Monica A. Coleman

[Ending Rape 4Ever]
The Black Church and Sexual Assault

Monica Coleman, pastor and founder of The Dinah Project, offers up healing words and a path to progress for church leaders and congregations who want to help rape survivors

by Lori S. Robinson, August 4, 2014

Comments
Monica A. Coleman

Monica A. Coleman

Your spiritual home should be a safe haven, a loving community and the ideal space for healing. Sometimes, that’s the case.

But for some survivors of rape or abuse, church is where their pain is minimized or ignored. For others, it’s where they are blamed for their victimization. For still others, it is where sexual violence actually happens.

It’s hard to believe, but pastors are rarely trained to handle the trauma of sexual assault. Of course, there are churches and clergy well prepared to help survivors heal and to deal with sexual violence and its ramifications with spiritual wisdom and compassion. Some churches are actually agents of change, working to transform society and end rape. Yet it's important to know that if your church isn’t that kind of place, it’s within your power to help change it. If you are seeking spiritual food for your healing journey, there exist churches where you can get it. In either case, Monica A. Coleman is uniquely qualified to guide you in the right direction.

Coleman is a rape survivor, an ordained A.M.E. minister, an associate professor at the Claremont School of Theology and the author of “The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence.” In 1997, she created a sexual assault ministry at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, in Nashville, Tenn.

Coleman recently spoke to Ebony.com about the Black church and sexual assault from a practical, frank and transformational perspective. Amen to that.
                                                                                                           ———————————————————————————————
EBONY: Your book and the sexual assault ministry you founded are both called The Dinah Project. What is the significance of this name?

Monica Coleman: The name Dinah comes from the story of Dinah. Genesis 3:4 tells the story of her rape. Her brothers had a response. Her father had a response. The rapist’s family had a response. But we don’t hear Dinah’s voice and we don’t know what Dinah wanted. And so it’s a way of saying we’re wanting to listen to and offer what Dinah might have needed.

EBONY: What did The Dinah Project ministry do?

MC: We did worship services around various themes. Awareness or healing or forgiveness were the three topics we did in rotation. We also did community education workshops where we worked with different clergy or different local agencies. And we held therapy groups at the church and partnered with the local rape crisis center to do that.

EBONY: How well do Black churches deal with sexual assault?

MC: I would say generally not well. Most churches of any ilk don’t deal with sexual assault very well. I think there are some things that are particular to Black churches that make it really challenging for us to know what the best responses, or even appropriate responses, are to the crisis of sexual violence, both in our churches and in the wider community.

EBONY: What’s different for Black churches?

MC: We have these stereotypes within our community around sexuality, many of which come out of slavery and Jim Crowism, that make us very wary. Black men so many times were falsely accused of raping white women. The myth that Black men are super viral, super sexual, or that Black women are Jezebels and overly sexual. We have a lot of emotional and historical baggage whenever there are any allegations of sexual assault. That is particular to the African-American community.

EBONY: How are Black churches different from other Black institutions when it comes to the issue of sexual assault?

MC: There’s a religious aspect or a spiritual aspect to what occurs in sexual assault that Black churches and Black faith traditions need to wrestle with that other Black institutions would not have to wrestle with as much. For example, many people feel like being raped means they’ve committed some sort of sin. And sometimes we teach ideas about sin that support that.

There’s a feeling for so many people when they go through the trauma of being raped of their life [being] threatened, like with an encounter with death. That’s also a spiritual issue.

And probably most obvious is the issue of forgiveness. That really is a religious issue that so few churches are equipped to deal with, but that a social service institution wouldn’t wrestle with, because [in churches] we have this Christian edict to forgive.

EBONY: How should Black churches deal with those spiritual issues?

MC: There are two really big things we can do. One is to just be aware of what we’re teaching. Most clergy are either preaching things you’ve heard before or preaching what seems to make sense based on some other aspects of your belief without filtering it through: How would this sound to somebody who’s had this kind of experience?

On the other side, just being willing to wrestle with and to have open conversations about what does forgiveness mean and how do you actually do this thing that’s really hard when you have horrible violence in your life. Not always giving easy answers to things that are really tough to do.

EBONY: How are Black churches addressing rape culture and what should they do about it?

MC: Western society in many ways is a rape culture and Black churches are a part of that society. So by default our churches are part of rape culture. Not that it doesn’t happen, but it would be unusual for a church to be talking about rape culture. One of the first things, if someone’s interested, is to do some research. A couple of Google searches in an hour of time can get one knowledgeable about the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our culture and about the many ways that our culture sends messages that devalue women’s worth.

So what can people do about it? Always hold to the belief, the remembrance, that we are made in the image of God. Humanity is made in the image of God. And part of what that means is equal respect for both genders. And then if you think about just even one small way in which that can be lived out at one’s church. It might be working with a teen group and helping them to learn more about gender roles or about teen dating violence. Or it can be something that’s relatively small. Buying a book for your church library. Showing a movie and talking about it with the youth group, the women’s group or the men’s ministry.

EBONY: One in six women in this country is the survivor of an attempted or completed rape. What should church members and church leaders do to meet the needs of survivors in their congregation?

MC: Whenever I share that statistic, I always remind people that it’s the most underreported violent crime in America. One in six is a conservative number. That’s the number of people who’ve reported. If you’ve got more than four to six women in your church, you have survivors in your church. So you always have to act like that. You always have to remember that. Men can be survivors, of course, as well. So, it’s not a women’s issue. It’s really important to remind people that it’s a community issue, that it affects everyone. There are violators in your church as well, most likely. You’ve got the whole spectrum in the church that’s in front of you. For church leaders, that means being bold and speaking out about sexual violence when it’s not a special occasion. There are a number of scriptures in the Bible where sexual violence occurs and we act like they’re not there as clergy. Including those in BIble study, including those in things we preach about, it’s an important way to say, “Hey, I’m aware about this. I care about this.”
 
It’s also important for church leaders to connect with other agencies in their community. People come to clergy with all types of challenges, but that doesn’t mean that we’re equipped to deal with all the challenges that come before us. And so it’s really helpful to know who the social workers are and the therapists and the rape crisis centers are in the community. People trust the clergy. You can say, “I know this person. I trust them and they can help you.” That increases the amount of healing that people can get. For people who are not church leaders but who are churchgoers, it can just be awareness that there are people around us in various states of brokenness, and that we need to be kind to each other and gentle with each other. A lot of times so much falls on survivors to be spokespeople for what are really difficult and painful experiences. But if it’s not your experience, then I think [you’re] well poised to say, “What could I do? This is not as painful for me. This is not going to rip me up inside.”

For those who have the energy and the drive and really the calling to do so, whatever ministry you work with, you can bring it up. You can fundraise. You can volunteer at organizations that are actively resisting sexual violence like a local rape crisis center. One thing I talk about that anyone can do is you can put the helpline numbers in bathrooms because that’s where someone’s not going to be afraid to write a number if they’re in the stall by themselves with a purse. But they’re not going to take a flyer out of the main vestibule where everyone walks by. That’s doing something. That means that one more or two more or however many more people might be able to find their way towards healing.

EBONY: When someone is disclosing that sexual abuse has recently happened or is currently happening within your spiritual community, what should people know and do?

MC: If you’re not in a leadership position, you should take it to your leadership. It depends on the age of the person, what the context might be, if someone’s in immediate harm–the actual response varies. Take it to a leader who you trust. Call a rape crisis line and they can give you really good advice about what to do. Think what does this person’s soul need. Connect them with others who might be able to help them. Earnestly pray.

And then I always say don’t say one of these three things. Don’t say, “What did you do to…” or “What were you wearing?” Never start a sentence implying that there’s some blame on the person who shared. Don’t say, “All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord.” I know it’s scripture, but it’s really unhelpful to hear for somebody when they’re deep in pain. And don’t say, “God has a plan and this is all part of God’s plan.” That’s also just a really painful thing to hear. Even if you believe them deep in your heart, just don’t say them when someone is sharing the depths of their pain and really reaching out.

EBONY: In the unfortunate incident of someone disclosing about thier rape and getting an unhelpful response, what then?

MC: This is such hard thing to say, but I really mean it. I would say keep telling someone until you get a compassionate response. I know it’s hard to do because I’ve been in that situation of getting a non-compassionate response. It took me another three months before I told somebody else [after I disclosed my rape]. But there are clergy out there who care. There are people in the world whose hearts are open and whose souls have been there and who will walk the journey with someone with compassion and with understanding.


EBONY: We have the examples of the Catholic church scandals [of priests sexually abusing children]. We have the example of Eddie Long [a Baptist bishop who settled lawsuits filed by five men who accused him of sexual abuse]. Of course, there are others whose names we don’t know. When you have clergy committing sexual assault, what should people know and do?

MC: The cases we hear about are small [in number] compared to all the ones that never make the news and don’t make the courtrooms. I would say then it’s important to look outside the church. I know it’s hard to do, but still it’s important to tell someone until someone believes you. I’ve found, again, those 800 numbers, the rape crisis centers, to be supportive places. When you first call it’s anonymous, so you don’t have to worry about: “What will they say? What if they know me? What will the repercussions be?” It’s a good first step to getting heard and to knowing the resources of the community to help you to think through what a next step might be.

It’s important to say there are the kind of violations that occur when a clergy person is sexually violating a young person, a minor. There are also the kind that occur when it’s an adult, someone who’s a parishioner, where there’s an abuse of power. I consider both of those under the rubric of sexual violence. In both cases it’s so bitterly painful. Not only is this person’s emotional well being and sexual well being deeply affected. But because the violation has occurred at the hands of someone who ostensibly represents God, the person’s relationship with God and faith community and church are also deeply damaged.

EBONY: How do you repair that?

MC: There are churches out there that forthrightly address sexual violence. I know a church in Virginia, Tennessee, California, in Georgia. You can get online and find some of those ministries. There are churches that will will talk about sexual violence and preach against it and be advocates in the community and in their local churches. I know pastors, male and female, who are public about their experience as survivors and who are sufficiently trained to be helpful.

Church leaders who are reading this and who care, become one of those churches. It doesn’t have to be the only thing you do in your ministry, but be a safe place. Just talking about it a couple of times means that you care, lets someone know that it’s a safe place. You don’t have to have an MSW or a degree in psychology to find a biblical scripture and say, “Hey, we’re going to talk about this and my door is open.”

If you’re a member of a church, push your pastor. Say, “Why aren’t we talking about this? Why aren’t we doing this? What can I do? Maybe you don’t want to do this today, but what will you let me do? What can I put up in the bathroom? What can I put in the hallway? What can I put in the church library? How can I as a person who cares do something so that people are less broken when they leave the church than when they came in?”

EBONY: Do you recommend the creation of a ministry around sexual assault generally speaking?

MC: I think it’s something that all churches should have, ideally. But I do think that it can be integrated into whatever ministries there are. It’s more about saying every church can do something, whatever size you are. If you have the people power and the finances to do a whole ministry, totally. And I outline some ways that can be done in “The Dinah Project.” But if you just care, you can get to know the resources of your community. That’s free. Your local rape crisis center might come in and talk to your church leaders for free. Part of what they do is community education. Anyone can buy a book and put it a church library. Preach or have conversations about healthy sexuality, about sexuality that is unhealthy and about abuse and violence.

EBONY: If you belong to a church, you love your pastor, but you know he or she is not on point when it comes to this topic and you want your pastor to get some training, how would you advise the average churchgoer to make a compelling argument to a church leader that this needed for the benefit of your congregation?

MC: You can take them research, whether it’s this article or just statistics alone. How do you approach a pastor who’s not excited about it versus how do you approach a pastor who really doesn’t want to do anything. If you have a pastor who’s against it and it’s important to you, you might have to find another church.

If someone is saying, “OK, that’s interesting, but I’m just not moved by it,” then it’s important to say, “Here’s what I can do that won’t cost the church any money. You don’t have to do anything. What if I do this with the young people, or what if I do this women’s ministry, or what if I have this conversation with the men and we read this book together?"

The Faith Trust Institute is a great place [for] training. [It’s] a long-standing and phenomenal organization in terms of educating churches, actually all different faith communities. And I have a biography at the end of The Dinah Project. A little dated, but I think it’s still a good resource. It doesn’t have to be just one church figuring this out alone. You can get together with other pastors in your community. It’s important that it really is a community-wide response. You don’t have to depend on one church to do it. When I was active in the ministry in Nashville, this was something that the church I was at did. Many other churches didn’t do this ministry, but they knew what we were doing. The clergy would collaborate and say, “I’ll make sure that people get to your ministry,” or “I’ll make sure I have you come talk to people at my church.” It’s possible that not everyone has to create this whole ministry, that you can work together with other churches in your community to cover these spiritual needs.

RESOURCES:
The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence

The Faith Trust Institute

Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond, Va.

Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church in Irvine, Calif.

Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tenn.
 

Please tweet us your thoughts and testimonies @ebonymag with the hashtag #EndingRape4Ever, send questions and suggestions to EndingRape4ever@ebony.com and look for new related content every Monday on EBONY.com.

Lori S. Robinson is a journalist and the author of “I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse.” Her work has been published in the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and several national magazines. She is the special guest editor of the EBONY.com series: ENDING RAPE 4EVER.

 

 

 
Stay in the Know
Sign up for the Ebony Newsletter