Narrative Erasure is Violence: Dave Boshart Appointed President of AMBS

By Stephanie Krehbiel, Executive Director

Often, when the internal ties that bind folks to a community are broken, that breakage happens quietly and the loss of relationship goes unacknowledged. I would like to acknowledge that this decision has effected a break in my relationship with AMBS. This decision, the way it was made, and the way it was announced have marked my exclusion from the community and the exclusion of many others like me. Today, I am grieving the loss.

–Hilary Jerome Scarsella, AMBS Facebook comment thread, September 10, 2019

On June 27, Into Account published a piece detailing our opposition to the selection of David Boshart as the new president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. On September 10, despite the efforts of LGBTQ+ Mennonites, other advocates for queer inclusion, and multiple sexual violence survivor organizations including Into Account, the AMBS Presidential Search Committee and Board of Directors announced Boshart’s official appointment as the new president.

They made this announcement after a lengthy process in which they supposedly gave due consideration to the many concerns raised about Boshart’s impending appointment. During that period of consideration, the AMBS search committee contracted with the FaithTrust Institute, a reputable nonprofit organization that works to end sexual and domestic violence in faith communities.

To our dismay, not only did AMBS appoint Boshart anyway, but the press release through which they announced the appointment made no mention of their work with FaithTrust Institute. Nor did it name any of the reasons why so many members of the larger AMBS constituency, particularly abuse survivors and LGBTQ+ people (on paper, AMBS is an LGBTQ+-inclusive institution), opposed the appointment. In other words, they mentioned none of the issues that would have caused them to engage FaithTrust Institute in the first place.

We want to know what happened in the course of AMBS’s work with FaithTrust Institute. We want to know why the press release says nothing about this work.

Those who follow our work on this blog and our survivor story site, Our Stories Untold, know that our Director of Theological Integrity, Hilary Jerome Scarsella, recently completed a year-long restitution process with AMBS for the mishandling of the rape she experienced on campus when she was a student there. That process, led by former AMBS president Sara Wenger Shenk, was a good one. AMBS cooperated with us in the process of publicizing the process and its outcome, which was also covered by The Mennonite.

During the time between the announcement of Boshart’s candidacy and the recent announcement of his appointment, Hilary sent two emails to the search committee, explaining to them her deep concerns about the consequences that his appointment would have for sexual violence prevention on campus. You can read her first email, sent on June 27, in our previous post on the subject.

We learned, in the meantime, that during Boshart’s address to the AMBS community as a candidate, he announced his respect for Hilary and his support for the process she had been through with AMBS.

Despite the apparent deep respect that their candidate professed for her, Hilary heard nothing back from the search committee (though many others, myself included, received timely responses to our own concerned emails). She wrote to them again. In her second email, on July 12, she wrote, “I am interested in speaking with FaithTrust Institute as you move through your consulting process. I have names and contact information of others willing to speak to FaithTrust that I would like to pass on to FaithTrust directly as well.”

Again, she received no response. For weeks.

On July 27, by chance, Hilary encountered one of the members of the search committee in person at a conference. She mentioned to him that neither of her emails to the committee had been acknowledged. On July 29, another member of the search committee contacted Hilary with an apology, stating, “Please be assured, your letters, as with all letters, will be part of the AMBS Presidential Search Committee’s discernment.” It made no mention of her request to speak with FaithTrust Institute. Hilary described the experience on her public Facebook page:

Though I asked more than once, the search committee never talked to me or engaged my concerns. It only acknowledged receipt of my multiple emails after I saw a member of the search committee in-person and asked why I hadn’t received a response. I’ve been hearing for weeks and weeks from multiple sources that experts brought in to try to help the search committee hear and take survivors’ concerns seriously were alarmed and concerned by the resistance they encountered. The news release of Boshart’s appointment is written in a way that covers over all of this.

At the heart of Hilary’s lengthy restitution process with AMBS was her drive for transparency. Terrible things had been done to her, and no one but her and a few trusted others knew how violent it all had been. For years, she lived with the discrepancy between the truth she knew in her bones and the lies that her perpetrator and her community had told her.

The title of Hilary’s survivor narrative is “And Then I Died.” This is what happens when your power over your body is taken from you. This is also what happens when your sexual self is made into a spectacle for other people’s consumption. It is a death, even when you survive it.

This is why Hilary called her process with AMBS “narrative restitution.” It was a process of aligning a survivor’s reality with the narrative embraced by her community. It is why we fight so hard for transparency–because narrative erasure is violence. Narrative erasure is yet more dirt thrown on the grave.

Now that Boshart has been appointed, over the many objections from the communities he has harmed with his leadership, the push for AMBS to produce a narrative of joyful communal consensus is clearly tremendous. Their press release makes this obvious. And that is what makes this a moment of danger for the larger AMBS community.

The erasure of dissent from the official institutional narrative is violence. We name it as such. I have no illusions that we’ll disrupt this appointment, but as an organization, as a community of survivors of heteropatriarchal violence who care deeply for one another, we refuse to let the truths of survivors and queer people be casualties of this terrible decision.

Again: We want to know what happened in the course of AMBS’s work with FaithTrust Institute. We want to know why the press release says nothing about this work.