Cosmic Winter Wonderland-NASA
Courage is found in unlikely places” JRR Tolkien
I am grateful that Ford Ebling was willing to come forward and discuss what happened to him as a high school student in the Living Hope Baptist Church youth program. Can you imagine how hard it is for a man to call a woman he doesn’t know and transparently share such awkward details? I am thankful that he could trust me.
In this story, you will hear an excuse given to Ford when he came first came forward as a teen with his concerns.”Boys will be boys.” I have only heard that sort of excuse one other time in a former church. A young man came forward there to report a similar story about a youth volunteer. The excuse was “It”s just locker room humor.” A year later, the church would discover that over 13 young teen boys were being horrifically molested by their youth leader/volunteer. That man is in prison. That experience would directly lead to me starting this blog because I was astonished at the sheer stupidity and lack of concern on the part of the pastors and elders.
So, in this story, a young man knew something was amiss
Ford’s experience in the high school youth program at Living Hope Baptist Church, Bowling Green, KY. (As told in his own words.)
My mother, brother, and I started to attend Living Hope Baptist Church (SBC) more frequently after my parents separated. During this time, my relationship with my mother and father was strained. My mother had become very religious and I tried to participate as well. This involved me attending the youth group at Living Hope Baptist Church. At first, things seemed pretty normal but the dynamics would change as we got older.
The teaching centered around learning to be a Christian man.
During that time, the teachings centered around helping teenage boys to become Christian men. They were very concerned with teaching us how to conduct ourselves in accordance with the will of God. The central idea of being a man, for them, was for us to take on positions of leadership as we got older. We were taught that we need to, at the very least, be Christian leaders within our own future families.
A Godly man, we were taught, is one who marries only one woman in his life, is faithful to her, and produces children to carry on the faith. He should carry no sexual impurity into the marriage. We were discouraged from any expression of sexuality, healthy or unhealthy. Some leaders even went so far as to tell us that having any sexual thoughts was akin to “Raping a woman in your mind.” They told us that men who were sexually pure and acted in accordance with God were the elite among all others.
Those who followed God were the chosen who would be accepted into Heaven, and all others would be sent to Hell. Homosexuality was strongly condemned. Even associating with gay people for any reason, except preaching to them, was strongly discouraged. Men and women have specific roles in the kingdom of God and those who engaged in other sorts of behavior were not chosen to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
The combination of elitism, complementarianism, skewed Calvinism, and purity culture all contributed to a culture where one had to prove their worthiness to be counted among the Christian elite, and only the greatest Christian disciples attended Living Hope Baptist Church.
Boys will be boys excuses for genital grabbing and nudity.
The more I was involved, the more I was subjected to this frat like hazing. A lot of this hazing involved inappropriate touching perpetrated by other boys in the group. My genitals and buttocks were repeatedly groped by several male members of the youth group. One student, even when he wasn’t touching me, often made a point to make me uncomfortable by threatening to touch me, making suggestive comments, and joking about my manhood.
This hazing was was done under the guise of male bonding. The phrase “no homo” was thrown around a lot. They seemed to believe that men should be comfortable being naked around each other and touching each other, perhaps to prove in some way that men can be close without “succumbing to homosexual urges.” Most of this behavior was at least tacitly approved by the youth group leadership. When I told one of the leaders (I don’t remember who it was,) he dismissed my concerns that I was feeling very uncomfortable with some of the other boys’ actions. I was given what amounted to a “boys will be boys” excuse, and nothing stopped.
(Warning: graphic/trigger alert for the next three paragraphs)
Over time the behavior escalated. While at a summer camp called Centrifuge in Florida, I witnessed an older boy, DR, crawl naked into the bed of a younger boy and wouldn’t leave until the younger one looked at his penis. At that same camp, an adult counselor, Bryan Lewis, pulled down his pants and had several minors (including myself) look at how hairy his anus was. Lewis apparently knew that he was crossing a line with this because he discouraged us from mentioning to others that he was doing this before pulling down his pants.
Other questionable things occurred at various church camps and among other members of the youth group. One thing that often happened at camps was what some boys called “Happy Get Naked Time,” which is when several boys would get partially or fully naked and dance together. Boys were encouraged to participate this/ If we didn’t participate, they made fun of us or otherwise excluded us from the inner circle.
Boundaries were violated.
Another group of older boys had their own little inner circle group, whose initiation into the group involved getting naked in front of the group and rubbing Icy Hot on one’s genitals in order to see how long you could last. While I’m unsure if any direct molestation occurred within the church, the culture within the church youth group opened the way for predators to target young boys. The boundaries of young boys were repeatedly violated while I attended that church, and that behavior prepared boys for being assaulted and led to them being possibly being shamed into not reporting their assaults.
Leadership of the church appeared ignorant of this behavior
Living Hope leadership, it appears, is completely ignorant of this behavior, which is completely unsurprising, considering the elitist culture within Living Hope as a whole. The pastors at Living Hope refer to their congregants as “living saints,” and appear to believe(at least to me) that they are the sole saviors of the city of Bowling Green, KY. Though they may not state it outright, they believe something like this could not happen at Living Hope. But it has happened already, and will likely happen again if they don’t work to fix the flaws in their church.
Bryan Lewis is a member of Mission Church in Bowling Green, Ky, and is also the executive director of Hope House, a home for recovering addicts in Bowling Green, which is concerning as that is a building full of vulnerable people who are beholden to Hope House for shelter and help recovering from their addictions.
There were two teens boys that were also involved in abusive, sexualized behavior. One now lives in a foreign country and the other one has moved out of the area.
I’m writing all of this to draw attention to harmful practices that are pervasive across the wider Southern Baptist Convention, and to help other people have the courage to come forward about their abuse. No one should have to go through what I went through, and all I can do is try to get my story out there in the hopes that it helps someone to survive what I went through.
My phone call to Living Hope Baptist Church
After my initial contact with Ford, I called Living Hope Baptist Church in Bowling Green Baptist Church. Jason Pettus, along with a couple of his elders, set up a time to connect with me. With Ford’s permission, I gave them an overview of Ford’s story. However, at that time, I felt I was missing a piece of the puzzle from the story and I warned the pastor and elders to be prepared that there could be something more. Sometimes, as trust is developed, a victim becomes willing to share more.
They three men were thoughtful and expressed concern for Ford. They all said they were not aware of such reports. However, they mentioned the Caring Well materials and said they wanted to respond well to this situation. The told me that Bryan Lewis was no longer at the church and was working with a ministry in town called Hope House.
They asked if Ford would be willing to meet with them. Ford had already told me he wanted to sit down with them and talk about what happened. He would contact them about setting up a time.
The phone call with me was handled well by the leaders. However, at the time of the call, I was unaware that a crime may have been committed.
Time to make a police report
After speaking , once again, at length with Ford, I learned that Bryan Lewis had allegedly exposed himself to the teens as covered by in Ford’s narrative. Both Ford and I agreed that this was a crime. Even though we knew the statute of limitations had expired, he felt, and I agreed, that it was important to report this. I was once again impressed by Ford’s hope that his experience would help protect others. Here is a copy of the police report with some names redacted. Ford’s first name is Stuart and Ford is his middle name which he more commonly goes by.
Ford’s meeting with church elders
Ford met with the elders (the pastor was on a mission trip.) They apologized to him and reiterated that they had never heard of such reports. They offered to provide counseling for him in a biblical counseling center. Ford now considers himself a *hopeful agnostic* and did not feel comfortable taking them up on their offer. His is aware of some of the controversies surrounding this type of counseling. I have written extensively on the matter. Here is a link to a post which has links to many of the posts that I’ve written.
Ford said that is was important for him to come forward to the church in order to protect others who may have had similar experiences.
One of the elders reportedly said that it is impossible to prevent people from *doing what they’re going to do.* Another elder said it was hard to trust Ford since they didn’t know him. (IDee: will deal with these comments shortly.) Ford told me that he believes that the conversation, while considerate were primarily platitudes.
I am personally pleased that the leaders went out of their way to make sure the meetings happened in an expeditious manner.
I left a message for Lewis with his PR person. I briefly explained the situation to her. I did not receive a clue back from him which does not surprise me.
Ford naturally spotted the red flags surrounding potential grooming behavior
Ford is a thoughtful man who gets the issues surrounding grooming. It took him a few years to understand the problems with the behaviors in the youth group.
We agreed that *getting naked* or grabbing another’s genitals in youth group meetings or Christian camps is worrisome behavior, especially when condoned by the church appointed youth leaders. Here is one article that addresses grooming behavior: 6 PERPETRATOR GROOMING BEHAVIORS EVERY PARENT NEEDS TO KNOW:
Perpetrators will try to test the boundaries of your child’s comfort levels. Sometimes they will tell off-colored or sexualized jokes to see how the child will respond. They may try to play sexualized games such as pants-ing, truth-or-dare, or strip games.
They will see how the child reacts when they enter a child’s room or normal places where children are expected to have privacy, such as the restroom.
Perpetrators thrive in secrecy, and testing boundaries helps them know if they can continue without being caught.
Perpetrators will test the boundaries of touch with your child. They usually begin with non-sexual touches such as high-fives and hugging. They may slowly progress to inappropriate touching such as accidentally grazing a private part of the body, just to see how the child will react. They may kiss or have the child sit on their lap.
The thing to note is they will move from very innocent touching and progress to more sexual touching in order to test the reaction of the child.
Another article brings up some behavior seen in Ford’s story: THE RED FLAGS OF GROOMING BEHAVIOR
Gradually crossing physical boundaries. Full frontal hugs that last too long, making kids sit in their laps, “accidental” touches of private areas – all of these are causes for concern. In some cases, offenders have engaged in partially clothed tickle sessions, showered with kids, or slept in the same bed with them.
Encouraging a kid to keep secrets from family members. The shame and fear associated with child sexual abuse make it easy for offenders to enforce secrecy in this area as well, keeping abuse “just between us.”
So, if an institution or church’ leadership easily spouts sayings such *boys will be boys,* when confronted by a young person reporting worrisome behavior, they are unwittingly helping a potential predator. Ford had normal and age appropriate inhibitions. It is normal for a teen boy to be unhappy that others are squeezing his genitals or insisting that that he should join in nude dancing. Ford was appropriately startled when the youth leader allegedly dropped his pants and encouraged the boys to look at his *hairy anus.*
Ford was smarter than the adults in the room. He realized that something was wrong. The youth leader was reportedly encouraging and engaging in behavior that could be seen as an attempt to lower natural inhibitions. Yet, there didn’t appear to be anyone in leadership who understood the ramifications of such. behavior. This in itself is disturbing.
In my former church, similar behavior was encouraged by a youth leader. This included encouraging boys to drop their pants in front of other students along with the leader who was exposing himself to the boys. Yet the pastors laughed it off as normal behavior until, one year later, that youth leaderswas arrested for molesting many young teen boys in the church.
I’m going to ask a hard question. is there any possibility that a boy in the church was molested at any point? I think it would be advisable for the church leadership to consider this possibility and have a third party come into the church to review their procedures. I would suggest GRACE. At the minimum, it would educate the church leadership and members on how to spot and how to respond to grooming behavior.
Although the elders engaged Ford, one reportedly said that he couldn’t trust Ford since he didn’t know him. They need to read my blog a bit more often. First of all, no one really knows anyone unless they are with them 24/7. Even then, people can be fooled. For example, Jerry Sandusky was engaged in molesting boys in locker rooms and at his home which should cause anyone to stop using the excuse of typical locker room behavior. His own wife denied he was molesting boys in their home. She said she would know… except, she didn’t. Its called cognitive dissonance. We have a hard time accepting that we can be fooled. We all like to think we are smarter than the *bad guys.* And the bad guys love our stupid assumptions.
Predators are smart. Sometimes they are smarter than we are. That’s how they successfully engage in their dark behavior. I’m smart enough to know that I could be had by a predator. Today, at Living Hope Baptist Church, there are probably a few unidentified predators lurking in the halls. Predators go where there are trusting adults and lots of kids.And background checks are only effective for the 10% or so who have been caught and convicted.
I challenge the elders at Living Hope Baptist Church to rethink their paradigm. They definitely need to educate themselves because, if they don’t, the youth in their church program are at risk.
Let me throw out one more problem with “We don’t know you so we can’t really trust you” statement. I challenge the elders to find out how many people who come forward with abuse claims are actually lying. Think about it. How many of you would want to call a woman you don’t know to tell your story about a youth leader exposing his private parts? How many of you would like to come into a group of men that you don’t know to describe these actions on the part of their former youth leader? How many of you actually have the guts to do something like Ford did?
Lying in these circumstances is found to be incredibly rare. For example here is one statistic.
98% of child sexual assault reports by children are found to be true.
What is really sad is the number of churches which will ignore such reports when it involves one of their members. Living Hope elders…do you really. believe that someone would come up with a story like this? Please read the Craing Well materials. You will find similar statistics there.
Once again, Ford told me he came forward in order to warn other potential victims as well as to alert the church to possible issues. I believe him. I am also grateful that he saw the problem and attempted to deal with it as a teen. It is my hope that the church will hire an organization that can do more training for the in this area,
I’ve been been writing for 10 1/2 years and I believe Ford’s story and I stand with him coming forward. I also believe that others may come forward after this story is posted. Ford, I am so sorry for what you had to endure at a church as a teen. Thank you for your willingness to come forward to help others. I know it wasn’t easy.