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.
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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

It’s hard to believe, but pastors are rarely trained to handle the trauma of sexual assault.