Editor’s Note: In support of the sixth strategic action of Vision 2021 adopted by messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, Baptist Press will continue to help as Southern Baptists strive to eliminate all incidents of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches, entities, and institutions. This story includes accounts of sexual abuse and offers information concerning survivor care.
FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) – Church was the setting for the trauma and the healing in the life of Victoria, a 40-year-old sexual abuse survivor who ministers to others.
September 1999, when a friend invited a 16-year-old Victoria to Wedgwood Baptist Church, a gunman opened fire, killing seven people and wounding eight others, including Victoria’s friend. A pipe bomb the killer threw to Victoria’s right didn’t detonate.
At the hospital, Victoria reached out to a “model Christian – she and her husband were someone you would look up to as having their act together” – who had recently befriended Victoria at another church.
“What was meant to be hopefully a mentor/protégé relationship turned very negative very quickly. I was bribed, so to speak, and groomed very quickly, because I had instantly detached from my family, due to the traumatic event. She came alongside of me and made me feel very special, gave me gifts, sent me flowers.
“She made me feel like I was a special child,” Victoria said. “Within days the sexual abuse began, and it continued for several months, until she had an excuse to leave her marriage and she moved. Due to a sense of loyalty, I suppressed all of the sexual abuse and a good chunk of Wedgwood for a good solid 10 years.”
A decade after the repeated traumas, Victoria “was really debating God,” she told Baptist Press Dec. 8. “I said, ‘God, I’m going to either take my life or I’m going to give it one more shot. … I couldn’t control it anymore. I was just in so much pain. And I was making a lot of poor decisions.”
Victoria reached out to City on a Hill church in Fort Worth, founded in 1984 by James Reeves and dubbed “the hospital church,” a place for healing.
“Wedgwood involved a church. The abuse involved a church member, and so the propensity that I would seek help from the church was probably glaringly negative,” Victoria told Baptist Press. “But it was in fact one of the first things I did, was reach back out to the church for help. And thankfully, James had started the hospital church mentality with Life Change for Couples and Life Change for Individuals, which was really a 12-step program.”
Today, Victoria – whom Baptist Press references by a pseudonym – is among abuse survivors who advocate the church as the best place for healing, sometimes along with professional psychological help.
“Overall, the church is the heartbeat of where the help, hope and healing come from,” Victoria told Baptist Press. “I think the church is hands-down where (healing) is, where it should be.”
She tells her story in “The Fearless Series for Women,” a ministry Reeves founded during his pastorate and now conducts fulltime. “The Fearless Series for Men” is its counterpart, featuring Max Lucado.
While the church rightly commits resources to preventing abuse, Reeves told Baptist Press the church is failing by neglecting to offer targeted ministry to help survivors heal.
He uses the “one another” model in the New Testament, based on the many instances Jesus told Christians to help one another. For Reeves, “one another is a biblical term.”
“Carry one another’s burdens;” Galatians 6:2 affirms, “in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Ministering one to another allows Christians “to reflect to one another the grace of God,” Reeves said, “and we’re able then to overcome our shame.”
Most sex abuse survivors – their numbers likely underestimated at a third of women and a fifth of men – didn’t suffer abuse in the church, Reeves said. So focusing the church’s ministry primarily on preventing sex abuse misses an entire realm of sex abuse prevention and recovery.
Reeves grew up in a small town in Texas. His father “was the town drunk,” and his mother worked diligently as a truck stop waitress to help the family survive. Reeves received “no emotional nurturing” in the home, he said, and “was pretty much” on his own since a little child.
He came to Christ at 18, experiencing a radical transformation from a life immersed in the drug culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
“I carried a lot of childhood wounds into my Christian walk, that I didn’t know I was doing,” he said. “After I started this church, actually, those things began to come to the surface, and I didn’t understand what was happening inside of me.”
He was depressed and suffered “a lot of emotional pain.” He spoke of it publicly from the pulpit, processing the trauma, including his father’s neglect and physical abuse of his mother. Often as a preteen, Reeves would try and protect his mother, his little fists drawn.
His father died at age 41 of alcoholism, six months after Reeves’ salvation. The only Christian in the immediate family, Reeves conducted the graveside service with just a handful of people present, more than a decade before he founded City on a Hill church.
A recovering alcoholic among his members helped him “unpack” his feelings.
“When it was all said and done,” Reeves said, he discovered he hated his father. “I had to figure out a way to forgive him for cheating me out of a childhood, basically.”
As Reeves began to openly walk through his recovery with his congregation, other members thanked him for his honesty and shared their own traumas.
“How can we help one another?” became the focus. “We began to look for materials, good biblically based, clinically sound material for some group involvement. We began to understand what that looked like, and it took off.”
That was over 30 years ago. Today, City on a Hill offers individual group ministries covering several areas of brokenness, including sexual abuse, pornography addiction, sex addiction and post abortion recovery for women as well as the men who financed them.
“We do this work in small groups that are very specifically designed to address these issues,” he said. Videos set the stage for small-group discussions. “In these small groups, women for the first time – many of them – begin to share their experience with one another.
“When they start sharing their experience, they come out of the darkness,” he said. “The enemy works in the darkness. He works in secret. So when we can bring our hurtful experiences out into the light with one another, we begin to disarm him.”
The Fearless Series materials and additional information are available here.
Victoria encourages churches to incorporate into their ministries the Fearless Series for both genders.
“Don’t wait, don’t wait. Don’t be fearful. Don’t be hesitant,” Victoria advises churches. “Just see where the Lord takes it, because He will use it. I just think be openminded too in the process.”
If you are/have been a victim of sexual abuse or suspect sexual abuse by a pastor, staff member or member of a Southern Baptist church or entity, please reach out for help at 202-864-5578 or [email protected]. All calls are confidential.