Updated: Nov 30, 2018
Throw the whole church away and burn it with holy fire.
By now, most have seen the viral video of the abuse Audrey Stevenson endured at the hands of a member of the security team at The Potter’s House Forth Worth this past Sunday. Audrey provides context of the events leading to Sunday’s altercation but, because of ego and hyper-masculinity, Audrey went from welcoming the visitors to being thrown on the ground, handcuffed with the knees of a grown man in her back and banned from church…all while the congregation sang “You Deserve It” in the background. And given the responses of many, they apparently believe that she did.
Perhaps, I’m most struck that this happened on Palm Sunday- the day Jesus begins his trek to Calvary. As Jesus is entering Jerusalem, people are waving palms and laying their clothing on the ground to make the way holy for him. At The Potter’s House Ft. Worth, only fingers were waved and it was Audrey on the floor. Sunday began the journey of our Savior to reconcile us back to God and, on the same day, Audrey was told that she could never come back to her church again.
…and her screams? Only those who have known the agony of powerlessness and fear know that they were all too real. She could have died and she just wanted to leave.
When Audrey was finally allowed to leave, she called her mother. And it was her mother’s words that made me cry. I cannot imagine what it is like for your child to be in danger and there is nothing that you can do. But, this week, another mother knows Ms. Stevenson’s pain. Another mother knows what it is like to watch the same people who prayed for her, led her and labored with her harm her baby. They spat on him and beat him. Laid a crown of thorns on his head and made him a pariah all because he dared to be different. He did not follow their way. He usurped their authority and they made him pay for it. And there was nothing that Mary could do. She deserved better and so did Mrs. Stevenson.
And, like clockwork, people came forward to defend the indefensible. One sister blamed the incident on untreated mental illness, using Audrey’s own words against her. One brother apparently graduated from medical school the night before and asserted that Audrey’s bruises and wounds were at least a year old. The church conveniently began posting testimonials from members on its Facebook page. Some said we needed to wait for all of the facts and others suggested that, had Audrey just listened, she wouldn’t have ended up in that situation. It continues to amaze me how we justify the abuse of Black girls and women. We will become contortionists to keep from telling the straight up truth. Even the carefully placed words found in Bishop TD Jakes’ official statement toe the line of apologizing for the behavior while also suggesting that, even with video, Audrey’s account should not fully be believed. Sadly, I expect this from church folk. Because we don’t really care about Black women. Churches need Black women’s labor but they do not care about Black women’s lives. When you can go from greeting the visitors to being banned from the church all within an hour, with bodily violation in between, and no one bats an eye…when the senior pastor’s and campus pastor’sstatements do more to paint Audrey as a threat to safety than a victim of violence- throw the whole church away and burn it with holy fire.
Admittedly though, I am a bit shocked at the number of ministry leaders and theologians who have been completely silent about this. At this point, very few can feign ignorance. Many of them remain vocal about the racial injustices that lead to the murders of unarmed Black men on a seemingly daily basis. They are at protests and rallies in their collars, taking selfies and speaking truth to power. Yet, when a young Black woman is thrown to the ground by a Black man in church, these same individuals are silent. Be clear: people are not leaving the church because they don’t desire accountability and seek to be coddled. Folks are leaving because of the church’s hypocrisy. If you lead a congregation or write about Black folk and God, watched/heard about that video and did not speak out- you are a part of the problem. We can’t just be prophetic when Pharaoh is White and we can’t only care when the victims are Black men.
…and I get it; I really do. Nobody wants to come for any franchise of The Potter’s House because that means coming for its founder. There are some things you just don’t do as a member of the Black Church and publicly standing against TD Jakes is one of them. I love Bishop Jakes; I had the opportunity to do a Huff Post Live segment with him years ago and he was as gracious as I would have expected him to be. Being in that 2012 Oprah LifeClass audience in St. Louis, when he preached about being on and in purpose, set me on my current vocational path. Bishop Jakes’ ministry continues to bless my life. But as much as I love him and as much as speaking at MegaFest remains on my life’s vision board, we can’t allow our admiration or desire to have/remain in his close proximity to keep us from telling the truth: this was wrong.
There are those who feel compelled to remind us that what took place in The Potter’s House Ft. Worth this past Sunday doesn’t happen in all churches. That is partially true. While it may not be all of our stories, many have taken to social media to share their experiences of physical violence and the fear that kept them silent. One young man shared that he was slapped by his pastor because he didn’t show enough deference to leadership in his closing remarks at a service. Another sister shared how people had to physically restrain a man from assaulting her mother all because she “questioned his authority”. Church spaces have always been abusive. But more than that, there are elements of Sunday’s altercation that we see play out week after week in our congregations. The egos and power trips. The mean girls who talk about other girls to mask their own insecurities and self-esteem struggles. The older women who are mean and hateful for no reason. The men who believe that women’s bodies belong to them to do as they please. The people who lack power in other areas of their lives so they overexert it in the church. The uncomfortable truth is that all of our churches have aspects of the structures of oppression that made what happened to Audrey possible. And unless we face that head on…unless we are honest about the presence of these systems in our churches and work to eradicate them, we are complicit in all the forms of violence that take place. And that’s precisely why we can’t keep telling people to find another church- especially when we refuse to tell leadership to stop the foolishness in that one.
Yesterday was spent in various conversations with many of my friends. Some of them serve in ministry. Some have walked completely away. Others are committed to the church and a few are on the fence. There were plenty of tears and choice words. We were mad. We are mad. Because this is absolutely ridiculous. My reaction to what happened to Audrey is rooted in my exhaustion at the ways church culture has very little regard for people. How we treat people says so much about what we think of God’s decision to create them. Entirely too many church leaders, in their professional and personal lives, are treating people as if they do not bear the image of God. They treat us as if we have no worth or value beyond our service to them. I have experienced it on a myriad of levels and many of my friends have, as well. What happened to Audrey triggered memories for all of us. And my rage is for all of us. And my heart breaks for friends in ministry who, as a close one said to me, are representing an institution they cannot defend. We are all tired.
As she navigates the violent voices and works to heal from this, I hope Audrey knows that she is supported by so many of us. I hope she never forgets that she did nothing to deserve what happened to her. And, more importantly, I hope she knows that she is owed much more than an apology. And I hope that we, as the church, learn from this. I hope that we finally confront the toxic leadership that is present everywhere- not just in megachurches. I hope we examine the ways sexism and classism dictate who is treated fairly in the church and who is not. And I hope we finally sit with the fact that entirely too many people have experienced brokenness at the hands of clergy and church leaders. And I hope those of us who are committed to showing them a better way understand that we will have to do more heavy lifting than we possibly expected.
It's not easy but it must be done because Audrey, and so many like her, deserve it.
The photograph was taken from Audrey Stevenson's Facebook page.