Cincinnati Magazine [Hamilton, OH]

November 3, 2023

By Kelly Blewett

Sarah Stankorb interviews sexual abuse advocate Christa Brown at a free public event November 11 at Wyoming Baptist Church.

Wyoming resident and journalist Sarah Stankorb spent years reporting on abuse within evangelical communities, focusing on how survivors used the internet to call out abuse and to connect with each other. Her work culminated in the publication of Disobedient Women: How a Small Group of Faithful Women Exposed Abuse, Brought Down Powerful Pastors, and Ignited an Evangelical Reckoning (Worthy Books/Hachette). You might have heard about the book, which was featured at the Mercantile Library and on Cincinnati Edition in addition to receiving strong reviews and recently becoming a national bestseller.

A unique event at Wyoming Baptist Church at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 11 brings Stankorb into conversation with Christa Brown, a clergy abuse survivor and retired attorney who is a national advocate for survivors of abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. The event is free and open to the public. Event organizers ask that you do reserve a ticket.

In this interview, Stankorb (above left with Brown) explains what it’s been like to see her book go out into the world and how important Brown’s appearance in Cincinnati is for abuse victims.

Congratulations on the publication of your book! Tell us why you’re excited for this event.

Christa Brown has been the face of the fight for reform within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for a decade and a half, which is not something she wanted or aspired to be. She is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. When she stepped forward, she was treated horribly by SBC leaders, like a tool of Satan. When she started sharing information about abuse within the SBC at large, people attempted to silence her, using the same kind of language as her abuser did when he tried to get her to be compliant. It redoubled her pain.about:blank

She eventually created a database on her own website using public records to prove that rampant abuse within the SBC was real. A decade and a half later, SBC is finally under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, and I truly do not think things would be where they are now without her.

This event is being organized by clergy, specifically Pastor Jason Hentschel, who was moved by the stories of people like Christa and saw an opportunity to amplify these issues and really show the spiritual toll of what she’s been through. The goal is to make churches safer, and that’s all Christa has wanted over the years. She wants real reform, for people to go to church and to be safe and, if abuse happens, to be treated as it should be: a crime.

Your piece about Christa came out in January in Vice. She really has an amazing story.

After interviewing Christa by phone for years, I interviewed her for the book in person where she lives in Colorado. There was something really beautiful about seeing her in her natural environment, near mountains. Something about seeing her near these immovable objects after she’d spent years fighting, there was something powerful about that.

Other survivors have been calling Christa the OG Disobedient Woman. She was the first to document the scale of SBC abuse, and her efforts eventually evolved thanks to a network of later advocates, including the galvanizing force of #churchtoo. Having Christa here in Cincinnati to speak about her experiences is really significant.

What has it been like to see your book be received out into the world?

I’m used to gathering information and trying to put words to really hard stories and then having time to adjust and edit those stories through the writing process. This phase of being an author promoting a book has definitely stretched me and involved more public speaking, whether that’s podcasts or events or even TikTok. Trying to synopsize something that’s kind of obsessed me for years into sound bites is hard, but also seeing people respond has been moving.

I’m receiving responses from people who have had experiences like those detailed in the book. Hearing from them is putting me in a similar position as many of the advocates I wrote about, who absorbed story after story from people through their online work, and now I’m doing the same. I am hearing stories, not for the purpose of writing about them, but just so that people can share their experiences. All of this is providing an extra layer of evidence for me that discussion about abuse in evangelical and Protestant churches is sorely needed.

Can you share a bit about the reception of your book in one community you wrote about, Moscow, Idaho?

There’s a pastor out there, Doug Wilson, who is highly influential nationally and also in the church he founded there. A variety of his teachings concerning gender and power dynamics in marriage have caused a great deal of harm in people’s lives. Folks are very afraid to criticize him or speak out. But the book is one of the top-selling books in the bookstore right around the corner from his church, which I find fascinating.

In fact, the day I launched the book here in Cincinnati, some women in Moscow also held a book launch. These were women that I had interviewed for Vice previously or featured in the book. They got together and invited some trusted friends and read the portions about themselves out loud. As a reporter, that was one of the most amazing things I’ve heard about. I wish I could have been at their book launch too. They felt safe enough to say “This is what it’s really like” in a place where not a lot of people feel safe speaking out.

Looking toward the event with Christa, what kinds of outcomes are you hoping for?

A lot of things! For people who don’t know much about this topic, I’m hoping they can get a glimpse into why it matters so much. For Christa, I hope that being taken seriously and given an audience will continue to bring healing. Being invited to speak as someone knowledgeable, as someone to be taken seriously, is powerful thing for someone other church leaders tried to silence.

There’s something meaningful to me about this event being inside a church that wants to take these issues seriously and be open when so many others have instead covered up or relegated survivors. It also shows an impulse to listen to women through all of it, because sadly a lot of churches aren’t there yet. It shouldn’t be surprising to people that abuse happens in Protestant churches, because it absolutely does. It’s significant to see a person of faith, such as Pastor Hentschel, using the influence he has to bring honesty and healing.

For people who have their own stories of abuse or other challenges, I hope they get something meaningful out of seeing Christa. She’s a retired attorney, and she is so sharp and so smart. Seeing someone who’s skilled and wise and vulnerable at the same time can be a comfort for people who are struggling.