When It Is In Your Power
By April C. Armstrong
Last May, I publicly revealed what it was like as a female student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 2004-2007 when Paige Patterson was president. Anonymous stories had appeared before mine, but as far as I know, mine was the first to come out with a name attached. Telling a deeply personal truth in a very public way is not easy to do, but every alternative seemed worse. Continued silence was unthinkable. I could not tell it anonymously for a variety of reasons. I had always had a good reputation among most people at Southwestern, so I wasn’t afraid of what people I knew would say about me in response. It ultimately extended far beyond my circle, however.
After reading what I had to say, Beth Moore tweeted at me that I was “brave” and had acted “not out of bitterness but out of love for Jesus & the church.” She was partly right. I don’t consider myself bitter; a great deal of emotional labor over the past dozen years has ensured that you can’t apply that adjective to me, though I believe we should avoid both praise and criticism for any survivor’s emotional responses. And if courage is doing something you find frightening, then I suppose what I did was a form of bravery, though I had less fear doing it than not doing it. And yes, I did this out of love. But I didn’t do this out of love for the church, per se.
Although it may seem I’ve spilled all my beans, that story only revealed the smallest sliver of the pain inflicted upon me by Christians before, during, and after I attended Southwestern. Love for the church did not motivate me, at least in the way I understood Beth Moore to be saying so. But I do love you. I love the people who have been harmed, the people who want to make things better, and, in a way that hopes they will find true repentance after a full understanding of their guilt, I even love the people who have done us harm. I would note that those who protect perpetrators do not act out of love for them, as they prevent them from confronting themselves. Love is staring Larry Nassar in the eyes while holding him accountable in a court of law like Rachael Denhollander and telling him you hope he will someday truly feel sorrow over what he has done and repent of it. Love is not, as so many seem to believe, attempting to spare someone from the consequences of their own actions while demanding forgiveness from everyone impacted.
As I reflect on the steps I took last May, I can only explain it by saying I did it for Megan Lively (whose name I did not know at the time), for the other then-anonymous women who had spoken out, for victims who had not spoken out, for 22-year-old me, and for myself in 2018. What I read about Megan’s experiences with the way her seminary’s administration (including Paige Patterson) had treated her in the Washington Post rang so true to what I’d lived I couldn’t muster the slightest doubt that it had happened just as she said. Further, I felt I had a duty to live up to a principle in Proverbs 3:27: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to help them” (NLT).
It might not have been in my power to help, I thought—I wasn’t entirely sure my statement would make it beyond my own circle of friends—but it felt, in a way I hadn’t sensed one in many years, like a divine calling to try. In the language of evangelicalism, I didn’t “have peace about it” if I read the Post articles and left my life in Texas buried where it had been for more than a decade—in the silent past, so far away from my life now that people I see every day would likely be completely caught off guard if they heard about it. That I ever lived in a place like that is pretty much unthinkable here, where most find things like that impossible to imagine in and of themselves. To say that not only are there places in a moderately-sized city in the United States where women are still treated in this way, but that I, whom they have known as a certain sort of person who does not brook such things, was living in one for three years in my early twenties was going to make waves even if it was only among people I knew.
Bringing past me and present me together, more so than anything else, was what truly frightened me. I was going to have to revisit the cringeworthy elements of my life at 22. I was going to make myself remember things I had made it a point to forget. I was going to risk, in what I realized was a pretty small but real way, having someone who had terrified me then find me and threaten my safety again. (This, fortunately, has not happened. I never truly expected it to happen, only knew that it theoretically could.) I was going to have to let my guard down and be known in ways I preferred not to be known, not only by other people, but also by myself.
Mustering a small army of supporters, including Ashley Easter, an organizer of the For Such a Time as This Rally I had originally met at her first Courage Conference, I prepared my statement. Someone in my network put me in touch with a journalist with the New Republic. A handful of friends read initial drafts and helped me revise it. I uploaded it, clicked “publish,” and sent it out into the online universe. The rest, in a way, is history.
There were a handful of negative responses, of course; with such things there tend to be. Still, they caused me no extreme distress. Instead, I have known no greater pain than the silence of some of those who called themselves my friends in the face of the need for public support. Both things will be part of my memory forever, but so will an avalanche of positive responses.
As I reeled from a sudden influx of attention from the broader public, I heard privately from many of you, some publicly known now and some still known only to me, who were hurt in Southern Baptist circles, especially in its seminaries. I heard from those abused, maligned, and silenced. I heard from those struggling with their realization of their own complicity—they had observed such behaviors, but failed to stop them, and felt troubled by their actions now. I heard from people shocked that Southern Baptists had built such a world and then sustained it, not realizing before that these things had happened to someone they knew. I heard from those in my current environment, the one I’d described last year as so distant from SWBTS I’d have to fall into the ocean to get any farther away, who admired me in ways I found surprising. I heard from people harmed in other places among other denominations, some of whom were old friends by now in my northeastern universe, and some of whom are new friends connected by the bonds made possible only in the internet age. I took it in. I held it close.
I am writing now to all of these: the Southern Baptist survivors, those awakened to responsibilities they had not previously taken seriously enough, those shocked to find the worlds they loved contaminated by evil, those who have always been outside those worlds and never really looked in before but are horrified by what they’ve seen now, and those who have lived parallel experiences in other contexts. I support the For Such a Time as This Rally for the same reason I publicly disclosed details about that part of my life last year: the cult of personality and silence in the Southern Baptist Convention, which protects perpetrators at the expense of their victims, must end, and we must join together to end it. I cannot physically join you at the rally for a host of personal and professional reasons, but my spirit goes with you to Birmingham. If you can’t show up in person, you, too, can support the rally from afar, but I hope many of you will be there.
For some of you, this is your chance to do the good it is in your power to do. If it is not in your power now, I support you taking care of yourself. If you need someone to hold your pain from a distance, I am honored to do so, though I may not answer all my messages very quickly. But also know that there will be rally participants will hold your pain with you in person. You don’t have to love any church to act in love for other people, so you can rally on their behalf even if you can’t muster love for an institution at the moment. Whether or not you love the institutional church, I strongly believe it will be the greatest expression of love if we demand true accountability from it. Shame does not rightfully belong among those injured, especially not for speaking the truth and insisting all of us do better at taking care of one another.
As I said last May, we await their repentance. Peace be with you all. Selah.