Bonnets, Buggies and Sexual Abuse

bonnetsThe two men approached me, heads down, hands fidgeting. One man eventually met my eyes. “I was molested,” he said. “It happens in our community, but no one talks about it.”

The men used to be Amish. Now they lived on the “outside” with jobs and wives and kids. They’d just heard me speak about my own story of sexual abuse. I looked at them both, remembering all those sweet bonnet books that peppered the shelves of Christian bookstores, these books that offered escape from modern madness, harkening us back to a simpler time. I couldn’t shake the dichotomy.

“In order to get healing,” the other man said, eyes solemn, “we had to leave the community and get help.”

We talked an hour or so, me still trying to wrap my mind around the conversation. Generational abuse. Bestiality. Sexual perversion. Spousal rape. Physical abuse. All behind the white doors of white houses and white barns dotting idyllic countrysides. People lived with secrets they could not tell, or risk shunning or excommunication.

Another former Amish girl sat across from me, eyes gazing at her hands. She shared the kind of story that makes my own seem utterly small and insignificant. Long-term sexual abuse in her family. She’s on her own now, but left with ghosts and demons and a shaky heart. She’s trying to form new community, but she suffers from panic.

When I spoke at Grace Mennonite Church in Ohio last winter, I had another eye-opening conversation with Larry Kaufman, the lead pastor there. He lives smack dab in the middle of Mennonite and Amish country. I asked him if these stories I’d heard represented reality. Sadly, yes.

Recently we connected again as I considered writing this piece. I knew this post would cause a hornet’s nest of craziness, so I wanted to make sure I was representing the story honestly, particularly since I don’t live in Amish country and I haven’t experienced sexual abuse within that community. Larry graciously answered my questions.

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I’ve puzzled over the why. Why would such a tight-nit, sweet community foster abuse? (Please know I’m not indicting every single Amish or Mennonite person in this post. I’m simply highlighting one problem within the community).

Kaufman believes the why involves legalism.  At the most basic level, it is the depravity of human beings (Rom. 3:23). More specifically, I feel like the strict rules and regulations within Amish culture sometimes unintentionally creates an environment where sexual abuse can flourish. Many Amish men have faulty views of a women’s role in the home, and place in society. Sometimes the guilt and the external pressure to conform to the Amish way is so strong that it causes rebellion in people and results in deviant behavior.

Kaufman realized the deep pain of the problem when his congregants sought counsel. “We would trace their wounds back to a form of sexual abuse. These were people that were currently Amish, or grew up Amish and left the Amish group.”         

I asked him to explain the extent of the problem. He said, “It is difficult to quantify it because of the secrecy within the Amish community. Many times, no one ever finds out, or at least not until years later. My hunch is that it is happening more than we realize.  One incident is too many.

As a pastor, Kaufman hurts knowing folks in his congregation and community haven’t yet found freedom from the sexual abuse of the past. “It hurts me when they suffer in silence. That messes me up. I know Christ can heal sexual abuse, but when people are too afraid to speak out, and ask for help, it hurts me, and hinders us from helping people find healing and freedom.

I agree. An untold story never heals. And often, the paradoxical truth is that though we are injured in broken community (and sexual abuse typifies broken), God often asks us to heal in good community—a huge risk, particularly when our current community minimizes our pain or listens more to the perpetrator than the victim.

Healing from sexual abuse takes guts married with safe community. (Click to tweet this.) But when victims wall themselves off, stuff the memories way down deep, and hope for the best, they seldom heal.  In isolation, the wound festers. Some even become perpetrators.

This cycle must be stopped.

Unfortunately because of the nature of the separateness of the Amish culture, truth tellers about the existence of sexual abuse find little help inside their community. To heal, they must leave. They need to find a safe community to share their pain and find healing.

This is the opposite of the kind of community Jesus wants His church to be. We are not to be so freaked out about our church’s or community’s reputation that we ignore abuse and prefer the perpetrators over the victims. This kind of culture of silence, making victims mouthless and churches bastions of secrecy does not represent the authentic grace Jesus offers.

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Why do communities recoil from the truth? Why not become a safe place where people’s painful stories are heard, validated, and acted upon? Why shun or silence those in agony? Why do folks have to leave in order to heal? It is not right—whether you’re Amish or Catholic or Baptist. The church should be a place of protection and healing for sexual abuse victims. (Click to tweet this.)

Kaufman has a clear desire to see his community healed. “The vision of our church is to build healthy families. So we want to work at the sexual abuse in our community from two angles. 1. Preventive: to help couples have strong marriages, and learn the skills of effective parenting. 2. Healing: We would like to raise awareness, and launch a Safe House ministry to rescue and restore vulnerable women who are victims of abuse.”

I applaud Kaufman’s openhearted approach. It’s his honesty, and the daring authenticity of his congregation, that helps me believe in the beauty of the church to heal those marked by sexual abuse.

Some of you have asked me about the healing from sexual abuse book I’ve written. The first draft is completed. I will be doing a Kickstarter campaign in the next few weeks to raise the capital I need to publish it on my own. (Publishers said no.) If you believe in the need for this book, would you consider supporting it? Watch this blog for more details. Here’s the cover:

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