When I was in seminary, I was not always the nicest person. I was young and grumpy, and sometimes I said and did things that were taken as cruel. I’m not proud of this — I hope that I’ve grown out of a lot of it. But there was one instance that has been on my mind recently, because of current events.
It was a nice evening, a little after supper, and my friend Justin and I were sitting on the steps of the old dorm, talking and laughing. We saw people walk by; sometimes we said hello, other times we were just in our own world. Two people walked by together, a man whose name I forget and a woman whom I’ll call Helen. They were talking animatedly as they walked. They were both people that we found rather annoying, so Justin and I made a joke about them. I don’t recall the joke at all. I’m sure it was dumb, and quite possibly crude. I don’t recall because it just wasn’t important to me.
The next day, I got a phone call from Helen. Apparently she’d heard our little joke, and she demanded an apology. I mumbled something. Later on, I saw Justin, and he told me that he’d gotten a similar call. I found out later that she had accepted Justin’s apology, but not mine. Mine apparently didn’t sound sincere. Fair enough; it wasn’t sincere. I really thought she overreacted, and I wasn’t going to apologize for something so stupid.
A few weeks later, I was called before a faculty panel in the Dean’s office. Helen had contacted the Dean to bring sexual harassment charges against me. All because of that joke. I was floored. It was just a dumb joke. As it turned out, she was not the only one who had spoken to the Dean about me. Another student had also shared a story about some words I’d spoken to her. I didn’t even recall that incident. I tried to defend myself to the Dean and the faculty panel. They tried to tell me how important words are, and how easily they can be heard differently than I intend them.
In the end, I got my wrist slapped. I was told to avoid Helen and the other woman, and to attend an upcoming sensitivity seminar. (I’m pretty sure I actually skipped that seminar in the end.) But what a PAIN. Something so minor, and now my life was affected by it. I was glad when graduation came around, and I wouldn’t have to think about Helen ever again.
About five years later, I was long out of seminary, and working as a Christian Education Director in a church. I was in the process of being commissioned as an Associate in Ministry. (Associates in Ministry, now called Deacons, are people in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who are called and trained for a ministry of word and service. It’s kind of like ordination to a ministry of word and sacrament, and kind of not.) I had gone through a long process of discernment; I had met many times with the candidacy committee, including an intense retreat, and I had finally completed everything I had to do. I’d jumped through all the hoops, dotted all the i’s. The last thing I had to do was have a meeting with the synod bishop. So I drove to his office. He and I had some small talk, and then he said, “I received a phone call from a pastor who knew you in seminary. She said that you had sexually harassed her, and she thought I should know about that before agreeing to commission you.” That pastor, of course, was Helen. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t thought about her in years. Now she was trying to ruin my career. The bishop and I had a long conversation. In the end, I got my wrist slapped again. He wasn’t going to prevent my commissioning, but he made it clear that he’d be watching me. I was very upset, very angry at Helen for stirring this up yet again. I just wanted things back the way they were.
A year or two after that, I attended a mandatory retreat for Associates in Ministry and pastors in their first three years of rostered ministry. We were assigned into small groups for part of the retreat. Guess who was there, and assigned to the same small group as I. Helen walked into the room. She saw me there, and she immediately turned around and walked out. I was stunned. It had been over six years now. How could she still be carrying this grudge? How could this still be affecting her? It was just a dumb joke I made six years ago! I paid no attention to the leader during that small group time. I was completely lost in thought about Helen. My frustration, my anger, my victimhood.
And I made a decision.
I decided that I was going to apologize to her, sincerely this time. Whatever I had done or not done, she was hurt, and I wanted to try to end this. I was going to let go of my pride, and apologize. I just wanted things back the way they were. So after the small group session, I sought her out. I called her name. She turned to me, and said, “What do you want?” The years of hurt were all over her face, dripping from her voice.
I said, “I owe you a long-overdue apology. I’m sorry.”
The frown fell off her face, and she said, “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear,” and she hugged me. We talked for a few minutes, and we sat together at worship that evening. We never became friends. In fact, I never saw her again. She died about seven years after that retreat.
But I learned so much from her, in that one moment at the retreat, that one precious moment of forgiveness. I learned that I don’t get to decide how other people take my actions. I don’t get to decide whether she should or shouldn’t be hurt by my joke, by my insincere apology. That’s up to her, not to me.
And I learned that reconcilation is more important than pride. I have found apologies easier to give since that day. I apologize more quickly, and with more sincerity, and with less need to defend my intentions. And I don’t get as stuck on fighting for my own rights.
And I learned that forgiveness and grace are possible, even after six years. She forgave me, with no hesitation. That moment of forgiveness was a key moment in my journey toward ordination. It was only a few days afterward that I was calling the candidacy committee again, to talk about becoming a pastor.
I screwed up back in seminary. I sexually harrassed a woman. I didn’t see it as problematic at the time, but like I said above, I don’t get to make that call. I hope I’ve learned from it how to better talk about and toward people. And I’ll always know I have the potential to do it again. I can hurt people.
I really don’t know if the wrist-slaps I received were appropriate. Was it true that this was a relatively minor infraction, and therefore didn’t demand any more than that? Or was it that I was the beneficiary of male privilege? Did I just get off the hook for years? I don’t know. I’ll never know the answer to that. But in retrospect, I’m glad that Helen never let up. I’m glad she kept looking for justice, because it took me that long to finally try to see things from her perspective. I’m so sorry for hurting her the way I did, and I’m so grateful for the good that’s come out of it.