Prophetic Survivors: Ruthy Nordgren
Ruthy Nordgren grew up without a television. She dressed in long denim skirts and t-shirts that never showed more than two inches between her collarbone and neckline. Her Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) culture refused to teach children about anatomy or sex. So when Aaron Willand, a teacher at Grace Baptist Christian School in Gaylord, Michigan, molested Ruthy at age twelve and repeatedly raped her at age fourteen, she didn’t have any idea what was happening.
Ruthy's sister, Naomi, knew something was amiss with Willand years before she ever learned of his abusing Ruthy. One day in the early 2000s, Naomi spotted Willand kissing another one of her sisters, whom we'll call Anna, on school property. The Grace Baptist Christian School and Grace Baptist Church shared leadership, so Naomi went to her youth pastor, Derek Hagland to tell him what she saw. He dismissed her claim. Pastors told Naomi’s mother that Naomi was a liar.
Had the pastors believed Naomi, Ruthy could have been spared most, if not all, of the abuse she suffered.
Willand began molesting Ruthy over the course of a few weeks in the summer of 2003 when Anna, who was working for Willand, was out of town. Willand hired Ruthy as a babysitter. He told Ruthy, whose parents had recently divorced, that he wanted to be a father figure to her. He said that all of his actions were normal paternal displays of affection. When Anna returned from her trip, Willand stopped touching Ruthy, which, to a preteen Ruthy, felt like the removal of fatherly attention.
A Journey into the Dark
In the fall of 2003, Willand told Ruthy’s family that a budget cut at the school meant he had to move. With a letter of recommendation from Pastor of Grace Baptist Church and Superintendent of Grace Baptist Christian School Jon Jenkins in hand, Willand and his family relocated to Washington.
Ruthy told herself that whatever it was that had happened, whatever left her feeling so uncomfortable and confused, she could shove it down and let it go. But then Willand and his wife, Amy, called Ruthy’s mom to ask if Ruthy could come to stay with them for two weeks after their baby was born. Willand needed to work, they explained, and Amy would need help. In a way that seemed strange at the time, Amy assured Ruthy’s mom that Willand and Ruthy would never be alone together.
“People often ask me why my mom ‘sent me’ to the Willands and blame her for my abuse. What they don’t understand is that pedophiles groom parents as much as they groom the victim,” Ruthy said. “They gain the trust of parents and know how to manipulate them and make them trust them. I don’t blame my mom at all.”
A few weeks later, after boarding a plane with a ticket Willand had purchased, Ruthy landed in Washington.
“I didn’t fight the idea of the trip or really think anything of it,” Ruthy said. “I honestly didn’t understand the full seriousness of what had previously occurred when I was twelve. I knew it had made me uncomfortable but not that what had happened was wrong in any way. He made me think it was normal affection. I didn’t understand molestation or rape. Not understanding made it possible for it to continue and turn into far worse.”
Willand picked Ruthy up from the airport alone and drove home with his hand on her leg. Over the course of the next two weeks, Willand hardly went to work and spent every minute possible with Ruthy.
Willand raped Ruthy several times a day. He found a way into the locked bathroom while she showered. He woke her up in the middle of the night. He took her with him back to the house during a family outing when he “forgot something” and needed to go get it.
“If you say anything, Ruthy, my kids won’t have a dad,” Willand would say. “And you know what that’s like, don’t you?”
Anytime Ruthy called her mom, the Willands monitored what she said by staying in the room with her. One night during her visit, the wife of a Grace Baptist Church Pastor, Michael Childers, called Amy to catch up. They used a speaker phone so that the husbands could talk as well, and the Willands mentioned that Ruthy was visiting. Michael Childers, who had once walked in on Willand molesting Ruthy’s sister Anna, said and did nothing in response to the news that Ruthy was there in the house with Willand—just like he said and did nothing when he saw Willand with Anna.
The Price of Silence
Ruthy returned home determined not to say anything. She couldn’t describe what had happened to her. She didn’t know what sex, or rape, or abuse was. IFB pastors taught Ruthy to do what adults told her to do. And she couldn’t bear the guilt of depriving the Willand children of their father.
Eventually, though, Ruthy’s mom discovered the truth. Anna learned that Ruthy had gone to Washington alone, and told her mom that she herself had been abused by Willand and feared what may have happened when Ruthy was in Washington.
“Had my older sister not told my mom everything that had happened to her and her fear that he may have done something to me once she found out I went alone to Washington, I would have never said anything out of fear,” Ruthy said.
Ruthy’s mom, desperate to help her daughter, took her to see the person she saw as a shepherd and protector—their Pastor, Jon Jenkins.
Jenkins first asked whether or not Ruthy’s mom intended to sue the church and school. He then said he wasn’t surprised by the information about Willand.
“Well, I’m surprised!” Ruthy’s Mom said. “Why aren’t you?”
“That’s why we let him go,” Jenkins replied.
Jenkins admitted to Ruthy and her mom that Willand had been caught in inappropriate situations with female students during his time at the church and school. None of the students’ parents had been notified. The student body was never told true reasons for Willand’s dismissal. And Jenkins sent Willand to minister in other congregations with a letter of recommendation.
“To me,” Ruthy said, “[the counseling session] just seemed like another day in the life of Jenkins. He wasn’t sympathetic. He was trying to joke, saying things like, ‘f you ever feel like cussing him out, just come see me and you can call him any name in the book.’”
Despite what Jenkins now claims, he did not accompany Ruthy and her mother to the police station. Ruthy and her mom went alone. Ruthy’s mom and a police officer had to explain rape and sexual acts to Ruthy because she didn’t understand the interview questions.
Aaron Willand was charged for the crimes he committed in the state of Washington only. Ruthy’s sheltered world continued to shatter as she wrote a letter to the judge presiding over Willand’s case, begging him to give Willand the maximum sentence because she feared for the safety of his children. Willand pled guilty to four counts of Third Degree Rape of a Child and was sentenced to sixty months in a Washington prison. During his time in prison, Willand declined to participate in sex offender treatment. He was released after thirty-six months for good behavior.
The Cost of Truth-Telling
Meanwhile, back in Gaylord, Pastor Jon Jenkins began to spread rumors about Ruthy. He told congregants and staff members that Ruthy’s doctor told her mom she wasn’t a virgin, which prompted Ruthy to cry rape. He told other congregants and staff members that Ruthy was a troubled girl known for telling lies.
Amy Willand told the friends she’d left behind at Grace Baptist that Ruthy seduced her husband. Teachers and students gossipped about Ruthy at school. In their words, she was rebellious, troubled, and a whore. While wearing a floor-length skirt and t-shirt just like the girls sitting right next to her, Ruthy was kicked out of the church choir for “dressing inappropriately.”
“I didn’t feel worthy of protection,” Ruthy said. “I was already in a single parent home without a father figure to protect me no matter what. And to realize all of these adults—Derek Hagland, Jon Jenkins, Amy Willand, and Michael Childers—could have done something and didn’t makes it all ten times worse.
“That’s been harder for me to get over than the abuse itself. It could have been prevented and for whatever reason—whether it was their reputations or whatever—why they wouldn’t protect someone is beyond me.”
In December 2018, Ruthy shared her story in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram report documenting dozens of cases of abuse in IFB Churches. She didn’t expect the article to reach as far and wide as it has, but she’s glad for the ways the report exposed the IFB pattern of pastors learning about sexual abuse perpetrated by members of their staff then sending them on to work in other congregations without ever notifying parents or authorities about their crimes.
“[When the article was widely read] I thought, ‘Okay well, now this is a thing,’” Ruthy said. “I’m going to stand toe-to-toe with Jon Jenkins. The more people I can warn the better.
“Every kid that has ever spoken out about abuse at Grace Baptist Church has been described by Jon Jenkins as rebellious or backslidden. He squashed our voices so that no one would believe us.”
The Strength to Fight
Determined to reclaim her voice and help others do the same, Ruthy, along with her sister Naomi and some of Ruthy’s fellow survivors of abuse at Grace Baptist, have started the Blind Eye Movement. They host Facebook Live interviews with victims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of pastors, teachers, and members of Grace Baptist Church and Christian School.
According to a recent post, “As of January 16, 2019, six victims of sexual assault could have been prevented completely had Jenkins reported the crimes properly.A total of seven cases of sexual assault and one case of physical abuse was reported to the staff at Grace Baptist Church resulting in zero arrests and zero police reports as well as zero Child Protective Services well-being checks.”
“We’re getting our voices back,” Ruthy said. “We’ve learned of abuse stories that occurred at Grace Baptist as recently as 2017. Jon Jenkins could call me a liar back in the day, but I don’t think he’ll have an easy time explaining away all of us.”
Ruthy plans to seek charges against Willand in Michigan. For the sake of raising awareness, Ruthy and members of the Blind Eye Movement are considering a civil suit against Grace Baptist. If they pursue the suit and win, they intend to donate a portion of the proceeds to help other victims of sexual assault.
A generation of survivors from Grace Baptist are the adults now, and they won’t be staying silent.