One of the things I love most about this submission is the way her peers rallied around her. We don't give enough credit to the younger people in our churches - they know, they see, and they understand far more than we believe.
A rare torrential downpour exploded over the tiny Alaskan town where I grew up. The rain overflowed the gutters of our church/school and streamed down in rivulets. I laughed and ran outside to play in the rain, like I always did when these storms occurred every year or two. I twirled, face lifted to the sky, rain soaking my hair and clothes in a matter of seconds. I turned towards the glass foyer doors as something caught my eye. The janitor, Mr. Jones, was standing dead still in the foyer, staring at me holding the vacuum suspended over the carpet. I instantly felt ashamed and guilty. I folded my arms over my chest and ran inside to wait for my father, the administrator of the Christian school I attended, to be ready to leave.
Years later, Mr. Jones told me to be careful about dancing in the rain. He told me that moment of spontaneous childhood joy was one of the most seductive things he had seen.
I was thirteen. He was thirty-one.
Like in the I Love Lucy episode where the one man in the town rapidly changes hats with his roles as the mayor, police officer, and hotel clerk, in our town it seemed like we all had multiple roles. Our nondenominational church was also a Christian school and community center. I easily spent more waking hours at church than at home. Mr. Jones also had multiple occupations; he was the janitor, my middle school History, PE, and Home Ec. teacher, Sunday School teacher, and the Christian Education Leader for the church. He was in the building as often as I was. As my teacher, he sometimes called me into his classroom after school to discuss my homework, such as why I had chosen to color the map of France hot pink with purple stripes. I was painfully shy generally and uncomfortable with him specifically, so I would mumble something and try to get out of the room as quickly as possible. Other girls were also uncomfortable with him. The two other girls in my grade and I were his whole PE and Home Ec. class. We thought it was odd that he picked football one quarter and insisted that we hike the ball to him correctly between our legs. We refused to his exasperation, and continued to hand it back to him. Once, when a girl was reciting a poem to an assembly, she suddenly went blank and ran off the stage crying. A group of girls went to comfort her, but Mr. Jones had already backed her against a wall and hugged her as she sobbed. My sister confided that she and her roommate would be in their pjs when he would show up at their apartment, uninvited and sit in their living room for hours. He was known to push girls into an emotional reaction, and then try to hug them to comfort them. He was generally known among the young women as a creep. Instead of the church protecting us from him, he was endowed with power and authority over the youth.
The summer between my junior and senior year in high school, he set his sights specifically on me. I had begun to attend the adult Sunday School class he taught. I sat in the back of the sanctuary respectfully listening and quietly taking notes. He cornered me and asked if I would run the projector for the summer series on the Beatitudes. I agreed, partly because I thought it would simply entail changing the slide when appropriate and partly because I had never learned to appropriately say no or to trust my feelings.
Respect for authority was engrained to my core and to say no, solely because I felt uncomfortable around him, didn’t cross my mind.
In fact, I continued calling him Mr. Jones because he was an authority, an adult, and a teacher. When he asked me to use his first name, I refused because I wanted to continue to emphasize his authority over me.
Instead just changing the slides like he had asked, Mr. Jones required me to meet with him for hours each week to discuss the lesson plan. He ushered me into his office at the church and I vividly remember walking past the pastor’s door with the sign posted
Women meeting with the pastor must leave the door open or have another woman present.
Mr. Jones would shut the office door behind me.
He would ask me what I thought the passage meant, what my thoughts were, etc. for at least an hour every week. I would uncomfortably mumble and stare down at my teddy bear key chain, twisting it in my hands. I was dreading the upcoming passage regarding blessing the pure in heart because I knew that Mr. Jones was going to bring up sexuality. Midway into the summer, I was with him in an empty church office on a Saturday, he asked me to meet at a restaurant next week. I told him I would; probably thinking that would be better than a closed office. As we were walking out of the office, he grabbed my upper arm so tightly that it hurt.
“I want you to know that I’m asking you because I like you as a person, not because of the class.”
I said “okay” and he released his grip.
I pondered what that sentence meant. It completely confused me. I like you as a person?!? I believe it was intentionally vague. If I had responded “Is this a date?” he could of easily shamed me by my assumption that he would want to go on a date with me, when really he was just valuing me as a person. Conversely, if I later said I assumed this was platonic, he could have said “But I made it clear that it was a date.” I am a person who normally has difficulty reading between these lines in social situations; he completely befuddled me. On the dreaded day that we discussed the “pure in heart” verses, he brought me up to “the Bluff”, a local scenic view, and relentlessly quizzed me -
“What does purity mean to you?”
“Do you think if a guy says ‘that girl is foxy?’ is that pure?”
“When does it become un-pure?”
I remember being so incredibly miserable, cringing at every question and mumbling “I don’t know” over and over, but being careful not to cry so he didn’t have an excuse to hug me. When the class ended, Mr. Jone’s pursuit of me increased. I would receive letters from him in my school locker accompanied by a Hershey chocolate “hug” candy. I would pour over these letters with my friends trying to see if he was romantically interested in me, because then I could “break up” with him or if he was mentoring me which would be inappropriate in our church because we were different sexes and I could get help from church leadership. I fastidiously kept the letters as “evidence”. I didn’t understand that Alaska’s age of consent is 16, so he was doing nothing illegal.
However, because he was in a position of spiritual and educational authority over me, it was abusive.
His pursuit continued to escalate. He came to my work. He sent me flowers for Christmas. He gave me a stuffed beaver for Valentine’s Day (the beaver was promptly hung by the neck in my closet- even at my innocent age I knew the sexual connotations to beavers!)
I finally felt I had enough evidence that he was pursuing a romantic relationship with me even though he never explicitly said so. I went away to a Christian winter camp and came back with enough of a “spiritual high” to try to face him. I felt like because I hadn’t been brave enough to tell him no, that I was “leading him on”. I called him and told him that I did not want to meet with him alone anymore. He asked to meet me in the school cafeteria and told me that I would just need some “time to get over our age differences”.
I had used up my courage in that one “no” that he refused to acknowledge.
I felt guilty that part of me liked the attention of someone singling me out and calling me special and thought I wasn’t clear enough. However, my peers were aware of the situation and one friend asked her mother how to get him to stop harassing me. Her mother told her she just didn’t understand because I was more mature than most girls and was in a relationship with him.
A church elder actually approached me and told me how much he “envied” my relationship with Mr. Jones because he was such a wealth of knowledge. This proved just how ambiguous this relationship was. Why would a married elder “envy” a romantic relationship but why would he let a mentoring relationship continue? I mustered enough courage to go to my female youth group leaders and asked for help. I explained that he was continuing to follow me, try to meet with me, and leave me notes when I had no interest in a relationship with him. My youth group leaders assured me that they would get their husbands to confront him.
I later found out that they never did.
Eventually, I gave up talking to the adults in the church about it. No adult in the church would stand up to him or even talk to him about the inappropriateness of the relationship. A teacher, who had been through abuse herself, did notice the closed doors and talked to my mom about it. My mom asked “Are you having problems with Mr. Jones?” I told her I was but not the extent of it. I think as far as my parents were aware, I was dating him. I wasn’t comfortable with talking to them or asking for help. My friends banded together and helped me the only way they could. With a high school of about thirty close knit students, everyone knew about the problem and stepped up even without my asking. I tried to have several girlfriends with me. If I sat in a pew, I was always in the middle with other teens on either side me. I didn’t even go to the bathroom alone. I am so grateful for the many times the other kids protected me.
Mr. Jones cornered me in the hall during an event so a male classmate of mine walked up to him, interrupted and started conversing with him to allow me to escape.
Another time I was eating a sandwich in my car before performance practice. Mr. Jones got into my car and began to ask why I was avoiding him, why I wouldn’t talk to him, and why I wouldn’t be alone with him. Another student, ran up to the car, knocked on the window and said “You’re needed inside now!” I ran with her inside and asked what the emergency was.
There was none. She was just rescuing me.
My boss helped too, sending me upstairs whenever she spotted him drive into my work’s parking lot. He never completely stopped pursuing me until after my freshman year of college, when I was able to break all contact with him. Later, when I had completed college, gotten married, and moved back to my home church, the new pastor would ask Mr. Jones to pray before the church service when he was in town. He would stand up and the congregation would applaud. My husband and I met with the new pastor to tell him my story and why we felt like the applause and public prayers were inappropriate.
While I was telling my story, the pastor fell asleep.
We left that church soon afterward. I googled Mr. Jones about seven years ago and found out he was a pastor and the head of the youth department. I emailed him to ask him to please never be alone with a female student and explained to him how much he hurt me. He apologized and said he had thought of himself as about my age and told me that no one had ever approached him to talk to him about the inappropriate relationship. My story could have been much worse. He could have been sexually abusing me behind the closed doors, but if he was no one would have known. I was lucky. Instead of squelching my spirit this experience has made me passionate about protecting children. I work in Child Protective Services. I am proud to be part of a church that when I saw a grown man pursuing a child, I told my pastor and he had a long, uncomfortable conversation with that man. I am proud that our church performs background checks on anyone working with children. I have told this story to my friends, who told me back similar stories, to my husband, who wishes he could have protected me, and to my children, in hopes of protecting them, but I have never written it because to write it down in black and white is a betrayal of good people who I love and respect but failed in their responsibility to protect me. But I’m writing it now, because I need to speak out in hopes that this story will protect another child by opening the eyes of a parent, youth leader, teacher or pastor.