Angela Wharton’s commitment to survivors in her community is steadfast. After surviving a sexual assault at gunpoint, she was called by God to found Phynyx Ministries, a Christian-based sexual assault recovery ministry. Through Phynyx Ministries, Angela has helped survivors find support and strength. Angela recently spoke to Force about her collaborations with Force, the importance of and challenges to creating safe spaces for survivors of faith-based communities.
Angela was inspired to bring the quilt to her organization as another means for survivors to access healing. “I think Force is doing so much to help us survivors. It’s a creative outlet to bring a voice to survivors who are still suffering in silence. At Phynyx Ministries, in our meetings, many of the members have been holding onto their experiences of sexual assault and sexual abuse for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years even, and they haven’t opened up about it before coming to our meetings. Because it’s difficult for people to talk about it, I brought it to my organization to give them another way, another outlet to speak out in their healing.”
After attending “Faith Communities Supporting Survivors” event, Angela described the meeting as an excellent starting point for continued dialogue and action. “I’m leaving with an open mind. Today there were mostly members of the Christian faith, and we got a great start in coming up with things we want to do.” Some of the ideas included designating a room for survivors to meet with each other and Church leaders, share their experiences, and locate resources. “We also came up with other ideas like bringing the quilt to Churches just to have them on display there and have someone from the Church talk a little bit about what it is. I think that the meeting today was a great start to get the wheels in motion of creating those safe spaces and to get people talking.”
Angela described the challenges survivors often face within their Church communities. “It is oftentimes difficult [to speak out] because perhaps the perpetrators are in Church as members or even leaders.” Victim-blaming is another obstacle members face. “We’re afraid of being judged, blamed, and shamed. ‘What was she wearing? Why did she go there?’ Things of that nature. These are things that are said, inside of the Church and outside of the Church. The Church is looked upon as a place of healing and a come-as-you-are institution, and oftentimes that’s just not the way it is in some churches. This is why we have these meetings in an effort to create guidelines of what we can do to help congregants who have these experience.”
Angela emphasized the necessity of safe spaces for faith-based survivors. “Having a safe space within the Christian community for survivors is essential. From my own personal experience, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was God who was there with me in both experiences. But in the recovery stage it was imperative that I spent the time with God, in scripture, in prayer, searching for answers not only to why did this happen to me but what do You want me to do with it. I really feel that if I had not turned to God or had God on my side that I would not have been able to come to the place I am now where I am able to reach out and help others.” She elaborated, “Now, of course the experience never goes away; it is always there. The difference is that I no longer allow it to control me. I control it. So when those feelings and triggers creep up, I am able to handle that better.”
When asked if survivors in faith-based community can find strength through one another, Angela answered, “Absolutely! A lot of the survivors that come to our meetings have broken the silence for the first time in their lives. Our average ages are between 35-55, so these are adult women who have been carrying this burden of sexual violence for years. When they share their stories and what they survived, they know they are not the only one. These meetings provide hope AND healing. I’ve had many women who say to me at the end of meetings, well, I when I came I had no intention to speak at all, but I honestly feel like this is a place of sisterhood. This is a place of love, and I feel like I can open up here.”
In addition to cultivating safe spaces for survivors to come together in faith and healing, there is a need to involve the entire community. When asked what members and leaders within the Christian community can do to support sexual assault survivors and combat rape culture, Angela drew from her own insights as a Christian survivor. “The main thing is to build trust. Survivors need to know that we can trust you because we may have been violated by people we did trust. We need to know that we can trust members of the faith to be a resource to us, to help us and not hurt us. Oftentimes we have been revictimized by opening up and reaching out to members of the faith community that we thought could help us. It’s gone so wrong because they don’t have the mechanisms in place to support survivors.
So how can this trust be established and maintained? Angela expressed that education about sexual assault and consent is key and reminded that survivors are everywhere. “Some of the challenges are we don’t know what to do or how to do it. People are afraid to touch the topic of sexual violence with a ten-foot pole. We need to educate folks because I find that, in conversations, people don’t think that this violence is happening. People don’t think that it’s happening because we’re not talking about it. What do you think survivors look like? Survivors look like you. They look like me. Survivors are regular people. You’d be surprised by how many people you know who have had this experience and are not naming it. If he touched you, and you didn’t say he could, that is sexual assault. We have to teach people.” Angela’s thoughts on creating safer spaces within Christian faith communities offer insights for all communities: through education about the dynamics of sexual violence, communities can cultivate empathy and foster safe spaces for survivors. Believing instead of blaming survivors is a critical first step. For more information about Phynyx Ministries and Angela Wharton’s work, please visit http://phynyxministries.org/.