking they’re above all of this stuff, and instead choose to engage the fact that we’re all sinners, we all struggle, and we all need grace, the less stories we’ll hear about places like Willow Creek, or the Catholic Church issues (which could be in ANY church), or whatever. The second we think we’re immune is the second we fall…it’s time that we all acknowledge our weaknesses, that we train to be aware of situations, and that we as Christians provide a place of healing and of hope, particularly in our areas of educational institutions for children and adults of all ages.
***Edit: I’ve had a few remarks on my Facebook post on this blog, and I just want to say that college was a long, long, LOOOOOONNNNNNG time ago. What I thought was the hardest time in my life was a cakewalk compared to losing my daughter, so I’m looking back at those experiences through completely different lenses. In fact, the breaking/building process I went through after college laid the grounds for a solid foundation for that very journey. It was an entirely different breaking/building process, but the foundation was tried and true. 🙂 My entire point in bringing up those years is to draw attention to the lack of care and the lack of change that’s been seen in places of so-called Christian education. NOTHING has changed–NOTHING. That’s wrong. Secular universities like the one I am employed by have moved farther and higher than religious institutions, and that boggles my mind. I’m not a broken or hurting college kid, anymore. I’m a grown woman, I know who I am in Christ, and I BELIEVE with all of my heart that the Church is failing in the areas of training their leadership to guard their sheep. I will definitely admit to being angry…Every time another story comes across my Facebook page where another person in ministry has hurt or abused someone, I’m reminded of how far we have to go in the journey to educate Church leadership, to educate those in places of Christian education, and to educate ourselves how to be wise and to be aware…I’m reminded that shame never helped a soul, and that the basis of our very faith is gentleness, respect, and love. We have a long, long way to go…and we are all–not just me, and not just you–responsible to make the necessary changes.