Some faith leaders victimize the survivors

Jazelle Hunt | 2/20/2015, 11:55 a.m.
Simone Oliver had always been called, as they say in the religious community. She was active in the Baptist church ...
Left photo: Minister and full-time seminary student Simone Oliver turned her ministry to women and sexual assault in the church after being attacked by a fellow member of the clergy. Right photo: Retired pastor and survivor, Sharon Ellis Davis now teaches seminary classes on race, gender, class, and sexual assault and abuse. Photo courtesy of Simone Oliver and Sharon Ellis Davis

Oliver was stabbed mostly in her abdomen and back, damaging her spinal cord and liver. Her former co-pastor was arrested walking down the street covered in her blood, still holding his hunting knife.

Survivors need more than prayer

Sharon Ellis Davis, a former criminalist in the Chicago Police Department and retired pastor, knows a bit about crime from more than one perspective.

“I was married to a police officer, and there was a domestic abuse issue and sexual abuse. It was dismissed all the time. It was a matter of, ‘You all stop,’ or ‘Don’t be so bad,’ or ‘It’ll be okay.’ But never ‘I hear you, I understand you, I believe you.’ Even if [the department] knew the abuser was guilty, there was that code where you don’t rat on other police officers,” she said.

So she channeled her frustration into something useful. She successfully lobbied for an internal domestic violence advocate, a civilian who would support and speak for domestic violence victims in police officers’ homes and became a full-time police chaplain.

But in Davis’ own church experience – first in the Pentecostal church as a child, then in the United Church of Christ as an adult – she saw parallels to the way she was treated by the police department.

“The church was nice to me, but they didn’t know what to do with me,” she said. “I need more than prayer, I need more than a hug. In fact, sometimes [survivors] don’t even want to be touched. I need more than a deliverance service, I need more than a Band-Aid on what forgiveness might look like.

“The two very important institutions that I was involved with – the church and the criminal justice system – both in the time that I needed them, failed me. Now they didn’t know they did, because they were not conscious of it.”

Davis feels that lack of consciousness grew from the problematic messages about women coming from the pulpit. For example she points out the Biblical stories that are emphasized, such as the false rape accusation of Joseph, and the ones that are largely ignored, such as the actual rapes of Dinah and Tamar as well as David’s coercion of Bathsheba.

To her, they all sent the message that the burden of sexual trauma is not welcome in the sanctuary.

“The church has not become the safe place it needs to be that would give some women in church permission to disclose,” Davis said. “The consequences of not having church as a safe place … you can kill the souls of the people that are there. People can lose their faith.”

Sex and sexuality remain taboo in many faith communities.

“How is it that the church is going to really be advocates for victims of rape in the Black church when even having normal conversations of sexuality can’t happen? How can we talk about patho-sexuality if we haven’t talked about normal sexuality?” she asked. “We’re still stuck in many way on the thou-shalt-nots. We spend more time judging the behavior than helping someone understand this was not their fault.”