Calling on the Saints

Friday, March 07, 2008

It was the body of Christ that picked up the pieces after a rape left me in shambles.
by Heather Gemmen Wilson
Christianity Today, February 2008, Vol. 52, No. 2

My husband had gone to a meeting at church and my children were asleep down the hall when an intruder entered my bedroom, waking me from a deep sleep. In the dim light reflecting from the hallway, I saw his silhouette—and vaguely perceived that a tall man with bulky arms stood just a few feet from my bed.

I didn't scream. For a few naïve moments, I didn't understand what was happening. "Who are you?" I asked. The ugliness of his laugh shocked me into wakefulness. I sat up quickly, and he yanked a knife out of his pocket.

"Oh, no," I whispered, holding my hands up toward him. "No—don't do this."

Some have suggested that the church was partly to blame for my rape. They have a point. My husband and I had moved into the inner city as penniless college students, planning to leave as soon as finances allowed. But we began attending a neighborhood church that had a vision for community development and racial reconciliation—and we were hooked.

With transformed attitudes, we began sitting on the front porch of our home instead of hiding behind shuttered windows. We invited kids who once broke our tulip stems to join us in weeding, and we organized block parties and community rummage sales. The hood became our home. There's no denying it: If it weren't for the church, I wouldn't have been living in that place four years and two kids later.

It was the church that I immediately called when I broke free from my attacker's grip that night. I first ran into my kids' room and touched their beautiful, sleeping heads—then crunched myself into a corner and dialed the number I knew by heart.

The man who answered was a dear friend of our family. "I need my husband!" I cried. Those were the only words I could choke out. At that moment, I wasn't thinking about whether I'd ever be able to trust the church again—or the God I worshiped there. I wasn't aware of the crisis of faith I would endure in the coming months. At that moment, all I knew was my pain and shame and terror and loss.

While the church may have been partly responsible for encouraging me to live and work in the inner city, I never blamed the church for the rape. I do, however, "blame" it for my recovery.

Not that recovery came easily.

Rape is ugliness in its basest form. It destroys innocence and replaces it with shame. It steals a sense of security and extends fear. It cultivates bitterness. It leaves no room for beauty. The overpowering emotions I experienced that awful night did not go away the next day—or the one after that.

But neither did the people of the church.

Like every good congregation, mine had an impromptu "casserole committee." When one member was hurting, the others rushed in with food. I hadn't much understood this casserole obsession until I was its beneficiary. I discovered that hot meals made by loving hands comfort the soul better than Band-Aids on skinned knees. All the other small acts of service—from lawn mowing to housecleaning to babysitting—said what I needed to hear: "I love you." "You are one of us." "We are in this with you." Slowly, I began to notice more joy than despair, more confidence than fear. And so much love was poured into me that there was no room left for shame.

One of the tokens of kindness given to me at that time was a puppy. This darling little beagle proved remarkably protective and became our family's watchdog. I went outside one bright winter day to find Gus growling menacingly. I looked around to see what was threatening him, but didn't notice anything out of place. Feeling a little spooked, I stroked his ears, hoping to calm him, but he bared his teeth and raised his hackles. Then I saw it, the menacing figure that Gus kept at bay.

A great. Big. Snowman.

It took a while to convince my small protector that this intruder was no threat. I pulled off the orange hat from the snowman's head and tossed its raisin eyes and carrot nose in Gus's direction. He ate them cautiously, then inched his way forward. By the time I had yanked the sticks out of the snowman's sides and the scarf from its neck, Gus saw the wilting lump of snow for what it really was: an empty threat.

It was the church that disassembled my snowman. This community helped me see that my hackle-raising fear of physical harm, and the even greater suspicion that my faith had been wrongly placed, was unnecessary. I had not been abandoned by God, and his people proved it.

Most people don't blame the church directly for the trials in their lives, but many do accuse the church of not responding appropriately when calamity strikes. Church leaders and laypeople alike certainly make mistakes as they care for us in times of need. However, if we allow that their mistakes come from their own wounds and that their love is genuine, if imperfect, we nearly always find ourselves more healed than hurt.

Sometimes we forget what the church was created for: to teach us how to live, how to care for each other in love, and how to draw others to Christ. In Acts we read that the first Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. … And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:42, 47).

When the church is functioning the way God intended, it provides a sense of belonging in the same way a family does. That means not only that we gain support when trials press on us, but also that we are prodded when we're slacking, challenged when we're comfortable, and reprimanded when we're wayward. And sometimes we're the ones on the casserole committee.

It has been more than a decade since the rape, and I've experienced many life changes since then. I gave birth to a precious baby girl, conceived that fateful night, and she is now my daily reminder of God's restorative love. We adopted one of the little boys who used to pluck our tulips, and now he towers over me, a godly young man who brings much laughter to our family. I've moved from Michigan to Colorado to Indiana. I've experienced the death of loved ones and the birth of a grandchild. Both unexpected hardships and blessings have come my way. Yet through all these changes, one thing has remained constant in my life: the family of God.

We can blame the church for many things, I suppose. But if we are faithful to give to it as much as we receive from it, we'll find this communion of saints to be a source of astonishing beauty.

Heather Gemmen Wilson is the author of Startling Beauty: My Journey from Rape to Restoration and runs the website heathergemmen.com. She speaks internationally on the subject of hope and forgiveness.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today

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2 comment(s)

  1. At first I was afraid this was you talking Pearlie! I remember when this book came out- thanks for posting the excerpt.

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  2. :) I wanted to post it as-is because the story is powerful without my spoiling it with my insignificant thoughts.

    ReplyDelete