taking the words of Jesus seriously

Last month an explosive report was released detailing the massive amount of abuse and cover up of abuse that has taken place within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)  over the past two decades. This was the largest investigation undertaken in the denomination’s history and the troubling report details what many abuse survivors had been speaking out about for years. Now, armed with the new report, they are continuing to amplify the call for more transparency and accountability within the denomination. 

Among those who is continuing to raise her voice is Ashley Easter, an abuse survivor, author, and advocate who uses her platform to empower other survivors of abuse. RLC editor, Rebekah Barber, recently spoke to Easter about the explosive report and what work is needed to be done to ensure that pastor predators are held accountable and survivors are able to receive a sense of justice, whatever that may look like to each individual person.

Rebekah: A lot of your work has centered around empowering survivors of abuse. Can you tell me about what led you to this calling?

Ashley: I’m a survivor myself. It was one of those things where I really felt a calling to reach out and support other survivors. I initially started with a blog, talking about different things I had survived. That developed into a conference.

 Now I have a nonprofit called Courage 365. With that, we provide a lot of educational resources. This week we’re starting our first online peer support group called Courage Clubs, which is exciting. We’ve had conferences, as well as video shows every week. We’re just  starting season three of The Courage Conversation Show. We also have free resources, PDFs, and resource guides.

We just do a lot of work to  educate and connect people with what they need for their healing journey. I got connected with the movement to end abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention around 2018. I actually came from the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church. Nobody at the time was really talking about abuse there–that’s starting to become more common in the news reports.

The Southern Baptist Convention is not not that different. There are  so many similarities in this denomination. My friend, Cheryl Summers started the For Such A Time As This Rally. We had  a protest outside of their convention in  2018. We held signs and preached many sermons and had talks from survivors and advocates. We’ve really been calling for change every year since. . The last two years, the rally has been online because of COVID and survivors often having autoimmune disorders. It’s extra important for them to be safe during these times. I’ve had conversations with some of the top leaders, confronted J.D. Greear and previous presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, and unfortunately, have just not seen a lot of change.

Rebekah: As someone who is deeply involved in this work,  how have you been grappling with the recent  release of the report detailing abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist Convention and attempts to cover up this abuse?

Ashley: The report really had nothing new in it. Survivors and advocates have been talking about this for years. We’ve even been saying that there’s a secret list—the one that was produced.

I  think the earliest that I’m aware of there being any kind of organized survivor advocacy was in 2007  with Christa Brown. We’ve been calling for change. We’ve been saying that there’s all this abuse but  nothing has really been done. 

Advocates and survivors have been talking about basically everything in the report since 2007. I  really think that the report was only released because of public pressure, not because the SBC as a whole wants to change. It’s important to realize that the report is only talking about the Executive Committee, which is a small piece of the Southern Baptist Convention. It wasn’t a report about the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole, so it’s really very limited in its scope. The list of Pastor predators put out had many names redacted. It’s understandable if names of victims were redacted, but these were names of Pastor predators.  I think that shows that they are still protecting certain people.  I think that as people look at this report, they need to realize that survivors and advocates have been saying this for years and years. 

It’s only been because of public pressure outside the church  that this is even being released. But even with it being released, does that even signify any change? What really is going to stop Pastor predators from raping little children?–certainly not just putting out a report. We will need to have changes made, we need to have these pastors kicked out, we need to have mandatory trainings for pastors and seminary students so  they know how to properly address and respond to abuse. There needs to be a  no tolerance policy for those who cover up abuse. Simply having a report come out of information that we already knew all along, I don’t think signifies any great change. It just signifies that we know what we’re talking about and something has to happen, but it’s likely nothing will.

Rebekah: What do you think has caused this huge amount of silence and hypocrisy within the church? Why do you believe that there is so much hypocrisy in that the church preaches the concepts of Christianity but still allows these types of things to perpetuate?

Ashley: I think we can look at it from two angles. One, we can look at it from a broad structure that we could put on pretty much all church denominations, because it needs to be very clear that this is not just a Southern Baptist, or Catholic Church situation. All denominations have this problem, probably to the same extent, they just haven’t had big investigations written about them. It’s important to realize that when we see these things, this is really a microcosm of the larger church. 

People cover up abuse  for one reason: power and control. That’s the same reason people abuse: for power and control. We see a lot of patriarchy, we see a lot of racism, we see a lot of homophobia in these churches. What we don’t see is a lot of accountability for those who are given positions of power over other people.

It is much easier, much more convenient to continue supporting a pastor who has a lot of support, who maybe preaches certain messages that are advantageous to the limited few than it is to step out of the way and support a victim of abuse  who may have no power or influence in that church.  I think it always comes down to power and control,  to profit and finances. 

The SBC does not want to open themselves up to lawsuits. They try to sneak around with things so as to not lose money in lawsuits instead of addressing the problem so that lawsuits don’t have to happen. When we look at the Southern Baptist Convention, specifically, the entire reason that denomination was founded was because they wanted missionaries to be able to have slaves. When you start a denomination, or any organization,  from such a corrupt and grotesque point of view, it’s likely just going to be a downhill motion from there.

Not only is there the extreme racism in the Southern Baptist Convention, which we see over and over again to this day, but there is the patriarchy, the suppression of women… It got a little bit better in the 70s, but then they had the conservative takeover, and they stopped ordaining women and started really  leaning back into patriarchy, which they had stepped away from a little bit. We see homophobia at large scales and people truly dying because of lack of support for who they are. 

When you look at all of these things, it is no wonder that a church would not only want power and control in the area of racism, the area of sexism, the area of homophobia–but of course over victims as well–victims of all kinds.  I think when you create something out of danger, evil, disgustingness, it’s not likely to get better. It’s just going to continue to spiral into other areas.  I think when we look at the SBC, specifically, we can look and look at their roots, but  think when we look at churches as a whole, it always comes down to power, prestige, money, and influence.

Rebekah: You mentioned the need for the Pastor predators to be fired  and for there to be trainings for pastors and those in Divinity School. What other ways do you think, especially those in power, should be held accountable in these instances?

Ashley: I really believe that if you abuse or cover up abuse you need to be removed. Covering up abuse is a broad spectrum. There’s specifically being aware while abuse is happening and not telling somebody that’s on part of the spectrum, but then there’s also the part of the spectrum that is like “well, this happened 20 years ago, they’ve sought forgiveness, and it’s all fine.” Even people on that end of the spectrum,  they’re really not safe for their congregants. 

I think it’s important to have a database, one that maybe is funded by the SBC, but not created by the SBC, because they obviously can’t be trusted to really be transparent. When Pastor predators are found out there should be a database so congregants can look and see who these people are because what often happens is they’ll get fired from one place, or more likely they’ll have like some sort of quiet by night leaving, and then they’ll pop up in another church down the road. We need a way to track what’s happening.

It’s, exorbitantly expensive for somebody to be an abuse survivor, I believe it’s estimated that  for one rape or sexual assault–and oftentimes people have many–it costs about $120,000 over their lifetime  to access healing resources.  I think we should be seeing the Southern Baptist Convention, instead of pouring money into colonizing other countries,  they should be pouring money into therapy  at the choice of the survivor, of course, or to having funds for victims to pay for their legal costs. Not only does it have to stop, but there needs to be some sort of restitution for what has and what continues to happen because without that, I don’t think this is ever going to get better. 

Rebekah: Can you talk a little bit more about what a sense of justice for the survivors could look like?

Ashley: I think each survivor is going to look at justice a little bit differently. For some, they would love to have their day in court. For some survivors, that’s not possible, whether it’s a statute of limitations or whether they’re just at a point in their life where they’re just fragile and unable to withstand that abusive system which is our court system. For some people, it looks like that and for some people, it does not. 

For some survivors,  they just want what happened to be acknowledged and for those people to be removed. Justice is really a very individual thing. How can you rectify ruining someone’s life?

It’s not that you can’t experience healing. It’s not that you can’t have a  joyful life after abuse, but when someone steals these parts of you  or attempts to steal these parts of you–because we’re always whole—how can you ever make that better? How can justice  ever truly make up for a child being being raped? 

I think it looks different for the individual survivor, but I think what we sometimes have to focus on is what we’re able to do through the  legal system, through our police system–which can be extremely traumatizing , to survivors. I’d love to see any Pastor predators going to jail, but I think the statistic from RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and  Incest National Network) says that out of 1000 rapists, only one will ever see the inside of a prison cell.

Of course we’d love to see more people put away, but we’re seeing that just as recently as the Josh Duggar case (he’s Independent Fundamentalist Baptist) he’s only  getting 12 and a half years in prison. Both the judge and the people trying him said it was the worst child sexual abuse images they’d ever seen. Many times rapists  get less than that. A lot of  times if they are convicted they get a year to four years. We’d love to see more people put away for these kinds of things, but I don’t know if that is really realistic.

Rebekah: Is there anything else that you think we should know, specifically about your work to amplify the needs of survivors?

Ashley: We’ve got a couple of things coming up this year. We recently started our first peer survivor support group online. They’re called courage clubs, and are for adult survivors of abuse. We have them every first Wednesday of the month.

It’s completely free and people can just go to courage365.org/clubs.. You can sign up there to join and we have  a little curriculum that we’re going through with  different healing tips, resources and conversation. 

It’s not Christian-based as in we’re not trying to proselytize anyone, but more so just getting some healing resources into people’s hands no matter where they have landed in their faith journey. In October, we’ll  have the 30 days of courage. That’s in lieu of our in person conference because we’re not quite ready to go back in person yet. 

Throughout the month of October, we’ll have  our courage conversation show, which is a video recording that we have streamed live to our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The back episodes are also on our website  where we interview survivors and people doing healing work like therapists and trauma coaches. People can watch that live on Thursdays at 7pm. Eastern or they can catch the replays. We have a variety of resources on our website as well and we’d love for anybody to check that out. 

I think that it’s  important to call out organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention, but I think they’ve proven to us that they’re not willing to change, so  I think while we do that we have to simultaneously, and perhaps with more vigor, be reaching out to the actual survivors because those are the ones who have the potential to experience healing and change for themselves.

About The Author

Ashley Easter writes, blogs, speaks, and advocates for abuse victims. She founded The Courage Conference, an event that empowers survivors of abuse to fight for their healing while also educating church leaders on prevention and proper response to abuse. She authored "The Courage Coach: A Practical, Friendly Guide on How to Heal from Abuse." Ashley promotes truth-telling, advocates for gender equality, and educates churches and secular communities on abuse.

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