A reflection from Rev. Ruth N. Marston-Bihl
“Can I have a hug?” one of our little ones asks me after she rushes up to me. I offer an arm and we lean into one another. “Thanks!” she exclaims and dashes off to the next church member, the next side-hug.
Every child in our congregation gets trained in Safe Sanctuaries. We don’t just train our adults what behaviors are inappropriate, we teach our children what to expect. We teach them consent, we teach them autonomy, and we teach them authority over their own bodies.
One time, I was visiting a church member’s house and the kids were playing sardines. One realized that it was too small of a hiding place, told another child, “You don’t get to come into my personal space!” she declared. “I am the one who gets to say yes or no and I said no!” All the kids came to me to ask for adjudication and I explained that she was right; she gets to define what’s safe and comfortable. We invest in the children, because we know how soon harassment can start, and we want to give them the best tools we can for them to protect themselves.
On another Sunday at church, I heard the exclamation, “You didn’t ask her for permission first!” The child looked up to an adult male church member after he gave me a big hug, without asking. We also start with children, because there is no one quite so invested in rules as eight-year-olds. I was so proud of her standing up for me and I thanked her for making sure that I was okay. I pray that she keeps her audacity when she becomes a teenager and stands up for her peers when they experience assault and harassment.
I wish that ending sexual harassment and assault was as simple as an eight-year-old’s watchful eye, and her cheerful enforcement of new norms. This is one of the threads of oppression in the weave of our culture that we know walks into our church doors every day. Even though I haven’t talked to every woman about this, I know that every single woman in our congregation has experienced harassment and assault at least once and my hearts is heavy with the spoken and silent admissions. The whole church is committed to transforming the world, even if that means we can’t assume that all hugs are wanted, that all jokes are funny, and that all people have the same access to power. I know that churches as an institution have silenced women, ignored complaints, and even advocated for the abusers. The culture of abuse and harassment has penetrated our sacred space. I know it will take time to undo the chains that bind us to abuse, instead of the freedom found in Christian love.
Yet isn’t that the point of Christian life together? To give our children the hope of a better way to be, to recognize when we have done wrong, and by God’s grace to live out a transformed, generous community? We here at FUMCOLY know we’re not in the kingdom of equality yet, but we’re striving to get there, and we support all the voices of accountability that will help us get there.