I’m writing this post on a Wednesday morning – the Wednesday after the tragic shooting in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Like all of us, I suspect, I’m overwhelmed with emotion in hearing this story. I’m hurt and angry and despairing and fully aware that my feelings are a single teardrop in the ocean of what the people of Uvalde must be swimming in today. And that isn’t even the reason I sat down to write this morning. I’m not ignoring it or anything. I’ll be preaching about Uvalde and Buffalo on June 12. But what I have a hard time getting my head around in this moment is that while we’re finding our way through these tragedies, I got up this morning planning to write about a completely different tragedy.
[There was about a 10 minute pause and a walk around the building between writing that last paragraph and this next one.]
This week news broke about how the Southern Baptist Convention as a denomination has been covering up and suppressing victims of sexual abuse by clergy for decades. There’s no other word for this: it is evil. It’s evil that people were abused by the very ministers who were supposed to be the ones to help and guide and heal their congregations. It’s evil that the people who were abused were dealt the additional evil of being ignored, repressed, silenced, and attacked for bravely coming forward with their stories of unimaginable pain. It would have been evil had the SBC done nothing in response, but it’s an even greater sin that they actively worked to protect abusers and the denomination over men and women, girls and boys who were abused. It is evil.
Most folks in our church know that First Baptist Church of Oak Ridge is not really involved in the SBC. We give a nominal amount in our elective mission giving to support missionaries and programs, but I have just proposed to leadership to discontinue what little giving we do make. If you’re curious, FBC OR gives the vast majority of our missions funding, support, and shared ministry to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and has for decades. But this post isn’t really about denominational politics.
It’s about people.
It’s people that have had their lives ruined because of clergy who use their position and influence to get what they want. It’s people who live with trauma and memories that will remain for the rest of their lives. It’s people who were courageous enough to tell the truth even though it was embarrassing, frightening, and painful to do so and it’s people who watched their faith community turn their collective backs on them. These people were harmed, betrayed, and abandoned. No matter where that happens, it’s a tragedy. When it happens in church, where people are supposed to matter, it’s abhorrent.
I wanted to write this post for several reasons. One of which is just that this grieves me, like I know it does all of us. Another is that as a faith community, as Christians, and as Baptists, we ought to be able to name an evil that has come up in our midst. The last reason I want to share is what our church, First Baptist Church of Oak Ridge, is doing to ensure that abusers can’t succeed here.
FBC OR has for years now required that all persons working with anyone under the age of 18 to have a criminal background check performed before working with them. We have policies in place to ensure that no adult, not even staff or ministers, are ever alone with children and teens. Our policy is that two adults, not in the same household, are present with children at all times while at church events. That’s why we ask for so many volunteers! We need at least two in every room to ensure the safety and flourishing of our children. Back in the first Saturday in April, we had a training with our volunteers that detailed how to spot potential abusers and what to do to report anything we think would be inappropriate. We have not put these policies in place because we’ve had an incident. On the contrary! We’ve practiced these policies for years to ensure that we never have an incident, because reacting after something has happened is too late! Because this is about people.
I’ve been reading about people within the SBC who are outraged and horrified and are leading their organization through lament, repentance, and reckoning with their sins. It’s good to do so. But for me this is a sobering call for our church to live up to our policies and to understand why this is so important. Because it’s about people. We are ensuring that our ministry in sharing the love of Jesus is not corrupted or thwarted by evil trying to find a foothold. We are ensuring that the people who come here are not being taken advantage of. We are ensuring that the young people we invite to attend programs and classes are always safe and secure while they are with us. Because they matter and they are worth the work.
Finally, I want to ask you a favor. Would you pray with me for the brave women and men who came forward with their stories? Pray for their mental health, for their families, for the emotional work it has taken and the work that they will face for being so brave. Pray that their voices would be heard and that their cries for justice will not fade away. Pray for these people who are helping to ensure that the evil that happened to them doesn’t happen to anyone else.