As a church, we’ve made a commitment to creating a safe environment for our children, and we’ve realized that it is up to us adults to foster this kind of nurturing community for everyone who attends church. Sexual abuse is unfortunately a safety concern for all churches since our open doors, desire to trust, and access to children can create a perfect situation for predators (Melissa Flores Bixler did a good job enumerating these concerns in her own article on this topic, and I need to credit her thoughts for helping me craft that last sentence). Compound that with a patriarchal culture that has implicitly whispered a lack of bodily autonomy and sex positivity in our ears, and we have work to do. As a community member, I’m so grateful to be engaging in this work with the South Wedge Mission.
We recently hosted a Parenting Safe Children workshop with Feather Berkhower that helped give us the tools to create this environment. I was pleased that so many community members who didn’t have children made an effort to attend alongside parents because by showing up for each other, we demonstrated that our children are deeply valued and foundational to our community.
In the two part workshop, Feather Berkower did an excellent job breaking apart cultural assumptions we make about protecting our children from sexual abuse. Feather pointed out that we usually focus solely on preventing sexual abuse by empowering children to either say no or self disclose their abuse rather than being intentional about creating communities surrounding our child that have child safety policies in place, screen childcare workers, use anatomically correct language, and ground children in their own bodily autonomy among many other traits. In reality, sexual abuse prevention that only focuses on what children can do is insufficient.
One theme of the workshop that is very much intertwined in my life lately is this topic of consent. By teaching my child consent from a young age, I teach her that she is the boss of her body as well as how crucial it is to assume respect for another person’s body rather than authority. Feather Berkower has a list of books she recommends on her website. Sex Positive Talks to Have with Kids by Melissa Pintor Carnagey is one of the books that I bought and have been reading since the workshop, and this quote in particular has formed a new foundational value for our family: “Consent is a life skill that should be practiced long before it has anything to do with sex. When we seek consent before moving forward with action, we are acknowledging another person’s right to their own choice in an experience. We’re acknowledging that permission is required to move forward with an action.”
This theme of consent has been popping up in my job as a healthcare worker, because I was never taught to ask my patient’s explicit permission before I touched their bodies in my formal education. I was implicitly taught, that everyone ought to immediately trust me and accept my touch as an authority figure. That is frankly wrong, but it takes conscious work for us to uncover our habits and the ruts in our thinking. I still have to remind myself to ask my patients’ permission before I touch them, and I have been meditating on this for about a year or so. By retraining myself to ask for consent, I’m shedding away some layers of savior complex and taking time to build trust and rapport with my patients rather than just assuming that I’m allowed into their space. I had a conversation with our Deacon Georgia about two years ago where she encouraged me that I could always pray for my patients as I care for them, and sometimes I do (just between myself and God). I incorporate a bodywork routine into my care and often pray as I do it because my patients are beloved and holy, and I want to treat and acknowledge their bodies as precious and loved by the Creator.
Working through this topic via zoom workshop as a community was obviously pretty emotionally exhausting for us. I’m sure a majority of us know someone who was sexually abused as a child or may have experienced it ourselves since one in three girls as well as one in six boys experience childhood sexual abuse. We held a zoom check after each session to talk and do a body scan meditation together; we hold trauma in our bodies, so it makes sense to ask our body how it is doing when we reopen our stored memories. As a community, we are also hoping to foster more dialogue between workshop participants about different ways we are seeing things or how we are working what we learned into our parenting. I’m also hoping we can have a little rotating library of the books Feather Berkower recommended to borrow amongst ourselves. By participating in the Parenting Safe Children workshop, we renewed our commitment as individuals and as a community to making church a safe space for everyone. Naomi Turiano is the volunteer coordinator of children's community at SWM. She is a registered nurse serving in the Rochester area.