by Cass Clemmer
I recently had the incredible opportunity to represent WeWillSpeakOut.US in the beautiful state of Maine, a place which holds a very close spot in my heart, filled with fond memories of college life, blueberry fields and summer hikes. However, Maine also holds a lot of difficult memories for me, as it was the state in which two years ago, I was sexually assaulted.
As I drove down I-95 towards my first speaking engagement in Auburn, I reflected back on the ways I have been able to transform my painful experience into an inner strength and tool of resistance. But even though I had shared my story many times with friends and loved ones, my palms were sweating against the steering wheel – I’d never before bared this most intimately painful part of my soul in front of complete strangers. I tossed up a prayer that the words I was about to let fumble from my heart would touch my audience and encourage them to speak out about their own pain.
I was welcomed with a picnic and a small group of women and men ready to talk about sexual and domestic violence in the church. Over iced tea and lemonade, we shared our stories and brainstormed ways that the Court Street Baptist Church could get more involved in creating an affirming space for survivors and victims. Their energy and passion filled me with encouragement and I was humbled to have the opportunity to serve as a listening ear to those who needed it. I left that day recognizing the vast amount of work yet to be done in our faith communities, but reinvigorated by the willingness of my brothers and sisters to speak out in their church.
Energized by my discussion in Auburn, I turned my attention to the week’s final event where I would be speaking at Columbia Street Baptist Church in Bangor, not an hour from the college campus where I was sexually assaulted. The local news station caught wind of the event and was so intrigued by WeWillSpeakOut’s focus on faith and sexual and gender based violence that they decided to help with promotion by interviewing me for their nightly news broadcast.
If I was already terrified of sharing my experience in front of a couple dozen people I didn’t know, saying it in front of a television camera to countless people across the state definitely got my heart racing.
But the promotion worked – as I walked into the event room beneath the church on Saturday evening, I was floored to see over 80 people from at least six different churches and numerous groups sitting around the podium, waiting to hear me speak.
My notecards shook in my nervous hands, but my voice rang out clear as I drew strength from the knowledge that I was breaking a silence that needed to be broken,
“As people of faith, we need to be at the forefront of this discussion. We need to be the ones raising our voices loud, calling for justice and an end to the violence. We need to stop the victim-shaming within our own communities, and turn that energy into supporting survivors instead of retraumatizing them. As people of faith, we need to SPEAK OUT.”
As I concluded my talk, I was met with a rush of questions from people clearly eager to have a conversation they had never before given the space to have. We spoke back and forth for over an hour as the cameraman from FOX22 Bangor packed up his equipment, and opened up a dialog that I’m sure will continue for long after I settle back into the home of WeWillSpeakOut.US in Washington D.C.
But out of the many questions I was asked throughout the week, there was one that came up more than others: “What’s the very first step that we should take to begin fighting sexual and gender based violence within our church and community?”
I had discussed the problem, listed strategies for everything from revamping policies and connecting with crisis centers to training clergy and mandating background checks, but what what people really wanted to know at the end of the day was, “How do even we get started?”
To answer this, I brought them back to our name.