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Colorado Springs church was a 'me too place' before it was a hashtag

October 28, 2017 Updated: November 17, 2017 at 9:44 am
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Tamara Stewart, 43, talked about her experience with physical abuse ina video she took part for Discovery Church Colorado's new sermon series, "Your Story is Safe Here."

In a video played during services at her church, Tamara Stewart revealed she had been physically abused by her ex-husband.

Each time she watches herself say, "I was a victim of physical abuse," she relives her trauma.

But it's worth it, she says.

"When you show vulnerability and you're willing to go there, it's going to offer up courage for others. Period," Stewart, 43, said in an interview. "I mean, look what the Facebook phenomenon of it now has done."

For more than eight years, Discovery Church Colorado's motto has been "Me Too." The phrase, referring to how it encourages congregants to open up about past traumas, is part of the Colorado Springs church's website URL. It's printed on T-shirts and repeated during services and in small groups.

When #metoo morphed into a worldwide movement in response to public accusations of sexual assault against film producer and former studio executive Harvey Weinstein, the church embraced the message.

An Oct. 15 tweet from actress Alyssa Milano prompted an internetwide deluge of stories about experiences with sexual abuse, harassment and assault. "Suggested by a friend: 'If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,'" Milano wrote.

The hashtag was tweeted nearly a million times in 48 hours, but the posts have gathered steam beyond Twitter. On Facebook, there were more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions in less than 24 hours by 4.7 million users around the world, according to the company. In the U.S., Facebook said 45 percent of users have had friends who posted #metoo.

Milano told The Associated Press she intended to elevate the Weinstein conversation, placing the emphasis on victims rather than perpetrators and offering a glimpse into the number of women who continue to be victimized. The disgraced film mogul has been accused by dozens of women of harassment or abuse.

Many Colorado Springs women - and some men, too - have participated in the campaign, taking to social media to share their stories with friends and family.

Although Stewart has become more comfortable telling her story, she said she still fights "a constant battle" not to feel burdened by or ashamed of it. The victim-blaming she's experienced hasn't helped.

"I can't tell you how many women looked me in the eyes and said, 'I can't believe you'd let a man touch you like that,'" she said. "It went on for years. The more of that that has been experienced by a woman, the less likely she will be to feel free to actually speak."

Opening up to each other

While the posts have increased awareness, TESSA hasn't seen a spike in people seeking assistance from the local victim advocacy nonprofit, either for counseling or a safehouse, said Executive Director SherryLynn Boyles.

Rather, victims are coming out to each other, she said.

"When these kind of campaigns happen, people feel like they can talk to each other, and that's what's great, because we don't want people feeling like they can only talk to us," Boyles said. "That's part of why it stays a big problem - if we think we have to tell people in secret."

Small group discussions can help women feel safe enough to talk about their experiences, said Trudy Strewler Hodges, interim director of the Women's Resource Agency, a local nonprofit.

"Our resources here at the Women's Resource Agency are becoming more and more important so that we can have a place to vent and an outlet where they feel safe," she said. "We're hearing that our women are opening up more."

She praised #metoo for empowering women to speak out and also to take care of themselves.

Catherine Grandorff, founder of Colorado Springs Feminists, chose not to tell her story online. Instead, she amplified the stories and ideas of others by sharing their posts on her Facebook wall.

"I'm grateful to people who have chosen to participate, and we have many community members here in Colorado Springs who participated," said Grandorff. However, she said, there are people who have experienced sexual assault, harassment or abuse and for a variety of reasons, chose not to take to social media.

"The onus shouldn't be on those who are subjected to sexual assault or sexual harassment to share their stories," Grandorff said. "But for those who have chosen to participate, I think there can be some catharsis, and there's reflection and sometimes relief for us in saying like, 'Oh my gosh, it's not just me.' There's power in that, too."

Saying #metoo is not a new way to talk about sexual assault and abuse, Grandorff pointed out. Activist Tarana Burke, a black woman, is credited with launching a movement around the phrase more than a decade ago. But this month, with the help of social media, it caught on quickly.

"It's served as this conversation-starter in making visible what was, in many cases, just easy to ignore," Grandorff said. "The succinct nature of it is conducive to a platform like Twitter (or) Facebook."

The campaign's success has illuminated a nationwide need for women to have a place to talk about their experiences, she said.

"It's been kind of the same with the Colorado Springs Feminists. People needed a space to talk about it," she said. "We have over 700 members now - there's energy that needs somewhere to go. I think that has been the case with #metoo, as well."

Initially a small group of women, Weinstein's accusers soon grew by the dozen as one after another - many celebrities in their own right - stepped forward to say that it had happened to them, too.

"There's been all sorts of high-profile cases around sexual abuse, but this is the most dramatic response in terms of really seeing somebody feel the consequences of their actions immediately - so dramatically and immediately," Boyles said. "It's when we start feeling like, 'This is not my fault. Somebody else needs to be held accountable,' and when we as a society say, 'We don't care what the victim was doing. You don't get to act that way.' That's when we see change."

Men also should work to address the issue, Boyles said.

"I'm a believer that it's only going to change when men say to other men, 'That's not cool. That's not how real men act. We don't respect men who don't respect women,'" Boyles said. "And I think there's a lot of men who don't think it's cool. They just didn't know it was happening to so many women in their lives."

There are statistics showing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, Boyles said, but "it's almost hard for people to process it."

"What I love about the #metoo campaign is that these are people in your own social network," she said. "They're people you know. They're not just statistics. They're not numbers. They're real human beings. So, I applaud anybody who steps out and shares their story, or even just says #metoo. It creates an environment for everybody to get to talk about it."

If the #metoo movement is going "to become more than just a hashtag," it has to inspire action, Grandorff said.

A 'me too place'

Too often, churches aren't safe places to share painful experiences, said Greg Lindsey, Discovery Church Colorado's lead pastor.

He credits the church's success with its transformation into a "me too place" more than eight years ago.

Church leaders believe in "listening and coming alongside and saying, 'It's OK to not be OK as a result of what's happened to you,'" Lindsey said.

"We'll walk beside you in that, which gets messy - and that's why in church worlds, it's a lot easier just to not do it," he said. "We're not counselors. We're caregivers, and the picture that I've been painting for our church is we're combat medics. We stop the bleeding and get you to people who can help you."

Around the time the hashtag was gaining popularity, the church already had created a campaign to promote its new Saturday services, which included a video of people telling parts of their stories and repeating, "My story is safe here." Lindsey liked the video so much he used it as the basis for a six-week series called "Your Story is Safe Here."

The video features people talking about their pain and brokenness, from post-traumatic stress disorder to addiction. In a clip posted to the church's Facebook page, two women - one of them Stewart, the church's facilities director - allude to experiences with sexual assault, harassment and abuse.

"These are women who have been hurt as a result of things they've experienced in their story, and those are the things we go after in this place," Lindsey said. "We encourage people to walk into that stuff, to be honest about it. They don't have to broadcast it from stage or on the internet, but in a small, safe setting, unpack that with someone else."

Church leaders were thrilled to learn about the hashtag.

"I think we've always wanted the story of 'Me Too' to move out of these four walls," said Pete Heiniger, the church's communications director. "We would love to see more and more people who make people feel safe, who chase after those types of stories. So many times, the church is the one that causes the wound, or at least furthers the wounding. When women go through those challenges and those experiences, the church has not always been the warm, friendly place to air that out."

For many, like Stewart, opening up about painful experiences can lead to healing. Community support, religion and resources such as therapy all are important parts of the process, she said. Feeling safe is key to being able to tell your story, she added, and going public might not be right for everyone.

"It's a personal journey, and you have to be ready," she said. "That takes steps - it could be therapy, it could be church, it could be a friend that you finally open up to."

She has faith that by sharing her story, women in similar situations might know there is hope.

"Somebody will find freedom in that. I don't care if it's one or two or a thousand," Stewart said. "I didn't go through it for nothing."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198

Twitter: @lemarie

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