ARLINGTON, Texas (ABP) — A sometimes-controversial black Southern Baptist preacher recently honored an also-outspoken advocate for victims of sex abuse by Baptist clergy.
The Phoebe Award is named for a woman mentioned in the Book of Romans as "a servant of the church" and "helper of many." McKissic's church gives it to a woman "who has made a difference in our world" or "someone who stands up for truth and right," said Veronica Griffin, Cornerstone's minister of communications and special events. She said the award is presented every three to five years.
Brown is former Baptist outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support-and-advocacy group formed in 1989 in response to Catholic pedophilia scandals but with a focus that has expanded in recent years to clergy sexual abuse in other denominations. Brown tells her personal story of sexual abuse at the hands of a Baptist youth minister when she was a teenager — and of decades later tracking the perpetrator down and finally getting him removed from the ministry — in a book titled This Little Light.
After hearing from others with similar experiences, Brown set out to pressure the Southern Baptist Convention to set up safeguards like an independent panel where individuals could report abuse and a database of ministers guilty or credibly accused of sexual abuse.
For her efforts Brown and other leaders of SNAP have been publicly branded by prominent SBC leaders as "evil doers," "just as reprehensible as sex criminals" and "nothing more than opportunistic persons who are seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain."
Time magazine ranked the Southern Baptist Convention's refusal to create a database of child molesters one of the 10 most under-reported stories of 2008. More recently a review of Brown's book appeared overseas in The Times Literary Supplement. A translation just out in the Paris publication Books magazine carries the headline, "L’Église baptiste, paradis des pedophiles," French for, "The Baptist church, paradise for pedophiles."
A Cornerstone Baptist Church press release said Brown "works tirelessly to protect the next generation of innocent girls from abuse by Baptist pastors and clergy."
"Although Ms. Brown has been disrespected, shunned and treated harshly by some in the Baptist family, she has chosen to take her abuse, hurt and shame and turn it into an opportunity to protect other women and girls from the same abuse, hurt and shame," the release continued. "Realizing that not all Baptist preachers are predators, Ms. Brown desires to make parents aware of predators while educating the parent to become more aware and savvy in protecting their children."
"She deserves to receive dignity, honor and acknowledgment for her life's mission to protect others from clergy sexual abuse and change the Baptist infrastructure so that children and families are safe," the release concluded.
Brown, an appellate lawyer now pursuing a Ph.D. at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said that traveling to Texas to accept the award was the first time — except for funerals — she had set foot in a Baptist church in more than 30 years.
"I am grateful to the people of Cornerstone Baptist Church and to Rev. Dwight McKissic for the message of hope they have sent in the making of this award," Brown said. "Like many other clergy sex-abuse survivors, I yearn for a day when kids in Baptist churches will be a great deal safer, and when abuse survivors will be heard with compassion and care."
"As Dr. McKissic so wisely recognizes, the work of protecting against clergy predators is not work that attacks the church but work that seeks to serve the church," she said.
"Though the stories of clergy sex abuse survivors may be deeply troubling, in truth, we bring a gift to the faith community. Our stories may serve to illuminate the care that is needed for the faith community itself, so that Baptists may bear a more faithful witness in the world and may become more true to their own vision of who they are."
McKissic is no stranger to controversy. He was forced to resign as a trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after saying in a chapel sermon that he uses a "private prayer language," a practice common among Pentecostal and charismatic groups but controversial for many Southern Baptists.
More recently McKissic proposed amending the Southern Baptist Convention's constitution to exclude churches that support "racial discrimination and bigotry in any form" and called for a resolution apologizing for the convention's mistreatment of women.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.