(RNS) — Jean Nangwala started singing in her local church worship team at a very young age. She considered this assembly, founded by her grandfather and located in the south of Zambia, a safe haven. Standing on the stage to sing every Sunday, she said, was her greatest joy — until a member of the worship group, a church leader she trusted, sexually assaulted her when she was 19. When Nangwala opened up about the rape, pastors questioned her story and blamed her. Ultimately, Nangwala said she stopped singing, left the church and never returned.
“I was left alone to find safety in a world that does not involve church when I have always loved church,” she said.
Today, she shares her stories in churches to educate members and leaders as part of Freely in Hope, a faith-based nonprofit that aims to end sexual violence within churches. Founded in 2010, the organization has focused on Africa for a decade but is moving its spotlight to America.
“We believe that the solutions and experiences we built in Kenya and Zambia can be a catalyst for change for faith leaders in America,” explained its founder, Nikole Lim.
Freely in Hope launched its new initiative with a conference in San Francisco in mid-June, titled Redeeming Sanctuaries, to provide church leaders with survivor-centered tools and solutions to make churches safer places.
The organization’s shift to North America was also prompted by the numerous recent sexual abuse scandals in American churches. Last year, a Guidepost Solutions report documented how the Southern Baptist Convention covered up sexual abuses for decades.
Lim grew up attending a Salvation Army church in Chinatown, San Francisco. After telling sexual abuse stories as a documentary filmmaker in Eastern and Southern Africa, she wanted to do more to help change survivors’ lives. With Freely in Hope, Lim and her team impacted more than 10,000 people, funded 43 high school and university scholarships and trained 431 leaders on sexual violence prevention.
For Lim, the first step to changing the mentality around church sexual abuse is acknowledging abuses do happen. Leaders are afraid to address the issue because of the taboo and shame that has encircled sex in the Christian world, she explained. Yet “1 out of 3 women has been abused in the world,” noted Lim, quoting a 2021 WHO report on violence against women.
Irene Cho, another survivor invited to speak at the Redeeming Sanctuaries conference, also underlined how a culture of silence in churches has protected sexual abusers for years.
At 9 years old, Cho found God in an “Assembly of God-esque type of church,” she said, where her mom converted a few years before. Later, the family moved to the East Coast, and Cho and her mom attended a Korean Pentecostal Church, where her faith really began to grow, she said. At 17, she felt the call to enter the ministry. When she was 18, she said, her senior pastor assaulted her. “It took me about a year to share it,” she said.
Around her, Cho didn’t find many people to talk to. She opened up to her college pastor, who offered prayers and often checked on her. During this period, she continued to serve in the church and emotionally detached herself from what happened. “I performed to perfection,” she said.
For Cho, who is still involved in a church, toxic misogynist ideologies that permeate churches fuel stigma around sexual abuse. To prevent abuses, churches need to unpack “what it actually means when you are catering to patriarchy, when you are catering to purity culture,” she said.