Building Safety Into Our Church DNA

God, Relationships

Contributor: John Cassells

Written by Eric Stom

 

Picture your typical Sunday morning church service: pews neatly filled with people, the order of announcements, worship, and speaking all falling into a familiar rhythm. You notice out of the corner of your eye a woman, dressed in a tight-fitting skirt and wearing brightly coloured makeup enter the room. She avoids eye-contact with the greeter, who seems to scoff after being ignored. All eyes fall on her as she tries to find a place to sit. Something’s very different about her; not just her sense of style, but even the way she walks, like she has something to prove. Congregants sit in their usual spots — at the end of the pews– and the handful of seats available are all near the front of the room; she pauses, thinks about it, then turns and leaves. 

 

What questions do you have about this woman? What feelings arise as you picture her in that setting? Maybe some of us would feel uncomfortable with her joining our church service. Perhaps a wave of relief would go through the room when she finally decides to leave.

 

John Cassells is a ministry worker who is committed to walking with women and girls, as well as the families of women and girls, who are caught up in Canada’s sex trafficking industry or who are at risk of being trafficked. Part of his work includes building safe spaces for industry workers to find belonging. Cassells says that Canadian churches usually don’t even know the invisible barriers they put up that prevent women in the sex industry from attending. “Girls I work with say that they know God loves them, but they are afraid the people in church will not.” 

 

Shame hinders women and girls from feeling free to walk, talk, and dress the way they do without fear of being judged by those in church. Even service times can be unintentionally discriminatory towards industry workers: imagine working all night Saturday only to find the church you’d like to attend only hosts 9am services on Sunday morning? And say a woman finds her way into a service and there are no easy-access seats for her, since church members have congregated on the ends of the pew. A “quiet” entrance is impossible. Cassells explains that the Little things add up to communicate a bigger message: “You are not welcome here.”

 

So what can be done about these issues? Sure, churchgoers can be reminded to move to the centre of the pew, but what about other more deep-seated issues like judgment and long-standing traditions that dictate the way our church services function? Cassells himself knows that change takes time on such complex issues, but it is possible — he’s got proof. 

 

For the past few years, Cassells has been a part of a team spearheading a new initiative to welcome industry women and girls into church. The drop-in service on Sunday afternoons allows women to come as they are, without fear of being judged. Understanding that most struggle with severe anxiety from traumatic experiences, running out for a smoke break mid-service is seen as a normal means of coping. The church facility has been equipped with trained greeters (or bouncers, as some women call them!) who wear ID badges to show they are safe, and are supposed to be there. Cassells says that it’s incorrect to think that women and girls in the sex industry have given up on any kind of faith — lots of women actually pray more in the industry! When girls enter the Saturday service, Cassells notes that it’s not always obvious who is in the industry and who is not. This is done so the divide between “church people” and “industry girls” can be bridged –the goal is to be one group. 

The need is real, says Cassells, for churches to step up and welcome the marginalized? in their congregations. The idea might seem scary at first, but with some training and encouragement from John and his team, this idea is entirely possible. 

 

“I’ll never be homeless in my life because I have too many people around me who wouldn’t let that happen,” says Cassells. By building intentional community in our churches that welcomes women and girls from the sex industry, we are able to provide networks of support and safety that can not only prevent crises, but also help support members in desperate times.

 

If you are interested in learning more about John’s work, or if you feel like your church is located near areas where the sex trade operates, please connect with John at john.cassells@sim.org.