Church of the Second Chance

November 2nd, 2017

The depth of pain that victims of sexual abuse experience is heartbreaking. Often the heartbreak is even deeper because victims do not receive the healing they need to become survivors.

We all need a second chance at some point in our lives. Most of us need more chances than that. Are we willing to extend that grace to others? Are we willing to extend another chance to those others[1] whom you may despise? Jesus, who met God’s people in new ways, in new places, is my example. I served the First United Methodist Church of Pahokee for seven years. I had no idea that God would lead our faith community to a ministry that is in some ways a reflection of a societal fear—the belief that sex offenders are incurable, violent, and a threat forever. Most people in society equate this label with those who are diagnosed as pedophiles. However, my faith community is not in ministry with or for this group.

I am grateful that the Supreme Court has two cases before them that can emphasize facts rather than fear.[2] As a society, we do not engage in healthy dialogue about sexuality. Our God created us as sexual beings. Having sexual feelings is healthy; but often, due to lack of healthy conversation, we bury our heads in the sand, hoping that children will figure it out for themselves. As a child victim of molestation, and now a survivor, I did not have a vocabulary to describe my body as having value and sacred worth. Neither my parents nor I had the language to discuss what to do if anyone (parent, teacher, relative, pastor, friend, any adult or other child) attempted to touch me or speak to me in a way that made me feel unsafe. I didn’t know I could say, “Stop,” that I could fight back, that I could tell a trusted adult. I mistakenly believed, at thirteen years old, that it was my fault. My perpetrator was a trusted adult, my parents’ best friend. I unfortunately thought his word would carry more weight than mine, and I lived with this painful, dark secret—alone. I kept silent. He was never held accountable, and I felt nauseated when I thought about someone touching me again.

My amazing husband of twenty-nine years, Paul, helped me move from being a victim to a survivor. As we raised our three daughters, I gave them the language and permission to tell me if anyone tried to harm them. I would believe them. I never wanted them to experience the darkness that I did.

Pahokee, a small, rural agricultural community, nestled on the southeast bank of Lake Okeechobee, Florida, includes a pocket of over one hundred and fifty people who are listed for life on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Sexual Offender Registry. With a broad brush, the crimes committed are lumped in a lifetime listing under one label—even when people have served their time in prison, successfully completed their terms of probation, and been released into society. The laws in Florida are inspired by fear rather than facts. Rather than allowing people who paid their debt to become productive members of society again, these laws force people into a punitive lifestyle while trying to find housing with restrictions that are based on false fears. Whether arrested for urinating in public, child pornography, or physical sexual contact with a minor, all receive the same lifelong sentence to the registry plus a year after death.

I had lived and served in Pahokee for a year when I met Chad Stoffel, who was leading worship at a community worship service at Miracle Village.[3] He wasn’t performing when he led the congregation in song; he was worshipping. It was beautifully powerful. I did not know him or his story, but I knew he was gifted by God to lead. After Chad shared his story with me and I shared the expectations of behavior at church, he began to serve with us as a volunteer. He always served with excellence and integrity. With conversation, time, faithfulness, and relationship building, Chad grew to be a valued and trusted staff member.

The painful shame and silence we had both endured was used by God to open the doors to conversations that brought hope, love, healing, grace, and compassion for each of us. While growing up, no one spoke into his life in a healthy way about what to do with his sexual feelings. He heard the message from the church that he was an abomination and would go to hell. This silence hurt a boy and then a man who loved God and the church. No one told him there were safe people he could talk to—not his parents, teachers, friends, nor pastor. He felt so confused, and he struggled alone. As a teacher in his early twenties, he committed a crime when he engaged in an inappropriate relationship with an underage high school student.

I minister to and with people with widely varying stories, people who love God and yet feel disqualified to serve God again. Society generally seems to agree. Jesus does not. I’ve been described in an interview by Anne Schindler, of First Coast News, “as a champion for this often-despised population—a voice of forgiveness in a sea of pitchforks.” I believe that those who served their time and changed their hearts and lives deserve a second chance. I believe we are all created in God’s image (Gen 1:27), and we don’t throw away God’s children.[4] Yet I also believe that all places should have healthy protections in place for all people.

During a Fresh Expressions event at the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, Susan Green interviewed Lynda Moss, Chad Stoffel, and me to hear about the journey of transformation for a long-established church and the “modern day lepers”[5] who are softening church members’ hearts. Surprisingly, the perspectives of the established church and the people on the registry were similar. Both considered themselves vulnerable to be hurt by the other. I had never thought about the ripple effect for family members of both victims and offenders. There has not been healthy language of support for family members who bear the pain and shame of their loved ones. The church initially worried that because of the offenders’ label, they would offend again. (Again, diagnosed pedophiles are not the population I’m in ministry with.) Those on the registry were trying to rebuild their lives and were afraid of possible rejection or false accusations made against them. Then, as only God does, through healthy relationships that built trust, the established church members and our newest church family members came to see the heart and image of God in each other. Walls of fear came down, and respectful relationships were built.

The following excerpt from the article shares from a member of the congregation, Lynda Moss, who observes that individuals are “more than labels,”[6] and they deserve the “power of a second chance.”[7]

Moss, who has been a member at First UMC, Pahokee, since 1960 and played the organ for worship services since 1966, said she learned about sex offenders joining Thursday night worship from her daughters after they attended. She remembers storming into Aupperlee’s office to object, and she remained adamantly opposed to the ministry for about six months.

She said she came to an Ash Wednesday service led by the newcomers and sat scowling, with her arms folded. But then something changed.

“God laid it on my heart, just ripped it up, and said this is the way it’s going to be.”

She said she approached Chad Stoffel after the service, and she could see the fear. Then she told him she wanted him to sing in the church choir.

Today she’s not only a champion of the First UMC ministry and a surrogate mother and grandmother to some of the men from the community, she also is chairperson of the Miracle Village Ministries board that founded it.

For his part, being accepted as a worship leader at First UMC has reopened a door that Stoffel thought was forever closed. He said he grew up involved in church youth groups and mission trips and had always dreamed of leading worship.

“I think God created me to lead worship,” Stoffel said. “As a result of choices I made, the results were devastating.”

Aupperlee said the church is careful to follow ministry protection guidelines, but she and Moss said the experience has opened their eyes to stereotypes about sex offenders that don’t hold true. Conditions applied to their release often have little to do with public safety, Aupperlee said, and the isolation they experience can be heartbreaking.

As a Fresh Expression, the congregation offers a monthly birthday celebration and movie night for the former offenders, whose terms of release from incarceration often include travel restrictions and who may be ostracized by family and friends.[8]

This fresh expression of the Holy Spirit flows through the hearts of those who allow the power of a second chance to guide them. Through ministries like this, I am continually excited to watch people fall in love with Jesus. My deep hope is that we, the church, can be leaders in helping families, colleagues, and our community learn to develop a language of healthy sexual feelings and behaviors, and that, as we strive to change our hearts and lives, there will not be future victims or future offenders. I believe in God’s amazing grace and how sweet it is when the lost have been found.

One day when someone asked Chad about our relationship, he coined the phrase, “We are messed friends.” I believe God’s grace brought us together to grow in our individual healing, but also to help others begin a discussion for healing from the past.

[1] William H. Willimon, Fear of the OtherNo Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016)

[3] Miracle Village is the unofficial name of a neighborhood five miles outside of the city limits of Pahokee. The neighborhood’s real name is Pelican Lake, and the majority of its residents are on the Florida Sexual Offender Registry.

[5] Dick Witherow, The Modern Day Leper (Charleston, SC: Booksurge Publishing, 2009)

[6] Criminal Defense Attorney Josh LeRoy coined this phrase.

[7] Steve Fales, owner of AdServices, Inc. coined this phrase.

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