Prophetic Survivors: Jules Woodson
On a weekday evening in Jules Woodson’s backyard, you’ll find her three young daughters playing with Pongo, their Dalmatian named for the leading pup in 101 Dalmatians. The barefooted girls and Pongo play leapfrog over a cracked concrete path to land on velvety grass. Serenaded by a symphony of giggles and barks, Jules harvests lettuce and carrots from her garden.
Just as Jules and her daughters bask in this moment of lighthearted joy, they’ve also sat in moments of sadness. When Jules’s story of pastoral sexual abuse became public earlier this year, her daughters would sometimes find her weeping.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” they would say, an offer of comfort from tiny voices. “Why are you crying?”
Jules told her daughters that her tears came both from having been hurt by someone and from the relief of releasing a burden she’d carried for a long time. By sharing her story, she explained, she got to help others.
Just as Jules wants her daughters to giggle carefreely in the grass, she wants them to grasp that God stands on the side of the vulnerable. She knows from experience that the institutional church regularly does not.
When her youth pastor, Andy Savage, gave a teenage Jules special attention, she confided in him about her parents’ divorce and about receiving unwanted sexual attention. Jules trusted Andy, and why wouldn’t she? He was her pastor.
One night, Andy offered to drive Jules home after spending time with her and other students at the church. But Andy passed the street leading to Jules’s mom’s house and took an unfamiliar turn. Jules assumed they were going to get ice cream. Instead, Andy drove down a dirt road until he reached a dead end. He stopped the car, unzipped his jeans, and asked Jules to perform oral sex on him.
“Scared and embarrassed,” Jules complied, feeling that this moment must mean Andy loved her. Afterwards, Andy begged Jules not to tell anyone what had happened, but she mustered up the courage to tell their associate pastor, Larry Cotton, who said he would handle the situation. Over the following weeks and months, leadership completely ignored Jules, implying she bore as much guilt as her youth pastor. Then they held a celebratory going away party for Andy (who was rumored to have “kissed a girl”). Andy went on to pastor elsewhere for nineteen years.
Despite the trauma of her grooming and sexual assault, subsequent silencing by church leaders, and the countless accusations lobbed at her since the story broke, Jules easily makes my personal list of the most hopeful people I have ever encountered. She feels “encouraged by the bravery being displayed as more and more victims are taking back their voices and sharing their stories.”
A storyteller herself, Jules tirelessly models honest discussion of bodies, boundaries, and systems of power wherever she goes. She tells her daughters that if they ever get a bad feeling in their tummies about something someone says or does to them, like the feeling they get when they do something wrong and need to come clean, they should come tell her. She wants her girls to know that their consciences exist as much for honoring the bodies and souls God gave them as they do for prompting them to confess personal sin.
Jules’s voice quivered with intertwined pain and passion when the New York Times asked her to respond to a statement from Andy Savage. Today, she exhorts church and ministry leaders to work with organizations like GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), which empowers the Christian community through education and training to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse.
And she continues to write and speak when slanderers call her a whore out to make money off of her story, or say they want to smash her face with a shovel. Regardless of opposition, Jules tells her story of pain, shame, and injustice so that others—whether her own daughters or her brothers and sisters in the church—might be spared a similar horror.
“Tackling the problem is hard and calls for actual action towards accountability and justice,” Jules says. “When we sensationalize a scandalous story and then let it fade from memory, we tend to categorize it as an isolated event. Cases of clergy sexual abuse should not be looked at as just isolated incidents. The reality is far more dismal. Failure to recognize that the institution of the church needs a major overhaul in how it handles clergy abuse has only served to perpetuate the problem by creating a safe place for perpetrators.”
Even still, Jules has not lost hope for the church. She clings to the certainty of God’s love and promises. She takes heart in ongoing conversations about preventing and responding to clergy sexual abuse. And she thinks upon whatever is true, lovely, and admirable – like the church becoming a place where the vulnerable find care and safety.
Some Saturdays, Jules tells her daughters its dance party time, and they go get their JoJo Siwa Hair Bows while Jules cues up the playlist. The girls climb onto the kitchen table and sing along to “Boomerang” while Jules videos their signature moves. After a few songs, Jules turns on one of the girls’ favorites movies, The Secret Life of Pets, because she needs to take a phone call with another survivor.
The girls complain a bit; they’d really rather keep dancing. But soon enough, they come around. They’re pretty proud to have a mom who gets to help people by telling her story.