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Illinois Churches Linked To #ChurchToo Movement

Sarah Jesmer
Willow Creek Community Church has multiple campuses across the region. Their main campus is located in South Barrington, pictured above.

In August, multiple elders resigned from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. It was in response to sexual misconduct allegations against the church's founder. In a statement, head elder Missy Rasmussen apologized to the women who came forward and admitted that their internal investigation was flawed.

Some activists say the push for transparency and justice regarding sexual misconduct in a church needs its own name. Emily Joy and her friend, Hannah Paasch, created a new social media hashtag -- #ChurchToo -- last fall.

"Every ChurchToo story is a MeToo story but not every MeToo story is a ChurchToo story, if that makes sense?" said Joy.

Joy had her own story of survival and didn't think the MeToo movement showed the whole picture.

"We're kind of pulling the curtain back and going, okay, let's talk about the actual underlying factors of this rather than just how you can react appropriately when it's already happened in your midst," she said.

Joy, now based in Tennessee, grew up in Peoria, Illinois. The daughter of a pastor, she said she was heavily involved in the Protestant Christian community. She said at sixteen years old, she was groomed for a relationship by an older youth leader at her local church.

"I just had never shared it. And I always knew I wanted to talk about it but I wasn't sure what the appropriate way to do that would be. And then all of the MeToo stuff started happening and I was like, oh, maybe this is the correct time," she said.

Joy says ChurchToo is meant to challenge the theology that creates a potentially harmful environment.

"The main problem is not men taking advantage of women, the main problem is that we have a sexually dysfunctional church in a lot of ways that this is just a part of that," she said. 

She said she was heartened to learn about the resignations at Willow Creek, and hopes other churches will follow their lead when calling out abuse.

"I want to believe that all churches would care enough to make the changes required to solve the problem," said Joy.

Joy said she met Paasch at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute. The Christian school has its own history with #ChurchToo. In January, a former instructor at Moody sued the institution. In the multipart lawsuit, Janay Garrick claims Moody discriminated against her and other students on the basis of gender. Garrick said it was sparked when she tried to help a female student seek pastoral training from Moody.

"It didn't sit well with me to just sit by and do nothing," she said.

She now lives in Florida. Garrick said her lawsuit and ChurchToo are connected because they promote women's rights in religious settings.

"I thought it had power and recognition already, and I felt like the Lord was wanting to stir up transparency and lament and honesty within the church," said Garrick.

Garrick has since attempted to work with students to schedule ChurchToo related events on campus.

"We should be a headlight in culture. We should be protecting victims of abuse and we should be champions of inclusion," she said.

Garrick said Moody has ties with religious institutions across Illinois, including Willow Creek. When she learned of the elder resignations, she said she grieved and appreciated the response.

Jaclyn Houston-Kolnik researches gender-based violence and victimization. Her work focuses on violence in Protestant congregations. She is based in downtown Chicago.

"I think sometimes the emphasis on personal sin can lead to very individualistic responses and may miss some of those more systemic issues that may have created a culture where that was accepted or appropriate or even made possible," she said.

She said congregations of any size need to work with professionals in their communities to move from policies of response to policies of prevention.

"At the end of the day, to encourage healthy and safe responses, every individual needs to know at least some degree of what their role is in providing a community that is safe," said Houston-Kolnik.

Houston-Kolnik stressed the need for education about gender-based violence in seminaries.

"Research has constantly shown potential of religious congregations to be avenues for social justice, for hope and healing. And I think there's potential. And to actualize that, it takes a lot of work but, it's possible," she said.

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