As a Teen, Emily Joy Was Abused by a Church Youth Leader. Now She’s Leading a Movement to Change Evangelical America.

#ChurchToo has opened the floodgates.

Mother Jones illustration

The #MeToo stories that were flooding Emily Joy’s social feeds for weeks had been nagging at her. Last November, as her own story played on a loop in her mind, she finally texted a group of close friends: “Do I out my high school abuser? Probably, huh?” 

Joy’s story is familiar in all the ways we’ve become intimately acquainted with over the last six-plus months. But while the accused was a man in a position of power over his victim, her story also had a key difference: Joy’s abuser was a trusted member of her evangelical church. After talking it over with her friends, the 27-year-old poet decided to post to Twitter her story about Ty Sïlzer, the then-thirtysomething man in her mega-church in Peoria, Illinois, who she says manipulated her into a romantic relationship when she was still a teenager.  

“When you’re 16, sometimes you fancy yourself an adult,” Joy tells Mother Jones. “It took me a long time and therapy even to understand, ‘Oh, that’s because I didn’t have an understanding of consent—my church community didn’t have an understanding of consent.'”

“I knew her story point by point, but I was just so overcome with rage after reading it again [on Twitter] and realizing how my closest friend’s story was like thousands of others,” says Hannah Paasch, who was on the text thread Joy started that night and once identified as evangelical. 

A few hours later, after she and Joy texted for a while to come up with a way to invite others to tell their stories online, Paasch issued a call to action: 

When Joy woke up the next day in her home in Nashville, her phone was flooded with notifications. Nearly 1,500 miles away in Phoenix, Paasch was experiencing the same digital deluge. Men and women from all over the world were sharing their stories of sexual abuse in churches, particularly in evangelical houses of worship, using #ChurchToo. Among them was Emiko Ragan, who was in Joy’s high school youth group back in Peoria and used the hashtag to share her story of abuse—by the same man who allegedly abused Joy. When she was 17 and he was in his 30s, Ragan says, the two began a relationship—he said God told him she was meant to be his wife.

(Mother Jones was unable to reach Sïlzer for comment.)

A reckoning has been a long time coming for the evangelical community. Over the last few years, high-profile stories of abuse—like at the global Sovereign Grace Ministries mega-churches, led by prominent pastor and author CJ Mahaney, and about respected movement figures like Donn Ketcham of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism—have started to trickle into public conversation, provoking a critical, but limited, debate about some of the patriarchal theology pushed by the mostly white, heterosexual men who lead the majority of evangelical institutions. But typically, after just a short time, the news cycle has moved on, the controversy has waned, and the men in power have been punished with little more than a rap on the knuckles. 

This time, though, it is different—and Joy’s tweets might very well mark the turning point. The #ChurchToo hashtag has created a virtual place for a conversation about sexual abuse in the church to happen on a scale that’s larger and more open than anything we’ve seen in religious spaces since the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church in the 1990s and early 2000s. And beyond the conversation itself, it’s crucial to look at who is leading it: Joy and Paasch are both young, queer women who no longer identify as evangelical but are dedicated to creating change in a culture that harmed them—and so many women before and after them. Their digital marker has been used thousands of times since Joy’s November post, and it’s even been joined by a #MosqueMeToo hashtag, created by feminist commentator Mona Eltahawy, with which Muslim women are speaking out about sexual abuse on hajj and within their own houses of worship. 

Evangelicals and “exvangelicals”—folks who used to identify as evangelical but have since left the church—are now taking the opportunity to grapple with the church’s traditional gender roles, its emphasis on sexual purity, and, perhaps above all, how to make churches safe. Blog posts are being written, Christian podcast episodes are being recorded, live-streamed discussions about sexual abuse in the church are being organized—many of which would’ve been impossible just a year ago. And the conversations are taking place IRL, too. In April, a Methodist church in Texas held a #ChurchToo conference to address sexual abuse (although anyone interested had to purchase a ticket to attend), and in December, Paasch organized a meetup in the Phoenix area for survivors who want to talk through their experiences. She and Joy are currently discussing how to set up a speaking series on #ChurchToo and what programming for such events would look like. They’re also presenting a session on the #ChurchToo movement at the faith-based, social justice-focused Wild Goose Festival in July. 

And finally, little by little, there have been real consequences: A pastor who allegedly sexually abused women for decades was dismissed from his Oregon church in March. Rachael Denhollander, an evangelical and one of the first women to publicly accuse USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, is now forcing the issue of child sex abuse at Sovereign Grace churches back into the spotlight long after the story faded from national attention a couple years ago—prompting loud, insistent calls for accountability. Pastor Mahaney of Sovereign Grace dropped out of the T4G (Together for the Gospel) conference this year, due to, he said in a statement, “the recent, renewed controversy.” (Sovereign Grace denies that it mishandled allegations of abuse and said in a statement to Mother Jones that the denomination “recognize[s] the critical importance of treating child sexual abuse seriously” and has taken steps to “better understand and address the risk of sexual abuse.”) Then at Willow Creek Community Church, a mega-church in the Chicago suburbs, the Reverend Bill Hybels stepped down as pastor in March after 42 years amid misconduct allegations from at least six women that include “suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms,” the Chicago Tribune reported in a recent investigation. Beyond that, the church is also launching its own investigation into Hybels’ misconduct and into the ways it mishandled the allegations. (In a statement to the congregation, Hybels said, “I’ve been accused of many things I simply did not do,” but he acknowledged that “I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”)  The list goes on

“I knew that it would blow up because the stories are out there; I’ve been hearing them for years,” Paasch says. “But I think how big it became just further solidified what a huge issue this is in the evangelical American church.”

For young evangelicals, learning about sexuality and gender typically starts during childhood and early teenage years. But it’s a very narrow view of sexuality that’s based predominately on “purity culture”—a product of the way sexual purity and traditional gender roles are asserted in Christian circles. This is particularly powerful in white evangelical churches, specifically because its gospel has become deeply intertwined with the idea of sexual purity as the foundation of a healthy, nuclear family.

Paasch says purity culture writings were the “textbooks” she and other young Christians relied on growing up—the Secret Keeper series, created by Dannah Gresh, whose philosophy about modesty has become an empire of speaking engagements, books, and “truth or bare” quizzes, and I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl by Joshua Harris—who has since said he is “re-evaluating” his books on abstinence and lust. Texts like his encourage the idea of “courtship,” or dating with the eventual goal of a “godly” marriage in mind, which some dedicated readers have cited as a reason to not even kiss a romantic partner before marriage. But Paasch, like so many other women, struggled to fit into the mold she felt was prescribed by this culture.

“I hated myself for that,” she recalls. “I hated that I couldn’t make myself smaller and more modest and more gentle and quiet and all of the things the evangelicals expect women to conform to.”

Listen to author Becca Andrews talk about the #ChurchToo movement on the Mother Jones Podcast:

This is part of what has made abuse so rife—and so hidden—in the church. Purity culture teaches sexual and emotional purity before marriage as an ultimate moral achievement and places an incredibly high value on virginity—female virginity, in particular. Abstinence programs like True Love Waits (which rebranded in 2014 to become the True Love Project) and the Silver Ring Thing (a two-hour live performance with music, speakers, and dramatizations that culminates in a decision to commit one’s life and body to Christ, symbolized by donning a silver ring) perpetuate the Christian gender roles that consider women sexual gatekeepers and men as slaves to their unquenchable desires. Another popular Christian book, for instance, is titled Every Young Man’s Battle. Unsurprisingly, these programs and texts teach that women are made to be subservient to men, in the way that Christians are meant to serve God, and these biblical gender roles are the key to having a healthy, heterosexual, and holy sexual relationship. Popular evangelical theologian John Piper, for example, recently came under fire for his comments on his Desiring God podcast that sexual abuse is a result of “the egalitarian assumptions in our culture.” That sentiment is not exactly unique. 

“When you’ve got objectification of women, when you’ve got the sexualization of all touch, when you’ve got male leadership and weird female modesty codes, when you’ve got anti-LGBTQ theology, when you’ve got virginity worship, when you put a bunch of people in an environment like this and make them oppress their sexuality in this way, it’s creating a situation…that’s ripe for [abuse],” Joy says. 

This all leads to murky dynamics that disregard consent, a problem Dianna Anderson explores in her 2015 book on purity culture, Damaged Goods. “[Women in the church] are supposed to be the gatekeepers in that we’re taught that men will always push and always want to have sex, and so it’s our job to say no,” Anderson says. “But they never teach how to say ‘yes,’ or what an actual enthusiastic consensual ‘yes’ looks like, so the only thing we’re taught is to say no.”

Anderson argues this contributes to men in the church having a skewed understanding of consent—they, she notes, read the “‘yes’ that was wheedled out of” their sexual partner as true consent. Or women, she adds, “are instructed that they just didn’t say no hard enough, or they didn’t fight back hard enough, and that’s a recipe for rape culture, because men are told that they will be driven totally by their desire for sex and women are the ones that have to stop them.” 

“If women are unable to stop them, then it’s the woman’s fault,” Anderson concludes.

Purity culture can often result in trauma, even outside of sexual abuse cases. Jamie Lee Finch, a Nashville-based integrative holistic health coach who specializes in helping people who have been harmed by its constructs, says that as the conversation around #MeToo and #ChurchToo has grown, so has her clientele—nearly double what she used to see. 

“If you can find [the hashtag], you can read someone else’s story. Suddenly, you have a bit more permission to own your own story, because you now have language for what happened, and you also have language to validate the fact that what happened to you wasn’t okay,” Finch says. “Because it’s so much easier for us, often, to look at someone else and say, ‘Holy shit, I’m so sorry that happened to you. That’s not okay.’ We have that internal thermometer that sets more accurately for other people’s experiences, because it’s so hard to qualify your own trauma. When it comes to #ChurchToo, you have so many people because of this specific authoritarian indoctrination of evangelical Christianity. It literally builds within you an inability to validate your own personal experience, because everything is supposed to be sacrificed on the altar of obedience.”

Making things even more complicated for survivors is that this culture of purity has created an environment in which, at least in some cases, people simply believe that sexual assault or misconduct cannot happen within it. What someone outside the church might consider misconduct is rather a sin that needs to be forgiven—not a crime. Leaders tout forgiveness as the ultimate answer.

“Evangelicals, despite how much they talk about sin, believe that if somebody is quote-unquote following God’s plan for sexuality, then sexual assault won’t ever be a part of it,” Anderson says. “They don’t account for the fact that people will use that language to prey on vulnerable people, so they don’t develop structures, they don’t know how to deal with it, and they are primed to disbelieve women when they come forward about it and frame it as a sin issue rather than a legal, criminal matter.”

This question of leadership structure is another key issue several sexual assault survivors who spoke to Mother Jones point to as problematic. Mega-church pastors are not merely men—and it is mostly men in that position; they reach a powerful status where they are worshipped as godly celebrities. They don headsets to preach; their faces are projected onto massive screens that hang on either side of the stage they pace around. A band plays behind them; lights dim and brighten on cue. The atmosphere is more akin to a pop concert than a sermon. 

Then there’s a larger-scale problem: There are few if any checks on their power.  Many mega-churches are nondenominational, so they are governed by the pastors themselves rather than a board or a council, though some do have elders—as compared with the Catholic Church, a single entity with a clear structure. Over the years, Christianity has become increasingly fractious, splitting into multiple denominations and subsects that continue to splinter amid conversations about LGBTQ inclusion, gender equality, and modern culture. It’s much harder to create a cohesive way to address an institutional problem when there’s more than one institution involved.

For Brooks Hansen, these factors combined to create an overwhelming sense of shame. He was silent for nearly a year before he told anyone else about his assault, and decades passed before anything substantive was done about it.

“Molesting a child is a sin from a biblical perspective, yes, but it also comes with a legal condemnation,” Hansen says. “Where the church is failing victims is that they decide they can handle it in-house because they look at it like sin and not a crime.” 

It was in the late ’90s when Brooks Hansen, his brother Michael, and their friend Kenny Stubblefield were teenagers and active in their youth group at Immanuel Baptist Church in Germantown, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis. They were all sexually abused by the same man from their church. 

It happened to Brooks Hansen first, the youngest of the three. “You know when you’re 15 and you’re desperate to fit in, and this early-20s college guy had been brought in with dyed hair, and he was put in charge of the drama program,” he remembers. “Everybody loved him—if he liked you, you were popular in the youth group.”

Some of the members of that youth group were hanging out at the church late one night—Hansen thinks it was probably a “fifth quarter” gathering, during which teenagers go to their church after a school football game to eat pizza and socialize. Early the next morning, Hansen had been planning to attend another youth event at the church, but he was having trouble securing a ride. Then, Hansen alleges, Chris Carwile, an intern who was charged with running the youth group’s drama program (although some members of the church have described him as an associate youth pastor) told Hansen that if he crashed with him that night, he would bring him back to the church the next morning.

So Hansen headed with Carwile to the house he shared with his parents. According to Hansen, the two watched television on the couch, and Carwile casually flipped through the channels until he found pornography. “Oh man, sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,” he said to Hansen.

As it started to get late, Brooks suggested he sleep on the couch or on the floor. Carwile told him that his mother would be upset if Brooks messed up the furniture or carpet, so it was decided that he and Hansen would share Carwile’s waterbed. Around 2 a.m., Hansen says he woke up to Carwile’s hand down his pants. “I was absolutely frightened and not sure what to do, and I was embarrassed,” he says. “I thought I might be dreaming, and I acted like he startled me awake so I turned onto my stomach.”

A couple of hours later, Hansen awoke to Carwile groping him again, but this time, he ejaculated. “I just laid there, wet and cold,” he says. “I was so shell-shocked, I didn’t know what to do.” Eventually, he got out of bed to clean himself off, stealing a clean pair of boxers from the laundry room. The next morning, Carwile acted like nothing had happened, and Hansen followed suit.

Carwile allegedly groped Hansen a second time, at a friend’s sleepover six months later, but stopped after he threatened to scream. After that night, “it never happened to me again,” he says.

A year or so later, Stubblefield was hanging out at the Hansens’ house. They talked in circles, dancing around the real problem for a while but broadly expressing their anger with Immanuel Baptist’s youth group. Carwile’s name eventually came up. “I’m so angry at that guy,” Hansen spat. Stubblefield raised his eyebrows. “Is this because of what he’s been saying about you?”

Stubblefield told Hansen that Carwile had told church leadership and even some of their peers that he caught him masturbating to porn the night Hansen had stayed over at Carwile’s house, stealing a pair of boxers to ejaculate into. Stubblefield says that later he heard Carwile had spread similar rumors about him, as well. 

“Chris molested me,” Hansen blurted out, his face reddening. Stubblefield stared at him. “Oh my God, that happened to me too,” he said quietly. Hansen’s brother, Michael, had recently had an obvious falling-out with Carwile. The two called him, and Michael confirmed he had also been assaulted.

The next day, Stubblefield told his father, and Brooks Hansen talked to the youth pastor, who responded by telling them that his wedding was in a week and Carwile was one of the groomsmen. “Are you trying to ruin my wedding?” he asked. 

Hansen and Stubblefield were instructed not to speak to Carwile or about the incidents to anyone else, and Carwile was later quietly dismissed from the church. Brooks Hansen and Stubblefield now say they never considered going to the police; they trusted the institution they belonged to would protect them. Michael Hansen says he briefly considered it, but the fear of being outed as gay and sent to conversion therapy held him back.

In the following years, all three men struggled with depression. Michael Hansen attempted suicide. Stubblefield says his encounter with Carwile was his first sexual encounter, and he felt the repercussions of that experience reverberate through toxic relationships in his 20s.

Eighteen years later, in October 2015, the three men sat in a dimly lit bar after a University of Memphis football game, recounting everything that had happened to them over beers. Eventually, they decided to look Carwile up, and they discovered he was an employee at the city library. They filed a police report, but the statute of limitations had expired. Michael Hansen wrote a letter to the pastor of their old church asking for answers; he says he received a reply that said the pastor hoped Hansen could “find forgiveness in your heart for those who have disappointed you in the past.” After a city investigation, Carwile was fired from his position at the Memphis Public Library. Mother Jones has not been able to reach Carwile for comment. 

When the #ChurchToo hashtag was created, Brooks Hansen saw an opportunity to use his experience to let other victims know they are not alone.

Hansen and Stubblefield say the #ChurchToo movement’s power is in the opportunity to finally speak out against enablers and abusers who have been able to silence their victims for so long and to provide support for survivors, despite the stigma that still persists within congregations. They recall threats that were made against them and their families when they went public as adults in 2015, and how hard it was to weather the storm without a community of survivors. Through #ChurchToo, they can assure others that they are not, in fact, alone. 

“You see so many of the extreme measures people are willing to take to silence victims and keep these things quiet so they can remain in power, and it takes people on the other side who are just as committed to giving voice to victims,” Hansen says. “That’s the only way this [reckoning] will continue, is if people like us are able to firmly plant our feet in the sand and say, ‘I’m not backing down.'” 

He now uses the hashtag to talk about the power structures that exist in churches that can lead to abuse under the wrong circumstances. Although his story did not get much attention beyond local media when the men first went public, a year later it would propel forward another case that would make national headlines. 

In November, when 37-year-old Jules Woodson saw a tweet from Andy Savage, the prominent pastor from Highpoint Church in Memphis, condemning Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct, she decided to email him to ask if he remembered that night—the night, she says, when he was supposed to drive her home, when he sexually assaulted her. 

As Woodson waited for a response, she came across a blog post by Michael Hansen about his abuse decades earlier at Immanuel Baptist, which eventually became known as the Church at Schilling Farms. Around the time the Hansen brothers and Stubblefield were asking church leadership about how their abuse was handled, the Church at Schilling Farms was in the process of merging with Savage’s church, Highpoint. Hansen’s post quoted Savage, talking to the Highpoint congregation: “There’s nothing sinister going on at the Church at Schilling Farms. Nothing bad’s taking place. I assure you. Here’s what’s going on: God has orchestrated two great churches to come together and do something better than we could have done on our own.” 

“I couldn’t believe it. I felt sick to my stomach,” Woodson says.

She felt she had no choice but to share her story. “I’ve been praying since before I even sent the email to Andy on December 1 that God would guide me and direct me and that He would speak truth through me,” she says. “I have had a real peace personally that He’s had his hand in this from day one.”

Then, on a Friday afternoon in December, the #ChurchToo hashtag appeared alongside a new one: #JusticeForJules. In a blog post for a Christian watchdog site called The Wartburg Watch, Woodson alleged that 20 years ago, when she was 17, Savage was driving her home and went off course, saying he “had a surprise” for her. At the time, Savage was the youth pastor at the Texas church Woodson grew up in, and in the years since, he went on to become a rising star in the evangelical community for his books and sermons on sex, marriage, and parenting. Woodson says she assumed he was taking her to get ice cream—until they reached a dead end and he parked his truck. He groped her and pressured her to perform oral sex, and when it was over, he got out of his truck, ran to her side, fell to his knees, and begged her forgiveness. “Oh my God, oh my God. What have I done? Oh my God, I’m so sorry. You can’t tell anyone, Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you,” she remembers him saying. Woodson says she told her pastor at the time and her female discipleship group of the assault. She says the pastor simply told her not to speak to Savage, but after she told her discipleship group, one of the girls told a parent about her story. Not long after, according to Woodson’s account, Savage left the church. No official statement was made by the church about his departure, and a goodbye party was thrown for him. 

The Sunday morning after Woodson’s allegations were published online, Savage addressed the allegations in front of the entire Highpoint congregation. The church band played slow, stirring music as he spoke:

As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church. I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. In agreement with wise counsel, I took every step to respond in a biblical way…When this happened 20-plus years ago, I did everything I knew to do under the counsel I was given to cooperate with those involved, to repent of my sins, take responsibility for my actions, and seek forgiveness. I never sought to cover this up.

Savage received a standing ovation from the congregation for his confession, in which he repeated the phrase “20 years ago” four times. Senior pastor Chris Conlee, who had warmly introduced Savage that Sunday, referenced the time element four additional times in his follow-up comments about the cycle of sin and forgiveness and the pitfalls of “throwing stones.”(Savage tells Mother Jones that Woodson’s account does not line up with his recollection—he describes the encounter as “organic.” “I was young at the time. I don’t deny what essentially happened that night in the car—I’ve been pretty open about that,” he says. “There’s never been any effort to cover anything up or hide anything.”)

Woodson’s story and Highpoint’s response quickly became the main topic of conversation on the #ChurchToo hashtag, lasting for months; it was the first case against such a high-profile man to surface in the space. This story also firmly pushed the digital conversation into real-world action. After the Sunday sermon, the #ChurchToo community called for Savage’s resignation, and in the following weeks, they tweeted at his publisher to drop his upcoming book, titled The Ridiculously Good Marriage.

Within a week, Christian publishing company Bethany House canceled the book’s July publication. In a move that would have been previously unthinkable, Savage was placed on leave from Highpoint pending an investigation. Larry Cotton, the pastor Woodson reported the alleged assault to when she was a teenager, resigned from his position at a church in Austin, Texas. #ChurchToo tweeters also discovered plans for Savage to speak at 7000days, a parenting conference scheduled for April at Highpoint, and tweeted at the church and conference organizers to cancel his appearance. In January, they canceled the entire conference. 

Savage is critical of the #ChurchToo movement and says he sees #MeToo as a “more biblical response” than its evangelical-focused counterpart. “I was encouraged by what’s coming out of the #MeToo movement, the sense of seeking a balanced voice,” he says. “I feel like the #ChurchToo movement, what little I’ve seen and what’s been related to me, is that there’s not a real effort to seek a balanced voice in terms of all sides of the issue. It feels, at least from my perspective, it feels very aggressive and very attacking.” 

Perhaps that’s unsurprising given that on March 20, Savage announced his resignation from Highpoint Church. The church released the following statement: “While the investigation found no other instances of abuse in Andy’s ministry, the leadership team at Highpoint Church agrees that Andy’s resignation is appropriate…Highpoint leadership has come to recognize that it was defensive rather than empathetic in its initial reaction to Ms. Jules Woodson’s communication concerning the abuse she experienced, and humbly commits to develop a deeper understanding of an appropriate, more compassionate response to victims of abuse.”

It was the first time the church publicly acknowledged what happened to Woodson as abuse. She called the announcement “a step in the right direction,” but also worries this will be seen as a resolution, despite an overwhelming cultural problem that continues regardless of what happens to Savage going forward.

“There is a systemic problem within the institution of the church that props people up in places of power and gives them immunity based on cheap grace and a call for forgiveness,” she wrote to Mother Jones. “This has bred a culture ripe for abuse and cover-up. Repentance, accountability and justice should not be contrived.”

Joy also feels confident in the #ChurchToo movement, following the actions taken to remove Savage from a position of power, but she has concerns similar to Woodson’s. “Andy Savage had to resign because of the activism we did on the hashtag,” she says. “I think it’s changing things for the victims and for how people perceive the church, but it’s not just about how you respond to sexual abuse after it happens; it’s about changing the culture that leads to and rewards sexual abuse.”

Like many of her peers, Woodson blames the insular structure of these institutions for enabling her assault. “There are a lot of checks-and-balance systems missing,” Woodson says. But instead of leaving the church, as some of her fellow survivors have, she is hoping to find ways to change it.

“I’ve forgiven these people a long time ago,” she says. “But the fact remains that of course, the church should be one of the safest places to be.”