After a decade of sex abuse education in Africa, Freely in Hope pivots to American churches

School girls in Zambia. —– USAID/Pixnio/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Jean Nangwala started singing in her local church worship team at a very young age. She considered this assembly, founded by her grandfather and located in the south of Zambia, a safe haven. Standing on the stage to sing every Sunday, she said, was her greatest joy — until a member of the worship group, a church leader she trusted, sexually assaulted her when she was 19. When Nangwala opened up about the rape, pastors questioned her story and blamed her. Ultimately, Nangwala said she stopped singing, left the church and never returned.

“I was left alone to find safety in a world that does not involve church when I have always loved church,” she said.

Today, she shares her stories in churches to educate members and leaders as part of Freely in Hope, a faith-based nonprofit that aims to end sexual violence within churches. Founded in 2010, the organization has focused on Africa for a decade but is moving its spotlight to America.

“We believe that the solutions and experiences we built in Kenya and Zambia can be a catalyst for change for faith leaders in America,” explained its founder, Nikole Lim.

Freely in Hope launched its new initiative with a conference in San Francisco in mid-June, titled Redeeming Sanctuaries, to provide church leaders with survivor-centered tools and solutions to make churches safer places.

The organization’s shift to North America was also prompted by the numerous recent sexual abuse scandals in American churches. Last year, a Guidepost Solutions report documented how the Southern Baptist Convention covered up sexual abuses for decades. 

Lim grew up attending a Salvation Army church in Chinatown, San Francisco. After telling sexual abuse stories as a documentary filmmaker in Eastern and Southern Africa, she wanted to do more to help change survivors’ lives. With Freely in Hope, Lim and her team impacted more than 10,000 people, funded 43 high school and university scholarships and trained 431 leaders on sexual violence prevention. 

For Lim, the first step to changing the mentality around church sexual abuse is acknowledging abuses do happen. Leaders are afraid to address the issue because of the taboo and shame that has encircled sex in the Christian world, she explained. Yet “1 out of 3 women has been abused in the world,” noted Lim, quoting a 2021 WHO report on violence against women.

Irene Cho, another survivor invited to speak at the Redeeming Sanctuaries conference, also underlined how a culture of silence in churches has protected sexual abusers for years.

At 9 years old, Cho found God in an “Assembly of God-esque type of church,” she said, where her mom converted a few years before. Later, the family moved to the East Coast, and Cho and her mom attended a Korean Pentecostal Church, where her faith really began to grow, she said. At 17, she felt the call to enter the ministry. When she was 18, she said, her senior pastor assaulted her. “It took me about a year to share it,” she said.

Around her, Cho didn’t find many people to talk to. She opened up to her college pastor, who offered prayers and often checked on her. During this period, she continued to serve in the church and emotionally detached herself from what happened. “I performed to perfection,” she said.

For Cho, who is still involved in a church, toxic misogynist ideologies that permeate churches fuel stigma around sexual abuse. To prevent abuses, churches need to unpack “what it actually means when you are catering to patriarchy, when you are catering to purity culture,” she said.

“All of these issues go together; these oppressive systems are all intertwined and influence the church in its ideology,” according to Cho. 

In his church, Eric Hays observed firsthand how taboos and shame around sex perpetuated abuses.

“A lot of time, religious people are just uncomfortable talking about anything that’s related to sex. In the process, people are being victimized. And their stories aren’t told, and we don’t listen to them, and we aren’t talking about it. Because it feels yucky … ”

Since 2022, Hays has hosted discussions on abuse in his 150-member congregation, the Fremont Community Church, in California. Survivors come to share their stories and are offered “reflective listening,” a technique the young pastor learned from Bobby Jackson, a Chicago-based pastor and counselor, that consists of attentive and quiet listening.

Sometimes, Hays meets survivors who have left churches without being heard by anyone. Through these sessions, he hopes to foster changes and inspire other leaders to break the cycle in their churches. 

“We are not going to hide any skeletons. We are going to expose things to the light because that’s the only way they can be healed,” he said.

He also noted that implementing stricter background checks in churches was crucial.

“I was kind of shocked to learn how many churches don’t do that. It’s a basic safety measure. I can’t volunteer as a baseball coach in my local community without going through background checks. Certainly, as a church, we should be protecting people better than that.”

Hays, who is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Northern Seminary, also hopes seminaries offer more training around sexual abuse to aspiring leaders. He didn’t learn about this 20 years ago “in college,” he said, and has had to make up for his lack of knowledge by himself.

In this sense, Freely in Hope visits seminaries and churches to educate aspiring leaders. At the Redeeming Sanctuaries conference, about 40 church leaders were provided with resources to ensure the safety of their structures, a first step toward more accountability within congregations, explained Lim.

Nangwala also stressed how churches needed to implement more accountability structures. “They are there but are only known by leadership, never communicated to the congregation,” she said. 

On social media posts, she recently realized her abuser was still serving in the same church, sometimes in pictures with children. While she is not waiting for an apology from her former congregation, the young woman hopes these sessions will force churches to stop burying their heads in the sand and address these issues. 

“I think justice looks like ensuring that churches realize this is a huge problem and it’s happening in their church and make everything to be safe.”

Fiona André

Fiona André is an author with Religion News Service.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!