What kind of persons do you work with? What are their basic needs?

I work with sexual assault survivors and secondary survivors (those who are close with someone who’s been sexually assaulted), especially in rural areas of Jefferson, Blount, St. Clair and Walker counties. Survivors have varying needs, but one of the core things they need is to be believed and supported. Many times, when someone has been assaulted, they struggle with self-blame and difficulty trusting others. Their own family, friends and faith communities may perpetrate rape myths and put some level of blame on them (i.e. “well if you hadn’t been doing X then this wouldn’t have happened.”)

They also need legal and financial support, especially if they decide to move forward in the legal process. In these times, having someone to help with things like food, moral support and childcare can be immensely helpful. And some of their basic needs are the same basic needs of all people—to be heard, to have someone try to understand and to have a support system that encourages them.

In what ways have your assumptions about the plight of humanity and what it means to be human been challenged through this work?

I believe many times we think we have the answers and we know what is best; we crave a sense of control. This work has shown me that many times we have much less control than we believe. While as Christians, even though we recognize that ultimately God is in control and sovereign over all things, we still find ways to try and make ourselves feel safe and in control. 

A false sense of control is one of the things that fuels rape myths. If I can keep myself safe by going home at night and not talking to strangers, then life would be a lot easier. However, many times the rapist is not a stranger in a dark alley at night, but someone the survivor trusts in a place they thought was safe (like their home or the home of the rapist). Life is so much more unpredictable and complicated than we want to believe sometimes.

My work has also shown me that the way out of trauma and pain is not avoidance of vulnerability, but an embrace of it. I recognize that coping with pain through avoidance can be helpful for a time and may be what a person needs to just get through, but eventually people have to move through the pain. Sometimes, I think even in Christian circles, we are taught a kind of stoicism, where our intellect is our “true self” and emotions are something to be avoided or even held suspect. But in my work, I see the value of emotions. God has given them to us (and experienced them through the incarnation of Jesus Christ). Even uncomfortable emotions like sadness or anger can tell us something and to be fully human means to be willing to engage with them. We see this with Jesus who wept at the tomb of Lazarus, who was enraged at the money changers in the temple and who experienced pain and rejection at the cross—if he is truly, fully human and seemed to engage with what he felt, shouldn’t we as well?

In what way has your work informed your thinking about what it means to respect another person’s humanity?

My work is all about walking with someone whose humanity was dismissed in order for another person to exploit and objectify it. I think there is still an assumption that those who sexually assault are unable to control their sexual desires. But it is really about their need for power and control, and to take what they want or think they “deserve.” And while we may not all go to this extreme to exert our power, we do it in countless ways by not loving our neighbors as ourselves. Maybe we are quick to speak and slow to listen or we dismiss another person’s experience or pain rather than stepping into the messy business of compassion and empathy.

Rebecca Graber Henderson in her office

In my work, I see how someone’s choice is taken from them and how important it is to respect a person’s autonomy and self-determination. This can look like giving the person choice of what clothes they wear when they come in to get a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (their clothes are often taken as evidence and so we provide clothes for them to wear home) or giving them the choice to talk or to sit in silence as they wait for their exam, despite what my preferences may be.

We are also called to meet the person where they are rather than try to make them into who we want them to be. As Fred Rogers said, “I don't think anyone can grow unless he's loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be." In a sense, I’m called as we all are, to be the presence of Christ to a person in pain. And Christ has shown us what that looks like as Immanuel, the God with us, who took on flesh to meet us where we were—in darkness and sin—so that we could be freed into new life with him.

Are there broader applications that go beyond the demographic or the group, the kind of person you work with that help you think more generally about being human in our day and age?

The work I do makes me more committed to recognizing the importance of our physical selves (I am definitely not a gnostic!). Trauma impacts the whole person—physically, emotionally, relationally, mentally and spiritually and therefore the whole person has to be incorporated in the healing process as well. Sometimes, because of how trauma impacts our brains, we have to start with the body in order to get to a place where a person can process mentally and emotionally.

Similarly, how we approach our spiritual lives has to be thought of in a holistic manner. Our bodies matter! How we sit, how we breathe, our environment can all impact our worship. It also shows that the way a person reacts may, in a sense, be out of their control, especially when they’ve experienced trauma, and so finding ways to be more patient with others and to take a stance of curiosity rather than judgment.

My main ministry as an Anglican deacon is the job I do at the Crisis Center but my job at the Crisis Center influences my ministry on Sundays as well. When I preach, I cannot help but think of those I’m counseling and also recognize that the people in the pews are likely to have suffered trauma in some way as well, and I know that Christ meets them in that pain and that in this weary and broken world, we need Christ proclaimed and not just a list of things to do. We need the good news of the gospel when we are in our darkest times. We need to know that there is Someone in the depths with us who actually has the power to make things right and to heal us.

Watch this video update from Rebecca regarding her work in light of COVID-19.