I believe you
“I believe you.” Like a sound clip playing on a loop, those words kept repeating over and over in my mind. “I believe you.” They were a declaration and a promise all rolled into one. I hoped that, for this day, they had been enough. Enough to know that here, her story could be told and re-told as many times as she needed to tell it. Enough to bring at least a glimmer of hope to a troubled heart.
I stood at my office window looking out on the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University. It was a tranquil sight, a contradiction to my own thoughts and feelings. Lights were shining through the windows. The sky was heavy with another snowfall, but the clouds were beautiful, filled with the colors of twilight. The campanile started to chime the quarter hour, a sign of order, background music to the cadence that was in my heart. “I believe you. I believe you.”
I closed my eyes and shifted my thoughts. As I breathed in, I uttered the name “Jesus.” As I breathed out, I uttered the word “mercy.” Jesus. Mercy. Jesus. Mercy.
I was focused on the young woman who had just left my office. She was the fifth woman that semester to tell me her story, a story of fear, a story of sexual violence from childhood that had remained secreted, untold prior to that afternoon.
Until the campanile chimed again 15 minutes later, I held her in my prayers, seeking God’s mercy for her life.
In the 24 years that I have been a pastor, I have heard over and over the real-life experiences of words attributed to Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” I have heard again and again the agony of bearing the secrets and the scars of sexual violence.
It is a sacred privilege to be asked to hold that which is too heavy to continue to hold alone.
As I write these words, I am mindful of those who will read them. I am aware that for some, these words will reflect personal experiences, and perhaps trigger unwelcome memories and feelings. Because of this, I write prayerfully and with a deep sense of compassion and care.
I am equally aware that for others, considering how to walk with those who have experienced sexual violence is unfamiliar territory. What shall we say to such things?
God is calling
Yet, I am convinced that God is calling us to create places where the silence is broken, become communities where care is incarnated in word and deed and develop rituals that facilitate new strides on the journey toward wholeness.
As women have shared their unique stories with me, common threads have emerged. One of the most significant is silence within faith communities. The women who have trusted me with their stories have said that they have never heard the words “rape,” “sexual assault,” “sexual violence” or “sexual abuse” within their churches. Not in prayers or Bible studies. Not in sermons or programs. Not in resources provided.
I know that I was unaware that the Bible contains stories of sexual violence until I was in college. As a child and youth, I was an active church member. I went to adult Bible studies when there were none available for young people. Weeks of my summers were spent at Bible camp, but I have no recollection of the stories of Tamar and Dinah prior to studying them in a religion class in college. I learned about David and the implications of his actions toward Bathsheba on his kingship, life and legacy. But Bathsheba–her trauma, her story–that somehow got lost.
Untold stories. Unuttered words. Silence.
Break the silence
But I believe that as people of faith we are being called to break the silence. We are being called to create places where the agony of untold stories can be loosed, places where the words “I believe you” can bring hope to troubled hearts.
Prayers of the people within worship can name sexual violence. Bible studies can explore the experiences of biblical women–fully and completely, even when those stories make us uncomfortable. Preaching can give voice to those whose stories include sexual violence, and we can be intentional about providing resources to both prevent sexual violence and respond to it.
In such ways, we create places where individual silence can be broken by breaking our communal silence.
Nearly every time I mention sexual violence in a sermon–even when only among a list of the manifestations of our brokenness–I receive an email from another person that reads something like this: “I heard your sermon. There’s some stuff that’s happened to me in my life. Can I talk to you?”
I respond with “Absolutely,” and together in sacred space, the words “I believe you” help to break the silence.
A second common thread among stories is the fear of disbelief woven through complex and intermingled feelings. Powerlessness. Anger. Isolation. Abandonment. Guilt. Shame. Uncleanness.
The agony of untold stories is born because these feelings hang like an unwanted mantel around the shoulders, and the risk of disbelief is simply too great to endure. Those who have experienced sexual violence do not expect to hear, “I believe you.” Instead, the experience tears so deeply into the fabric of selfhood that one expects to be discounted or discredited.
The Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serves as the ELCA university pastor at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind. She values the power of story and believes that everyone’s story matters.
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