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

Even worse than a lack of knowledge among leadership is that perpetrators often exist within the church, their violence and damage unchecked and even covered up.

Oliver said, “I had a woman call me – I thought she was calling to check on me and see how I was – but she called to tell me her own story, about a pastor. Someone [else] told me a story. She was invited out to another church to preach, and was raped by the pastor who had invited her. When the third person, and fourth person, and the fifth time you hear these stories … I’m like okay. Something is going on here.”

After more than three months of physical rehab, Oliver overcame her paralysis and learned to walk again. She testified in court against her attacker, who was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

For all their silences and inadequacies, many Black faith centers are adept at serving their communities and fostering communal solutions and cooperation. Both Davis and Oliver assert that Black faith centers have also made great strides toward addressing domestic violence, with permanent ministries and pastor trainings becoming more common.

“We’re better in the Black church at caring for people,” Davis explained. “But we’re not as good at having a model of pastoral care for people who have been sexually abused. We’re not having clergy exposed to the education that they need to understand these dynamics.”

Some outside the faith community recognize this as well, including Sherelle Hessell-Gordon, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

“The Word says faith without works is dead,” she said. “There has to be fruit, there has to be action, there has to be community … there has to be active justice,” she said. “The rhetoric of ‘It’ll get better by and by’ – nah. That’s just spirituals to move our souls. When you leave that room, you’re still carrying that cross.”

Oliver, now a full-time seminary student, said, “I’m a rape survivor, but I’m also a gender-based violence survivor, and it took the violence for me to really reckon with the rape,” she acknowledged. “In telling my story … I started to realize how many horror stories are in church.”

NEXT WEEK: Breaking the silence.

(The project was made possible by a grant from the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.)