By Barbie Fischer and an anonymous member of Salford Mennonite Church
Abuse takes many forms and is a topic often shied away from. Yet, our communities of faith should be safe and healing places for all of God’s children … and how can they be if abuse is not discussed and actions not taken to prevent it? April is both Child Abuse Prevention month and Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. Both Franconia Conference and Dove’s Nest encourage congregations to step into the space of talking about healthy relationships to prevent abuse, and discuss ways of healing when abuse does happen. While April is one month a year set aside to focus on these topics, these should be discussions all year long.
One of our local congregations recently took on the task of addressing child abuse within their service. Salford Mennonite Church held a service on March 26th dedicated to celebrating the joy and life of children — past and present — within their congregation, while at the same time acknowledging, naming, and lamenting that amid the joy and life, there is injury, trauma, and loss of trust. The scriptural focus for the day was Ezekiel 37:1-14, the story of dry bones coming to life.
Organization of the service and including the voices of survivors was spearheaded by Maria Hosler Byler, Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Faith Formation, and Beth Ranck Yoder, Associate Pastor. The day included singing from the children, times for the congregation to name their joys in the children, the vulnerability of the children among them, and their vision for safety for their children. The day also included words from survivors in the congregation who were invited to submit their stories and offer words of both lament and hope.
The service was a time of healing for those who have survived abuse and is evident through a letter received from one of Salford’s congregants following the service. This church member has allowed us to share their letter here. Through it, one can see that while the topic may be difficult, healing comes from bringing these things into the light, bringing life back to the dry bones.
Dear Beloved Church Family at Salford, March 28, 2017
Thank you for the meaningful service on Sunday, March 26 in preparation for National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April. Sunday’s service was clearly dedicated to the protection of children and to the restoration of those who have suffered from abuse. Each aspect of the service was moving, and I want to thank the leadership team for listening to the guidance of the Spirit as you prepared for the service. We participated in worship as we lifted our voices in song, listened to the children sing, prayed for the children, said prayers of confession, and heard voices of lament and of hope. The worship service was inspiring and moving.
I am grateful to have been asked to reflect on the Dry Bones passage from Ezekiel and share some of my story, anonymously. The questions which were provided as guidance were helpful for me as I thought about what might be helpful for others to hear from my story. As I wrote, the Valley of the Dry Bones from my past began to appear in my mind, and I could visualize the stages of healing that had taken place in recent years. The image of healing after many, many years was helpful for me as I reflected on what would be meaningful to share.
During the week before the service, when I had the chance to read reflections that other survivors of abuse had sent in, I started to feel nervous about hearing their words, and my words, spoken to the congregation. By Saturday, I began to think about volunteering to help with the children during the service instead of sitting in the sanctuary. While courage was needed for individuals to share their stories, even anonymously, courage was also needed to hear the words spoken. I am very glad that I made the decision to attend the service. Salford Mennonite, thank you for giving survivors the opportunity to share their stories with the congregation, and thank you for being willing to hear their stories.
At the beginning of the service, as I sat watching and listening, I felt numb, as though I were observing everything from a distance. Toward the end of the service, I realized that I was indeed a part of the fellowship. I felt a keen sense of belonging to the body of believers at Salford. Thank you for being a caring, loving, accepting, and even a risk-taking community of believers. I believe that through the beloved community of Salford Mennonite Church, steps will continue to be taken to safely care for children, and restoration will continue to take place among the broken.
During the Sundays in Lent, I have been watching the transformation of the broken pottery at the front of the sanctuary. Philip Hosler Byler carefully crafted the large and broken clay pot. Each week, two people come forward and attach a broken piece to the base, and I watch in wonder. Years ago I had told my counselor that I felt as though my journey of healing from abuse was like the journey of a broken vase being glued together—the vase might be functional, but the cracks will always be there, destroying its beauty. My counselor told me that in some areas of Asia, when a vase is cracked, it is filled with gold, making it both beautiful and valuable. During this week’s service, I could visualize the completed clay pot once all of the pieces are joined. Thank you, Philip, for crafting a pot that demonstrates how God can restore our lives, piece by piece.
After the children left the sanctuary, we heard the statistics that have been in the news in recent years, that 1 in 4 girls will be abused before adulthood and 1 in 6 boys will be abused before reaching adulthood. The numbers are startling. We were able to visualize those numbers by having people in appointed rows stand. We as a congregation now have a deeper understanding of just how many 1 in 4 is. Seeing half of the left side of the sanctuary standing was astounding. Many survivors’ stories remain hidden.
I appreciated the themes of “Lament” and “Hope” through which survivors’ stories were shared. As the four voices at the back of the sanctuary took turns reading the words of lament, I sensed that actual voices of the survivors were being heard. (I did not turn around to see who the four people were who read, but I do want to thank them for their roles in the service.) The congregation seemed to really be listening to the words of sadness and grief. Toward the end of the service, when the four voices read the words of hope and anticipation which survivors of abuse had shared, I sensed that God was in our midst, caring, healing, loving, and encouraging. Thank you, Salford family, for being attentive to the journeys of these survivors in our midst.
I am thankful for the guidance through prayer for the children, the prayer of confession, and the spoken responses following the voices of lament and of hope. I am grateful to you, our pastoral team, for reading together the confession of the church leaders. I sensed your earnest desire to protect children and to restore those who have been “harmed by the evils of abuse.” Healing and restoration will continue to take place in our church as we strive to move forward, trusting in God to show us the way. Thank you for your willingness to lead our congregation in the way of healing.
The sermon I am grateful for, as it took an old Bible story, familiar for many of us, and brought it to life, allowing me to visualize the transformation of the Valley of Dry Bones and to see how God desires for us to move from a place of despair to a place of abundant living. We as a congregation were given the opportunity to visualize the healing taking place within our church. My Valley of Dry Bones took place years ago, but I can still see it. In that desolate place I was unable to get off of the couch, unable to go and pick up one item at the grocery store, unable to enjoy my favorite foods, unable to connect with my family in healthy ways. Sleep was my escape, feeling unable to do anything, just as the dry bones in the valley were unable to do anything. The Valley of Dry Bones is a desolate place of despair, and no one wants to stay there; yet without help from God and from others, it is hard to find a way to leave.
There are so many things to be grateful for with the service. For the child protection policy being distributed in everyone’s church mailboxes prior to the service and for our Child/Youth Safety Team. For those who cared for the children during this important service. For our Pastors Joe, Beth, and Maria who guided our congregation through the Valley of Dry Bones. Thank you for your leadership as you strive to make Salford a place of healing and of hope. God does not want for us to stay in the Valley of Dry Bones, for Jesus came so that we might have abundant life, and our God is a God of hope.
Sunday’s service was truly beautiful. I firmly believe that God is at work at Salford to restore the broken. My prayer is that God will continue to work in our congregation as we are committed to protect children and to restore those who have been abused. May we serve one another in God’s love, and may we be a light in our community. My hope is that all congregations would be able to experience the healing power of a service of restoration.
God’s peace be with you.
To hear the sermon from the March 26th service visit http://www.salfordmc.org/recent-sermons.
DVDs of the service can be requested from Salford Mennonite Church.
Also, a list of resources utilized for the service can be found here: http://franconiaconference.org/church-safety/.