Hanna Hochstetler has written an open letter to the Rainbow congregation. In this letter she reflects on her sermon from October 21, whereby she addressed the difficult realities of sexual violence. Her sharing triggered an unexpected response from someone listening that day, which she describes in her letter below.
If you haven’t listened to her sermon from October 21, you can do so by clicking here: http://rainbowmennonite.org/media-presenter/hanna-hochstetler
On Sunday October 21st, at Rainbow, I preached on the difficult realities of sexual violence, sexism and misogyny (Reclaiming Jesus document). Partway through my sharing, a man stood up and shared his experience of abuse. Up until this point, my attempts at discussing the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our communities focused on naming major events in our society that were highlighted by the media. Most of these examples involved female victims and male perpetrators. I also read a part of the Reclaiming Jesus statement that focuses on the need to recognize and respond appropriately to sexual violence. The language in that statement only identified women as victims of sexual violence. While it was not my intention to exclude the experiences of men or individuals who do not identify in the gender binary from the narrative, I had not yet voiced that there are survivors of all genders in our society.
The interaction between this man and I was difficult. I was not expecting anyone to speak up as I spoke, nor did I anticipate the response I would have to in that kind of situation. I felt an immediate sense of empathy for this man as he shared about his experiences from the past. I wanted this man to feel like he was heard and to validate his experience. In my attempts to do so, I responded to his sharing by saying, “Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry this happened to you.”
As I have reflected on that morning and my interaction with that man, in retrospect, there are multiple responses I wish I would have been able to share with him. I wanted him to know that I heard him; that I was so sorry that he had experienced abuse as a kid; that I had intentionally written into my sermon that we needed to acknowledge sexual violence affects people of all genders; and that I was sorry he felt as though his experience was not being heard or validated in that space. In addition to the love and sadness I felt as this man shared, I also found myself feeling vulnerable. It took a few long pauses, silence and some tears, but I was able to compose myself and carry on. There were some complex dynamics during our interaction that Sunday, but I believe that he did not intend to upset me while I was feeling vulnerable, just as I did not intend for him to feel as though his story was excluded from what I was sharing. I hope that others were able to recognize his pain instead of just focusing on the disruption he caused.
I also want to thank everyone who has reached out to me over the past month. I have felt tremendous support and care from many of you. I have had many meaningful conversations and hope that this letter can provide some context and thoughts to the rest of the congregation. I would like to share some of the key themes I spoke about that Sunday that I have applied to my interaction with this man, and our church’s response to that interaction. Note: The normal print is text directly from my sermon, and the bold print is additional thoughts I have added.
● “We need to believe all survivors. While women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, men too, as well as LGBTQ+ individuals, are also affected. Ignoring survivors’ voices or invalidating their experiences are examples of supportive attitudes and behaviors that encourage a rape supportive culture.” This includes believing men who come forward and speak their truths. There is no single story that encompasses the complex feelings survivors experience. While I tried to be inclusive in my language and intentional about what I shared, the impact of what I said elicited a response that was rooted in pain that needed to be heard and validated. “We need to recognize the impact that we have in either perpetuating this culture or resisting it by standing with survivors.”
● “As a society we are so quick to question or silence the voices of survivors rather than to show them empathy, compassion and support. As one body in Christ, we should affirm those who speak out against oppression.” I believe that the man who interrupted me during the sermon needed to speak his truth. Rather than making the interaction between him and I an “either/or” scenario where the congregation feels as though they have to choose between my well-being and his, I think we should consider the “both/and” scenario where the congregation can offer care and compassion to both of us.
● As someone who was part of the interaction, I have no way of understanding what each of you experienced as bystanders that morning. I do not know what experiences you brought with you prior to our interactions or what emotions you felt in that space. I want to acknowledge that each of your responses to the interaction, as well as my sharing as a whole, are valid. Thank you for being in that sacred space and for bearing witness to the impact sexual violence has on individuals. Engaging in conversations such as these are difficult, but I believe they are the first step in creating an equitable and safe community.
So just as I ended that Sunday, I invite each of us to continue to “disrupt the norm, stand with survivors and support each other in our efforts.” It is a constant effort to understand the complexities of these issues but taking the time to listen and reflect allows us to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the resilience of survivors.