This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “The dignity of bodies.” For more stories on this theme, see the February issue of The Mennonite.
As a member of the board of Dove’s Nest, an independent Anabaptist nonprofit working to protect children from all types of child abuse and neglect, I’ve become more and more aware of the ways humans experience touch, and the sensitivity that all Christians are called to use when touching one another.
As a pastor, I’m aware of the ways my touch matters: laying on of hands for the sick, blessing new babies, hugs of greeting, passing the peace, baptizing people, anointing, footwashing and more.
Touch is one of the profound ways humans connect with one another, communicating love and compassion. Jesus engaged physically with those around him, putting mud on the eyes of the blind man, laying hands on the sick, letting his disciples touch his hands and his side in his resurrection greeting.
But I also know not everyone experiences touch the same way. At Dove’s Nest we hear stories about people who cringe at the church’s rituals of touch because of their own experiences with touch.
We got a striking example of that last summer at MennoCon19, the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, Missouri, where one of the worship rituals was embracing as many people in the worship hall as you could in a few minutes time. Personally, this was a delightful ritual for me, a chance to share the love of Jesus with friends in Jesus. I gave at least a dozen hugs to people I didn’t know.
But the Dove’s Nest board quickly heard stories that were not so positive. A woman who fled the room because of how triggering hugs from strangers are. An older person who was nearly knocked over by an unexpected and unwanted hug. A man who had childhood memories of physical abuse brought to the surface. Others who simply sat and tried not to make eye contact, uncomfortable with forced intimacy.
There was no malicious intent in the ritual, but it did not end up making space for those uncomfortable with touch to feel fully part of the community.
So the Dove’s Nest board went to MC USA executive director Glen Guyton and other convention planners and explained our concern, that (to quote from the letter we wrote):
We recommend that leaders always normalize non-participation, coach on how to best get consent before hugging or other forms of physical contact, and provide easy non-physical ways to meaningfully participate in every ritual with physical touch.
In our trainings we always encourage churches to use these times [rituals that involve touch] as moments to talk clearly about consent and to put in the forefront the needs of survivors, by making it explicit some of the reasons not everyone likes contact, giving clear instructions about how to get consent to share hugs, as well as providing sufficient other alternatives (hug, handshake, hi-five, verbal blessing, etc.). In the Circle of Grace curriculum, we teach children that no one should enter their space without their permission, and we recommend that MC USA designs worship services to respect these circles of grace. As MC USA said in the 2015 Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse, we try to “ensure that worship services are sensitive to the needs of victims and survivors.”
Dove’s Nest also recommended a ritual that might work instead of giving hugs, which Guyton demonstrated with Dove’s Nest executive director Anna Groff the next day during worship.
I know of several congregations that have adopted this ritual, and it might be useful for you and your congregation too. It goes something like this:
To connect with one another, and celebrate the peacebuilding work of Jesus, we want to connect with people around us, these strangers and friends who gathered with us in worship.
However, before beginning this connecting ritual, I want to be clear that not everyone enjoys these kinds of things. For any of a host of reasons, it is not right for everyone to make physical contact with others today, and because I am tied with you in love and through the church, I don’t want you to feel pressured to participate in any way.
So what I’d like you to do is take a moment and decide if you’re comfortable with hugs, hand-shakes, hi-fives, saying ‘peace be with you,’ or just quietly sitting while this is going on. These are all wonderful and faithful ways of being part of this community.
Now, I’d invite you to find five people who would like to share with you in a way that you would also like to share with them (not that you have to stick with one thing, as consent once given can be withdrawn, and that needs to be respected).
If you want to give hugs, watch for the reciprocal embrace. (demonstrate)
If you’re giving hi-fives, hold that hand high! (demonstrate)
If you’re best with handshakes, hold out one hand. (demonstrate)
If you’d rather say peace be with you, hold your hands in front of your chest in prayer.
Or, just sit in prayer. That’s wonderful too. And no one should bug someone for a hug when they are praying.
See if we can’t express our love for one another in a way that honors what we want, and what they want, in that mutual ‘yes’ that is God’s love in Christ for us.
As a church, it is essential that we love one another well. For some, that means joyful touch. Others are more comfortable with more reserve. I believe both are faithful expressions of God’s vision for humanity. What is sin is when we do not create space for difference, when we do not honor consent and find ways to serve one another in love.
At Dove’s Nest we encourage all people and all church organizations to be attentive to the consent we presume, and to make space for everyone—those who delight in hugs and those who cringe at the thought—to be fully welcome in worship.
Samuel Voth Schrag is a board member of Dove’s Nest.
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