Editor’s note: This is one in a Lenten series of reflections, essays, and meditations on sexual harassment and exploitation in the church. These articles may contain explicit or graphic descriptions of abuse and harassment and language that might upset or trigger some readers.
My #metoo Lenten reflection begins before I became Episcopalian. My father is from Mexico and my mother is European-American. I was raised by my mother’s family, a large working class Catholic family, in the Archdiocese of Chicago in the 1980’s. My home parish was affected by the sexual abuse of priests as well as the school principal. Perhaps because of this context, from a very young age while I deeply loved the church, I also knew that it was not always a safe place. Regardless, I was committed to my church and as involved as they would allow me to be. I was an altar girl, pre-school Sunday school teacher, and I took my first paid job working in the parish office. At the age of 15, I gave birth to a baby that I placed for adoption, an open adoption that continues to this day. At the very moment he took his first breath and stretched out his tiny newborn hand, I was stuck with a powerful spiritual experience that I can only liken to Saul on the road to Damascus. Over the next several decades, until the writing of this very reflection, I would begin to hide the nature of this event by simply calling it a “spiritual awakening.”
This event, or spiritual awakening, led me to look for Jesus outside of my home church. I spent a brief few years as a born-again Evangelical Christian with a strong testimony in my pregnancy and birth story. During this time I was accepted into a prestigious Christian faith-based college where I just knew that God had amazing things planned for me. Through my unbridled excitement, I allowed myself to become naive enough to believe that I would be safe among my peers.
I now know that it is called “the red zone,” the time between when freshmen are dropped off at campus to Thanksgiving–that’s when the most sexual assaults occur on college campuses. I had been on campus for two weeks, and just a few days past my eighteenth birthday, when I fought off an assault by a classmate. My college roommates knew something strange had occurred, but over the next few days things began to escalate quickly. The constant phone calls. The rumors. My inability to speak. When I finally explained what happened to my floor’s resident assistant she insisted that I meet with a high-level administrator, who was a woman and recently led our floor’s Bible study where she also discussed the intersecting difficulties of being a woman, in leadership, and a Christian. It was through this administrator where I first came to understand that what I endured was assault. She believed every word of my story, but I was told not to tell anyone, especially not the police, because «we don’t want people to think this is an unsafe place.» When I told her that the campus was in fact an unsafe place, I was told that I was not being very Christ-like. What would Jesus do? Besides, I was not a virgin and perhaps this was something that I was secretly hoping would happen to me. Even in my youthful traumatized state, and without any training, I can remember explaining consent to this leader that I admired just moments ago. I was in shock and I could not understand how it was that I could come to such a point; whereby, I would have to explain these things within a Christian community. Violence should not happen in a Christian community and I as the victim was not responsible for it.
Quickly after the assault occurred the stalking began. It was easy for him at first, because of course we met in class and he knew I would be there. Over the next several semesters he would get more creative with his stalking and wait for me outside of classrooms or sign up for classes that I was in or surprise me at my apartment door or in the parking lot at night. Throughout this time I ended up having several conversations with the administrator, who was rising in leadership, about the stalking and about how my understanding of what Jesus would do was very different. After years of being stalked and reporting it to the college’s administration I was informed that the situation was allowed to continue because the offender was from a well-known family and I was not. I was also not a virgin. To this day, nearly twenty years later, I do not know which was worse; the stalking or the betrayal by the administration of a college I wanted to love so much.
As I could tolerate the situation no longer, I also longed to be nearer to God, but did not know where a safe place was to meet God. I had a trusted professor and a classmate who both claimed to be Episcopalians and so I took a leap of faith one Sunday. I walked into my first Episcopal church and I fell in love. When a female priest, which I had never experienced before, put the communion wafer in my hand I knew I had been an Episcopalian my whole life. I found home.
I decided to change my whole life plan. I left the college, moved across the country, and began to shield my story by saying that at one point in my life I had a “spiritual awakening” as a way to protect myself from predators. I joined an Episcopal church and, like a sponge, soaked up as much information as I could.
As I moved around the country, and the world, I have been fortunate to have had rectors, interestingly enough all white men, who have appreciated my love for our church as well as my tenacity to work to make the church a place of blessing, healing, and wholeness. I have made my way using my expertise and knowledge of The Episcopal Church to serve on the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), and on the Episcopal and Anglican delegations to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I am even more fortunate to have been elected to serve on Executive Council where I was able to steward through an act of Executive Council that is a wide-angle comprehensive anti-sexual violence, anti-domestic violence, and anti-stalking resolution.
While I am no longer that naive girl, I am still a petite Mexican-American woman who is considered young in Episcopal terms—37 years old—and my experiences in our church are different than my middle-aged tall white male colleagues. Here are three real-life stories that happened to me, which illustrate how I experience our church as a youngish woman of color.
A few years ago at an important Episcopal event, I was making my way to my table up near the podium when a man pulled my arm and asked me to refill his coffee. Startled, I looked down and found that he and his entire table were all white male baby-boomer aged leaders in our church. Sitting there were the faces of people I recognized by name because they were bishops. I was surprised, taken aback, and very confused. I told the bishop, and the rest of the table, that I did not know where the coffee was nor would I be getting it for him. He became outraged and demanded that I «do my job.» I looked around the conference room and noticed all the servers were Hispanic women in tuxedos. I pulled myself together, straightened myself up, pointed to my name tag and told the table who I was. He finally let go of my arm and told me to tell the wait staff to come to him because he needed coffee. I informed him that I needed to make my way to my table near the podium and that he could wait his turn for coffee. Before I could finish, he insisted that because I must speak Spanish that I needed to go tell the wait staff to come to him right away. I looked around the table. I looked in the faces of the bishops, leaders of my beloved Episcopal church, as they did and said nothing. I silently shook my head and walked away. I’ll never forget their apathy.
When running for Executive Council at General Convention in 2015, I was approached by an older white man, a deputy and Executive Council member, who instructed me to pull my name out of the running because I would never get elected. He stated that the only way «someone like you» could get elected was through the provinces and that I should try that route in 2018. I asked him what he meant by “someone like me.” He stated that people of color do not get elected to Executive Council at General Convention. As I stood in shock trying to think of a response, he added, «and you’re a woman. We don’t need any more women on Executive Council.» That was enough for me. I raised my voice, stepped closer to him and told him that I felt called to run for Executive Council because I believed in my own leadership skills. I added that I also believed in the leadership and goodness of deputies to vote who they think is best, not for who is the whitest or manliest. It wasn’t my best comeback, but it’s a true story. Days later, when the votes came in and I was elected to Executive Council, an acquaintance of mine sat with me during the vote. I squinted to see my name from the back of the conference hall. Thankfully President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings read the results out loud and I learned that I had been elected with a significant number of votes. My acquaintance turned to me, gave me a hug and said, «Who says people of color don’t get voted in at General Convention!» I never told him about the man who told me to drop out of the race, so this startled me. Was this common knowledge? And what does it mean if this IS common knowledge among deputies?
I had just finished giving a presentation and conducting a listening session at a church on behalf of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) when a man approached me to chat afterward. My husband and daughter came to this event, and my daughter gave me a quick hug as she made her way to the cookies and lemonade table. Seeing my daughter, the gentleman asked the usual questions about my daughter’s age and grade. She would have been 5 and in kindergarten at this time. Then he asked if I had figured out who her father was yet. I said in a low voice, «my husband.» And again, like so many other times with entitled older white men, he just would not let it go. He went on to say he was surprised that I was married and knew who my daughter’s father was because «so many women like you have babies with all kinds of men.» When I asked what he meant by «women like me» he said, «Hispanic, black, Mexican… you know like YOU!» I excused myself and did my best to brush off the interaction as I went to thank the rector for letting me facilitate the session in his space.
These stories are illustrative of the constant and pervasive nature of sexism and racism that can be found just under the surface of our beloved church. In The Episcopal Church, even more so than in my everyday life, I must work to inhabit spaces both literally and figuratively. I need to put effort into acquiring every inch of literal space by getting a seat at a table and figurative space with time at the microphone. Once I have acquired the space, then I have to overcome tokenism and prove my competency, credibility, and legitimacy.
My tall white male colleagues can simply enter a room and people will assume that they have every right to be there. Whether he has the credentials or not. Whether he has read the material or not. The room will ask him for advice and for me to take minutes. I must build the case that I have a place at the table, and this task is not always pleasant. I have done the homework. I have ideas to contribute. I have every right to take up as much space as anyone else. I am a leader in our beloved Episcopal Church, and I will not let anyone deny me a right to speak. I do this not only for my own sake, but in order to teach those in the room that leadership is diverse and to make space for future leaders who will come after me.
I have continually found healing within our community and I feel called to push the boundaries of The Episcopal Church so that it can be a place of healing for others. Insisting that our beloved institution be a place of healing for all is difficult, but necessary work. I am sharing these difficult stories in this #metoo Lenten reflection because I love our church. We are a community that can bring healing, blessing, and wholeness to the world. But first we must examine ourselves and become reconciled to each other.
Julia Ayala Harris is the vice-chair of Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Advocacy and Networking. She is also an officer of the 79th General Convention as the vice-chair of the legislative committee on Social Justice and United States Policy. When she is not feeding her church volunteerism addiction, you can find Julia as the executive director of Cimarron Opera and as a masters of public administration student at the University of Oklahoma.