Creating a place for healing and hope: New initiative helps churches be safe for kids

Julie Prey-Harbaugh

Julie Prey-HarbaughThe flood surprised me as much as anyone who was there to witness it; the river of tears, the enormous emotional tidal wave that washed over me. It was seven years ago now, at the healing service at the Mennonite Youth Convention in St. Louis. The theme was “Come to the River,” and come to the river, I did. More accurately, perhaps it came to me.

I was 27 years old, attending the convention as a sponsor, not a youth. This healing service was supposed to be for the four teenage girls flanking me on my left and right, not for the victimized teenage girl who was still living somewhere inside of me. Whatever was supposed to happen did not matter anymore, though, as I made my way to the front of the crowd for anointing with oil. A healing process was taking hold in that moment. I was setting sail on uncharted waters, and there was no turning back.

The trigger that opened the floodgates was in the sharing of a courageous leader at the convention who dared to tell 6,000 kids and the adults who accompanied them that she had been sexually abused by her youth minister as a teenager. What she thought was an affectionate mentoring relationship turned out be a violation of her trust and of her emotional and physical integrity, turning her church—meant to be a place of refuge—into a world of hurt.

The heavens opened and the rains came down as for the first time I knew that this is what had happened to me, too. As the woman shared from the stage, it sank into my brain (which had been so sturdily walled-off by denial) that the relationship I had at age 15 with my then 27-year-old youth pastor was entirely different than my relationships with the girls currently standing at my side. I was an adult with responsibility for these young women. They were not my peers, not my friends. But all along that is what I thought I had been to my youth pastor: a confidante, a buddy, an equal. Suddenly it was clear to me that this was just a story I had been told by my youth pastor to legitimate a sexualized relationship. The levy of denial gave way. The waters of grief over the loss of my innocence and pain over the deep betrayal of sexual abuse threatened everything in their path.

Looking back, I can see that the anointing with oil that I received on that July day was a lifeline for me. Through it, God communicated hope that I was not alone in this storm, that through my Mennonite brothers and sisters and in many other ways God would hold on to me and not let me drown. I would survive and with God’s leading and the support of my community of friends and family, I would rebuild.

In church we talk a lot about saving people. Of course, it is Jesus who does the saving, but we, the body of Christ, are the legs that leap into action. We are the feet that run onto the scene, the arms that are outstretched, the hands that hold on for dear life to pull folks back from the brink of disaster, heaving them to shore before they drown. In my own healing process as well as my professional work, I have learned so much about how important this is. When it comes to healing from the traumatic events we experience as children, Jesus’ saving power can be a very literal, immediate thing. The church can be a place where young people and adults who were harmed in their youth can seek refuge and find safety in which to rest, heal, and grow.

As you read this article, a new way of participating in Jesus’ saving work by making our churches houses of refuge is in development at Franconia Conference. The Conference Staff and I are working diligently to improve our strategies for child protection, including the healing of child victims and adult survivors of abuse as well as perpetrators of abuse on children. Since child sexual abuse is one of the most challenging child protection issues in child-serving organizations, we will take special care to assist congregations and conference related organizations in preventing, recognizing, and reacting responsibly.

Child protection reaches to every aspect of our routine care for young people and dictates how we handle a whole range of issues such as transportation of children, permission from parents for activities, first aid, and the like. Our overall goal is to promote healthy relational patterns between children and the adults who are responsible for them in our congregations and CROs. We will start at conference level, but want to work closely with each congregation and CRO to implement or improve child protection strategies so everywhere that children are served in our conference, responsible adults will know how to create safety and respond to incidents that compromise or violate their safety.

Think for a minute about young people you know and love. What are your deepest desires and hopes for their lives? How do you want them to experience church? How will they know that Jesus wants them to be safe from harm, protected from what threatens to overpower them? Will our community of God’s people be a place of refuge for them? How are you helping? How will we help make that happen?

My hope is that the young people whose lives are touched by the ministries of Franconia Conference will be able to say with the Psalmist:

julie-kids.jpgThe LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my
God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.
God is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
God reached down from on high and took hold of me; drew me out of deep waters.
God rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my
disaster, but the LORD was my support.
God brought me out into a spacious place;
rescued me because God delighted in me.

Looking back over these past seven years, I am so thankful for all the people who dared to reach into the maelstrom of my post-traumatic stress and depression to help keep my head above water as I struggled to swim to the shores of healing. Looking forward, I am excited to work with each of you who will help our congregations and conference-related organizations so they can be places of refuge for children and youth and adults who were harmed when they were young.

Julie Prey-Harbaugh is the recommend trainer for child protection and child abuse recovery for Franconia Mennonite Conference. She is a credentialed chaplain with Franconia Conference as well serving with Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia and attends West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship.