Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Burqa debate brings forth memories

Last week, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said, “The burqa is not welcome on French territory.

The burqa is the head-to-toe garment that is worn by a small minority of Muslim women. It conceals even the face. In this photo of two women in Marseille, the woman on the right is wearing a burqa.

President Sarkozy declared that the burqa was not a religious symbol but a sign of women’s “debasement.” “In our country,” he said, “we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen… deprived of all identity.”

United States President Barack Obama criticized Sarkozy’s stance, suggesting that the burqa was part of a religious practice that government should not impede.

With these two world leaders taking opposing views, the burqa debate is now raging. It’s amazing how this garment can inspire such strong feelings.

For me, it’s a debate that calls to mind the summer when I was an anthropology graduate student working on an archeological dig in Israel. Physically, I did battle with scorpions, sand and sun, but mentally, I was enmeshed in the religious imagery that surrounded me.

At summer’s end, I joined friends in Belgium and then traveled south with a Moroccan friend to attend a wedding in Marrakech. I felt so honored to be invited.

We stayed in the home of a family member in the ancient, maze-like medina of the city. Never in my life have I encountered more hospitable people.

It was a Berber wedding with 5 days of feasting and dancing. We arrived just after the wedding itself, with the post-wedding celebration in full swing. It was a sensory overload of spice and sweat and music and drums. Men were singing and women were ululating. It was the first time I had ever heard that unique sound of ululation, and I was mesmerized. According to tradition, all this was going on while the bride and groom consummated the marriage in a room off the courtyard.

I was told that the bride was 15.

Late into the night, a roar went up from the crowd, and I glimpsed a wave of something white. I was told it was the bloody sheet.

The next afternoon, I went back over to the house of the wedding party and sat down on a cushion in the women’s room. The women danced for one another… old and young in turns… moving their hips and swaying and laughing. I couldn’t understand any of the chattering because the women didn’t speak French or English, and I didn’t speak Arabic or Berber. But I joined them in the universal language of giggles and grins. I was told that this was when women shared with the bride the secrets of marriage.

The bride herself sat huddled at the end of the room underneath her bloody sheet. I would occasionally glimpse her hennaed hand when other women would lift the sheet’s corner to pass her a morsel of food. Sometimes I would hear the sound of a low moan from that amorphous mass beneath the sheet.

The blood was spread and splattered. It was a lot -- more than just a spot. I tried not to look at it. I kept hoping that maybe it was the blood of a goat because I had heard that brides sometimes ensured the display of virginity by carrying a vial of goat’s blood into the bridal chamber.

But in one brief moment, when the sheet was lifted, I suddenly found myself looking straight into the girl’s kohl-lined eyes. What I saw in them was fear.

In that moment, I lost all sense of anthropological detachment. I was overcome with the sense that something was wrong. And I couldn’t intellectualize it.

Perhaps it was my own ethnocentricity, but for me, there was no escaping what I felt. I was bearing witness to something wrong.

I view this practice of proving up of a girl’s virginity as more of a cultural practice than a religious practice. I feel the same about the burqa . . . though culture and religion are obviously intertwined.

Of course, the mixing of culture and religion isn’t unique to Muslims. And Muslims don’t have any lock-box on religious authoritarianism and paternalism. If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that any religion can be misused for oppressing the weak and perpetuating the powerful. That’s a lesson I learned from my own westernized Christian religion.

Though Baptists don’t display bloody sheets, there is nevertheless much about Baptist culture and belief that is often misused to train girls into the bondage of a subservient self-image. And if you’re a Baptist clergy abuse survivor of either sex, you are virtually guaranteed to experience religiously-fueled oppression, particularly if you dare to try to report it.

I don’t purport to know what the “right answer” to the burqa debate is. But I do believe that, if the debate is to be honestly engaged, we should not pretend that a burqa is nothing more than the equivalent of a Texas Baptist’s bolo tie, or a Jewish man’s yarmulke, or a Catholic’s cross necklace.

A bolo tie doesn’t deny human dignity. A burqa does. A yarmulke is worn by choice of the wearer. A burqa is typically worn by choice of the wearer’s male relatives.

Those hidden women are at least deserving of a reality-based debate.

When all the celebrating was done, I got on a train to try to make it to Luxembourg in time for my discount flight back to the United States. The last of my money had been stolen, and I didn’t even own a credit card back then. I had only my train ticket, my plane ticket and my passport. But I wasn’t worried. My train ticket was good, and with lots of connections, it would eventually get me all the way there. Or so I thought.

Between Marrakech and Tangiers, the conductor came by. He became irate, but I couldn’t understand because his tirade was in Arabic. Still, there was no mistaking his tone, and the two young girls across from me grew eyes as big as saucers. Before, they had been engaging and curious, eagerly practicing their limited French by barraging me with questions about myself and America. But after the conductor left, the girls fell totally silent.

Their djellaba-dressed dad told me that the conductor was upset because of the Israeli visa in my passport and because I was on the wrong train. It was a train that went to the same destination, Tangier, but it was a faster, more expensive train than the one allowed by my ticket. The conductor was going to put me off at the next station.

Sure enough, when the train started slowing down, the conductor was waiting in the corridor. I looked out the window and knew I was in trouble. The station was little more than a stop in the middle of the desert. Without any money, how would I get out of there?

I think the girls’ dad must have seen the fear in my face. He pulled out his wallet and pressed some bills into the conductor’s palm.

I wept with relief and thanked him, but he simply shrugged. “I have two daughters,” he said. “I hope someone would do the same for them someday.”

In the desert between Marrakech and Tangier, a Moroccan father gave me sanctuary.

His example, of extending human dignity and safety, is an example that religious leaders of all faiths could learn from.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Kids and congregants at risk

People often ask me why I keep doing this work.

That graph is a big part of the answer. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, about 1 in 6 Americans are Baptist.

Southern Baptists alone are twice as big as the second-largest Protestant group, the Methodists. And if you add in all the other sorts of Baptists, then Baptists are about 4 times more numerous than the Methodists. That’s according to data compiled by the National Council of Churches, which listed the top 25 faith groups in the country.

Baptists are so big that they literally dwarf all the other Protestant groups.

Southern Baptists alone claim to have about 16.2 million members. That’s a population the size of Chile or the Netherlands.

To serve that population, Southern Baptists have 101,000 clergy in this country and 43,000 churches. Yet, despite their faith group’s shared identity, Southern Baptists disclaim any shared responsibility for their clergy… or for the safety of people who sit in Southern Baptist pews.

Unlike other major faith groups, Southern Baptists have no system of oversight for their clergy, and they don’t have any system of record-keeping for clergy abuse reports. In essence, they don’t even attempt to deal with clergy sex abuse in any systematic way. As a practical matter, this means that it is far too easy for predatory Baptist clergy to hop from church to church, finding new prey along the way. No one stops them.

And if the terrain gets too hot among the Southern Baptist network, then predatory clergy can hop over to one of the other Baptist groups. By and large, those other Baptist groups aren’t doing any better.

Baptist leaders keep saying that each church should handle this problem on their own. Far be it for any state or national Baptist organization to intervene or to work at devising a system by which the local churches might cooperate together to track predatory clergy.

It’s as if the federal government were to tell all the country’s towns and cities that it was up to each of them individually to fight terrorism. It can’t be done that way. The very nature of the problem is such that it requires a strong cooperative effort. There must be an effective means of assuring that critical information is communicated and shared.

But despite their huge numbers and massive resources, Baptists are still sitting on the sidelines in the fight against clergy predators. Because of their huge numbers, this necessarily means that a whole lot of kids and congregants are at risk.

Until Baptists confront the reality of clergy abuse and engage a strong cooperative effort at dealing with it, kids in Baptist churches will be at greater risk than kids in Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal churches.

And there are so many of them.

That’s why I keep doing this.

Question: In response to SNAP’s letter about clergy sex abuse and cover-ups, Southern Baptist president Johnny Hunt wrote back on February 3, 2009 and said: “I assure you we are looking into that… It will come up at our national convention that meets in June 2009 in Louisville, I am sure.”

So…. did it “come up”? Some of you who were actually at the convention, can you let me know? Did I miss something?

Friday, June 26, 2009

I was a Viqueen!

It was a rough week in Baptist-land. And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, I ran across this geeky photo of me on the internet.

Somebody posted this page from my 7th grade school yearbook, and I’m in it. So here at the end of a long week, have a laugh.

That’s me. I can’t hide it. I’m there for all the world to see, wearing a short skirt and tassles on my boots.

I was a Viqueen!

Even as young as 7th grade, I was one of those girls who paraded out on the football field at halftime and…. gasp… danced!

Oh my.

Frankly, I had flat-out forgotten about this earlier part of my Baptist rebel-girl history. In high school, I was a Lionette, and withstood many a withering glare from the pastor because of it.

But here’s the truth in full display. My wicked ways started even earlier.

I was a Viqueen!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jesus loves the little children

Sometimes it’s hard not to be cynical about the things Baptist leaders say. For me, this is one of those times, as I watch the stuff spewing forth from the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Louisville. If I didn’t poke fun with a bit of sarcasm, I’m afraid I might dissolve into a puddle of weeping.

They issued a “pro-adoption” resolution. That’s nice. I’m all for adoption. But it started looking a little weird when it started looking as though Baptist leaders might be promoting adoption, in part, simply because they want to raise their membership numbers. “More kids” means “more Baptists.”

Seminary president Danny Akin made this view clear when he urged families to “have a bunch of kids” as a way of reversing the denomination’s decline. He also suggested that it would be a way to keep the Muslims from taking over.

I kid you not.

But hey… I digress.

The SBC’s pro-adoption resolution said this: "We pray for an outpouring of God's Spirit on Southern Baptist congregations so that our churches will proclaim and picture, in word and in deed, that 'Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.'"

Isn’t that sweet? I’m already singing along in my head. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” That just about covers all the children, doesn’t it?

But I don’t think Baptist leaders really believe that. The average 5-year-old believes the words of that song more than the average Baptist leader does. For Baptist leaders, it’s “Jesus loves the little children” except the children who are chosen for abuse by Baptist clergy. And those children? Well… they just need to go away and shut up.

If Baptist leaders really believed that “Jesus loves the little children,” wouldn’t they take action to work toward protecting the kids in their own churches?

Isn’t that what this convention was supposed to be about this year? “Actions speak louder than words.” Remember? So why are they giving us feel-good songs instead of real action to protect kids?

The more I thought about it, the more I remembered a Southern Baptist resolution from about a decade ago. It was a resolution criticizing something an author said in an article published in a journal of the American Psychological Association. Even though the American Psychological Association had already issued a public statement clarifying its associational view against the article's authors and "opposing child sexual abuse," the Southern Baptist Convention decided to use the occasion to toot its own horn with a public resolution about “precious” children.

Here are some excerpts from that resolution, with what I imagine Baptist leaders might have really been thinking in brown italics. (Did I mention that I’m feeling a bit sarcastic today?)

"...children are precious gifts from God..."

UNLESS you were a child who was molested or raped by a Southern Baptist anointed one, and then you're automatically transformed into a pariah and banished forever. There's nothing "precious" about pariahs.

"The spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional well-being of children is our sacred duty."

UNLESS you were a child who was targeted by one of our own Southern Baptist anointed ones, and since that means you were predestined to be less-than-human anyway, we can't possibly have any sacred duty toward you.

"No civilization can long survive without protecting and nurturing its children."

And THAT'S why we have to keep covering this stuff up. It's for our own survival. We have to make sure that people in the pews will keep putting money in the offering plates and won't realize that, in reality, our denomination is NOT protecting children in the churches.

"The sexual abuse of children is a particularly heinous assault on the dignity of children"

UNLESS you were a child who was molested or raped by a Southern Baptist anointed one, and since that automatically makes you less-than-human anyway, it can't possibly be so heinous, and besides, if you're less-than-human, you don't have any dignity anyway.

"We...commit ourselves afresh to protecting our children against sexual abuse...."

UNLESS they're children who were predestined to be targeted for molestation and rape by our own Southern Baptist anointed ones, because those children will automatically become pariahs anyway, and so they aren't worthy of our protection to start with.

"We encourage those who are victims of sexual abuse to seek appropriate spiritual counseling in order to find the support and strength they need...."

UNLESS you were sexually abused by a Southern Baptist anointed one, and then we just want you to shut up and go away... and we sure don't want you to get any counseling, because we don't want you to have enough strength to talk. Besides, the only creatures worthy of counseling are humans, and those who have been sexually abused by Southern Baptist anointed ones are automatically deemed less-than-human.

"...we commit ourselves to pray and work toward the creation of safe communities for all children."

EXCEPT that our first and primary priority is to create safe church communities for our Southern Baptist anointed ones so that they don't ever have to worry about even the possibility of a false accusation from one of those less-than-human creatures - the pariahs.

Think I’ve become too cynical? Well, it’s hard not to be cynical when you see the things Baptist leaders say and then start looking around for deeds that back up their words. The deeds don’t exist.

Where are the actions to show that Southern Baptist leaders care about protecting the kids in their own churches against predation by their own clergy?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kicking out gays but keeping clergy-perps

Comments in brown italics are my own. Yes… some reflect sarcasm.

FROM THE BAPTIST PRESS (6/22/09) -- The Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee recommended in a unanimous vote Monday afternoon that the denomination cease its relationship with Broadway Baptist Church, a Fort Worth, Texas, congregation that has been the source of controversy over its stance on homosexuality . . . .

At issue is whether the church is in violation of Article III of the SBC Constitution, which states that churches "which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior" are not in friendly cooperation. Broadway Baptist has approximately five open homosexual members, including two male couples, according to church leaders. Some of the homosexuals serve on church committees . . . .

Stephen Wilson, a member of the Executive Committee and vice president for academic affairs at Mid-Continent University, emphasized to Baptist Press that the denomination encourages churches to reach out to people struggling with homosexuality. The issue with Broadway Baptist, though, is over a church allowing members who are homosexual and unrepentant . . .

Oh… I see… the real problem is that these five gay church members are “open” and “unrepentant.” They’re violating the #1 rule of Baptist life -- keep it secret. If you dance, don’t tell. If you drink, don’t tell. And if you’re gay… well that goes double… don’t tell.

I can just hear some of those SBC leaders now. “Why can’t those gay-guy troublemakers be more like our clergy child molesters? The clergy child molesters aren’t open about it and so it’s no problem. And even when they’re caught, they have the good sense to repent. Or at least to say they’re repentant."

Prior to the February meeting, the church sent a letter to the Executive Committee, which stated in part: "Broadway has never taken any church action to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior. Broadway Baptist Church considers itself to be in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention and has every intention of remaining so." It further stated, "While we extend Christian hospitality to everyone -- including homosexuals -- we do not endorse, approve, or affirm homosexual behavior."

But Wilson said the church's actions ran counter to what it claimed in the letter.

"[I]t was more from what they were actually doing in practice where the conflict was," Wilson said. "While they didn't officially endorse it, they were allowing members and also people in leadership that were homosexual" . . . .

So… Baptist officials won’t accept the mere word of a church that it doesn’t “endorse… homosexual behavior.” Instead, Baptist officials will investigate “the church’s actions.” But when it comes to churches with clergy reported for sexual abuse and child molestation, Baptist officials turn a blind-eye, don’t investigate, and don’t do diddly-squat. And when it comes to churches with clergy who knowingly kept quiet about ministerial child molestation, Baptist officials simply accept their word that they don’t really endorse clergy sex abuse. “Oh gee whiz… we didn’t really mean any harm by keeping quiet and keeping that man in ministry after he admitted to molesting a kid. It was uncharted waters.”

SBC officials don’t even blink at that. Though most ordinary people might say that keeping a pastor who turned a blind-eye to ministerial child molestation “runs counter” to a verbal stance against clergy child molestation, Baptist officials simply shrug. "It’s up to the autonomous local church," they say.

Incidentally, Stephen Wilson is the same guy who was chair of the committee last year when it decided that Southern Baptist officials should not take any action toward assessing Baptist ministers who are reported for child molestation. The SBC will investigate and evict a church with a few gay members, but they won’t do diddly-squat about churches with reported child molesters in the pulpits. (In the
photo, that’s Stephen Wilson on the right, talking with a Broadway member who appeared before the committee on February 17, 2009.)

David Lowrie… president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, told BP he had hoped Broadway Baptist would do more to make clear it opposes homosexuality . . . . Lowrie said he told church leadership "that they needed to take a step beyond just making a public declaration" in a letter.

"They needed to actually express those convictions in some practical way," he said. "They, for whatever reason, weren't able to do that . . . . He said he thought a ministry within the church to help people with "unhealthy lifestyles" would have helped clarify the matter . . . .

Oh… I see… the motive for “ministry” is to “clarify” a church’s own righteousness. It’s not about helping the people being ministered to; it’s about promoting the church’s own good-standing in the sisterhood of Southern Baptist churches. Frankly, if I knew about a church that had a “ministry” founded with this sort of attitude, and they wanted to “minister” to me, I’d run.

And if Lowrie is so concerned about wanting deeds to match words “in some practical way,” why is it that the Baptist General Convention of Texas provides readily available and confidential counseling referrals and counseling subsidies for clergy sex abusers, but doesn’t provide any readily available help at all for the victims of clergy sex abusers? Why doesn’t Lowrie see that, in a very practical way, this amounts to support for the clergy sex abusers? Oh gee whiz… but the BGCT claims that it opposes clergy sex abuse. So they say… but look at the “practical” reality of what they’re actually doing and not doing.

FROM THE ASSOCIATED BAPTIST PRESS (6/22/09 with update) -- It took messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 23 only 30 seconds to sever a 125-year relationship with a prominent Texas congregation because of the church’s perceived toleration of gay members . . . .

"We are disappointed with the decision of the Southern Baptist Convention," said Kathy Madeja, the church's deacon chair . . . .

Uh-oh. A woman as deacon chair. For Southern Baptist Execs, that probably didn’t sit well either. Can’t this church get anything right?

August Boto, the Executive Committee's executive vice president and general counsel, sent an April 21 letter to Broadway officials. It said members of the committee had received information from people with firsthand knowledge of the church showing "rather pointedly that there is a clear divergence between the prevalent views of the Convention on the topic and those of your church."

Boto said the church needed to respond to a series of questions about the church's stance on homosexuality in order to "protect the reputation of the Convention". . . .

Oh… I see… if a church is reported for having 5 gay members, then the attorney for the SBC Executive Committee will send out an investigative letter with a “series of questions.” They have to do that, you know, “to protect the reputation of the Convention.” But when a church is reported for having a clergy child molester in the pulpit, the SBC Executive Committee doesn’t do anything, except maybe give a sermon on forgiveness to the person who reported it. Then they’ll say “Baptist churches are autonomous” and wash their hands of it. I guess they don’t worry too much about how clergy child molesters affect “the reputation of the Convention.” Of course, like I said earlier, it helps that clergy child molesters follow the Baptist rule of keeping it secret. So they’re usually no trouble.

Incidentally, this is the same August Boto whom former Southern Baptist president Frank Page identified as being “in charge” of the committee that chose to do nothing toward creating a database of credibly-accused Baptist clergy sex abusers.

The SBC changed its constitution in 1993 to exclude churches that are welcoming and affirming of gays. Previously the amendment was interpreted to apply only to churches that take some formal action, like ordaining or licensing a gay minister or conducting a ceremony to bless a same-sex union, but in 2006 an SBC-affiliated state convention with a similar policy said a church could be expelled for simply being perceived as affirming homosexual behavior.

Make no mistake about it: I don’t buy the SBC’s excuse that local church autonomy prevents them from taking action to protect kids against clergy child molesters. Not for one second. Providing churches with objective assessments and a database of information doesn’t violate church autonomy. The SBC could do it, and they could do it right now.

But here’s the thing. Even if you buy into their radicalized and wildly inconsistent notion of local church autonomy, the Southern Baptist Convention could still do something about this if it wanted to. The Southern Baptist Convention could change its own constitution and bylaws. They’ve done it for other reasons, and if they wanted, they could choose to do it for the protection of kids.

The problem isn’t that they can’t take action. It’s that they won’t.


Prior related columns:
Baptist autonomy ignored in investigating gays but not clergy child molesters
Autonomy Schmonomy

Actions speak louder than words

In Louisville, Kentucky, the Southern Baptist Convention is gathered for its annual two-day hoopla. The theme of this year’s convention is “Actions speak louder than words.”

An Open Letter to Southern Baptist Messengers

Dear Southern Baptist Messengers:

“Actions speak louder than words.” It’s a good slogan, but do you really mean it?

A year ago, your Executive Committee announced its decision not to create a clergy-predator database or an office to field abuse claims. (Eric Gorski - Associated Press, “Southern Baptists reject sex-abuse database,” Washington Post, 6/10/08).

What message do you imagine this do-nothing decision sent? To Baptist clergy abuse survivors, it sent a message of “we don’t really care.” To Baptist clergy-predators, it sent a message of “we’ll look the other way.”

Oh sure, we heard the fine preaching of Executive Committee president Morris Chapman. We heard him “encourage” local churches to rout out predators. But that was just words. Where is the action?

Southern Baptist woman Alyce Faulkner also heard Chapman’s preaching, but she didn’t applaud like so many others. “Am I the only one sick of empty words?” she asked. “We rally around words -- when will we rally around reality? Once again, we resolve to do nothing. God help us.” (Miracle of Mercy blog, 6/10/08)

Law professor Marci Hamilton summed up the sad reality of this denomination’s inaction. “The Southern Baptist Convention has . . . proven why it is that children are at risk for sexual abuse in our society: It’s easier to issue ineffectual platitudes while looking the other way.” (“The Southern Baptist Convention’s unconvincing claims...,” FindLaw, June 12, 2008)

Make no mistake about it: others can see that this denomination’s response to clergy sex abuse is just talk -- platitudes and preaching. Where is the action?

Did your Executive Committee even do so much as a legitimate study on the clergy abuse issue, as messengers directed it to in 2007? Some might reasonably wonder. When asked, no one at SBC headquarters could provide a budget for the “study,” and SBC official Roger “Sing” Oldham admitted that there was no specific budget for it. (Elizabeth Ulrich, “What would Jesus say?” Nashville Scene, 2/14/08) Recently, in talking about a marketing strategy, your former vice-president of evangelization, John Avant, said that “you can’t have a vision that doesn’t have a funded budget.” (David Waters, “Southern Baptist decline and God’s bottom line,” Washington Post, 12/22/08) He’s right. Without even so much as a funded budget, it’s obvious that your Executive Committee never had any vision for effectively addressing or even studying Baptist clergy sex abuse.

When this denomination finally decides to actually take action against clergy sex abuse, here are the basics of what it needs to provide: (1) a safe and welcoming place for people to report clergy sex abuse; (2) an objective, professionally trained panel for responsibly assessing abuse reports; and (3) an efficient means of assuring that the assessment information reaches people in the pews -- i.e., a database.

Tell your Baptist officials to get busy. Tell them you’re tired of just talk. Tell them “actions speak louder than words.” Tell them soon.

Action is what protects kids; not words.

Very truly yours,

David Clohessy
SNAP National Director

Christa Brown
SNAP Baptist Outreach Director

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Greatness and Smallness

“Southern Baptists have always been a Great Commission people.”

So begins the Great Commission Resurgence document that will be the center of debate at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual gathering next week in Louisville, Kentucky.

If you grew up Baptist, you know what they’re talking about. It’s Matthew 28:19-20 where Jesus said: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you….”

This is the core of evangelicalism, and the heart of Baptists’ missional motivation.

Now, faced with declining numbers in the denomination, Southern Baptist president Johnny Hunt is trying to re-energize Baptists’ missionary efforts by streamlining denominational structure.

Based on talk in the Baptist blogosphere, the Convention’s debate will likely center on a single article of that Great Commission Resurgence document. It’s article 9, in which they call upon Southern Baptists “to evaluate our Convention structures and priorities so that we can maximize our energy and resources for the health of our local churches and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”

In the explanation beneath article 9, the document talks about the need for a “more effective convention structure” so that Baptists can be “streamlined for more faithful stewardship of the funds entrusted to them.” It urges Baptists to “ask hard questions” about every aspect of structure and priorities.”

What it’s really saying, in a nice way, is that the Baptist bureaucracy is out of control. Maintenance of Southern Baptist national headquarters now takes 2.86 percent of the Cooperative Program budget each year. For those of you who weren’t raised Baptist, the Cooperative Program is the pooled portion of the $11 billion in Southern Baptist offering plate dollars that is directed outside the local churches and toward programs on which Baptists work together.

The 2.86 percent that’s now being spent at national headquarters is not money that’s being spent for missionary work. It’s money that’s going for the salaries, benefits, buildings, offices, and travel of all those guys in Nashville.

Just thirty years ago, the national headquarters took only 1 percent of the Cooperative Program budget, and it was a much smaller overall budget.

But Baptist numbers are dwindling. This mighty faith group is becoming less mighty. So clearly, the bigger, bloated bureaucracy isn’t helping them win more souls or put more people in the pews. (And keep in mind that, for now, I’m just talking about the national bureaucracy. The state convention bureaucracies also take Cooperative Program dollars.)

People who put money in Baptist offering plates ought to ponder this. The Southern Baptist national bureaucracy is taking 2.86 percent of the $548 million Cooperative Program budget each year. That’s a lot of bucks for a bureaucracy.

Wouldn’t you think that such a well-funded bureaucracy could at least manage the task of keeping track of Baptist clergy-predators? After all, if they’re going to build such a big bureaucracy, shouldn’t they at least put it to good use?

When I saw these numbers and the call for “more faithful stewardship of the funds,” I couldn’t help but wonder why Southern Baptist leaders weren’t equally concerned with stewardship of the children who have been entrusted to upbringing in Baptist churches.

In promoting the Great Commission Resurgence, Baptist leaders talk about their “instititutional identity.” Why don’t they realize how much their “institutional identity” is tainted when they allow clergy predators to church-hop without anyone imposing accountability?

A big part of Baptists’ institutional identity has always been the grandness of “go ye therefore and teach all nations.” From my earliest days in Sunbeams, I knew that this was what it was all about -- going into all the world. Later, in Girls’ Auxiliary, I painstakingly put thousands of tiny cross-stitches into a white cloth to make a map of that world.

That world was the mission. That world was the vision. That world was the commandment. That was what Baptists were all about… going into all the world.

Nowadays, I find myself wondering if perhaps Baptists have focused too long and too much on the greatness of “go ye therefore and teach all nations.” What would Baptists be like if they had focused an equal amount of energy on the smallness of “the least of these”?

What would Baptists be like if they were equally attentive to Jesus’ words just a few chapters earlier in Matthew 25? What would Baptists be like if, for all these many decades, they had focused an equal measure of attention on “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these… ye have done it unto me”?

I realize that “the least of these” doesn’t carry the grandeur of “go ye therefore and teach all nations.” But maybe that’s the point. Maybe that smallness is exactly what Baptists have overlooked for far too long.

Maybe Baptists could indeed see a “resurgence” if they would care about the smallness of “the least of these” as much as they care about the greatness of “teach all nations.”

Besides, I thought part of what they were supposed to “teach all nations” was the lesson of “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's wrong with this picture?

Remember the “what’s wrong with this picture” feature in Highlights magazine? As a kid, I would huddle in a library corner, studying the two seemingly identical pictures and trying to figure out what was wrong with the second one. Sometimes I’d spot a rabbit in the bushes that wasn’t in the first picture, or maybe an additional squirrel scurrying up a tree. Sometimes, the second picture would erase things instead of add things. I’d count the stripes on a girl’s skirt because there might be 8 stripes in the first picture, and only 7 in the second. Or maybe a boy’s hat would have vanished. You had to look at everything very closely.

That’s how I feel whenever I see news on the Arkansas case involving the prominent First Baptist Church of Benton. There is something wrong with the picture.

On Friday, April 24th, Sheriff Bruce Pennington announced the arrest of Southern Baptist music minister David Pierce on one count of sexual indecency with a child. The sheriff himself made the arrest. The sheriff is a member of the church. That was the first thing that didn’t look quite right.

Pastor Rick Grant then issued this statement: "First Baptist Church has terminated the employment of David Pierce, our longtime music minister, as a result of serious moral failures on his part. The events for which he was terminated occurred several years ago, but left the church no alternative other than to dismiss him."

The official Baptist Press hopped on top of this story. That was sure weird. The Baptist Press ignores almost all other Baptist clergy sex abuse stories. So why did they hop on this one?

In not just one, but two articles, they painted a picture of church officials who “immediately” terminated Pierce and who contacted authorities “upon learning of the allegations.” In local media as well, the pastor said the church had terminated Pierce “when the allegations were made.” This claim was repeated so often that it almost looked like bragging… as though the church had done everything right.

But there’s something wrong with this picture.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that three adult men said Pierce had abused them years earlier. According to the Democrat-Gazette, when church leaders became aware of the teen’s claim of abuse, “they contacted authorities and provided investigators with the names of the three adult church members who also said they were abused by Pierce when they were younger….”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Gmommy saw it right away. “I'm wondering why it was the pastor who gave that info to the police after their music minister was arrested,” she asked. Gmommy had seen how things played out at the prominent Bellevue Baptist Church, where the pastor kept quiet for 6 months about a staff minister’s admitted abuse of a kid. So she readily saw what looked like a possible similar pattern at First Baptist of Benton.

I saw it too.

And the Benton Courier gave us still another piece that made the picture look all the more wrong. It reported that, on April 23, the church’s senior deacon, Paul White, spoke with a detective, and “at that time,” deacon White “provided the names of three men who allegedly told the church pastor, Dr. Rick Grant, that as teenagers they had been victimized by Pierce.”

Did you get that? On April 23 -- the day before Pierce was arrested on the charge involving the teen and the day before Pastor Rick Grant issued his rather minimizing statement -- church leaders already knew about 3 adult men who said they were sexually abused by Pierce when they were younger. But their claims were too old to prosecute.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

How did it happen that, at the very moment when Pierce was being arrested on an allegation involving a teen whose claim could still be prosecuted, church leaders were able to readily provide investigators with the names of 3 adults who said they had been abused as teens? When -- exactly -- did church leaders know about the earlier allegations? And if church leaders already knew about 3 others, why hadn't Pierce already been removed from ministry, pending at least a church investigation?

And why wasn’t Pastor Grant totally transparent in his initial statement on April 24th? Why didn’t he tell people from the get-go that others, who are now adults, had also reported abuse by Pierce? Why did he leave people to puzzle over trying to figure out what’s wrong with the picture?

Pierce has now been charged with 53 more counts of sexual indecency with children. The charges involve 4 boys, all of whom are “still teenagers,” and so they’re within the time limit for criminal prosecution. Authorities say the charges are based on “incidents” within the past three years, but that “the kind of activity … is believed to date back as far as 15 years.”

Given that “the kind of activity” can be traced back 15 years, you have to wonder whether there could be victims with allegations dating back even further -- victims who are still quiet. After all, Pierce was at that church for 29 years.

Why aren’t all the FBC-Benton pastors who served with Pierce taking public and pro-active measures to reach out to additional possible victims? A lot of kids were under their pastoral care during Pierce’s 29-year tenure. If you were a Pierce victim, don’t you think it might help if the pastor of your childhood reached out to try to help you?

Pierce had a scheduled court hearing a couple days ago, on June 15th, but the hearing was continued. The attorney needed more time to review “the extensive evidence in the case.”

After the hearing, a member of First Baptist Church of Benton, Greg White, talked to reporters and said this: “I believe it’s important if a Christian brother asks for forgiveness, we as Christians should accept that.” Greg White is also a member of the Benton City Council.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Imagine this: You’re a man who was sexually abused by Pierce when you were a kid. Maybe you even told the pastor about it, as the Courier reported that some did. Are you going to speak up and tell all that you know about how church officials handled your report, or didn't handle it, when you can readily see how the deck is stacked -- a prominent city councilman preaching “forgiveness,” the sheriff himself singing the church’s praise, and the senior pastor giving the scene a lovely feel-good gloss. Are you going to be the one to point out what’s wrong with that glossed-over picture?

Now take a look at some of the comments that people in the community left on this early article about the Pierce case. Stuff like this:

  • “Most out-of-the-family child abuse is caused by uninformed children. They need to know what is appropriate and what is not.” (4/25/09 7:55)

  • “To those who have never met David Pierce you really should not judge. This man has helped many people during his 30 years of ministry.” (4/25/09 8:05)

  • “He should be forgiven because: Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.” (4/29/09 3:14)

  • “You are now murderers for if you say things y’all are saying you are destroying a church of God in his eyes - you are murdering his people.” (5/1/09 1:30)

  • And allegedly, a Friends of David Pierce account was opened at the local bank to raise money for Pierce and his family. (5/9/09 9:33)

Still think you’re going to speak up if you live in this community? If your parents and family members live in this community? If they still go to this church?

Baptists don’t make it easy for clergy abuse survivors. There’s just way too much that’s way too wrong with the picture.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Baptist leaders must consider possible consequences

Southern Baptist pastor Matt Baker church-hopped through Texas, leaving a trail of sexual assault and abuse allegations. Yet, no one stopped him. Now he's indicted on a murder charge.

Matt Baker didn't even have to move across state lines. Every step of his career, Baker was in churches and organizations affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Yet, even within that single entity, no one was keeping track of the many allegations against Baker.

A Texas Monthly investigative journalist offered this explanation for why Baker was able to keep getting jobs in Baptist-land despite the many accusations against him:

"To avoid defamation lawsuits, leaders of a church have an incentive to keep their mouths shut when it comes to questionable behavior among clergy, which is perhaps why First Baptist officials said nothing about the allegations when other churches later called, interested in hiring Matt.”

So, Baker was able to keep moving on, and the trail of allegations grew longer.

Now, he's charged with having murdered his wife. It's alleged that his motive was a desire to pursue another young woman in his church.

Of course, the question of Matt Baker's guilt or innocence on the murder charge will be decided in a courtroom. But whatever the murder-charge verdict may be, it won't answer the question of why so many sexual abuse and assault allegations were allowed to stack up against Baker, with no one in Baptist-land doing anything about it. That's a question that Baptist leaders ought to have to answer -- and especially leaders at the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Many experts say that, when predators are allowed to get away with abuse, they often become emboldened and their conduct escalates.

Would Kari Baker still be alive if Matt Baker had been made to answer for all the abuse and assault allegations instead of simply being allowed to move on?

I don't imagine we can actually know the answer to that specific question. But I do think Baptist leaders need to seriously consider all the possible consequences of all their do-nothingness in the face of clergy sex abuse.

CBS News 48 Hours aired an update on the Matt Baker story on June 9, 2009. (It's 42 minutes.)

For more details on Matt Baker's career, including the Baptist churches and organizations where he worked, and including news links, see my prior blog posting: Why didn’t Baptists bust him?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Harsh words make my point

Did you see the article about my book in the Associated Baptist Press? Did you see the first guy’s comment underneath the review?

Take a deep breath and take a look. Here’s what he says:

“This woman is on nothing more than a vendetta against the SBC because she's still having problems as a result. Her constant desire to get publicity is evidence of her penchant for hateful revenge. Frankly, I suspect her alleged experience really happened, and yet it's still just a story without substantiation. Being Baptist had nothing to do with her experience. It happens is all walks of life and it's unfortunate. The article states that she 'found him on her own.' What more compelling evidence can there be but that this woman still has mental/emotional issues she can’t overcome? Writing a book to keep herself in the victim spotlight maybe. Indeed, the SBC has examined her whining and has done exactly the right thing according to Baptist polity—it has to be left to the local church…. This woman seems to have done little to acquire a spirit of forgiveness. Her story is not unique. Some Baptist pastors do have lapses of judgment in this area. And so do Presbyterians, Lutherans… Catholics and all the others. This woman writing a book to keep attention on herself serve no useful purpose….”

It’s amazing how guys like this wind up illustrating the very things I say in the book. I talk about how clergy abuse survivors so often get ugly words flung at them -- words like “Jezebel, rage-filled, bitter, little Lolita, unforgiving, divisive, tramp, trash, unChristian, anti-Christian, Christian-hater, church-hater, homo, spawn of Satan, trouble-maker, whiner, attention-seeker.” (This Little Light at p. 182) And I talk about how high Southern Baptist leaders have fostered that sort of ugliness with their own harsh rhetoric. Remember how former Southern Baptist president Frank Page said we were “nothing more than opportunistic persons”? Remember how former Southern Baptist president Paige Patterson called us “evil-doers”?

Lo and behold, look at what happens with the first published article about the book. I rest my case.

But just for the heck of it, I’m going to actually address a few of his comments.

“… just a story without substantiation.”

The guy hasn’t read the book. That’s obvious. There’s plenty of substantiation for my story, and for a lot of other Baptist abuse stories as well. The problem is that no one really cares about substantiation other than as a handy term to fling out as an excuse for doing nothing. Baptists’ knee-jerk notion of “no substantiation” is often hogwash. First of all, in most cases, how would they know one way or the other whether substantiation exists since they don’t have any review boards that will bother to conscientiously assess information? Second, in a lot of the cases I hear about, there is indeed substantiation, but no one pays any attention to it. Third, I’ve seen cases in which the minister admitted to conduct that constituted sexual abuse, and STILL no one did anything. Fourth, even if an allegation of clergy child molestation doesn’t have immediately available substantiation, shouldn’t someone in Baptist leadership care enough about even a bare allegation to responsibly look into it and to assess whether substantiation can be found?

“… it’s unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate”? Is it merely “unfortunate” when a kid is molested or raped by a Baptist minister? What an immoral minimizing term for such a serious offense! It’s “unfortunate” when I break my favorite coffee cup. It’s a great deal worse than “unfortunate” when a kid is sexually abused by a minister.

“This woman seems to have done little to acquire a spirit of forgiveness.”

There it is again -- “the F-word.” Need I say more? The survivor in that linked posting said it best of all. “It’s not that victims are against forgiveness. Victims are against forgiveness as the solution to the problem. Because then the problem will go on and on.”

“Her story is not unique.”

He got that one right. My story is far from unique. There are hundreds of us who have been sexually abused by Baptist ministers, and so far, we haven’t seen that very many in this denomination give a hoot. Certainly not the denomination’s leaders.

“Some Baptist pastors do have lapses of judgment in this area.”

“Lapses of judgment”??? Don’t that just beat all? It sounds like some sort of sick joke, doesn’t it?

Question: What do Baptists call clergy child molestation and child rape?
Answer: “Lapses of judgment.”

It’s not very funny, is it?

Question: What do Baptists do about clergy child molestation and child rape?
Answer: Repent and repeat.

I know. That one’s not very funny either, is it? But it’s exactly what happens and will continue to happen until Baptists institute clergy accountability mechanisms similar to what other major faith groups have -- mechanisms like clergy abuse review boards that can relay assessment information to people in the pews.

Guys like this are a good example of why Baptists so desperately need a review board with experts and trained professionals to assess abuse reports. Because when it comes to understanding clergy sex abuse, there are a lot of Bozos in Baptist-land. Except they aren't funny.

You can leave comments on the Associated Baptist Press story itself if you want. You have to register, but it's easy.

More info about the book is here.

Update 6/11/09: Good Hard Working People recommends "This Little Light".

Monday, June 8, 2009

This Little Light

My book is finally out!

It's called This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.

As always, I hope that my work may be of help to others, that it may shine a light on truth, and that it may prod this in-the-dark denomination toward an ethical practice that prioritizes kid-protection ahead of institutional protection.

This Little Light is a combination memoir and exposé that not only tells my personal story, but also documents the beginning of activist efforts to bring clergy accountability to Baptist-land. You can see more info about the book on this new blog-site: ThisLittleLight-TheBook.

You can see the full cover of the book - front and back - here.

The book is available on Barnes and Noble and Amazon, or you can order it from your local bookstore.

Many thanks to all of you who have shared parts of this journey with me. The journey continues.

Read the news on my book in the Associated Baptist Press.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Hottest Places in Hell

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.”

This quote is usually attributed to the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. It’s a loose translation from Dante’s Inferno.

That was one of those things they made me read in school, and I wound up loving it. It’s just an allegorical tale, but it’s very visual. And since I grew up in a hellfire & brimstone sort of church, Dante’s visual metaphors were the sort that I could easily latch onto.

In Dante’s Inferno, people at various levels of hell are afflicted by their own chief sin. They’re people who tried to justify and rationalize their sins, and who are unrepentant.

Dante lived in the 14th century, but if he could have looked into the future, I can’t help but wonder whether he might have placed Southern Baptist officials inside that metaphorical “hottest place.”

After all, Southern Baptist officials have done a pretty darn good job of ducking moral responsibility on clergy sex abuse, haven’t they?

Even with all the massive resources that they could bring to bear on the crisis, they choose instead to stand on the sidelines.

“Congregational autonomy,” is their mantra. It’s code for “not our problem.”

And by doing nothing, they assure their OWN protection. To hell with protecting kids.

These are cowards of the worst kind.

Metaphorically, these are the faces we glimpse in windows -- the faces that watch while children are carted off for molestation by Baptist clergy. Oh . . . they don’t actually see the rapes and molestations, but they know where those children are being led. They know what is happening.

And what do they do?

They pull the curtains.

With their indifferent, blind-eyed, do-nothingness, they tell clergy abuse victims “go to hell.”

But perhaps Dante would say that the hottest places are actually reserved for them.

For those of you who are getting ready to fire off an email to me, let me reiterate: It's a metaphor.

The photo: Auguste Rodin’s sculpture "The Thinker" was originally created as a small part of a larger whole called “The Gates of Hell.” It contains over 180 figures, most of them writhing and distorted, but directly above the doors sits an apparently serene man, lost in thought. This figure was said to represent the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, contemplating his vision of hell in "The Inferno." Eventually, Rodin presented "The Thinker" as a much larger independent work.