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After a Decade of Sex Abuse Education in Africa, Freely in Hope Pivots to American Churches

“All of these issues go together; these oppressive systems are all intertwined and influence the church in its ideology,” according to Cho.

In his church, Eric Hays observed firsthand how taboos and shame around sex perpetuated abuses.

“A lot of time, religious people are just uncomfortable talking about anything that’s related to sex. In the process, people are being victimized. And their stories aren’t told, and we don’t listen to them, and we aren’t talking about it. Because it feels yucky … ”

Since 2022, Hays has hosted discussions on abuse in his 150-member congregation, the Fremont Community Church, in California. Survivors come to share their stories and are offered “reflective listening,” a technique the young pastor learned from Bobby Jackson, a Chicago-based pastor and counselor, that consists of attentive and quiet listening.

Sometimes, Hays meets survivors who have left churches without being heard by anyone. Through these sessions, he hopes to foster changes and inspire other leaders to break the cycle in their churches.

“We are not going to hide any skeletons. We are going to expose things to the light because that’s the only way they can be healed,” he said.

He also noted that implementing stricter background checks in churches was crucial.

“I was kind of shocked to learn how many churches don’t do that. It’s a basic safety measure. I can’t volunteer as a baseball coach in my local community without going through background checks. Certainly, as a church, we should be protecting people better than that.”

Hays, who is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Seminary, also hopes seminaries offer more training around sexual abuse to aspiring leaders. He didn’t learn about this 20 years ago “in college,” he said, and has had to make up for his lack of knowledge by himself.

In this sense, Freely in Hope visits seminaries and churches to educate aspiring leaders. At the Redeeming Sanctuaries conference, about 40 church leaders were provided with resources to ensure the safety of their structures, a first step toward more accountability within congregations, explained Lim.

Nangwala also stressed how churches needed to implement more accountability structures. “They are there but are only known by leadership, never communicated to the congregation,” she said.

On social media posts, she recently realized her abuser was still serving in the same church, sometimes in pictures with children. While she is not waiting for an apology from her former congregation, the young woman hopes these sessions will force churches to stop burying their heads in the sand and address these issues.

“I think justice looks like ensuring that churches realize this is a huge problem and it’s happening in their church and make everything to be safe.”

This article originally appeared here