Jessica Putland, Pastoral Intern St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Beaverton OR, Internship Project Story
“Justice for All”
In a world of #metoo, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar, #timesup, and more and more stories of harassment and assault in the film industry, how does the church respond? How does our faith speak to this topic? How does scripture speak to this topic? What should we be doing, as Christians, in response, prevention, and intervention when it comes to these issues, and how should our faith and scriptures shape our response?
This is what my internship project tackled! Okay, okay, so we didn’t exactly answer all of these questions in full, but I hosted a 6-week adult faith formation class during Lent on this topic in order to help foster education and conversation.
I chose this project because it was and is a very timely, visceral subject in our news and social media almost daily. There is no avoiding this topic. Furthermore, the church staff has had many requests from the congregants to be teaching, preaching, and talking about more relevant topics from the news. We even had a few congregants ask on this subject in particular. I knew that this would be a challenging topic - injustices and against women and sexual assault are not easy subjects to talk about and not everyone is on the same page - politically, socially, and ideologically - when it comes to these topics. But, I was up for the challenge of creating a safe space where these topics could be discussed and congregants could be encouraged to look deeper at their own faith convictions in regards to how women are treated in our society.
The full name of the project is “Justice For All: Faithful Discussion about Women, Poverty, and Equality.” For the project we drew from a multitude of sources, including the ELCA Women and Justice Draft Statement released in fall of 2017. We had three guest speakers, one high school student who relayed her experience trying to start a “feminist” group at her Catholic Middle School, a lawyer and professor who is the founder of the National Crime Victim Law Institute, and a program director at the Life Change Center for Women and Children. Two of these people were members of our congregation. I wanted to include real life examples to class participants both to continue to help them understand why this topic is so important, but also to provide resources for more information and discussion in their own neighbors!
It was my hope, with this internship project, that the participants in the class would begin to think more critically about how their faith informs their responses to events of abuse, injustice, and sexual assault against women, and would motivate them to take action to prevent and intervene in such events. I also hoped to create a safe space for people to learn and ask questions about these topics. We can’t make a change in our churches, culture, or world, if we do not allow space for people to ask the hard questions or questions that they might feel embarrassed about asking.
To begin each class, we began with what is called a “Trigger Warning.” A Trigger Warning is a statement that is given at the beginning of a piece of writing, a movie, presentation, class, and etc. that alerts the reader or participant to potentially distressing material within the content. Then, to set up our conversation, we read the story of Tamar from 2 Samuel 13. I then posed the question to the class: “How would you have a conversation about this topic, Tamar was sitting right here in the front row?” People responded by saying they would engage in the topic respectfully, in a gentle manner, without explicit terms, in a manner that does not victim-blame, with an open heart and mind, as a good listener, and more. I then would respond by saying; “Absolutely. All of these things are correct. And here’s the thing, statistically speaking, Tamar is in this room today. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men* are survivors of attempted or completed sexual assault.”
I set up class this way to help participants understand that their words matter, and the way they speak about these subjects is important because you never know who in the room as experienced abuse, assault, or trauma. We wanted to make sure that we created a safe and open space for learning about this subject, and we wanted to ensure that we would not re-traumatize any participant. It is important to take these steps when we have these conversations, especially in churches, as it is our role to care for people while helping them learn and grow in their faith and in their lives. We also provided a list of definitions on the subject, and parsed out some of them, so that people could feel more informed about the subject and wouldn’t have to “Google” terms or phrases as we talked. Definitions included rape culture, patriarchy, glass ceiling, complementarianism versus egalitarianism, domestic violence, and more.
We covered a lot of material and had many fruitful discussions during this 6-week class. I do not have time to rehash everything that we discussed, but here is my main takeaway from this incredibly moving and effective internship project; participants in this class were as diverse as possible within our church - young, old, male, female, non-binary, “conservative”, “liberal” and more - and this class was meaningful to each and every person in their own way. Many, many people came up to me after classes to tell me how the subject matter and discussion led them to further inquire about their own faith, lifestyle, or opinions on women, justice, assault and abuse, and about how they might make a difference for people around them. We have many people in our congregation now motivated to continue to do more work for victims and to help change culture both within our own community and in the world to stop people from being perpetrators. So in all, the more we can educate people on these matters and open them up to discussion, the more good we can do together in the world to stop injustices against women (and all people.)
I think that my internship project can and should be of interest to my fellow interns, as well as all clergy-people and leaders in the church because our congregants are out there not only hearing about injustices in the news, but they are also experiencing them in their everyday lives, either as a victim themselves or as a friend or family member of a victim. The church is a place where we should be comforting those who need to be comforted, but also afflicting those who are comfortable. By this, I mean that the church is a place for people to grieve and share their hurt and pain, and it is also a place where we are to hold one-another accountable to the Gospel and to Jesus’ message. Violence against women, abuse, and sexual assault are all counter to the Gospel, and yet we are seeing that they are rampant, not only in the news, but also in our own communities. Classes like this can help break this cycle. It can help people take action, and it can fill the world with more understanding and love.