It was a normal Sunday, nothing that would make it stand out from the 100s of other Sundays that came before it. But on that particular day, something happened that changed me forever.
I was wearing a red and gold checkered churidar, my favorite one, the one that I wore slightly too often. A churidar is an Indian outfit, typically worn by women and favored because of it’s modesty and comfort. It consists of a dress, pants, and a shawl. Mine was totally on trend, with the bodice being cut short so that it fell just above my knees, a contrast to the one my mother wore that fell at her ankles. It was the epitome of Indian fashion in the early 2000s. Service had just ended and I was anxious to leave soon so that I wouldn’t have to talk to too many people.
I weaved and bobbed my way through the crowd as I headed to the back of the sanctuary trying to find my parents. I smiled and said hello to a few uncles and aunties but I kept moving.
Until he blocked my path. He smiled, like he had 100 times before, called me molay, dear girl, and asked how I was.
I gave him a shy smile and said that I was good. That’s when I noticed him coming closer. Before I could blink or take my next breath, I saw his hand reach out.
He reached out and grabbed me. Down there. Then he squeezed me. Then he let go, and brushed past me.
It happened fast. Lightening fast. Fast enough that his smile never left his face while he did it. Fast enough that not one of the 60-70 people surrounding us noticed.
I stood there for a minute completely stunned and overwhelmed. Then I heard my name as my mom called me and said we were going home.
All these years later, what shocks me the most about that moment is the sheer audacity that he had in touching me in total public. He had no fear of being seen. He had no fear of me screaming. He had NO FEAR.
Why? Because he knew that he would never be caught. He knew that even if I told my parents, which I did, we wouldn’t feel like we could do anything. He knew that he could get away with it, because he had gotten away with it before.
You see, this man that violated me, also molested my friend not long before this incident.
In the years that have passed since both of us were taken advantage of, I cannot imagine the countless number of young girls and boys he has had- and continues to have- access to. My biggest regret in my entire life is that I was not able to be the last person he ever molested.
Some of you may read my description of the incident, and say that it wasn’t a big deal, at least I wasn’t raped. Or that I must be mistaken, he simply brushed his hand against me in the crowd. But I can confidently say that I have been in many crowds, and I have never been brushed like that before that day, or after. When you feel your crotch being squeezed, you know that it is intentional. Sure, it could have been worse, I was lucky that was all he did. But even at that age I knew that if he could do that to me so quickly and casually, he certainly would have no qualms doing much worse in private. And I was right. He has done much worse in private.
Now, I am an immigrant from the Malayalee Pentecostal community. We are from Kerala, a state in South India that prides itself on having one of the largest Christian populations in the country and for having the highest literacy rate in the country. There are multiple Christian denominations present in Kerala, and my family converted to Pentecostalism in the early 1980s. Our culture is mishmash of Malayalee and traditional Pentecostal values. As a whole we are intelligent, industrious, and conservative.
I recently shared a quick description of this on Facebook, joining the chorus of #MeToo. I posted it because I was frustrated that my Malayalee Pentecostal community refuses to talk about sexual abuse in any capacity. I have known too many Malayalee kids who have been sexually abused, and yet never once have I heard of an abuser being held accountable for their actions.
After I posted my status, I received a request to take my post down. Apparently it made me look bad. Apparently it was shameful.
The only thing that is shameful is that you want to silence me. Because you do not want be uncomfortable. You do not want to deal with this problem in the community. You do not want to believe that the person who sits next to you every Sunday is capable of such atrocity.
I’ve been looked dead in the eyes and told by Malayalee aunties and uncles that I would go to hell because I wore nail polish and got my ears pierced. I’ve been told that wearing jewelry and dresses to church makes me unfit to teach Sunday School…yet these same people hear about sexual predators lurking around their churches and they keep quiet.
I am now in seminary, and I work as a full time Children’s Minister in a church in Southern California. We background check every person that volunteers in our Sunday School. We have training where we talk about what it is appropriate touch and speech. To my fellow leaders in Malayalee Pentecostal churches, and other immigrant churches- do you talk about these things with your volunteers? Do you do background checks? Do you vet the people who have spiritual authority over your children? Don’t assume that because most of your volunteers are women you have nothing to worry about. Women have just as much capacity to be sexual abusers, and boys can be targets to be victims. Same sex abuse is also possible.
To immigrant parents of young children- I am fortunate enough to have parents who are profoundly open with me and my sister. My mother talked to me from a very young age about being careful around people, and what I should deem as acceptable touch. I felt comfortable to tell my parents about the incident and I am grateful that they both believed me. They told me not to go near him. At that time that was all they felt they had the power to do.
Parents, please have an open dialogue with your kids. You may think that they are too young, but it is never to early to teach them how they can protect themselves. Make sure that you can be the person that they trust to tell if they have been hurt. Lastly, if your child has the strength and bravery to tell you something happened, please believe them. The disbelief can sometimes hurt more than the abuse itself.
You may ask why I am talking about this more than a decade later. I am talking about it now because I want our communities to stop being afraid of talking about our issues in public. Each time we shove an incident under the rug, we are creating an opportunity for that abuser to abuse another child. The mentality of ‘as long as it’s not my kid’ is disgusting.
The first step is to actually talk about the fact that this is happening in our communities. The next step is to take action. Ideally, these abusers should be in jail. Ideally, they should be on the National Sex Offender Registry. Our children should be able to go to church without seeing the face of their abuser every week. I hope if you are reading this and you have been abused, or you have a child who has been abused, you will feel inspired to tell someone who can help you. Tell the Senior Pastor. Tell the Director of your Children’s Ministry. Tell the police. Tell someone who can protect the other children.
Our immigrant churches are a safe haven for sexual predators. I, for one, am tired of protecting them.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.