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Sometimes it is not meant for you to have an empty seat next to you on the plane.

Have you ever caught a flight out of town, and when you got on the plane you hoped and prayed that no one would sit next to you?  We’ve all been there, but over the next few minutes, let me share a story that might encourage you to change the context of your prayer the next time you catch a flight.

Last year, I caught a flight out of town to visit a close friend.  Now anyone who knows me will tell you I am an introvert, so normally on flights I don’t like to talk to anyone.  God, however, had a different plan for me that day. After I found my seat on the plane, a beautiful young woman happened to sit next to me.  She was in her mid-30’s and was very down to earth. After engaging in small talk for awhile, the conversation began to progress. The topic of religion and church came up, and she shared with me that she doesn’t go to church and she doesn’t know if God really exist.  As I continued to listen and started to do a little digging, I found out that she was molested as a child by the priest at her church. Immediately, my heart sank and filled with compassion. I continued to listen, and I thanked her for having the courage to share her story with me.  At the time, I knew responding to her with a bunch of bible verses and “Jesus Loves You” probably wouldn’t have been the most effective.

Conversations like this can be so difficult to have, because when someone has been abused (especially a victim of spiritual and sexual abuse), religion and what they have been told about God can become a big contradiction.  If ever placed in a situation where someone shares with you that they have been sexually abused, these are a few things to keep in mind.

Believe them.  One of the biggest fears a survivor of abuse has about coming forward to tell their story is “Will people believe me?”  I’ve heard so many nightmare stories of family members and friends not believing a person who was abused. You have no idea the type of damage that can have on a person.   Survivors of molestation, incest, and other forms of sexual abuse often struggle with feelings of shame and guilt as a result of what happened to them. Men or boys who have been abused also have to contend with a plethora of patriarchal stereotypes that make them feel like they are less than a man due to what they have gone through. So why would they make up a story like that?  In most cases, they are not. Now yes, there are those rare instances when someone does lie about being a victim of abuse, and those cases make it very difficult for those people who are actually victims. Nevertheless, if someone comes forth to you about being a victim of sexual abuse, take it seriously and avoid dismissing the accusation even if the person that they tell you sexually abused them is someone you admire.  Your admiration for that person is no indication of what that person may be capable of doing when you are not around them.

Do not ignore that it happened. When someone who you love or care about says something that is shocking, disturbing, or uncomfortable, a common defense mechanism that some people use to manage unwanted emotions is to block out what the person said to them, or after the conversation is over they never bring up the situation again.   Although that might make you feel more comfortable, it does the opposite for the person that confided in you. In fact, your decision to ignore what they shared with you can give off a string of negative, indirect messages that can cause the survivor to believe that no one cares, they are alone, and no one is willing to fight for them. As difficult as it is to hear that someone you love was violated, ignoring it is not the answer.  This person trusted you enough to confide in you, so at a minimum, they need to know that you are a person that they can talk to without fear of judgement and you are someone who can point them in the right direction, even if you don’t have all of the answers.

Do not cast blame.  Up until the recent Me Too movement, society has more often than not misplaced blame on the victim. People ask… “Why did you wait so long to tell someone?”  “Did you provoke them?” Questions like that completely shift responsibility on the victim, neglecting the fact that they were violated by someone who intentionally harmed them.   Be careful not to ask judgemental questions to individuals who have been abused. Remind them that when it comes to sexual abuse, it is never the victim’s fault and they have nothing to be ashamed about. By being that one person the can talk to without fear of judgement, you can play an instrumental role in helping them on their journey to healing.

Do not try to fix them.  When someone shares with you a deep pain that they are struggling with, it is natural for us to want to “fix it” right away.  If we are honest, the idea of them being in pain around us makes us feel uncomfortable. As a result, we can say or do things to try to help such as quoting a bunch of bible verses on forgiveness, which can actually do more harm than good. Instead, be more of a listening ear, and be fully present for them in that moment.  Let them know it’s a safe space for them to share their feelings, and it’s okay for them to cry. In times like this, the person doesn’t expect for you to have all of the right words to say, but they do expect for you to care.

Don’t put a timeline on their healing.  Have you ever heard someone say “Time heals all wounds?”  Well I can tell you from personal experience, that it is not the case for everyone. In fact, for many people who were abused 20, 30, 40 years ago, when they encounter places, smells, or simple sayings that remind them of their abuser, it can be an instant triggers that bring up a flood of emotions that take them back to the same time of the abuse. So just because something happened a long time ago to a person, don’t expect for them to just get over their pain. In contrast, assure them that there is no standard timeline for someone to heal from their abuse and that healing is a process.  However, one thing you know for sure is if they ignore the abuse that happened to them in the past, they will never experience healing in that area of their life. A person might be able to function well by living life as if it didn’t happen, but at the end of the day, undealt with pain always manifest itself in other areas of someone’s life. Although dealing with trauma from the past is a very painful process, it’s worth confronting when a person knows there is freedom on the other side. The journey towards healing cannot be done alone. It is important that there is a support system developed around the survivor of abuse.  Depending on the individual, this can be found through healthy friendships, family, church, and support groups.

Follow up and refer:  Once someone shares this major part of their life with you, it is critically important that you follow up with them as much as they will allow. During that initial conversation, you want to thank them for trusting you enough to share this information with you.  Then you want to acknowledge your own limitations. Unless you are a clinical social worker or psychologist, you want to express to them that you will always be a listening ear for them, but in order to get the support they need it is important that they connect with a professional who can help them work through the trauma that they experienced.  Do the research to help connect them to resources in the area, and follow up with them from time to time to let them know you are thinking about them, praying for them, and are there if they need someone to talk to.

Even if you follow all of the steps I listed above, the journey towards healing for someone who has been sexually abused is a difficult one.   However, with the God we serve, there is hope. Psalm 147:3 says “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” God can take the most broken individual, and make them whole.  Let us always remember that it is not our responsibility to heal a person from their pain. It’s our job to point that person to the one who can...God. So if you find yourself in a situation like me, where you don’t really know the person who confides in you, remember that God might have chosen you in that moment to serve as a vessel to minister to that person and give them hope about their future.  That experience taught me that we must always be ready to be used by God, even on an airplane.

Share your thoughts below about this article, and continue to check in with Faith on the Journey throughout the week, as we continue to have conversations around this topic.

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