It has been just over a year since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, when actress Alyssa Milano, echoing earlier work by social activist Tarana Burke, encouraged people to speak out and draw attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. Within a day, more than half a million people had shared their stories across social media.

A few weeks later, the hashtag #ChurchToo went viral, highlighting the fact that the church is not immune from such abuse and injustice. Since then, stories of gross offences within the church have continued to surface, including allegations of sexual misconduct against Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, and Andy Savage, a teaching pastor at a megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee. When Savage disclosed the “incident”—an assault on a teen when he was a youth pastor—to his congregation and asked for forgiveness, he received a standing ovation. Something is terribly awry in our churches.

Analyzing all the reasons why—power dynamics in the church, a patriarchal approach to Scripture, our inability to speak freely about sexuality— is far beyond the scope of this article, but I firmly believe that awareness is the beginning of change. We need to start talking and keep talking about our experiences if we want to move forward together. Sometimes differing definitions can create a barrier to conversation. For clarity, sexual assault includes rape as well as any nonconsensual sexual touch.

Recently, an exercise by social researcher Jackson Katz—in which he asks men and women what they do to prevent being sexually assaulted—went viral. Katz has been leading the exercise since the 1990s, and reports that the results are almost always the same: the men’s column is blank while the women’s column is full. While men are not exempt from sexual assault, this chart demonstrates the vast difference in the daily reality of men and women. Sexual assault is something most women think about every day, and act accordingly.

For example, I always take my phone with me when going out, walk with company after dark, make assertive eye contact with male passersby and mentally log descriptions of those I pass. These steps taken to mitigate the risk of sexual assault do not stop catcalls, leering or being groped by a stranger while walking down the street. Nor has it stopped male friends, on occasion, from violating our friendship with unwelcome advances, touches or kisses. These more personal encounters were made more painful by their occurrence in my faith community—from men of faith at youth group, at camp or while attending a neighbouring church. Many other women could add to these experiences, including more violent encounters with people presumed to be safe.

That this happens in the church is an uncomfortable reality. We believe that we are a safe space and it can be unnerving to realize that this has not been true for everyone. However, with awareness and new perspective we can seek to address this in our own realm. We can listen without judgment to others’ stories, we can support survivors in their desire for justice and healing from trauma, we can take steps to ensure our own actions and words are appropriate, and we can speak up when we see or experience a boundary being crossed both inside and outside our doors.

We can teach our children about consent, treating them as autonomous beings and instructing them to respect others’ boundaries as well. In The Salvation Army, accountability is not only about finances, but also applies to our conduct, culture and care for others.

The Army has always been about being a place of safety for the vulnerable, a place where the love of Jesus can heal and transform lives. If we are serious about transforming our communities through Jesus’ love, we need to take the reality of sexual harassment and assault seriously, both in society and in our churches.

We believe that the church should be a safe space. We have a responsibility to respond. What will we do to “be the change we want to see in the world”?

Cadet Lynn Torrens is a member of the Messengers of Compassion Session at the College for Officer Training in Winnipeg.

Feature photo: © RyanKing999/

Leave a Comment