We Are Called to Listen

This past week has been a painful one in American politics. If you’ve been following the Senate hearings, then you don’t need me to rehearse the details for you. If you haven’t, then what I’m about to say may not matter to you.

The ugliness of the public spectacle in our nation’s capital threatens to obscure something very important that is taking place in our society: people are telling their stories. Women and men are feeling the courage that comes from having fellow travelers, and they’re sharing the stories of the traumas they have suffered silently and alone.

This is a holy moment.

Literally, this is a season we should set aside and protect as special, because it is in the telling of these stories that our neighbors, and maybe even ourselves, are finding healing and peace. This is a holy moment, and it’s in danger of being missed because of some partisan wrangling in Washington.

One temptation is to dismiss the stories we’re hearing because there seem to be so many. Where did all of these people come from? Why didn’t they say something before?

The answer is that some people carry a wound that is so painful, so personal, that a significant part of their daily energy is spent trying to conceal that the wound ever happened in the first place. When a brave person shares their story, it’s like a weight has been lifted and those who carry that heavy burden are freed to talk about it. It’s as simple as that. There really is, as it turns out, safety and comfort in numbers.

How do I know that? Because I have a story, too.

Now before I start, I want to say that my story turned out not to be traumatic—I was one of the lucky ones. Things worked out for me, so well in fact that I didn’t even recall this story until I started listening to what people around me were sharing.

When I was 9 years old I went to a public pool with a friend. It was hot and so the pool was very crowded, and while we were splashing and swimming an older man waded over to us and started to talk to us. In the course of the conversation he reached out and asked if he could touch us—he specifically asked if he could touch us under the water level, in our swimsuits. We said no and swam away.

When my mom picked us up we told her what had happened. At home she called the police and a squad car came to our house and I gave a statement. Two days later the police called and told us that the man was serial predator, but that he’d been caught and we didn’t have anything to worry about.

I know now that it could have been so much worse, but in my case everything worked as it should have. My parents believed me. My parents protected me, the police did their jobs, and in the end there was no lasting trauma or damage.

Why tell that story now, almost 50 years later? Because not everyone was as fortunate as I was. Some kids weren’t able to swim away. Some parents weren’t in a position to step in and protect their kids. Some predators were never caught and prosecuted.

Those are the stories we need to hear.

Now you might say that there are false accusations out there, and you’d be right. By most studies’ count about 3-5% of sexual assault accusations prove to be lies.

You might also say that what’s happening in Washington is all about politics and not about finding the truth. Maybe—I don’t think any of us knows for sure.

You might add to that your skepticism that someone can remember the details of something so long ago. To that I say this: Put me with a sketch artist and I can still describe that man in the pool, from his face to his ingrown toenails. I can also describe the police detective who came to my house to hear my story. This happened in 1972.

Here’s the point: If you set aside the single case we’re seeing on TV, and the small fraction of accusations that turn out to be untrue, that leaves 19 out of 20 stories that people desperately need you to hear and believe.

How do I know that?

Hi my name is John. I’m the pastor of Glendale Presbyterian Church and the president of the New Seminary of the West. I just barely missed being molested in a public pool when I was 9 years old.

If I have that story to tell, with a fair amount of precision and detail, why not take a chance and believe your neighbor when she or he tells about their own painful history?

It’s what the gospel requires. Jesus modeled that kind of listening with the woman who touched his garment, with the father who struggled with unbelief, with the woman who was about to be stoned (we note with interest that the man was absent), and with the woman at the well and the men who had abused her. Our God is a listening God, and he calls us to listen to his people.

If we want to be like Jesus.

If we want to be the Body of Christ in the world.

If we want to be decent people who love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If we want to help, we should begin by listening to the stories.

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