For many young evangelical Christians across the U.S., youth ministry offers them a space to discuss their lives and their faith. It’s supposed to be a safe and supportive place where teens and young adults can find guidance and resources.
Catholic churches have been openly reckoning with abuse scandals in recent years, but evangelical organizations, including their youth ministries, continue to fly more under the radar. Two women are now determined to change that.
Megan Frey and Jo Anna Hendrickson have spoken out against the potential hiring of a pastor they say used his position of authority to sexually groom them as teens almost two decades ago. The two say the accused pastor, Wes Feltner, went on to establish a solid career in ministry, and that they were ignored by leaders at their Southern Baptist church.
“I think the power of social media can’t be overstated here,” said HuffPost U.S.’s Carol Kuruvilla, who reported on the controversy and the #ChurchToo movement that’s mobilizing members of the evangelical community. “Survivors have been congregating around hashtags like #ChurchToo and #SBCToo to share news about emerging allegations, to help dig up more evidence, and to rally the community.”
Their campaign has had results: Frey and Hendrickson spoke up on Twitter in late October, and Feltner is no longer in the running to lead a Southern Baptist church in Tennessee. Feltner denies the accusations and says the women have orchestrated an attack against him, but he has agreed to go on administrative leave from his home church while an investigation takes place. The investigation process, however, lacks clarity: The church, Berean Baptist, hasn’t publicly released the name of the third-party investigators.
“It is crucial that investigations into sexual abuse allegations are conducted with transparency so that the victims can be confident that the truth and justice are being prioritized over the church’s reputation,” Carol says.
Speaking out about sexual abuse and coercion is difficult, even years after an incident. Carol says it’s important for people who think they’ve experienced abuse or coercion in a place of worship to report it to police or outside groups because many churches haven’t figured out how to properly handle these allegations.
For immediate crisis support, she suggests calling RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline. For those who are looking for support after experiencing abuse in Christian communities, she recommends starting with SNAP (the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests) and The Courage Conference. Leaders who want to know how to recognize, prevent, and respond to abuse can check out GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).
“You’ll also find a community ready to rally behind you at #ChurchToo on Twitter,” Carol added.
Thanks for reading,
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Shyamla Eswaran vividly remembers the first time she was bullied for her skin color,even though she was just in primary school. The South Asian Australian said that moment began a long journey of self-discovery that eventually led her from human rights policy-making to the world of professional dance. She now uses her role to teach children about cultural diversity and racism. “I created BollyKids, which is all about teaching kids about Indian culture through dance and music and movement,” Eswaran says. “But in recent years I’ve developed it even further to be about empathy, diversity and inclusion. … I’m teaching them about how to be kind and how their words affect people.”
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