Speech is power. And because speech is power, stories are powerful. Our stories help determine who we are. The way we narrate our stories determines how we define ourselves. But when our stories get wrested from us and revised by others, it inevitably does injury to our self-identity. Silencing someone’s narration of their own story is an act of oppression and violence. When we tell our own stories, we defy the attempts of others to control and define us.
The power of story has been on my mind as I’ve reflected on the tragic revelation about Memphis pastor Andy Savage’s sexual abuse of a woman named Jules Woodson.
Recently, Woodson told her story to The Wartburg Watch. As a 17 year old, she was part of the youth group at Woodlands Park Baptist Church in Texas, where Savage was the youth pastor at the time. The two of them had become close, and one evening she was at the church alone with Savage. He offered to drive her home. But instead of taking her directly home, he drove to a secluded place in the woods and forced her into performing sexual acts on him. Afterward, he told her not to tell anyone. Despite this, Woodson courageously informed the leadership of Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church about this incident. While Savage was eventually let go from his position, the congregation was not clearly informed about what had taken place; and Woodson was made to feel that she was at least partially responsible for what had happened.
Though I have tried not to dwell on this tragic incident too much since learning about it, its gory details have been quite mentally consuming. In the midst of my grief over the story, I also rejoice that Jules Woodson has, after so many years, been able to tell the story of what happened to her. For too long, the story of her abuse had been taken from her control and dictated by others. That is no longer the case.
Shortly after Savage abused her, she told the church’s associate pastor, Larry Cotton, what had happened. He implied that she was at least partially responsible. When she narrated her story to him, it got narrated back to her differently. Cotton instructed her not to speak with Andy Savage anymore nor tell the congregation what had happened. The narrative was taken from her and given to other narrators; in the process, she was silenced. Why should she be prohibited from sharing her story if she so desired? Why should she be prohibited from talking with Savage? (I don’t imagine that she would want to talk with him, but it is her right to confront him if she so desires.)
Woodson bravely defied Cotton’s prohibition and shared some information with other church members. Her act of defiance forced the church’s hand, so Andy was let go from him role as youth pastor. Though the church publicly revealed some details of what happened, the story was left murky enough that rumor and misinformation flourished. Some in the church believed it was Woodson’s fault that Andy was leaving. While Andy did tell the congregation he had made a “poor decision,” this vague quasi-confession left room for suspicion that Woodson was at least partially culpable. She was denied the opportunity to narrate her own experience of victimization, and this communal silencing allowed Andy to be viewed as the casualty of a conspiracy against him.
This all happened in 1998. Almost twenty years later, Savage is still determined to control the narrative. On December 1, 2017, Woodson found her voice and sent an email to Savage, now pastor of Highpoint Church in Memphis, reminding him of what he had done. No word from Savage.
That is, until Woodson went public with the story.
By doing so, she effectively wrested the privileged position of narrator from Andy’s domineering grasp. Seeking to regain his grip, he put out a statement addressing the situation. The way he tells the story displays the same fuzziness that Woodson says characterized Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church’s public response in 1998. Let’s look at a few key phrases contained in Savage’s response. They reveal his ongoing attempt to silence Woodson’s own narration.
“I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior” No, you did not have a “sexual incident.” You used fear, coercion, and exploitation of your leadership position to force her into performing sexual acts on you. In other words, you assaulted her. This statement is worded vaguely enough to imply that Woodson might be at least partially responsible for the “incident.” She is not. Given the power differential between Woodson and Savage, there is no such thing as consent in this situation.
“I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership” You “asked” Woodson for forgiveness immediately after the incident, while she was still shaking from being assaulted, and while telling her she must take this to the grave with her. Some apology. Once again, given the dynamics of intimidation and coercion, she was unable to sincerely offer forgiveness or accept such an “apology,” regardless of its sincerity. As for the others to whom you supposedly apologized, they were never fully aware of what you had done. If you did indeed apologize to them, you did so in such a vague and incomplete way that they had no idea what you even needed to apologize for. That Woodson was made to feel partly responsible for incident shows the incompleteness of your “apology.”
“the church leadership, who informed the congregation” No, they did not inform the congregation. The congregation was told you had “made a poor decision,” and from there speculation and rumor took over. The church was in no meaningful way “informed.”
“This incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago” You are not the final arbiter of whether the situation was dealt with. Why don’t you ask Jules Woodson if it was dealt with rather than presumptuously assert that it was? That Savage can declare the situation’s “resolution” so casually reveals to me that either (A) he is utterly ignorant of the long-lasting trauma experienced by survivors of sexual assault, (B) Woodson’s own recovery and well-being are utterly irrelevant to his determination of whether the situation is resolved, or (C) both. By saying the situation was “dealt with,” I think he really means that he revealed some cursory (mis)information to the congregation, perfunctorily stepped down from his role, and then went on to build for himself a megachurch and personal brand. Meanwhile, Jules Woodson was left to drown in the flood of emotional wreckage that Savage had unleashed upon her. No, the “incident” had not been “dealt with.”
Though I grieve what happened to Jules Woodson, I am thankful for her display of courage in walking to the microphone and correctly loudly and clearly the false narrative that has been told about her for so long. May she find strength and healing in finding her own voice. And may the voices of many others who have been silenced rise up as a chorus to drown out the false narratives being wielded by those who seek to oppress and marginalize the powerless.