Goodbye

This piece is dedicated to queer folks, especially queer people of color, and survivors of sexual and spiritual abuse – may we have spaces to thrive and honor all of our identities. On the one year anniversary of the mass murder at Pulse Nightclub, Into Account Co-Director Jay Yoder reflects on their decision to leave the Mennonite Church. 

One year ago today, I woke up and rolled over to post my annual Facebook “Happy Pittsburgh Pride!” When I pulled up my phone, instead I was faced with the headline, “At Least 20 Dead at LGBTQ Nightclub.”  As the day went on, that number would only grow. I started sending text messages to my queer friends in the Orlando area. “Are you OK?” “What about your friends?” “What can I do?” “What do you need?” As I said in a piece that I wrote at the time, everyone was accounted for. No one was OK.

My next reaction was that we needed more flyers for Pittsburgh Peace Church, so that we could come together to grieve. I rushed to my office and immersed myself in the task of printing and cutting quarter-page flyers. I returned home and put on my Pride rainbow romper, and the same rainbow scarf I’d used a year before to stand up for queers at the national Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City. I set out to march with Pittsburgh queer communities.

live-streamed my Pride march that day, alternately joyfully relieved to be with my people, and crying in grief as we watched the death toll rise in real time. I startled at every loud noise and siren, worried one attack would inspire others.

Throughout the day, I was deep in conversation with my queer Mennonite community. When I got home, I sat down and wrote a piece about the links between the denomination’s theology and culture and all of the forms of violence that queer folks experience, from the subtle to the deadly.

I ended that piece with, “We are dying, and you are killing us. We are dying, and you are killing us. We are dying, and you are killing us. God forgive you. I’m not ready to.”

That piece was published in The Mennonite magazine, and in Christian Peacemaker Teams’ summer newsletter, and a couple other publications. It didn’t take long for the backlash to begin. Voicemails telling me I should be ashamed of myself, angry letters and emails, accusations that my words were violent, declarations that the work of CPT was now tainted and unsupportable. A member of an editorial board quit, and a special editor’s note had to be added to my piece in The Mennonite, justifying its publication, and ensuring that readers knew that MC USA’s staff and board did not agree with me.

As historic peace church MC USA prepares for its next convention, in Orlando, the site of the U.S.’s largest mass murder in modern history, I’m faced with the simple truth that I can’t participate anymore. At the last denominational gathering, in Kansas City, it was made clear that the majority of the delegate body does not consider queer people worthy of belonging in the church family. At the same convention, out of the other side of their mouths, they apologized to sexualized violence survivors, even acknowledging that treating my queer communities as “less than” makes us more vulnerable to sexual violence. For many of us in the queer community who are also survivors, we were slapped in the face with one hand, and patted on the shoulder with the other.

For those queer survivors who chose to go to the “service of lament,” they left more heartbroken than they entered.

I can’t, and won’t, be part of similarly twisted efforts in Orlando.

To the leaders and planners of MC USA–don’t be mistaken, this doesn’t mean you can rest easy. I’m not the only queer in town. I am, though, a tired one, and one that’s ready to value myself more than I value reforming a church that would rather hold on to its old image of itself as an endless victim of persecution, instead of a denomination assimilated into systems of violence and oppression.

I wish you the kind of brokenness that leads to transformation, the kind of death that leads to resurrection, the kind of deep and direct conflict that leads to trust and accountability. 

Marissa Buck’s Second Email to Ervin Stutzman

On July 1, 2016, at 3:40 PM, Marissa Buck wrote:

To Ervin and the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention,

I appreciate you responding to me quickly and clarifying how the process for choosing an organization is being carried out, though I am sorry to say I am not at all reassured.

I am baffled by the fact that you think choosing members from the boards of VMC, EMU, and LMC means there is no conflict of interest. Gloria Lehman respects Duane very highly and chose to stop communicating with me and Lauren. She and the Elders told the congregation they fully support their pastors and believe they did everything right in this abuse case. If this is not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is. Anyone who had/has a relationship with Luke, Duane, Loren, Clyde or others associated with these organizations has a conflict of interest. Even the Panel for Prevention of Sexual Abuse has a conflict of interest, as at least one member told us honestly that they respect and have friendships with Duane and Loren. Conflict of interest is why the Panel publicly stated that anyone experiencing abuse should go outside of the Mennonite church and to professionals – because the Mennonite world is extremely interconnected and victims of abuse are ignored or silenced for the sake of maintaining “harmonious” relationships and community.

I am not feeling any more reassured by the fact that P. Marshall Yoder, EMU’s legal counsel, is involved in your decision. I have no confidence that he would choose an organization that might uncover information that would incriminate EMU. His job is to protect EMU, not survivors of sexual abuse. I do not know who the “EMU leaders” were who first heard about Luke’s relationship with an “unnamed female,” but if the EMU board was involved, then Herman Bontrager has a conflict of interest. Was Herman in the room when Luke “confessed”?

I understand that there must be cooperation and buy-in from the three institutions in order to have a successful investigation. However, these institutions should be agreeing to an investigation by the organization the Panel chooses, no questions asked. If they are truly concerned about uncovering abuse and not about protecting themselves, they will agree with the Panel’s recommendation. If they are unwilling to be investigated by GRACE we should be worried about their motives and there should be consequences.

Ervin, I am having a hard time believing that you “want to do what is best…particularly for the sake of victims of sexual abuse anywhere in our church,” when I am telling you that what you are NOT doing what is best for Lauren. Your words do not match your actions. Many people including survivors of abuse are watching this process and can see that you are not involving or informing Lauren and that you are giving decision-making power to people with conflicts of interest. Cutting Lauren out of the decision-making process is not doing what is best for victims. You should be doing everything in your power to protect, support, and include her. It’s clear that you believe you are making the right decisions and that you do not plan to communicate with Lauren through her advocate.

I will decline your invitation to meet in person. You should realize that it is inappropriate for you to offer to meet with us personally when Lauren has continually made it clear that people who want to contact her should do so through her advocate. There is far too much of a power imbalance for us to meet with you without an advocate present. This is basic ethics. At this time, even if you were to agree to have an advocate present, I do not trust you and would prefer to communicate by email.

Ervin, even if your intentions were good, it does not appear that way to those watching you. You are losing people’s trust and failing to show Lauren and other victims that you support them.

Panel, I am extremely uncomfortable and feel that this process lacks integrity and is compromised by conflicts of interest (and for other reasons which I have not covered in this email but would be happy to discuss with you). I ask that you stand firm and demand that GRACE do this investigation. You should expect to be given power in this decision and Ervin’s full support and cooperation. I would love to hear from you as individuals and understand your thought process during this – silence has been Lauren and my family’s worst enemy. Feel free to email me privately.

Thank you,

Marissa Buck

Marissa Buck’s First Email to Ervin Stutzman

—–Original Message—–

From: Marissa Buck Sent: Friday, June 24, 2016 8:43 PM

To: Ervin Stutzman; Anna Groff; Carlos Romero

Cc: Regina Shands Stolzfus ; Ross Erb ; Nancy Kauffmann; David B Miller; Jennifer Castro; Barbra Graber

Subject: Concern

Ervin Stutzman and others to whom it may concern,

I am writing to tell you that I am uncomfortable with the current process, as I understand it, that is in place for choosing an investigative organization to work with LMC, EMU, and VMC on the “Luke Hartman case.” Although Anna Groff from the Panel is involved, I find it alarming that the institutions that will be investigated are helping choose who will investigate them. This is a huge conflict of interest. Honestly, I believe it is a conflict of interest for you, Ervin, and for Carlos Romero to be involved in selecting the investigating agency as well. You have/had strong connections to Luke, and if not to him, you do to the leaders of Lindale, EMU, and VMC who will be under scrutiny. Anna is the only person in your group without a conflict of interest which puts her in a difficult position should she have concerns about how or why decisions are being made.

After Lauren and I spoke out about the mishandling of abuse by LMC and EMU, no one – not ONE leader from LMC, EMU, VMC, or MCUSA – reached out to us to show concern, apologize, or tell us how they would deal with the information we shared. We heard nothing, we saw no action taken, and recieved no communication – we still haven’t. Then we find out that the entities who we “called-out” got together, backed up by MCUSA and MEA leadership, and made a plan. How am I supposed to trust you? Do you think that you have supported Lauren and made a safe space for her? You have not. On top of your silence, the tone of your press release on June 14th made me feel like you want us to be interrogated; “The agreement with the investigating organization will include the request to seek interviews with Luke Hartman, Lauren Shifflett, and the Benner family.” I don’t believe that was your intention, but reading that sentence hurt. It put MCUSA and the three entities on one side, and Luke, Lauren and my family on the other. My family and I are not on trial here.

I am frustrated that Lauren has not been involved in this process. She should have been present at the meetings where you have been discussing her abuse and how to proceed – she was the one who is suffering because of Luke’s abuse and because of how it is being handled. Lauren’s opinion should matter. She has no idea what you are talking about or deciding behind the scenes. If you are serious about making a safe place for survivors of abuse in the Mennonite Church, you need to understand that your silence, lack of action and communication will never accomplish that. You are failing Lauren.

I was alarmed again when I heard that you will not publicly share which organizations you are considering along with G.R.A.C.E. What is your reason? If you truly want to be transparent this information should be public and the fact that it is not makes me very suspicious of your motives. Whatever your reasons, Lauren should have access to this information – she was the victim here and not giving her this information and a voice in your decision (if she wants it) is blatantly not considering her in this process.

To the Panel for Prevention of Sexual Abuse, thank you. Thank you for your statement asking for an investigation. You have built up my trust by communicating, apologizing, and listening. I hope that you see why I am concerned about the process currently in place to choose an investigative organization and understand the danger of the conflict of interest. I support your original recommendation of G.R.A.C.E. – I have read about them and trust that they would be thorough and effective in education and preventing this kind of abuse from happening again. I would prefer that you as a panel, along with Lauren’s input, choose the organization. At the very least, Lauren, an advocate of her choice, and the entire panel should be involved in future discussions with LMC, EMU, and VMC.

Please know that I am not looking for apologies or caring words now – it would be hard for me to believe their sincerity at this point. Ervin, I want you to back up your words with actions. Hire G.R.A.C.E. Hold the Mennonite Church community accountable. Prevent abuse and when it does happen, stand with the victim. Contact Lauren through Barbra Graber and involve her in any future actions/decisions.

Thank you,

Marissa Buck

Marissa Buck’s Unpublished Interview with The Mennonite

Background:

In late July of 2016, The Mennonite sent interview questions to Lauren Shifflett and her sister Marissa Buck for the article Gordon Houser was preparing. Barbra Graber, Lauren’s advocate, was copied on the communication.

The article was published on August 8, 2016.

The bulk of Marissa’s interview was not included in the report and we feel her answers are central to understanding the perspective of the ones harmed in this case.


From Marissa Buck to Hannah Heinzekehr

July 28, 2016

Hi Hannah,

Here are our answers to your questions. Lauren and I were originally going to answer separately, but we feel so similarly, and Lauren is just plum worn out from dealing with this mess, that we’re sending these joint answers. You can quote it as being both of us, or as just being from me. Laur, let Hannah know if you would rather she just quote me. We will have a very strong response once the investigative group is announced, so don’t forget to come back to us once it is! [I don’t believe they did]

Wishing you well!

Marissa

Hannah: When you published your initial blogs on Our Stories Untold, what kind of response did you receive from Virginia Mennonite Conference leaders, if any? 

Marissa: We did not receive any response from Virginia Mennonite Conference. No response from Clyde Kratz or any other member. I expected that they would reach out to ask clarifying questions about Duane’s actions and to tell us their plan for responding to Duane’s misconduct, but they did not. 

Hannah: What was the process for pulling together this new, formal complaint? 

Marissa: A community leader actually initiated the complaint. She and some others in the conference were uncomfortable that VMC did nothing after learning of Duane’s actions so she contacted us through Barbra and asked if submitting a formal complaint was something we wanted to be part of. We were so grateful! We were uncomfortable, too, but hadn’t known what to do. 

Hannah: Did you share the complaint with Lindale Mennonite Church leaders? 

Marissa: No. We had notified the Elders of Duane’s actions, our concerns, and asked them to remove Duane from leadership prior to our blog posts going up. Lindale leadership completely stopped communicating with us after that.  

Hannah: Have you received any response from Lindale Mennonite Church leaders regarding the allegations against Duane? 

Marissa: No. Lindale leadership stopped communicating with us after our posts went up and never addressed our concerns about Duane. I do not know if Dawn backed-up the information she had shared with us. It is apparent to us that they are standing behind Duane. 

Hannah: Patsy Seitz from VMC responded to you, citing the upcoming investigation as part of VMC’s process. What do you think about this response? 

Marissa: I am upset. Duane is in leadership at a church that I love dearly and I do not believe he is a safe person. He reportedly withheld information from EMU about Luke Hartman that put students at risk. He retraumatized my sister by disbelieving her and protecting Luke. And now we find out that VMC reportedly has a “sealed file” on him? I am worried about the people under Duane’s care now. Who knows how long the independent investigation will take (and whether it will truly be independent, since all of the institutions being investigated were given input into who would investigate them). VMC seems to be trying to pass on the responsibility of holding Duane accountable to someone else and anyone under Duane’s influence may be hurt in the meantime. If Patsy Seitz and VMC truly take this seriously then they should be protecting church members by doing their own investigation of Duane, NOW. And that sealed file needs to be opened! If Duane has been accused of misconduct in the past it is dangerous that the details of that misconduct be a secret. 

Hannah: What are you hoping for most from this investigation process? 

Marissa: I want the Mennonite Church to become a safe place.

I want Duane held accountable for protecting Luke and re-traumatizing Lauren and any other misconduct. I want EMU leadership held accountable for reportedly ignoring complaints of inappropriate behavior by Luke for years, [not just in Lauren’s case], which put innocent people at risk. I want the church’s response to abuse victims to change. No more silencing, ignoring, and disbelieving victims. No more blind “forgiveness” for sexual predators or the people that are protecting them. 


From Barbra Graber to Hannah Heinzekehr with Lauren and Marissa copied

July 28, 2016

Hi ya’all. So grateful to you Hannah for writing this article and including Lauren and Marissa’s voice. You are literally the ONLY ones in church leadership who are talking to them at present. (Correct me if I’m wrong M and L)

Since our time with the Panel in Harrisonburg we have had to elbow and plead and persist our way into being included in even the tiniest part of the process.

After a long thread of email communications Lauren succeeded in setting up an informal meeting with President of EMU, Loren Swartzentruber scheduled for July 25, after his term was up. On July 20 he backed out of it claiming he was ‘advised against it.’ Nancy and Anna from the Panel just yesterday finally agreed to talk with us.  

We (Lauren, Marissa, OSU, and SNAP as representative survivor networks) have been given no voice whatsoever in the review and decision of the outside investigator. Please report this. Without opportunity for any discussion or input we received notice that institutional leaders were meeting to plan the process, (Ervin and Carlos’s statement of June 14, 2016) and we were not included, even though we are the harmed party and the ones most central to the opening up of this case and its secrets.

If it cared about survivors at all, as it claims, the church would be eager for our expertise and input. We were pleased with the choice of GRACE by the Panel, but then what felt like an iron door of silence came down between the church leaders and those of us survivor advocates seeking representation and participation.

Please quote me any way you like– or not. I want this piece to be about the many others who have joined this outcry. 

Love to you all, sending you strength and the patience and persistence of my dog holding on for dear life to her chew toy!    


On Fri, Aug 5, 2016 at 8:34 AM, Hannah wrote:

Hi Lauren, Marissa and Barbra,

Gordon is hard at work on the first draft of a story for Monday’s TMail about the panel process and I will edit and add to it soon. I’ve been following all of the social media action (we’re planning to quote from your Google note, Marissa) and also heard about the behind the scenes conversation with DSA. Has DSA responded to you? Do you know if you are planning to endorse them? If you could let us know when you have a decision, I’d like to report what YOU think about the group.

Thank you,

Hannah Heinzekehr


On Fri August 5, 2016 Barbra Graber wrote:

Thanks Hannah. Quick answer. I’ve not been able to reach Lauren or Marissa this morning. This could be a quote from me. Marissa and Lauren are also welcome to send you quotes or choose any of this to say for themselves in your article if they like. 

The unwavering request of Lauren and Marissa in a variety of forms to numerous church leaders continues to be:

Trust the Panel’s original and carefully considered recommendation of GRACE and move forward. If you don’t use GRACE then its back to the drawing board, this time with our full involvement and participation.

So, no, we are not planning to endorse a firm Lauren and Marissa and the Benners had no part in choosing. We cannot quickly rubber stamp a firm the Panel (except for Anna, who was not even allowed to take information back to her Panel) had no part in choosing, nor OSU and SNAP, both well established groups of Mennonite survivors have had any part in choosing. We will not offer a quick opinion at this late hour after having been completely barred from a long and complex process.

Do they expect us to quick scramble around to attempt to do our own research and then produce an opinion after they’ve refused to share their own research and details with us? Why didn’t they take the advice of those they appointed to prevent sexual abuse in our church in the first place? You can’t just take away from the Panel the task you gave them and then expect all those you have barred from the process to jump on board with you. Trust has been broken repeatedly and until it is rebuilt through actions that support our cause, decisions made without us are highly suspect.

We will continue to assess whether or not this inquiry protects at all costs the needs and wishes of survivors, in particular Lauren Shifflet and her family. We will assess whether it merits our participation, our time and our attention. We will under no circumstances reveal the identities of the victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers that have come forward to us concerning this case without their full permission. 

Read Marissa’s FB post #LetSurvivorsLead for the latest. 


Correspondence Between Barbra Graber and Gordon Houser

From: Barbra Graber

Sent: Friday, August 5, 2016 11:07 AM


To: Gordon Houser

Subject: !! Please add this to article?

 Forgot to include you in the first one, Gordon and I see Hannah is away!  Very important that we try to get this word out and would appreciate your helping us out if you can…:

We will continue to assess whether or not this inquiry protects at all costs the safety, needs and wishes of survivors, witnesses and whistleblowers, in particular Lauren Shifflet and her family. We will assess whether it merits our participation, our time and our attention. We will under no circumstances reveal the identities of anyone that has come forward confidentially to us concerning this case without their full permission. 

On Fri, Aug 5, 2016 at 1:02 PM, Gordon Houser <GordonH@themennonite.org> wrote:

Thanks, Barbra. Has Lauren decided she doesn’t want DSA to investigate, and has she or you communicated that with Ervin? I really need to know that before I can interview Ervin and Iris to write my story.

 On Fri Aug 5, 2016, Barbra Graber wrote:

Thanks, Gordon

You have Lauren’s statement. Her sister Marissa has made a public statement concerning DSA. See her FB page.  To my knowledge Ervin has not attempted to communicate with either Lauren or me concerning his choice of investigators. That would be his prerogative.  

Barbra

 

Do Not Let Your Heart Beat Hope

Our Stories Untold

Jennifer (Jay) Yoder | August 11, 2016

“I’m going to destroy you, and I know exactly how.”

That’s the sentence that started a two-year run for me, one from which I’m still recovering, of a feral, terrified, and isolated existence. That’s the sentence that launched my former lover, partner, friend – the most trusted person in my life, into my predator, stalking me quite literally, as his prey.

Yes, his behavior leading up to it had slowly descended into violence in all the stereotypical ways that embody the characteristics of an abusive relationship. And yes, the day that I left him for good was marked by his murderous and explosive violence, from which I was extremely lucky to emerge alive.

But it was that sentence that launched me into an existence so filled with terror it nearly resulted in my suicide.

“Do Not Let Your Heart Beat Hope”