I read an article this weekend that hits much closer to home for me. I highly recommend you read it, it's an extremely intense story. It's an article in Christianity Today (the cover story this month) written by Wes Stafford, the President of Compassion International, the huge international child aid organization. He's well known for his leadership of Compassion, but recently he's revealed for the the first time that he was physically and sexually abused as a child in a missions school in Africa.
(Wes is on the right)
Wes's story is brutal. His parents were missionaries in Africa, which was a childhood and a ministry that he loved and felt personally involved in. However, their sending organization required children to attend boarding school from a young age, and Wes happened to be near Mamou Alliance Academy, now renowned for being "Auschwitz of missionary kid boarding schools". I grew up in the mission community too, and although I didn't attend boarding school, many of my friends did and I'm very aware of the sexual abuse that was common in these schools a generation ago. Nowadays there is more accountability and transparency and awareness, but back then... .
For years, 50 of us children had courageously maintained our silence. We were repeatedly told, "If you tell what happens here, you will destroy your parents' ministry." Our abusers used our love for God, for our parents, and for Africans to secure our silence about the horrors of that place.
Oh, we wrote letters home every Sunday. But we couldn't even hint at our loneliness or the abuse. Our letters were censored, and the slightest attempt to cry out resulted in a beating, then a forced rewriting of the letter. We learned to be as silent as lambs. We had no idea that our silence perpetuated the evil against us. Even during the three months home with our parents every year, we all kept silent. We loved them so much. We knew how passionately they spread the gospel, and I loved my African village friends. If my silence could win their salvation, I would endure anything.
Wes and his fellow students were physically beaten with belts or tire-tread sandals at the slightest infractions, Wes said he counted 17 beatings a week. There was psychological manipulation and sexual abuse, which he doesn't dwell on but says that the older boys also act out their own abuse on the younger children. It sounds like Shawshank Prison... and it's a school for children. The article tells the story of Wes bursting out and telling his parents, his mother suffering a mental breakdown, and his dorm parent basically torturing him for telling. It's a brutal story. It invites rage and disbelief.
I know these things happened. I mentioned this article on facebook and got a lot of reponse, including from older missionary kids whose friends attending Mamou Academy themselves. Other older missionary kids referenced abuse that happened at the school I attended - years ago. It's never been publicly identified, but the discussion has increased since the author of the shack revealed that his story came out of his own wrestling with pain, partly stemming from sexual abuse as a child on the mission field.... he went to my school.
What struck me most about Wes's story and the facts about Mamou is that it wasn't one hidden perpetrator. The abuse was apparently shared and recognized and covered up by all of the adults at the school. Years later when it was investigated, NINE offenders were identified. Nine. I understand how one person can have something happen to them, or some strange darkness in their soul, and act out awful things because of the power and secrecy available to them. How in the world could nine people be a part of the awful things Wes describes?
I remember hearing the stats about sexual abuse in the US for the first time. It was during undergrad in a counseling class. I couldn't believe that one in four girls encounters some sort of sexual abuse, when of all of my friends I hadn't yet heard of even one case. Now, six or seven years later, I know of three cases of abuse or molestation in my immediate family. Immediate only. I can't tell those stories here, but I am now all too aware of the vulnerability of kids and teens.
That's why, although America can be addicted to gossip and salacious news, and the evangelical world mirrors this tendency, I am thankful for a community that talks about things. I'm thankful we're not fully trusting of anyone in power, that we place limits and accountability, that we talk about our struggles. This sometimes means it looks like there are more scandals in the church now than ever before, but reality things are just being talked about and hopefully dealt with.
Kids are vulnerable. So are adults. Souls are sacred things that need to be nurtured and guarded and healed. I'm enraged and saddened by the scandals, and hopeful that when we talk about things, a layer of protection is added to our society. Wes Stafford's story ends in him him being driven to head up an organization that protects and fights for vulnerable children around the world. His heart is clearly broken for kids, because of his own story.