5 Things I learned about Creating Safe Places for Abuse Survivors at Communion

This was the focus of a day long workshop I attended at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary on Jan 25, 2015. I’ve often thought about the difficulties this amazing ritual has for children and others who are not yet baptized, but I hadn’t yet considered the difficulties communion could present for  survivors of abuse. My deep thanks go out to Hilary Scarsella for making this the focus of her Master’s thesis and to the fine group of church leaders who worked with her on this topic this past year. I learned much. I hope my gleanings are helpful for others.

Communion prayers often focus on acknowledging our sin, emptying ourselves of distractions, obedience, loving self sacrifice, and forgiveness and reconciliation.  These are helpful Christian disciplines, but how we approach these topics can make all the difference between feeding the souls of abuse survivors or adding to their pain.

1) Sin. Survivors often carry burdens of false personal guilt about implied complicity in the abuse they suffered. Communion leaders can broaden the way they talk about sin by moving from an individualized focus to those things that keep God’s people from aligning with God’s presence in our world. This allows for appropriate confession of sin without burdening survivors with false guilt.

2) Emptying. Survivors often feel very empty; like there’s not much personality left after the abuse they’ve endured. The reasons for “emptying” language in prayers of approach to the communion table are to help us set aside distractions, so let’s use that language instead.

3) Obedience. Survivors have generally been challenged to obey their (mostly male) abusers. Hierarchy and patriarchy can easily perpetuate a negative image of God as perpetrator for women and non-leaders. Abuse survivors need opportunities to say NO to God, trusting that God is big enough to accept this.

Calling participants to say yes to God’s dream is a positive way of naming obedience. By sharing leadership with both genders and laity during the words of institution and the serving of the bread and juice and using words that invite rather than stress obedience these negative triggers can be minimized.

4) Loving Self-Sacrifice. This is what Jesus did for us on the cross. The concept is very important for Anabaptist Christians as well as many others. However, survivors need to recognize Jesus as their protector, and can easily see themselves as needing to mirror Jesus’ suffering by complying with abusive demands.

The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” actually means to make a space holy. this is a meaning that is redemptive for all. Jesus sacrificial death can also be redefined as his refusal to let ways of domination win. If we do this, focusing on his sacrifice can be healing rather than damaging.

5) Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Jesus died and was raised from the dead to make reconciliation possible for all creation. Communion is the ritualized meal that can make us all one and help us live into God’s shalom.

However, survivors need to name their pain. They need to continue resisting abuse to heal. Forgiveness is  a long journey. It is possible without contacting the abuser, and is often seen as positive, but reconciliation is often not possible, and can be destructive if the survivor is not ready for it.

When communion liturgies challenge us to forgive others as God has forgiven us, and to live as reconciled people, care needs to be taken with the wording so that it is sensitive to the journeys of healing on which participants may find themselves.

Communion at St. Louis 2


About Elsie Hannah Ruth Rempel

As a young senior whose life could easily have ended in a nasty car crash in 2012 I live with an extra dose of gratitude to God, humanity, and the wonders of our human bodies. I am a passionate advocate for ministry WITH children and seniors in the life and ministry of the church. I started working in Faith Formation with Mennonite Church Canada in 2002. Thinking and writing about faith helps me see God at work in all kinds of surprising places. I'd like to be remembered as one who encourages others to live into God's good dream for our world. My book, Please Pass the Faith: The Spiritual Art of Grandparenting, is one big way I'm trying to share that encouragement with my peers. This blog is another way I'd like to engage people who care about growing in faith across the generations.
This entry was posted in Abuse survivors, church, Communion, community, Confession, Congregational life, Hope, Pastoral Psychology, Peace and justice, Women's concerns and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 5 Things I learned about Creating Safe Places for Abuse Survivors at Communion

  1. Arlyn Friesen Epp says:

    Thanks, Elsie – I have posted a link to this unique take on communion here – http://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/6/17543

    Arlyn Friesen Epp
    CommonWord, Resource

    Mail: 600 Shaftesbury Blvd
    Winnipeg, MB R3P 0M4

    Visit: 2299 Grant Ave., Winnipeg

    1-877-846-1593 or 204-594-0527 x 333

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  2. Thank you Elsie for writing about a topic near and dear to my heart. Often we forget to consider how other people may view things from a different perspective. Abuse survivors are often the last to be considered, but should be some of the first considered and served by the church.

  3. Elsie Hannah Ruth Rempel says:

    Thanks, Kirsten, but it’s really Hilary and the AMBS committee that worked with her, who deserves the thanks.

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