Swept under the pew: Stories of sexualized violence in the Mennonite community

By — June 20, 2012

Silence: A symptom that plagues all scenarios of sexualized violence, rape, and abuse, no matter what communities we’re addressing.

In the Sudan conflict, rape was used to silence women. When a woman named Safiya Ishaq unashamedly spoke about her rape, she was forced to flee the country for fear of retribution. The potential of being stigmatized has prevented women in the Democratic Republic of Congo from seeking medical treatment for rape. Husbands often reject women after they have been sexually assaulted, such as in Guatemala, where more than 100,000 women are estimated to have been raped. If these stories were told, women would potentially lose their communities and homes.  

Currently, we are gathering evidence that women in Syria may be plagued by the silence they must keep after being violently raped. By not remaining silent, they risk being shunned by their fathers, brothers, and future husbands.

Yet this all-too-common pattern of silence is not just relevant in war-torn, faraway areas. Unfortunately, women in the United States, in all communities, are also silenced.  

I grew up in Mennonite Church USA. A core Mennonite belief is nonviolence and pacifism. Mennonite communities are generally focused on doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and practicing nonresistance, even in the face of violence and warfare. A symptom of believing so strongly in reconciliation and peace is that controversial subjects within the church that make the general public uncomfortable are often swept under the pew. One of these hot-button, undiscussed topics is sexualized violence against women.

Pamela Dintaman and her mother. (Courtesy Pamela Dintaman)

Tucson-based hospice chaplain Pamela Dintaman uncovered such a story about her mother, 20 years after her death. Through researching her family’s history, Dintaman, who grew up Mennonite, discovered her mother had been Amish as a child. Both the Amish and Mennonites were born out of the Anabaptist movement in Europe during the 16th century.

Dintaman also discovered that her own grandfather had raped her mother when her mother was 8 years old. She told Women Under Siege that when her grandmother got home, her grandfather confessed to what he had done: He’d raped his own daughter. The blame, however, was misplaced.

The grandmother scolded her 8-year-old daughter for going into the room. “Somehow, these girls were supposed to know better,” Dintaman said of the two daughters in the family.

Later, Dintaman’s grandfather went to prison for the rape, but was paroled from a life sentence and returned home when her mother was just a teenager.

When Dintaman discussed her mother’s rape with other family members, she was met with reluctance—common to the church’s culture—to share feelings on the topic. “What good would come from talking about it?” her aunt wondered aloud.

Not understanding that discussion can bring about change leads to history repeating itself.  

I, too, was molested as a child, a story I didn’t let myself acknowledge until the age of 22. While attending a Mennonite college, I also learned of a handful of friends who had been sexually assaulted by their neighbors, father’s friends, family members, or high school boyfriends. I decided that our stories couldn’t be the only ones out there. There’s no way the Mennonite community is immune to sexualized violence, even if we don’t talk about it.

These silenced stories need a place to be communicated, which is why I’ve launched Our Stories Untold, an online initiative aimed at provoking conversation about sexualized violence in the Mennonite Church. The overall purpose of the site is to create holistic discussions that are crucial to the process of building a nonviolent, female-friendly Mennonite community that chooses to tackle the problem of sexualized violence against women.

Since the site went live on June 5, I’ve received an influx of people’s stories surrounding sexual abuse and violence. Some of these stories are from strangers; others are from some of my closest childhood friends. They come from both men and women. They’re not necessarily from people who still consider themselves an active part of the church, but, as a woman who herself isn’t necessarily active in the church and is instead searching for encounters with God outside the church walls, I’m not sure that’s the point.

The point is to strip our lives of this silence. To be free to tell our stories, in whatever capacity we wish to, and to feel like there’s someone or something willing to hear and share those stories. That is what Our Stories Untold is here to do.

I invite you to share stories, anonymously or otherwise, about sexual assault, abuse, domestic violence, molestation, or harm to a woman’s body. I’d also like to ask for any support or hope you have to offer, in the form of cross-posting articles on topics of sex and religion (no matter what faith background you come from), contacts, research, or encouraging notes.

Women in the Mennonite Church no longer need to intensify their suffering with silence. Our histories need to be aired out, and I badly want to create a place for these stories to breathe.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The origin of the Amish and Mennonite faiths has been clarified in the sixth paragraph. Also, details about Pamela Dintaman’s story about her mother have been edited.