Prophetic Survivors: Kenny Stubblefield
When I ask Kenny Stubblefield about his growing-up years, he doesn’t respond with the Twitter character count in mind. Instead, he answers in winding narratives, stories strung together in a way that he fears will lose me somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t. Every childhood seems to find meaning in a personal anthology.
Kenny met his best friend, Brooks Hansen, at age three. He beat his dad in basketball for the first time at age eleven. And Kenny’s associate youth pastor, Chris Carwile, sexually assaulted him at age sixteen.
It was Thanksgiving weekend 1998. Chris, a recent, college-aged hire to the youth ministry of Immanuel Baptist Church in Germantown, Tennessee asked Kenny to spend the night. Many boys had been invited over to Chris’ house for a sleepover before, but never Kenny. He accepted, and they spent the early part of the evening in the den at the back of Chris’ parents house.
A chapter of innocence in Kenny’s story came to a harsh close as Chris began grooming Kenny by using an illegal satellite hookup to flip to a pornography channel. He let the television linger for a while before pretending to be shocked and turning it off. When Kenny asked if he could sleep on the den sofa, Chris told him that his mom wouldn’t want his sweat to stain the couch. Instead, Kenny needed to share Chris’s waterbed with him.
The first time Kenny woke up to Chris’s hand on his genitals, he assumed it had happened accidentally. Kenny moved Chris’s hand and went back to sleep. Repeated, unwanted touching throughout the night would prove that no such accident had occurred.
As the assaults repeated, Kenny could no longer fall back asleep. He lied awake, his mind, heart, and body a warzone of shock and terror. How could he ever tell anyone and expect to be believed? Chris was a youth pastor and Kenny was just a teenager. Like countless other abuse victims, Kenny resolved to stay silent about what he now refers to as the “soul-murder” that occurred that night.
A Church that Failed
A year later, a page turned. Kenny and Brooks stood talking outside of Brooks’s house, and the conversation eventually led them to disclose to each other that they had both been sexually abused by Chris. So had Michael, Brooks’s brother. They decided the time had come to tell their youth pastor.
When Kenny publicly shared his story in 2016, he wrote, “the pain of the actual abuse pales in comparison to the pain and hurt caused by the dismissive and even active cover-up by our church leaders.” The youth pastor who had hired Chris responded with anger over how this news would harm the youth ministry. Chris was fired, but no legal action or care for abuse victims ever occurred. And the senior pastor, Scott Payne, spoke words that would largely narrate the next two decades of Kenny’s life.
“If you want to be faithful, you’ll be quiet.”
Over the following sixteen years, Kenny fell even deeper into self-doubt. He didn’t know how to trust his instincts anymore. How could he when his soul had screamed to tell someone about his abuse, but the people he told—men in spiritual authority over him—told him to stay silent?
And then, fall 2015 came. Kenny, Brooks, and Michael met at a bar in their hometown. Over the course of their evening, they shared parts of the ensuing abuse cover-up with each other that they’d never discussed before. Kenny, for example, shared that Scott insisted that his abuse never happened, and that, since Michael was homosexual, his abuse was considered consensual sexual activity. This had all apparently come from a letter Chris wrote to Scott.
Michael wrote a letter to Scott with Kenny and Brooks’s input asking Scott if he felt he handled their abuse cases correctly. After three weeks of no response, they learned that Scott had contacted lawyers from the Southern Baptist Convention who told him to “prepare for war.” The Church at Schilling Farms (formerly Immanuel Baptist Church) began aggressively pursuing their merger with Highpoint Church (the church that only recently removed abuser Andy Savage from ministry) while denying knowledge of abuse from the pulpit, deleting information about the merger from websites, and burying the stories beneath land deals and the excitement of a newly forming megachurch.
Taking Voices Back
In 2016, after repeated attempts to address their abuse cases through relevant church leaders, and upon learning that Chris worked for the City of Memphis at the library where he regularly interacted with children, Kenny, Brooks, and Michael went public with their stories through social media.
“Other people who had the power over me in that moment eighteen years ago had controlled the narrative for so long,” Kenny tells me. “My voice and opportunity to share my story had been taken from me. I was in the shadows. I would lay awake at night thinking about kids in 2016 who had been abused and thought no one would ever believe them, because that’s what I thought by the time morning came after the night of my abuse.”
“Taking my voice back was so therapeutic, and after experiencing that healing, I wanted it for others that shared common experiences such as mine,” Kenny says. “This has been the basis of my advocacy since the beginning. I am here for victims to have a shoulder to lean on, to talk with, to give advice on what telling their stories looks like.”
Perhaps Kenny speaks in story because his own has such a powerful arc—the phoenix story of a victim turned survivor and advocate. Kenny wants the voices that feel muted to find their sound again, the hearts languishing in the shadows to warm in the light, the souls murdered to claim resurrection. He minces no words when speaking to the evil of abuse and its effects, nor does he when speaking to the power of survivors testifying to the truth and how churches can be places of safety if they will only, quite simply, choose to be places of safety.
A Way Forward for Churches
Kenny tells me that since sharing his story publicly, many churches have asked him to advise them on security and safety measures. He councils them to schedule a time in a Sunday morning service when the entire leadership team stands on the stage together while the pastor shares that as many one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be sexually abused by the age of eighteen, and that if you are one of them, this church wants to help you and walk with you.
“Which,” he tells church leaders, “is what my heart longed to hear at sixteen.”
Kenny implores ministers to tell their congregations from the pulpit that they will come alongside victims on their journey to becoming survivors. They will believe them. They will help them find and fund therapy. They will not abandon them.
And then he wants them to address abusers in the church and say that the church we will find them, root them out, and call the authorities. “People are sitting in your pews grooming victims. It is not an accident that they become children’s or youth volunteers. You tell them that this is not a safe place for you to murder the souls of people in this church.”
You stand in the pulpit and tell a story about the type of place the church will be.
A Picture of Hope
Only one church has taken Kenny up on this advice so far—a large Southern Baptist Church where a man called Pastor Chuck, his voice deep and country, speaks in keeping with his Marine background and his congregants almost seem to stand at attention. He took to the stage like Kenny encouraged him, tender words comforting the abused, exhortation offering no safety to abusers. And an elderly woman approached him after the service, confiding abuse she’d carried alone for seventy years.
Kenny’s inbox regularly floods with stories of abuse. People tell him the devastating stories they’ve never told, all because told his story first. Kenny says that people are on different paths of surviving, and they all should be given grace for where they are.
“I’m just glad they’re still here. When I say I’m a survivor, I literally mean because I am still here. I’m thirty-seven-years-old and still have breath in my lungs. There are a lot of people who have been oppressed, abused, and marginalized by the church that are no longer here. It’s important to me to use ‘survivor’ not only because I don’t want to be thought of as a victim, but because I literally mean it. I survived my abuse, and I’m still here.”
Kenny’s love for basketball that has been around since childhood is still here too, now seen in his committed Memphis Grizzlies fandom. As we finish up our interview, I ask Kenny what draws him to the sport so much. “It’s poetry in motion,” he says. It’s a story.
The need for thousands more voices to cry out against abuse in the church is still here too. It’s why Kenny can’t stop advocating, or advising churches even when only one has taken his advice. The stakes are too high, the souls and stories too precious.