What Jesus Looks Like Sometimes

A longtime friend and supporter of my ministry sent the following, about sex offenders and those on the registry in church:

“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.

“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.”

He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on.

I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others.

The author, Hugh Hollowell, is a Mennonite pastor who calls himself “the pastor of last resort,” I title I like so much I’m going to steal it and use it someday. He does the kind of ministry I do, I would like to do — hardscrabble ministry with lost and broken people in a place no one loves or cares much about.

But the last year has brought me here, to a ministry of mercy for abused and abandoned foster kids, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse, and many have been trafficked. I deal frequently with victims, I hear such terrible stories, and I try to minister to them, to help them understand how God is present in their lives. How God is redeeming them.

So it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for the perpetrators, many of whom are very bad men — beating, raping, abducting, buying, selling. Treating these amazing young women as mere things for pleasure and profit.

Much of the time, I want vengeance. Suffering for these men for the evil they have wrought. I don’t see them as redeemable. Not really.

But Hollowell is right. The people we label as “sex offenders” come in all shapes and sizes. For a while, I counseled a young man named Aiden who was doing six months in juvenile detention because, at 16, he had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. The age of consent in Washington is 16, and it’s a hard age of consent — there are no allowances for young teens who have sex with each other. Her parents found out, and were not happy. Aiden said he was okay with his sentence — it kept him off the registry, and probably gave him a chance to rethink his life a bit.

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Sadly, doing this ministry, I’ve met too many young women – 13 and 14-year-olds — with much older boyfriends — 17, 18, 19. I’ve counseled and ministered to teenage girls protecting themselves by being with men in their 20s. And some are having sex with parental permission because the parents know at least the boyfriend is kind, treats their daughter well, and keeps her safe. (Because once a girl is a rape victim in a small community, predators of all ages seem to know, and the girl is a target.) Or because there are no parents at all. This is hardly ideal, and I only grudgingly accept it, but sometimes it’s the best protection a young woman can find.

(I’ve seen what foster care can do, and what kind of charnel houses and torture chambers foster home can be. And the police aren’t much use unless a crime is actually being committed and they can stop it in the act.)

But you know, even the rapists, even the traffickers, even the murderers, are not so far in the dark that Jesus isn’t light for them, that Jesus doesn’t love them. Doesn’t redeem them. Doing what I do right now, with the victims, means I’m probably not the person to pronounce that love — I’m too close to those who have suffered. Nor does the pronouncement of that love negate any responsibility we have to punish those who hurt others and keep the vulnerable safe.

The ideal place for such a ministry is prison.

But some of these men get out. Live in our midst. And Jesus loves them too. Died for them and rose for them, pronounced to some “today you will be in paradise with me.” You wouldn’t have such people worship in a church full of victims. Not unless there was some very serious repentance, penance, and reconciliation, not unless the victims themselves want that, lead that, set the terms and have the final say.

We do need to be reminded sometimes, though, that no one is so far from the love of God that they should be excluded from the church, from the people of God, no matter who they are.

No matter what they have done.

It is a Terrible Thing, This Knowing

I am still reading Mira Rothenberg’s Children With Emerald Eyes. I’m almost done, but there is a passage I came across, in her chapter “Winthrop and Others,” which struck me hard as I continue to do this amazing and strange ministry with abused kids.

The picture looked as though he had carried it forever. “He is a clown,” [Billy] told me, “he laughs. And he makes people laugh. But really he is sad. Very sad, Mira. Why?” “Maybe it is because he has lived so much and knows so much,” I said. Billy then said with a smile, “It is hard, Mira, to know so much, isn’t it?”

Why? Is it because it is hard to find words? Hard to say all one knows? A child is only a child and people don’t know how very much a child knows. Or is it because people won’t listen to a child, or even to an adult? Because they don’t want to know, other than what they already know. Or is it because they just can’t, won’t understand? Maybe because they won’t believe whatever doesn’t come within their experience? (217–218)

It is hard to know things others do not know and do not want to know. I suspect this why the phrase “children of the secret” is used. I know this ministry started with kids in the Pacific Northwest, though it is also beginning to take me farther afield, but as I drove the streets of Upstate New York, to and from work, I often wondered — what I am not seeing here? What don’t I know about this place that I know about Spokane? Who might need me here that I will never find because … because they don’t know how to find me?

Honestly, it is also tough to be an adult and know things that others do not want to know. Rothenberg is right — some people simply do not want to listen. Cannot be bothered. Like Pharaoh, their hearts have been hardened, calloused to the suffering they inflict, or just conveniently ignore.

But I listen. I have heard so many awful stories, so many terrible secrets. So much pain, sorrow, and anger. So much loneliness. I listen. I will never stop listening.

Having Protectors Matters

Jacobin Magazine, the online Marxist publication (and fantastically unapologetic about it!) has a fascinating and heartbreaking piece on the misery inflicted on women, children, and poor families by the Irish state’s close cooperation with the Catholic Church:

By 1924, there were more children in industrial schools in the Irish Free State than there were in all of the industrial schools in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined. The system was abolished in England in 1933, but in Ireland, particularly following the suppression of the 1935 Carrigan Report, the reformatory system continued for decades.

The Carrigan committee was tasked with investigating the “moral state” of the country, but on viewing the committee’s findings the Department of Justice decided to conceal the report. According to an internal memo, the report “was unbalanced to be too severe on men, while overlooking the shortcomings of women in these matters, and the, at times, highly coloured imaginations of children.”

But as the Carrigan committee revealed, abuse was rampant in Irish institutions, and was strongly determined by class and status. Jim Beresford, a former resident of the Daingean Industrial School, put it this way: “What eventually stopped them abusing me was that I had parents, and I was articulate. Most of the other children were inarticulate and illiterate because they had spent their whole life in the institution.” [Emphasis mine — CHF] Beresford managed to escape and his sister immediately put him on the boat to England where he remained, a fugitive at fifteen years old.

Many others were less fortunate. In 1939, twin girls born to a single mother in Cork were placed in Clonakility Industrial School. One of the girls, Annie, remembers beatings, bed-wetting, and humiliation. With regard to her education she states: “The classroom was a place of punishment. It was where we watched people being sadistically beaten. If we were ambitious to study, they did not like that.”

No doubt the desire of the church to control and moralize about all human behavior, from that of single women to poor families, contributed to this, though Jacobin makes no case whatsoever in this piece for the contributions of Catholic Social Teaching to the miserable and inhuman conditions that Ireland’s poorest and most vulnerable people found themselves subject to in the six or seven decades following Irish independence.

Nor do I share Jacobin’s faith in the secular state (whether rightly guided by revolutionary socialist theory and ideals or not) to do any of this right either. The quote I highlighted is a reality, sadly, of what it means to be subject to institutions. (And socialism of any flavor will only make that worse.) Many of the kids I do ministry with are foster kids, have been in and through the system (which is definitely not church run in this country), and foster kids by definition have no one to fight for them, no one to advocate or agitate for them. It’s why they have contacted me. Because there is no one else to listen.

They are the perfect victims. And they remain perfect victims whether they face and impersonal church or an impersonal state.

The Torah is harsh in its teaching to Israel on how those who have no protectors, no one to fight back if they are wronged — strangers, wanderers, widows, and orphans — should be treated. And what will happen to Israel if they fail to heed the words of their Lord:

21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:21–24 ESV)

And if this wasn’t enough, Moses commanded Israel to remember the teaching as they prepared to cross the Jordan and take possession of the promised land:

“‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. ’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

I won’t call down curses upon Ireland, but the Irish church, that’s another matter. A church that would cooperate so closely to immiserate and abuse so many deserves to fall by the sword, burnt to the ground, left fatherless itself, cast into exile, its good and pleasant land left empty and desolate.

Staring Into the Darkness

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the darkness and the abyss humans frequently find themselves gazing into:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

I can’t help but think of this ministry that Jennifer and I am called to. And the two young people who wandered into our lives in the last week, both abused, one abandoned, asking not so much for help but just to let someone know they are alive, hoping they are not alone.

For Nietzsche, the abyss — the darkness — was a mirror that reflected the worst elements of ourselves. And he’s not wrong.

But we also struggle against, as St. Paul wrote, no mere flesh and blood, but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) And because of this, I am learning something about the darkness, about this abyss. It is not simply a mirror that reflects our own horrors, an image of who we really are or can be.

It has being unto itself. The darkness, the abyss, doesn’t simply stare back. It growls, lowly and with real menace. It breathes, its breath is wet and heavy and putrid. It rustles and its paws at you, and you can sometimes feel the currents left in the wake of its swipes.

But this darkness is not all powerful. I am reminded of the words of John’s gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4–5 ESV)

There are a couple of young people I cannot name right now that I’d like you all to keep praying for. They have reached out of the darkness they have been cast into toward the light — the light of Christ reflected off of me — and they seek a way out of their darkness. Pray for them.

And pray for me, and for Jennifer. Because as terrifying as the darkness, the abyss, is, some of us are called to walk into it. To carry light. To be light. Knowing that that darkness has not, and cannot, overcome it.

Three Cheers for Religious Liberty!

Something clearly needs to be done about the training given to Catholic priests.

BATON ROUGE, La. — A Louisiana judge has struck down a state requirement that clergy members report suspected child abuse even if they learn about it during a private confessional.

State District Judge Mike Caldwell ruled Friday that the requirement — a Louisiana Children’s Code provision — violates the constitutionally protected religious freedom rights of a Roman Catholic priest accused of neglecting his duty to report a teenager’s abuse allegations to authorities.

The Advocate reports that Caldwell ruled in favor of the Rev. Jeff Bayhi in a lawsuit that 22-year-old Rebecca Mayeaux filed against the priest and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge in 2009.

Mayeaux says she was 14 in 2008 when she told Bayhi during confession that a 64-year-old parishioner was sexually abusing her. Mayeaux claims Bayhi, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Clinton, told her to “sweep it under the floor and get rid of it.”

Bayhi, the priest who heard the young woman’s confession, is making a claim in this case that no one ought to support:

“We’re just always happy when the court upholds religious liberties,” Bayhi said as he left the courthouse.

If this becomes a definition of religious liberty, then we ought to lose it. Yesterday if possible.

However, I think what bothers me here is less the court’s ruling — I can grudgingly accept the court protecting the sanctity of the confessional. It is the allegation that the priest told the young woman, who was 14 when she reported this, to “sweep it under the floor.”

Instead, the priest — who probably failed to appreciate the gravity of this confession, and how difficult it was for this young woman to make — needed to tell her: “That’s not right, no one should hurt you like that, and you should report it. And I will help you and stand with you if you need me to.”

He should have encouraged her and empowered her. Not her abuser. He should have helped her find a voice to speak. And not silenced her.

The bishop, of course, is busy defending the ruling as upholding the First Amendment. Bully for him. I would hope he’d talk to his priests about the proper ways to help people who confess being sexually abused, but I won’t hold my breath. There are secrets to be kept. And a social order to be protected. Who cares about the well-being of 14-year-old girls anyway?

I think, however, I’m going to go through the gospels. Clearly I missed that place where Jesus cared more about the free exercise of religion than he did the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable.

“Love Me and Do Not Leave Me…”

It’s been a while since I’ve deal with an actual book in this blog. Mostly that has been because Jennifer and I have been poor and unsettled, and because of that, we’ve not had the time and the energy to focus on real books. Plus, to be honest, the Internet has gotten in the way.

A pastor friend, however, recently gave me a copy of Mira Rothenberg’s Children With Emerald Eyes: History of Extraordinary Boys and Girls, I think because of the ministry I have been called to with young people who dwell (or have dwelt) in darkness. To walk into hell with the wounded, to rescue the lost and then find our way back out.

Jesus did it. In that time between he gave up his spirit and rose from the tomb. That gives Jennifer and me the confidence to know we too can walk into hell and carry out the lost.

This is both a hard book to read and an invigorating one. By that, it is helpful to have someone professionally trained (Rothenberg was a clinical psychologist who began working with wounded and troubled kids in the 1950s, a time we can half-romanticize because treating kids, as opposed to medicating them and returning shareholder value, was actually appreciated) confirm a great deal of what I have observed and concluded.

I’m going to let this long passage about Rothenberg’s introduction to her time at the Katy Kill Falls residential treatment center in upstate New York speak for itself. Because I can add nothing to it.

Katy Kill.

Children: Labels. Categories.

Rape, assault, murder; some reached out to the world in this fashion.

Withdrawal, inaction, regression; others removed themselves, withdrew into their shells, and waited—waited for the world reach out to them. They reached out in this fashion.

The ones in-between; they did both.

Katy Kill. Always erupting or ready to erupt. Seething with greed from so much deprivation, with hate from so little love, with rage from needing and not getting, with love hidden deep and yet right on the surface. Seething with terror. Seething with sorrow deep and pain so potent that when the eruption comes, it has the howl of pain that it is driven by, rather than of the rage that it expresses itself through.

Katy Kill. Have you ever heard the sound of rage when it seems noiseless? It roars with an intensity. It grumbles with a desicating rhythm. Its voice is dry and throaty. Sometimes it sounds like hell. And its color is white.

Have you heard the sound of terror when it is noiseless? It rustles helplessly, like a leaf in a hurricane. It breaks hard, like the thunder. And it has a smell, a smell that shrivels your skin, a smell that makes you break out in a sweat so cold it freezes you. And its color is blue—deep, dark blue.

Have you ever heard the sound of pain when it is noiseless? It howls the loudest and it whines the quietest. It sounds as if it comes from the deepest bowels of the earth—that is you. It shakes with intensity and trembles with its own resonance over oceans of nothingness. And its color is black.

Have you ever heard the sound of loneliness when it is noiseless? It has a blast of thousands of trumpets. It has the howling of hyenas waiting for their prey. It has the howl of herds of starving wolves. Its melody is neither nice nor pretty. And it is gentle and full of fury. It is deep and somber, threatening and pleading. And its color is gray.

It shouts and echoes over all of eternity. It reverberates over the whole world and echoes in every cave, cavern, and mountain. It has a frightful sound; it has a howl. And the plea is: “Love, come to me.” Its basic ingredient is: “Give, give to me.” And the other ingredients are pain and terror, hate and rage, anger and tears, and: “Do not leave me, love me, and oh, it hurts so much.”

And the search. Have you ever seen the search for “that” which one no longer knows by any rightful name, but “that” or “what” or “Oh, God, help me!” or then no longer even that, but the burning ashes of a long, long, long ago fire?

Have you ever seen and felt and smelt and heard them all together? They have cold, sweaty hands. And eyes that sometimes burn and sometimes weep, red-rimmed, sleepless, hopeless. Eyes that try to hide deep into the sockets of the head, and finding the futility in this, just stare—nowhere. And the body, no matter straight or bent, or fat or skinny—something just about the shoulders—a little tilt, which in spite of of all its bravura and all its bravado in a very, very small voice asks: “Protect me.”

A child. Any child when abandoned. But all these children feel abandoned. It is the world versus the child. The child versus the world. In all, the impotence of both. In all, the fear of both.

And sometimes this loneliness of theirs takes you by the shoulders and says, “You are going to give.” And sometimes it kills because you didn’t give. And sometimes it kills because that it is a giving too: their giving. And sometimes it just withdraws and waits till you come and give, and in its waiting often dies. It stops. It doesn’t talk and doesn’t walk, and sometimes doesn’t move. It waits. It often dies, and in its strange perverted way it makes you give.

Sometimes there is sex to fill the voice. And the sex is then strange. There is little giving, but there is taking, there is devouring of you and whatever you can give to fill this voice. The exquisite giving and taking is no longer. The balance is disjointed. Because it is to take, to calm, to quiet this awful howl of loneliness and the hunger that derives from loneliness. To feed, so that for once, for this one short while, the need, the plea, the want is filled.

One doesn’t cry, with tears.

One doesn’t sob, with sobs.

One doesn’t ask, with please.

One waits, one watches. One is ready. One is tough. One pushes away. Except in the dream. One doesn’t talk about the dreams. That is the way to be, out there in the world that is a jungle. One hurts. One fights. One kills. So that one does not get hurt, get killed, one withdraws. In order not to get refused, one doesn’t ask.

The price of the ticket for a lifetimes is high. One pays. But one sees to it that everyone else will pay too. (p. 68-70)

I have never seen it described any better, with such force, power, and clarity, as Rothenberg has here (save maybe by Andrew Vachss). There isn’t a single thing I can add to this.

Not a thing.