2007 STORY #4 – HEARING THE BELLS OF HOPE
1996 wasn’t my loneliest Christmas. Neither was it the most devastating. Yet, in retrospect, I believe it was the most discouraging that I ever recall. In spite of the fact that I spent much of that time delighting in my first grandchild, perfectly healthy and just five months old.
I was suffering from recurrent breast cancer that year and had just finished a course of radiation. All my family and I could do now was wait.
Yet it wasn’t the cancer that loomed the heaviest over my own spiritual health in 1996. It was my continued collisions with collusion, the same problem that had awakened me and called me into this ministry which I knew I dare not abandon even on the many days that I so wanted to run away and hide.
For an entire decade, since discovering the lame responses of “people of faith” to the issue of clergy sexual abuse, the best expression of my feelings during the holidays came from the third verse of Henry Longfellow‘s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The words are: “for hate is strong and mocks the song.” Little did I know, in 1996 that hope in my advocacy work lay just around the corner as the new year approached.
The loneliest Christmas I ever spent was 1986. My husband Ron and I, with our two children, had gone through the motions of decorating and baking that year. We’d even played a few carols. Yet our hearts were so heavy that it was difficult to even offer our children a smile. It wasn’t the geographical isolation of being 10,000 miles from home, in central Africa, that had me so depressed. We’d already spent many Christmases like that. The problem was the lack of support from anyone we knew, as we stood up for the removal of a missionary perpetrator in our midst. Colluders even included the parents of a teenage victim.
The most devastating Christmas came in 1994. After eight years of struggling with the aftermath of career loss, while hammering out new identities and ministries, developing a new belief system that was still evolving, and seeing the shocking stunts I’d seen so many playing in every denomination as they refused to face the truth about the spiritual coldness that was vividly demonstrated by the crises of clergy sexual abuse continued to be denied, ignored and minimized, I suddenly got the original diagnosis of my cancer. It came one week before Christmas, and the arrival seemed terribly untimely, with letters from survivors piled on my desk along with three requests from editors, asking me to write articles about clergy sexual abuse.
I wanted to scream for the whole world to hear: “I haven’t got time for the pain.” Yet only by taking time for the pain could hope be found for winning my battle with cancer, as well as the battle with what I’d begun calling DIM thinking (Denial, Ignorance, and Minimization) in the faith community. So I wrote through my tears and tried to celebrate the 1994 season with my family. Never dreaming that in only two years the cancer would be back, along with my blessed grandson, and hope would be mixed with horrific doubts.
Doing advocacy writing is like riding a roller coaster, very closely aligned to what every survivor feels when going through a case. One day there seems to be hope. The next the hopes are shattered because what one knows could happen just doesn’t ever occur in most situations.
Around Thanksgiving, in between trips for radiation, I’d found the energy to send another “reminder” to an editor who had kept me on a roller coaster ride for over a year, initially expressing interest in my work as an advocacy writer, then backing off and ignoring me, even though I’d fulfilled his request for a lengthy article for his magazine. The editor hadn’t known my name until 1994, but I’d known his since I was a small girl. Yes, I knew Doctor X to be an utmost expert in the field of Christian ethics. Therefore, his interest was, in itself, something valuable to me. Yet his vacillation, especially now that he knew of my fragile health status, was about as exasperating as what I’d experienced in going to 42 publishers as I sought publication for my book How Little We Knew, finally released in 1993. I’d given up hope for about this fourteenth time on the article for Dr. X.
And that’s where it rested, feeling like a hopeless failure at the close of 1996. While honestly knowing that the real demon was the struggle that was probably going on somewhere in Doctor X’s heart and mind and/or in the system on which he was at least emotionally dependent. Nevertheless, the song of Christmas was indeed mocked for me, and I couldn’t seem to shake that feeling.
Then came January. One afternoon, the phone rang while I was answering survivor mail--a task that was still done in those pre-Web days of mine by snail mail. It was Doctor X, and he told me that he had wrestled with the publication of my article more than any in the fifty years he’d spent in his work. I took that as a complement as I waited breathlessly to see what he was going to say next.
“I have it about ready to go to press, though,” he told me. My heart swelled. “I just need you to help me out with a little re-write work.” As an experienced writer, the “re-write” word didn’t scare me. Re-writes are often the most important part of writing, something to be expected, and something to simply produce a stronger piece of work. I was totally unprepared for the request he was about to make, though.
“What I need you to show is how there is a continuum of blame. You know, like some survivors are somewhat responsible for their abuse and others aren’t much responsible at all,” he continued. My heart deflated completely! I couldn’t do that, and I told him so. The responsibility always was with the perpetrator and his (or her) supporters. We argued heatedly about this as he shocked me, telling me of instances that represented “at least fifty cases I’ve handled.” He went on to say: “All of them were responsible in some way, don’t you agree?” The final blow came when he told me that this included me being responsible for my assault by a co-worker, even though he admitted he had never even heard my story! I was outraged, and I told him so.
By the time the conversation ended, my heart was pounding. Yet I had one ray of hope, so tiny that I didn’t think it was worthy of even entertaining it. Doctor X said he would still consider publishing the article into which I’d poured my heart and soul, along with several days of writing, if I would send him a written explanation of why I wasn’t backing down.
Angrily, without getting out of office chair, I whizzed over to the computer, pounded out my response without hesitation, and faxed it off with a note that I refused to have it published without first seeing the galleys (the final draft exactly as it is being sent to press). “I’m shaking the dust off my feet. That’s all I can do in situations like this,” I told my husband.
I heard nothing, not even an acknowledgement, for six weeks. Suddenly one Saturday night the phone rang again. The galleys were ready as I’d requested. “You’ll be very pleased, “Doctor X said. I refused to let my heart swell again, fearing it would only be deflated as before. The article was going to press, along with every word of my explanation, the old editor I’d known since childhood assured me. No cuts! No changes! No editorializing on his part! He’d kept wrestling with it and had located experts who assured him that I was exactly right in all I said. It wasn’t until I held the spring issue in my hands that I really rested easy. The seeds were planted, and I waited expecting to see evidence that my voice had been heard by more than the editor. I waited in vain.
Christmas of 1997 came and went. In spite of the victory in having the article published, NOT ONE person had contacted me because of that article. Yet I rejoiced in life. And I waited.
It was the middle of 1998, just days after I’d installed my web site www.takecourage.org, when I got confirmation of something I’ve longed believed about speaking out despite oppression. That assurance came through loud and clear with an e-mail from Mr. KG. He had found my site and soon recognized my name from the article he’d discovered in the magazine, in the midst of his own family’s struggles with clergy sexual abuse. Through it, he’d come to realize the impact of what his family had been through. As a result, he’d been inspired to found www.advocateweb.org a site that has had a much farther-reaching impact than anything I alone had penned in almost twenty years of advocacy writing.
Doctor X died in 2006. Despite our differences, I’m grateful for people like him who have listened long enough, considered the value of changing their minds and new voices to be heard in the sea of big-time collusion. Doctor X’s willingness to wrestle with the issues and even allow some things that had him doubting to come into print have made a difference, and they continue to make a difference in the lives of quite a few others. It’s a reminder that, whatever our life span, our work and our words do live on in others. You can see that article, “Church Secrets We Dare Not Keep” at www.takecourage.org/AWArticles/ChurchSecrets.htm
So what was the belief that serves me in my moments of despondency or as I respond personally to survivors? It’s that our words do not return to us void, even though we may never have confirmation that they‘ve made a difference. Our words are like seeds--sometimes they land on stony ground, but those seeds often get blown off the stony ground to fertile soil, sometimes even blooming in the desert where we may never see. Occasionally, we may even see evidence of them blooming.
Being able to envision those seeds, potentially growing even in generations to come, brings a hope “as wild and sweet” as any bells I’ll ever hear on Christmas Day.