Season 1 - Episode 8: Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis and Dr. Mallory Wyckoff
Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis is a licensed psychologist, ordained minister, and sacred artist who has worked nationally and globally to provide relief and empowerment to marginalized persons. Dr. Thema, an associate professor at Pepperdine University, is a past president of the Society for the Psychology of Women. Her contributions to psychological research, policy, and practice have been honored by national and regional psychological associations.
Dr. Thema served for three years as an American Psychological Association representative to the United Nations where she advocated for mental health and human rights globally. She served for an additional three years to the Committee on International Relations in Psychology; during that time she was elected chairperson and spear-headed initiatives in response to the crisis in Darfur. In addition, she was appointed the Global and International Issues Chairperson for the Society for the Psychology of Women. She later became president of the Society for the Psychology of Women, creating the society's first film, CEU online program, task force on the trafficking of women, and task force on spirituality and religion in women's lives.
Mallory Wyckoff (DMin, MTS) lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Olive. A Clearwater, Florida native, she moved to Tennesee for college and studied journalism at Lee University. She came to Nashville for her graduate and doctoral work in theology, and has remained in Music City despite her general dislike of country music and Southern food.
Mallory spent the majority of her career working with a ministry for young women who survived various forms of abuse and trauma. This work inspired her doctoral research project entitled "The Impact of Sexual Trauma on Survivors' Theological Perception and Spiritual Formation." Mallory is a writer, teacher, preacher, and spiritual director. In addition to her work in spiritual direction, she teaches in the Bible departments of Lipscomb University and Rochester College, and serves to support DMin students in their dissertation work. No matter the form her work takes, Mallory is most passionate about creating safe spaces where individuals can explore more richly and fully the mystery of God and who they are as image-bearers. Her fundamental conviction is that human dignity is the answer to every question.
Sara Barton: Hello, my name is Sara Barton and I am the university chaplain at Pepperdine
University. Welcome to Pepperdine Spiritual Life podcast. A podcast about how people
in our community along with our friends and guests are finding and joining God's good
work in the world. Jesus said seek and you shall find and I will be talking to people
who are doing just that. Let's get started.
Today my guests are Doctor Mallory Wyckoff and Doctor Thema Bryant Davis, thank you both for being here today.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Thanks for having us!
Mallory Wyckoff: Yes.
Sara Barton: We are enjoying a special time at Pepperdine, the Harbor Pepperdine Bible Lectures, thank you both for speaking on campus and contributing to this event.
Mallory Wyckoff: Glad to come.
Thema Bryant-Davis: And I'm glad that you shared as well.
Sara Barton: Yes and I look forward to people being able to listen to iTunes out there
and listen in to some of the things that you all have shared in the future, so we'll
direct, our audience is the Pepperdine community, so as we're speaking, we'll be speaking
to people who are tuning in, who care about spiritual life and the Christian mission
I want to introduce you formally, and then we'll get a little more informal after that. Doctor Mallory Wyckoff lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Tim and daughter Olive. She is a spiritual director and teaches in the Bible departments of Lipscomb University and Rochester University.
Prior to this work, Mallory worked with a non-profit for women survivors of various forms of trauma, which inspired her doctoral research, The Impact of Sexual Trauma on Survivors' Theological Perception and Spiritual Formation. Mallory, welcome to Pepperdine and thank you.
Mallory Wyckoff: Thank you.
Sara Barton: For bringing your gifts and experience to this conversation.
Mallory Wyckoff: Thank you.
Sara Barton: Our other guest, Doctor Thema Bryant Davis is a professor of psychology in Pepperdine University's graduate school of education and psychology. She also earned her Master's of Divinity at Pepperdine. I was there for the graduation, it was so exciting! And is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I have been there and worshiped with you and your community, love your community, especially those women. We had such a good day together.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes, dancing women. And men.
Sara Barton: That's right. She directs the culture and trauma research lab and has a private practice where she primarily services people of faith and trauma survivors. She is a past president of the Society of the Psychology of Women and has served as a mental health consultant for CNN, Headline News, and OWN TV. Own. So glad to have you here.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Thank you for having us.
Sara Barton: So now I've given your official bios, your professional bios, and since this is a spiritual life podcast, I do want to open up by asking you, tell me about your self spiritually. If you were going to give a spiritual life to a life bio of yourself, how would you explain that?
Mallory Wyckoff: Yeah, that's a great question. For me it has been an unfolding journey
with various seasons that I feel like I've not often had control over, but that at
times will get sort of this divine sense of yeah, something new is about to come,
some new door's about to open or some new experience is around the corner. Be ready,
be open. And so, that feels like a fitting way to sort of describe the whole thing.
So, I guess the shortest way to sort of summarize is my intent at least on my best days is to seek to live with eyes and ears and arms open to wherever I sense the divine moving in my life, in the people around me, in the world around me. And learning to name that in different ways, you know, that maybe in earlier experiences in childhood and being formed there I might've had other ways of naming it than I do now.
But those, that language continues to evolve in ways that feel really fitting and appropriate and still even temporary knowing that at some point I'll get that nudge again to say, yeah and we're getting ready to move on to kind of a new phase or season, so I'm always in this balancing act of trying to be really present and where I'm at and then not think that my feet will get stuck there, planted there. To hold those together.
Sara Barton: As I hear that, it sounds like a compelling spiritual journey. A life that you join, not a place where you've arrived. And that's compelling to hear because we don't always speak of our spiritual life in quite that way, so thank you.
Mallory Wyckoff: Yeah, there's no sense of arrival, which requires, and it fosters and requires a sense of humility, I hope, you know. Again at my best to say I have nothing figured out, there're only a couple things I could say yeah I feel really certain about this, you know. I've got a few of those, but not a sense of arrival.
Mallory Wyckoff: Which I really like because then it helps me be open to asking questions of myself and others and hearing what language are they using for God, how are they experiencing God, what is true for their experience? It just feels much more honest even than maybe in past seasons that did feel a little bit more closed, certain, a sense of arrival. There's a certain sense of honesty that I'm really enjoying in this particular season.
Sara Barton: Thank you, thank you for sharing that. Doctor Thema, tell us about your spiritual life.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes. So I, growing up was a pastor's daughter and in elementary
school my mother accepted her calling to ministry, so then being raised by two ministers
and our church family was one really strong about worship. Expressive worship. And
I discovered later that I took for granted good preaching, because my dad was a great
preacher. And so, when I went away to college, it was really hard to find a place
that fed me. And along with incredible worship, a real place of community service.
So, I went to a church that was open seven days a week. So it's always strange to me when I encounter a church that's only open for two hours on Sunday, because I do feel the work of the church is holistic and reaches every part of people's lives.
My first time encountering someone that I was aware of that wasn't Christian was in middle school. I had a teacher of the Rastafarian religion and that really startled me, because it had never occurred to me that people could believe different things, because I was so surrounded in my church community. And I appreciated that, because it started me in that critical thinking process where you really have to interrogate, what do I believe and why?
And the way the Holy Spirit has always ministered to me and spoken through me, I think is through the arts, and so I feel God strongest in music and poetry and dancing, and was blessed to be involved in the arts from an early age.
And then I would say in my early adulthood is when life showed up. And I had to really think about my faith and as you were saying being open to the mystery and the questions and not being able to answer everything.
And one of the classes here, I remember Professor Highfield saying when people say how can you believe in God with all of these terrible things that happen, and he says you know, instead of trying to defend point by point which really rings hollow, you know, he just says, my faith just lets me believe that evil doesn't have the final say. A
And that was very liberating for me, just even on the topic we're going to deal with today is you know, I don't know all the why's of, in a divine way these things happening, but believing it doesn't have the final say which leads me into my vocation of psychology and healing and helping people get to the next chapter. Which of course had to start with me getting to the next chapter as a survivor myself.
And the last thing I'll just say is, I struggled for a while with the calling to the ministry because the denomination I grew up in really promotes being a full time minister and I was clear that I'm called to be a therapist, so then I thought, that other thing must not be. So it was a blessing for me in adulthood meeting more people who were bi-vocational and to feel very settled, and I'm called to be a psychologist and a minister and an artist. So, that's where I am now.
Sara Barton: Yeah, I love the way that you brought together these bios, that's something
I wanted us to do, especially in relation to our topic. So we have our professional
lives and these things we can say, the degrees and the titles and then we have our
spiritual lives ... and we want those to come together, so. I love the way that you
describe that, the way that your spiritual life informs your work is.
Mallory, would you reflect on that a little bit? How does your spiritual life intersect with your work life and in particular, related to caring for people who've experienced sexual trauma?
Mallory Wyckoff: Yeah, I find a lot of points of integration there so I'll start with
my current context and then work backwards a little bit. But whether I'm working with
students, you know, undergrad students or doctoral students or whether I'm sitting
across from a directee in a spiritual direction session, I am grateful for the opportunities
I have there to hopefully open space and offer space and create it in a really hospitable
way that invites them to be honest about whatever it is that they're holding, maybe
in a way that they can't do elsewhere.
And so the ways that I've been able to work through some of those things myself and find a space of freedom without the certainty or without all the particulars at times, to go yeah, I've got all this figured out. I feel like I've landed there. But that there's a lot more space for the inquiry and the exploration and the mystery and I hope to hold that sort of space open to other people for wherever they are in that given season. Whatever set of questions they're asking, whatever things they find compelling, wherever they sense life, wherever they sense God's work and presence. However they name that. To really give space and openness for that.
And then, my intent is to ask them good questions that just invite them further into that. That doesn't take them out of that, you know, that doesn't put a period on it or name it fully or encapsulate it fully or close down that process, but that names it for how holy it really is and continues to breathe life into it and encourage that. That's my desire when I'm working with students. I hope that they would see that, that if they ask a question that I'm not often responding with a real clear answer, but inviting them further to explore that question, ask why does that matter, what's underneath that question? Again whether with a directee or a student.
And then similarly, I would say in my prior work to teaching and offering spiritual direction, specifically with survivors of trauma and sexualized trauma, I really try to cultivate a similar space where sometimes those questions that the young women would ask, whether it's around their experiences of trauma and how is it possible that God could allow this to happen or whatever the question might be, it would be so dishonoring to say the least to try to answer with some sense of finality to that sort of question.
So my intent was to try to again create a safe space where they knew they could ask whatever, that they could critique whatever, they could say whatever it was, they could shake their fists, they could curse, they could cry and feel safe in doing so. And also feel a continued sense of presence there. Hopefully the presence I offer but then also, the presence of God, the spirit at work there.
I remember one young woman asking the question, I've been praying for so long and I have not heard God respond and the way that she knew how to interpret that was God's not listening or God doesn't want to talk to me. And I remember just sitting with her and asking her some questions and I said, you know I remember you sharing that you're, in your home your family was always arguing, it was a violent situation and you never felt heard. What if God's giving you a season to just know that you're being listened to and God's not seeking to respond back and answer anything too quickly of what you're saying but letting you know it's safe to name it? And I just remember her sitting there and her eyes kind of opening and thinking, well that's another way of looking at this.
And so that has been my intent, is to try to-
Sara Barton: What a holy moment you got to experience and lead.
Mallory Wyckoff: ... it was. Yeah, it was sacred. And so as I'm trying to be honest with myself and lean into whatever the experience is as honest as it is, I'm trying to then offer that for other people.
Sara Barton: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. Thema, you mentioned a little bit of your, how these things intersect. Do you want to add more at this point about how your work and your spiritual life intersect?
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes. I, it was interesting, before I came to Pepperdine, and I
will say Pepperdine was my first Christian institution that I was teaching in, and
so it's been beautiful to weave the different aspects of myself and then when they
let me start an elective on expressive arts therapy, and I was like, I'm all here!
It's all in one place. But also learning how to integrate that in my practice, because
in psychology a lot of programs don't give a lot of attention to spirituality, faith
And on the other side, to be honest, going through the Masters of Divinity program, there's really, there's only one semester that's on pastoral counseling, and the particular semester that I took it, it was a great class, but the focus was really helping people with bereavement and grief, which as a pastor you will definitely have to do, but then there's no space for incest or partner abuse or all these other life challenges.
And so, for me, it's been about being a bridge between the professions and within the community because so many people utilize both and having to take the stigma off of both. I've seen a meme going around social media saying, it's okay to have Jesus and therapy, right? So I just think that's so important that we're not in conflict or competition with each other. And it's unfair to make people feel like they have to choose. Or that if you have faith, you should pray and feel better. Or if you trust therapy, that you don't need that God stuff. It's, no, it all works together for the good.
Sara Barton: Well help us understand and the audience understand just how prevalent, just how prevalent is sexual trauma, sexual abuse? What statistics could you share to help us understand the depth of the need for work in this area and just to understand each other as human beings?
Thema Bryant-Davis: I wanted to name them correctly, so it's one in five women and
one in seven men will be raped at some point in their lives. So we want to just sit
with that when you think about how many people go to your church, when you think about
sitting in a classroom, how many people are in that class? So that's for men and for
Some of the studies looking across religious traditions find that religion actually is not a protective factor against sexual violence. So you know sometimes we have the idea of, that doesn't happen over here but let's pray for those people out there that it happens to.
The majority, eight in ten survivors of sexual violence are assaulted or abuse by an acquaintance. So often a lot of our prevention, even when we talk to our children, is to look out for strangers. You know, look out for strangers and have your key ready when you're walking to your car and you know, all of these strategies which are good, but very insufficient, because we are unprepared to deal with when it is a relative, when it is someone you're on a date with, and those are the more prevalent experiences.
Sara Barton: Do you want to add anything?
Mallory Wyckoff: Yeah, I think those numbers are so astounding and important to give
us a sense of the prevalence. And just thinking about the culture itself in which
all of those statistics are occurring so that even if a person has not experienced
rape or incest or those forms of particularized trauma, to still be in a culture where
as a woman, you know, I'm walking through the parking lot and I am walking vulnerability,
right? That there's a reason why we're conditioned to say I have my key out and ready.
That shapes us, I mean that shapes us as women, that shapes us as men, all of that has, when that is in the water that we're drinking, in the air that we breathe, no one of us is not impacted by this. Regardless of whether we would say in our particular story, I've been a victim of X, to some degree we are all shaped by the realities of this culture and I think that's important to name too, lest any of us think we would be immune to it, immune to its effects or immune to or separate from perpetuating it.
Sara Barton: You know one of the times that that came out for so many people was when
the Me Too movement started, and so your friends on Facebook or you follow people
on Twitter, and so we saw people we know claiming and putting the hashtag #metoo,
then out of that grew hashtag #churchtoo.
And so people were saying, this is not just out in the secular culture. It is in our churches. I mean, this is a spiritual life podcast, and we care about churches and the religious life and so, what ways do you think, and this is a hard conversation because we know one another, we love the church. But, this conversation must be had in the church. Enlighten us, enlighten me, help me understand, what roles does the church play in this conversation?
Thema Bryant-Davis: I see it being both a potential blessing and creating more barriers
and burdens. So it's, there are ways that some churches have gotten it right, and
some that have made things worse.
So some of the challenges are, a focus on forgiveness with no focus on accountability. And that always is presented as the solution to violation, is you need to forgive, meaning the victim, and then you'll be free. And there is no conversation about what offenders need to do, like all they need to do is be forgiven, accept God's forgiveness.
So that lack of accountability is a real problem, because then the very people who were violated are responsible for fixing it. And not unpacking even what does forgiveness mean, and for me the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. So you may choose to forgive someone who is not sorry, but there can't be reconciliation without repentance. And so then to expect people to just move forward with those persons either in leadership or in their family or in the pew next to them, is problematic.
Another big piece is the focus on sexual sin, so I've had survivors of sexual violence talk about praying to God to forgive them for not being virgins. And so, you know, you can pray that consistently, but we would say from a cognitive or mental health perspective, it's a thought distortion, because you're praying for God to forgive you for something that is not your sin, right? And that really gets promoted.
And the big piece of silence and that, I call it the emotional version of prosperity gospel. So like, usually prosperity gospel, if you believe God, you'll be rich. But emotionally we say, if you believe God, you'll be happy. So we have that too blessed to be stressed and all these mottoes and in my culture, I've heard people say things like fix your face, which is like, you're not even allowed to look sad.
So there is no room for the healing process being a process is that you're supposed to claim the joy of the Lord and be joyful and look peaceful and if not, you're not walking in your healing, right? You're the problem, whereas in that chaplaincy course, the instructor said, a lot of churches now have a praise team, but what we need is a lamentation team. And I thought that was so important because some people feel, if I'm not up up up, this isn't the place for me. That like, maybe if I'm feeling down I shouldn't go to church, because it feels like everybody there has to be happy already, and so leaving room for the healing journey.
Sara Barton: Yeah I can think of all sorts of critiques that I might name of ways we have not done this well historically as the church. But I'm a slave to hope when it comes to good theology and it's power to-
Mallory Wyckoff: ... to hope when it comes to good theology and its power to really
help us create better narratives and to live into what I think would be the truest
narrative. So even just the idea that the Scriptures that we hold sacred start with
this notion of every person bearing the image of God and that being starting point,
which gets messy really quickly because that means whether we're talking about the
abused or the abuser, the oppressed or the oppressor, that what is most true about
each of those parties is that they bear the image of God. Some days that's easier
for me to hold than others.
Or, people in the church that I encounter that I would hope to be allies in this conversation but that I find to be incredibly antagonistic towards this conversation. If I really take these texts seriously, then I'm required to name that what's most true about this person is also what's true about me. And that doesn't mean that there isn't room for disagreement, for hard conversations, for the type of deep reconciliatory work that Thema's referring to that is not a quick Band-aid of forgiveness and we move forward. I mean, it's complex. But that somehow even would hold open the potential for that ... not always the reality. That sort of reconciliation is not always going to be possible here, nor should we push that. But it at least holds the option for it open.
So I get excited by the capacity that the church has, whether or not we live into that well enough, that is more than what I see that's possible in the Me Too conversation. And I say that not as a critique of anything in the Me Too movement. I am incredibly thankful for it. But I wonder, without some of the theology that I hold sincere, what would I do with processing ... How would I think about someone who has harmed me? How would I think about the harm that comes to my community if I don't have language like "sin"? As imperfect and precise as that word is, as the ways it's been so distorted, as Thema names, I'm thankful to be a part of a community that is willing to not hold up humanity in some sort of myth of progress to say we're always moving forward but to go, "Oh, we are capable of much."
And that's not the whole story, right? We are image bearers of God, and we are capable of not reflecting that in any way. That really allows us to name those things and then also gives us varied forms of expression in that. The Scriptures themselves offer so much, whether it's prophetic critique that we see throughout the Hebrew Scriptures or an entire book of lament, right? That there is nothing that we could say that would somehow be inappropriate or not sacred or not acceptable to name to God, to ourselves, and to others because we already have examples of folks who have done that for us and have done that not separate from their spiritual experience or spiritual communities but as part of those things.
I think our sacred texts offer so many examples of those that offer a critique to that "I'm just going to happy myself through it," like you're talking about. They give us a much more honest, a much more holistic way of engaging these things. That's going to be necessary if we're going to do any sort of robust work addressing the enormity or sexual trauma.
Sara Barton: I do want to get to some of the positive things, but let's just stay where we are, because that's where are, for a moment. Could you explore just a little bit about what purity culture is? What is purity culture? What is it as part of the church? What is the harm of it? And then I'd, later, like to say what's being done to recognize and to do something about it. But what is purity culture, for those who may not have ever even heard the term? How does that come into your work, and what is it?
Thema Bryant-Davis: A big piece of it is silence. To be pure is not only in action
but in thought, so it is even the denial ... and often relate to sexuality ... the
denial of any sexual thoughts, any sexual motivation, any sexual intention, and definitely,
any sexual behavior. Combined with the silence is this condemnation of the flesh,
that the flesh is this terrible thing, and our whole focus is to fight the flesh,
which makes our very bodies the enemy, which even makes your body having a response
or reaction or ... In this day and time, a lot of people are older by the time they
get married, and so their bodies are going to have urges. And so, to despise or somehow
make that demonic or pathological is all a part of purity culture.
And a big piece of purity culture is the responsibility being on girls and women, that they are the ones that are supposed to keep things pure.
Sara Barton: They're the ones that draw the lines and set the understandings.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes. So even if a boy or a man has a sexual thought, then it is
a girl or a woman that provoked it, that elicit it because she had on a sundress or
because she smiled too much or the way she was walking made him sin. And so, it is
sexist, it has a gender bias, and it is silencing and doesn't create room for ...
I appreciate, in the beginning, when you said honesty. When people promote this notion of purity and perfection, then ... A friend of mine, she was dealing with her teenage son, who is feeling such shame for even having sexual thoughts and feelings like God must be so mad at him. She, trying to build him up, but because all of this has been promoted, that we're the good people and everybody else is evil or bad and ungodly and God does not dwell in them, it creates a false narrative.
And I will really muddy the waters by saying we have selective outrage. So for example, at many churches, there will be free conversation as it relates to sexual orientation, but no conversation about pornography, no conversation about infidelity. And then to say that it is gays and lesbians that are destroying our marriages, when the majority of divorce is not because they were seduced by a gay or lesbian person. But we don't deal with the real issues, so around purity there is selective outrage.
Mallory Wyckoff: Yeah, it seems to me to be an entire culture really rooted in fear.
And I go back to some of the earliest church fathers that shaped the ways that we
even think theologically, and the narratives that have been construed there. It seems
that they even were afraid of their own sense of sexuality, some of their own exploits
prior to identifying with the Christian faith. And then it just becomes this form
of repression, and I'm afraid that I can't repress this enough in myself, and therefore,
I will help to create cultures that do that together.
I think about it in the ways that the language of salvation was often portrayed to me. Sometimes, explicitly, but at minimum, implicitly that it's this idea of being saved from being human and therefore, we ought to be afraid of being human and of humanity. So church, then, becomes a space where we all huddle together to be safe and to pretend that we can somehow be other than human. And I just don't think that is at all what's going on, but rather, salvation is this invitation to live fully as human, to be freed up from all the things that would prevent us from doing so, individually and collectively.
I say that last piece, and it feels so important because purity culture has such a truncated way of naming what God cares about. Do I think that God cares about my sexuality? Yeah. Do I think that God desires for me to have a certain, careful way of engaging myself and others sexually? Yeah, because it really matters, right? This is weighty, this is sacred. It matters. But it puts this enormous pressure to say, "This is the primary logos of concern. This one particular way of addressing morality, that's what God really cares about." I just don't think that's true at all. Do I think God cares? Yeah, but it's part of my broader experience of being human, and I think God's concerned about all of it. And I think God is concerned about sexuality not just as an individual but as a community, for all of us, for the world ... that God is actively at work to redeem all things, and that includes our relationships.
So then, then the enormous pressure that's pressure that's placed on women and girls, as you named, Thema, is to say and go back to fear. Hey, we're afraid, and so we're going to put this pressure on you to say that you're going to somehow be the standard bearers, and when it goes wrong, it's on you.
That sort of shame is the type of thing that God came to free us from, that God seeks to set us free that we might be able to live as human beings without that shame. And unfortunately, so much of the church cultures that, at least, I was formed in just perpetuate that sort of shame.
Sara Barton: You know, we do things that I see, looking back, people feel like are a good idea. So you wear a white dress on your wedding day, and that symbolizes purity, and in one way, can sound like a nice idea. Or you give your adolescent daughter a purity ring, and the father gives the ring and says, "This is not going to be taken off until it's by your husband, and sexually, you will stay pure." Those, in one way, you can see the design is for something important, something that's cared about, but we see that those have negative repercussions when it comes to fear, when it comes to shame, when it comes to what if you don't keep that promise you made with that ring, or what if you don't feel like you can wear the white dress.
Sara Barton: So there are these things that we do to try to help young people or to help one another. What do you see as some things you would like to see people invest in that would be healthy, that would be good, that would not be shame-based or would not create this fear or shame? Do you experience something in your churches? Are you a part of something that feels healthy to you?
Thema Bryant-Davis: Two things I would mention. One is the presentation I gave yesterday;
it was on embodied worship. And I love that you've done series on embodied spirituality
and having those conversations that teach us the sacredness. As you were saying, made
in the image and likeness of God. That these bodies are temples, and to not walk around
in that body shame or body rejection, because one of the things I encounter in my
counseling practice is people who were ... particularly, women ... who experienced
sexual abuse or sexual assault and then hid behind abstinence, right? It's an easy
cover. It's a good cover for actually not wanting to do it. And they have unhealed
sexual trauma, and then get married, and it's a big problem. And so, if you are walking
around with this idea that your body and intimacy are of the devil, then it gets in
the way of, like, this is God's creation. God made this, and God made it pleasurable.
The issue is when it gets distorted, or the sacredness gets removed from it. But at
its core, this is a really beautiful thing. Our education, both at home and in the
church, about these bodies and about what is intimacy, I think, is important.
Another important conversation, I think, is around dating. I have seen so many people who were not allowed to date, and then when they get out there, it's like they don't have any sense of what this is supposed to look like. I will also say, in these days and times, because the dynamics change, so now people are meeting people online or telling them, "Text me a picture of you." So, trying to figure out, helping people to navigate the waters of what is relationship.
On Instagram, sometimes I take questions, and a woman posed a question: Is it okay if I don't date and just wait for God to send my mate? It's like, "Okay, there's going to be a gap between ... " They're like, "When's this mate coming?" When God sends them, are you going straight down the aisle? So there isn't concrete, practical dialogue about what that can look like. I think that can be very empowering and freeing, to give people that information and that support.
Sara Barton: And I think as we do that to do it without making a big thing of it that, "Oh, we're going to talk about these things. We're going to move over here to the side and say them quietly or only say them in certain ways." To normalize the conversation, I think, is something you seem to be talking about.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes.
Sara Barton: Normalization of this.
Mallory Wyckoff: Yeah. And a way to do that, to me, is to remove some of the gendered
lines around these conversations. I remember, growing up, it was always boys in one
room, girls in another. And the ways that, then, we were talked to about these experiences
... I'm absolutely confident that no boy, ever, in the youth groups that I grew up
in ever was told, "Do not sexually assault a woman. Do not be violent towards another
human being." There was no repudiation of any of those things, whatsoever. But I can
tell you that in my experiences in being a girl, you walked out with your head hung
low thinking, inherently, by virtue of my having breasts, I am a stumbling block for
these boys, which is just an incredibly confusing message when you're already in middle
school and feeling weird about your physical body. So for me, that's one of the pieces
is just breaking down some of those gendered lines.
It's not to say there might not be sometimes where it can be helpful to have a roomful or girls or a roomful of boys or men and women, but to always segregate along those lines in conversations around sexuality, I think, is really, really unhelpful.
The second piece that comes to mind for me, and I really try to talk about this when I teach biblical ethics in a section on sexual ethics is that what I find is, so often, all of the conversation, all of the education, if you can call it that, all of the emphasis has been placed on form regarding sexuality and nothing of substance. So all of the conversations are about who is involved, who gets to do what with whom, at what point, right?
Sara Barton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mallory Wyckoff: I was never given any sort of really rich, robust, healthy conversation
on the substance of sexuality. And the form ought always be in service to the substance.
And so, what is the substance of really good, healthy sexuality? I try to take my
students through, and I use the lens of the Trinity to do all of that, but to say,
"Here's what I see the relationship among the persons of the Trinity looking like.
Full equality, full mutuality, each person has a voice, each person has agency and
power. They're not just autonomous, isolated individuals but find their identity together
in community. There's full freedom in all ... " Those sorts of things, to me, that's
the substance of good, healthy sexuality.
And so, again, it's not to say that some of those form questions are totally out the window or not important to discuss, but are they in service to the substance? The example I often use is when I grew up, we had this image of what was called the Ladder of Passion. The higher you went up on the rungs, the closer you got to actual intercourse. And so, on that Ladder of Passion, holding hands was quite low. It was seen as fairly benign. And if all you know how to do is look at that through the lens of form, then you're fine. But what if one person does not want his or her hand held, but it is being held? We have no language to know how to even name that as being inappropriate, as being sinful, as being a violation, even though, in terms of form, we're good, we're safe, right?
Sara Barton: Right.
Mallory Wyckoff: We're on the bottom of the ladder. But in terms of substance, it's not okay. And if all we know how to engage in our conversations around form, we will miss it every time.
Sara Barton: So education. I hear both of you saying how we talk about it, we have to talk about it. Not just in the PE class at school, but in the church. We have to have these conversations.
Thema Bryant-Davis: I would just say around not only removing the purity culture of body shame, but as it relates to sexual violence, preaching about it, to say that the church, every church, has multiple people who has survivors. And to never hear sexual assault in a sermon ... I remember a client who said that for women's day, when she was a kid, there was a guest preacher ... who was never invited back ... who mentioned incest, and that's what let her know what her father was doing. And she just remembers that moment ... never saw her again. But how liberating it is to speak truth and to speak it in terms of what God says about it, I think, is so powerful and important and liberating.
Sara Barton: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. I also know, Thema, that you are a part of dance ministry. And interestingly, dance has been one of those things that, oh, you don't do, because if you get too close to each other, then it might lead to other things. Culturally, we've had those kinds of things. But there can be dance in church.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes.
Sara Barton: What is that? Dance in church, how is it worshipful, and what does that have to do with saying our bodies are a part of our worship of God?
Thema Bryant-Davis: Absolutely. In Psalm 150 we're told that everything that has breath
is supposed to praise the Lord, and we're told all the different ways to praise God.
Most of them are about using different instruments, but then praise God with the tambourine
and with the dancing. And then, when they got across the sea, Miriam led the women
in dancing and in singing. And so, it is biblically based. Even in Ecclesiastes, they
talk about a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Although, I heard a wonderful Christian
dancer say, "I think something got lost in translation there." She said, "For me,
I discovered a time to mourn is a time dance," and she gave the testimonial of dancing
at her brother's funeral and how powerful that was.
So the form that the dance can take may vary. Some may look more like ballet or modern or jazz, or some do sign language, but taking all of those different pieces in order to engage in full worship ... that I don't have to leave myself behind, but that God shows up for me in me.
Sara Barton: Not just in my head, but in my body.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Right. Absolutely, because intellectualizing God, we miss it.
We think, "I'm going to rationalize who God is." Then already, you have missed the
mystery. There are spiritual encounters for which there are no words. And I will say,
for me, as a survivor, that dance, and particularly praise dance, saved my relationship
with my body. When I meet a lot of survivors who hate their bodies, often their only
relationship with their body was what was done to them. But because I was dancing
early, violation is one of the things I experienced, but it's not the totality of
how I identify my body.
The other piece was, even before I verbally told the story, I had already danced about it many times, which allowed me not to have to hold it.
Sara Barton: In church.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes.
Mallory Wyckoff: In church.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes! There's a book called The Body Remembers. So there are moments of anxiety, fear, stress that are stored in our bodies. And so, when we can dance them out before God, there's a freedom and a healing that happens.
Sara Barton: Well, I appreciate you sharing that. I do want to understand a bit, and I want our listeners to understand a bit, what happens ... What are people dealing with when they have experienced sexual trauma? Help us understand what they're dealing with, because we can't be a part of healing and solution unless we understand. What are some of the things people are dealing with?
Mallory Wyckoff: I heard one survivor describe it as your body being the crime scene.
It's not one that you can leave or that's external to you, separate from, but that
you're always walking in the body, in the very site of your deepest harm and deepest
wounding. That's a tremendously important thing to consider-
Wounding. That's a tremendously important thing to consider, that your very body has become the site of the most grave form of injustice that you can endure. That then necessarily is going to inform your connection to body. So then if you are in a culture, whether it's in general or specifically with church cultures, that are also really afraid of bodies? That have a very disembodied spirituality? It only furthers the disconnect there and it only really affirms some of those fears that survivors often have about their own bodies, the vulnerabilities there. Or perhaps the shame and questions they have around their own sense of, "Did I ask for this? Did I seek this out? Is this my fault?
Sara Barton: So there's a lot of self-shaming going on.
Mallory Wyckoff: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. So any form of practice, like you so beautifully named with dancing and movement, that helps address and overcome and offer a different narrative to those sorts of disconnects that we've created there with body can be incredibly powerful. But, unfortunately, when we only know how to be afraid of body and embodiment and continue to perpetuate spirituality that affirms those things? We continue to do injustice for survivors and for all of creation.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yeah, I want to first say it's an interpersonal trauma. Whereas like there are traumas that are like natural disasters or medical trauma where someone didn't do something to you. So immediately, with sexual violence, it's going to affect our sense of trust and connection to other people. We want to be mindful that people show their distress in the aftermath of trauma differently and to leave space for that, the parallel I often use for people is, you know, with 9/11 you had people who responded very differently but everybody was affected in some way. So with sexual assault, emotionally, a person may become very depressed. But you also may have someone who's very angry. And in our church and in our communities often there is not room for people's anger. You know, if someone is sitting there crying and sad then most people your heart will go to them. But if someone is sitting there looking enraged?
Sara Barton: Or cursing.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Then you know people often don't extend
them compassion. Another one is numb. If you've ever talked to someone and like their
eyes are blank or just dead and, you know, they're telling this horrific story but
there's like no emotion there as if they have just shut down. And then another one,
which often startles people, is some people cope with humor. So they're telling you
this terrible thing, but they're laughing. Or telling you this terrible thing with
this big smile plastered on their faces. So, you know, we tell our students who are
training to be counselors, "Pay attention to the content more than the emotion." Because
sometimes people use that to get through the story.
And then as it relates to being on campus, because I want to say 20% of college students report having some sexual violence during their college years, that it affects your concentration and your focus. So when I experienced assault it was during my college years, I had gone home to Baltimore for a break. And I had always gotten all As and school was very easy for me. And when I got back to Duke University, to the campus, for the first time I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to study. You know, like you have tests coming up and it just was a blur. And so it can affect people's schoolwork or if they have jobs. Just like the tasks that you used to take for granted, because you just your mind is distracted. Right? In some ways become undone.
In terms of spiritually and psychologists have really just started to acknowledge that in the last, maybe a decade or so, that it can disrupt our faith. I had a survivor who said, you know, "I was taught that God is love, God is everywhere, and God is all-powerful. So if I was molested I need to figure out which of those isn't true." Right? Like either God doesn't love me or God didn't have the power to stop it or God wasn't there. And so those questions that often, in our churches, are not safe for people to ask or to explore, you know, "What does this mean?" On the other side, for some people, it makes their faith even more intense. Because it may be the idea of, "I couldn't tell anybody else, but God knows." Or, "Nobody else believed me but God." Or when people say, "I didn't get justice through the justice system, but I know they're going to have to answer to God." Or some people have a change of faith where, depending on how their faith community responded, they may feel like, "This isn't the place for me now. I have to either leave church and find another one. Or, "Now I go to yoga." Or whatever it is they do looking for sanctuary or refuge.
Sara Barton: What is one, I know this is so simplistic, but if someone is listening and they really would like to... They've experienced sexual assault. What is a piece of advice you would give someone who might be listening and hasn't spoken about it or done anything about it? What's some advice you would give them?
Mallory Wyckoff: My thoughts feel simplistic as well but, at minimum, find someone with whom you can be safe and be really intentional about who that person is. Unfortunately that's one of the disruptors that can occur with sexual violence is that, oftentimes, it is someone who you should have been able to trust. You know, a caretaker, a parent. So now, like you said, not a stranger but somebody connected to me and my family. And so it can be hard to discern who is safe. But especially for that first time of articulating that, firstly to yourself and then to somebody else, my hope is that it would be with somebody that you felt had the capacity to listen and to care for you well. Not necessarily to be that your first point of contact is a therapist or psychologist, someone who's expertly trained in doing that, though I hope that they would get to that point. But even just somebody who could sit with you and listen and not seek to address their own discomfort with what you're telling them, but that can just be a safe presence for you. Listen and, at minimum, say, "I am so sorry that happened to you. And as long as you want to talk about it I'm here to listen." So finding somebody that you can name it to.
Sara Barton: I like that because that advice is for all of us, as well, that we would be that kind of safe person.
Mallory Wyckoff: Yes.
Sara Barton: And that kind of listener to anyone who ever came to us. That we could listen and sit with someone and say, "As long as you want to talk I'm here to listen."
Mallory Wyckoff: Yes.
Sara Barton: So that's great. Or that's good advice on multiple levels.
Thema Bryant-Davis: And I would say, "We believe you."
Mallory Wyckoff: Yes.
Thema Bryant-Davis: And it wasn't your fault. And sexual violence affects you, but it doesn't define you. That you are much more than what was done to you. And, while this season is hard, there will be other seasons to come. And so to try to outlast it, with support, to outlast this season.
Sara Barton: Let's say someone is listening to this and they're in a position of leadership as a pastor, as a leader even here on campus? What is some... And they've thought about this, they know the technicalities of the conversation. And yet, in practice, we always need to grow. What is a bit of advice you would give to someone who has a leadership position?
Mallory Wyckoff: I remember recently listening to a German nun who had shared her
story about having been pretty brutally assaulted by a priest at multiple times. And
the interviewer, understandably, said, "You know, it's shocking to imagine that in
a church that this would be the occurrence. Not just for you, but for so many of the
nuns as we've been hearing more and more in recent months." And her response was so
profound. And she said, "Well, actually, when you think about it it makes perfect
sense that when you have a culture set up where..." Specifically in her context she
was saying. Where all the women are told, "Your role is in service to the father,
to the priest. You do what he asks of you. You assume this sort of very subservient,
accommodating posture." It makes perfect sense that you are then going to have. It's
just, it's ripe for abuse to occur.
So if someone has some position of power and authority in a church or whatever it may be, I would want him or her to do a serious work of investigation to say, "Is the way that our culture is constructed, is the way that I live into my position of power and authority and privilege, does that contribute to, does it make possible, more possible, more likely that people would be harmed?" Or is it one that looks more like the Trinity? Like I talked about, you know, earlier in terms of full equality and everyone has a voice. Everyone has a seat at this table. It's impossible to do any sort of full-scale response to the issues regarding sexual violence without addressing all of the inherent injustices that are specifically around gendered lines in our churches. You simply cannot do one without the other.
And so long as you have injustices around those gendered lines you will always have a culture that is asking for these types of injustices. So it's not a simple inquiry, but to me that's the only option. It requires that. And then, certainly, there's some smaller-scale ways of thinking about and how you'd be present for somebody. But the second piece, I would just say, is make it overt. Make the conversation overt. Preach about it. Talk about it. There are many, many ministers statistically who would say, one, they don't even consider this as being a problem in their church. And even the ones who do have never once preached about it, have never talked about it. And maybe you don't feel like the right person to be able to name that, then bring in people who can. Use your power to create space for other people to come and join the conversation. So that, the woman that Thema mentioned, she doesn't have one chance to hear the word incest brought up in church when her Bible is full of stories that could provide beautiful spaces to have those difficult conversations.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Thank you. I would say, for spiritual leaders, to include it in your prayers, your public prayers. To include lifting up survivors of sexual abuse, sexual assault, offenders, and perpetrators, to sex traffickers. To include that in your prayer life. For faculty members or students who are going to do presentations, especially in the social sciences and English literature, to raise up those stories. And I will say, because I unfortunately had this experience, for professors not to highlight the written work nor the films of perpetrators. Sometimes people will say their art or their contribution is more important than the fact that they have violated people. And that is very problematic and sends a message that if you are talented you get a pass.
Sara Barton: So let's say someone is listening to our conversation and a light bulb goes on and they realize, "I have been a part of perpetuating systems of oppression that are hurting people and I never wanted to hurt anybody. I even have regrets about things I've taught or things I've said or books that I've passed on to people." What advice would you give for someone who feels that when they enter into this conversation?
Thema Bryant-Davis: I would say the importance of following up with whoever you had
that conversation with, even it's years later. I have had the joy this past week of
having a client, who is in her 70s, go to her daughter and apologize for things that
she didn't get right. And I was really celebrating with her that so many people live
their whole lives waiting to get that from their parents and just have to be at piece
with that it's not coming. So even if you feel like it's too late, they me be an adult
now, but you just think about it differently or you want to offer them more room or
space for who they are or who they were becoming. Or balls that we miss, you know?
It's like, "Oh, I never did have a conversation with my child about this. And I feel
like that might have left them vulnerable." So just speaking that to them, I think,
can be so important.
And for those who may be listening who are possible offenders, I want to say the importance of you recognizing that in order to step away from that mindset. Because as long as people are in denial about it then they cannot be transformed. And when I first started doing this work I thought I couldn't work with offenders. I thought I could only work with survivors. And I was blessed that the first offender I worked with was very, very repentant. And what happened is he had assaulted someone as a teenager, had never thought anything about it, and now he's married. His wife is a survivor who has constant nightmares. So watching his wife struggle is what made him think back to what he did when he was an adolescent. And so us then walking through that process was important. But he was in a place, heart, and mind to do that work.
So I would encourage you, if you're thinking about some experiences that you have had where, you know, sometimes the message that boys and men have received is keep pushing it. If they say no they don't mean it. You have to convince them. Or taking advantage of someone who's in a vulnerable condition, who's intoxicated or what have you, to really face the truth of that so that you can be transformed. And to also, along with recommending counseling, I would say to think about ways that you can make amends for survivors that exist now or organizations that serve survivors.
Sara Barton: I love it that you started with a story of a 70 year old woman who's in therapy. Because we're never too old, it's never too late, it's always so important in our lives.
Mallory Wyckoff: I just keep thinking about the abundance of space in God. Wherein
we could hear God name to us, we could hear God's people name to us that what we did
was wrong and unjust. And, in that same space, we could also be reminded that we are
beloved children of God. And that somehow in the church there's space to hold both
of those things together, that maybe there aren't a lot of other spaces to do that.
And that it doesn't shy away from either one of those. That firmly names, "This is
not okay. This is injustice. This is sin. And this grieves the heart of God. And we
must do right, we must confess, we must lament." We must... lots of steps there.
That does that and doesn't shy away from that and also does so in the context of one who is loved by God, who is seen by God, whose wounds are seen by God. We trust that God sees and knows and cares about the wounds that we have inflicted and those matter. And, at the same time, that God also sees and cares about the ways that wounds have been inflicted against us. Whether we ourselves were abused and violated and we perpetuated that against others. Or whatever other forms of wounding that we've experienced. There is abundant space in God for all of those things to be held together at the same time. That feels really important to name.
Sara Barton: And that God is in this conversation with us. Even now and with people who experience things. God is there. God is big enough.
Mallory Wyckoff: Yes.
Sara Barton: One of the things we do on this podcast, before we leave the conversation, is that we listen together to a short reading from God's word. And so I'm going to read. And this season we've been listening to Isaiah. So I'm going to read a short passage. And so my question for you is that you would respond and just say, "In what way does this inform our search for God?" And it can be related to our conversation we've been having. It can be whatever you would like for it to be. But how does this passage? And we're seeking God, we're talking to people who are seeking God in everything. And so does this passage inform that? And I'll read through it. So this is what we read in Isaiah 58. "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen? To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? When you see the naked to clothe them and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood. Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will appear quickly." I'll stop there. How does this inform our search for God?
Mallory Wyckoff: Whenever I am overwhelmed by the enormity of whatever form of injustice, you know, I'm sitting with that day. And it happens often, I feel the weight of these sorts of things. I'm reminded that God cared about this before I even knew how to name it. That God was well-acquainted with the persons most impacted by, again, whatever form of injustice. And I trust that God is always and already at work to bring healing and restoration and freedom. And so I want to start from that point. To say even in the face of what feels enormous, I'm not coming into something and it's new. The spirit of God is already here, is already at work. How can I then join God in that work.
Thema Bryant-Davis: That God chose to show up in the margins. And that God chooses to walk with, minister, and love the oppressed. So as the hands and feet of God we are called to speak truth to power. To speak against violence, racism, sexism, classism. We are called to not only work in the aftermath, but to work around prevention and to promote wholeness and wellness and equity. And most of all God's love. And so it reminds me of the necessary courage of embodying the love of God.
Sara Barton: Embodying, I love it. We end with a word that really matters to all of us. I want to thank you. This is a heavy topic, we feel it in the room here today. You feel that this is a heavy topic, I think, through the podcast people will hear. But it is not a topic, it's not a conversation, without hope. And there is hope. Thank you both for the work that you are doing and the work you're contributing to bring healing to the world, to be the hands and feet of God in the lives of all kinds of people and especially those who are seeking healing after sexual trauma. I appreciate you both.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Thank you.
Mallory Wyckoff: Thank you.
Sara Barton: Amen.
Thema Bryant-Davis: Amen.