Only Ezekiel 16:5—6, the graphic description of an exposed infant, approaches anywhere near it: “No eye looked on you with pity … you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised … then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood.”
Defiled. Polluted. Castoff. Exposed. Abhorred. And, most dreadful of all: defenseless.
This is what it feels like to be raped.
I was 21 years old, barely five months after returning to the Christian faith. My rapist lived in the parsonage. He was young, serving as a youth pastor while attending a nearby seminary. I’d come roaring back to the faith after a brief dalliance with atheism and agnosticism. My enthusiasm quickly secured me a position on the leadership team for the youth group, within close working conditions of the youth pastor, although I considered him to be one of my own pastors.
Before long, I began to notice strange, questionable behaviors. Phone calls, flirtations, casual references to meeting with married women in the middle of the night. At first, I thought my perception unreliable — after all, he was the youth pastor, the seminarian. And I? A heathen whose discernment could hardly be trusted. But as the weeks wore on, I grew more confident in my assessment.
So one evening as we carpooled to a youth leadership meeting, I confronted him about his relationships with two married women in our church — mothers of children in the youth group. I mentioned all I had witnessed and brought up his confessions of regular midnight meetings with one of the women whenever her husband was away on business. His protestations of innocence were no match for the firmness of my judgment, and he finally admitted that both women were “in love” with him. He promised to break off the relationships if I would keep quiet.
A week later, the pastor showed up at my doorstep in the middle of the night, ostensibly to escape the incessant phone calls of one of the women. Before I knew it, he was in my apartment, behind me, on top of me. Immobilized, I wept.
Why did I let him in? Why did I not fight harder? Why did I just lie there, crying like that?
Look at what you’ve done now. This is your fault, you know.
He said as much himself, a week later, when he called to “apologize” and to say, “You were just too much of a temptation for me.” He had argued that sexual sins were not as significant as other sins, because sexual temptation came “from outside of him” and not from within his character.
The most difficult part was not the rape, that act of unspeakable violation. It was, and always has been, the horror of living in a body that has been raped. However much I believed in my mind that I was responsible for what had happened, my body knew better. In the months (and years) following the attack, I cringed in fear in the presence of any man — even my own father. One night, when he picked me up from work to take me to dinner, I skulked as far as I could from him against the car door. I hoped he wouldn’t notice me white-knuckling the door handle.
For years after, I withdrew from any touch — even the casual, familiar embrace of close family members. Every time I entered a church, I would break out in a cold sweat, my heart palpitating so rapidly I feared a heart attack.
What was happening to me?
I could not understand it. However I tried to rationalize, to tell myself I was safe at church, safe with men I trusted, my body would not rest in the assurances.
I feared I was losing my mind, until I had a conversation with my counseling professor. “Halee, this is so normal it has a name: post-traumatic stress disorder.” Knowing that I was not crazy gave me a foundation upon which to get well. Good friends, too, dug deep and challenged me to name that which had happened to me. “Halee, what happened to you was rape, and until you admit that, you will never be well.” And I wanted to be well.
We sometimes think that the choice of life and death is at the beginning of our walk with God, but this isn’t so. The task of the Christian life is to keep choosing life, over and over. There were times when the way of the grave seemed preferable to the harsh light of truth, times when the darkness, like a tempest, threatened to engulf me. But I wanted to live, so I kept choosing life, sometimes daily. Again, in Ezekiel 16, God said, “Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, ‘Live!’ ” So I did.
I’d always skeptically wondered why victims of sexual assault blame themselves. But in the days following the attack, I took full responsibility for it. No longer do I wonder. It’s because the shoulds, the woulds, and the what-ifs are persuasive illusions that trick you into believing that if you’d just done it all differently, the outcome would have been different. It’s psychologically easier to bear false guilt than to bear powerless vulnerability. As long as you are responsible, you are in control.
And in my case, there was a third reason. It was easier for me to bear responsibility than it was to bear the truth: that a person of the clergy — a person I believed was entrusted by God to shepherd others — was capable of so great a violation and crime.
My story — and the stories of countless others who have been the victims of sexual assault perpetrated by pastors — is a story of how fairy tales have failed us. “The Brothers Grimm” taught us that good and evil are visibly discernible. Good is always beautiful, and evil (excepting Snow White’s Evil Queen) is always ugly; heroines are flawless, while villains are deformed and grotesque. But in the real world, good and evil are not so nearly apparent as we might hope.
As Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood, “The line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” Yet we are reluctant to admit that monsters do not look as they do in our fairy tales and myths; they can look like us, like our pastors, the very people we believe God has entrusted to guide us. The world would seem safer and more controllable if beasts were sequestered to the Forbidden Forest, never lurking in our homes, our workplaces and our pulpits.
I wish this weren’t my story. With it, though, I hope to make all the good I can. My interest and vocational expertise in spiritual formation and leadership is not happenstance, nor did it arise out of mere intellectual curiosity. I write and teach on what it means for Christians, especially those in authority, to actually live and be like Jesus — through and through — so that maybe tomorrow, there will be fewer people with stories like mine.
The rape was the catalyst that changed the course of my life, and if this man had been the type of person he claimed to be, or if senior leadership had paid more attention to whom they let fill their pulpits, it never would have happened. My work is my way of fighting back, my way of beating back the darkness, now that I have strength.