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The cost of coming forward: One survivor's life after #MeToo

GREENSBORO — Megan Lively glanced down furtively to the copious notes she had jotted in a thick spiral-bound notebook resting in her lap.

She was about to speak to a room full of Southern Baptist pastors about the sexual abuse she experienced, and she was nervous.

Her message to more than 50 male pastors sitting in a conference room during the annual meeting of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina earlier in November was both tremulous and full of conviction: When a woman comes forward alleging abuse, listen to her. Don’t try to fix it. Be more like Jesus.

For Lively, speaking publicly about her sexual assault 16 years ago on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is still stressful.

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It’s been a year and a half since she revealed she was the woman who was encouraged by Paige Patterson, then president of the seminary, not to report her rape by a fellow student to the police.

That allegation, cited by leaders of a Southern Baptist seminary, helped get Patterson, once a revered figure in the Southern Baptist Convention, fired as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, last year. It also helped move the Southern Baptist Convention toward a reckoning with sex abuse.

Lively, who is now married with two children and runs a social media consulting business for small and midsize churches, does not revel in the spotlight.

In September, she spoke at the Caring Well conference, in which the denomination invited abuse survivors to tell their stories. In the new year, she plans to speak at half a dozen other SBC-affiliated venues.

But public speaking is not a role she relishes. She has just emerged from a harrowing year in which she faced a trauma she had buried deep inside for more than a decade. She’d much rather be known for her social media company Relevant Reach. She also understands there’s no turning back.

“I’m willing to share what happened to me if it helps somebody else,” Lively said.

The multifaceted sexual abuse scandal within America’s largest Protestant denomination has made household names of several Southern Baptist women who have come forward in recent years with stories of clergy misconduct and of church officials failing to respond. Lively, now 40, doesn’t want that kind of recognition.

“Contrary to what some may believe, I’m not a fan of the principles of the #MeToo movement,” she told pastors assembled at the abuse crisis panel in Greensboro last week. “I wasn’t empowered or motivated by the #MeToo movement or by a hashtag. I don’t find power in women standing up and saying ‘I was sexually assaulted.’ I grieve when that happens.”

Lively is trying to walk a middle path. She does not want to come off as an angry feminist trying to pull down powerful men. She was raised to respect her elders and look up to authority. She and her husband, Vincent Lively, are faithful churchgoers at Peace Church in her hometown of Wilson, N.C. Some of the people she most respects are Southern Baptist men. But after the dozens of reports of sexual abuse in the church, she also wants to help her denomination do the right thing. In this, she has become a reluctant speaker.

Megan Lively felt a call to Christian ministry when she was 16.

The daughter of a Realtor and a psychologist, Lively grew up in Wilson, an old tobacco town about 40 miles east of Raleigh, the state capital. Her family attended Grace Baptist, and like them, she loved church.

After graduating from Campbell University, Lively wanted to continue studying Christianity and in 2002, she enrolled at Southeastern to pursue a Master of Divinity degree in women’s studies, a program started by Dorothy Patterson, Paige Patterson’s wife.

By then, Paige Patterson cemented his role as the architect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative turn with its embrace of biblical inerrancy, the belief that the Bible is without error. In 1992, Patterson was named president of Southeastern in Wake Forest, N.C.

But he wasn’t quite done. In 2000, Patterson and his wife led the SBC to revise its doctoral statement to codify traditional gender roles. The revised statement now includes a sentence declaring that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband,” and another that declares the office of pastor is limited to men.

Around that time, Dorothy Patterson started the master’s program intended to educate women about their biblical role as wives and mothers. Lively, like many in the denomination, admired the Pattersons. As a woman, she knew she couldn’t be a pastor but her calling was not to preach from the pulpit anyway.

Once on campus, she found the master’s program was not as rigorously academic as she had hoped And she was also one of only a handful of single women on campus.

Still, she went to classes and studied. The following year she began dating a student.

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Lively won’t go into details about that fateful evening. It’s still too raw. But the man she had been dating for a few weeks sexually assaulted her, she said.

The following morning, she reported a nonconsensual sex act to a campus student office. She was immediately called and questioned by Paige Patterson. She recalls him asking for the precise details and then suggesting she was at fault for inviting a male student to her room. She was asked to forgive her assailant and advised not to report it to the police.

“I remember feeling very ashamed,” she said.

Southeastern placed Lively on probation; she can’t remember why. It may have been for allowing the male student to her room. The school also took disciplinary action against her alleged attacker.

With that, the matter appeared closed. And so, it seemed, was her call to ministry.

During the 15 years that followed, Lively told no one what happened.

She withdrew from Southeastern to care for her ailing grandfather and took jobs in banking and marketing. She married Vincent, an insurance agent, and became a mother. The couple became members of Peace Church, a large congregation in Wilson dually aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Free Will Baptists.

Then, in the spring of 2018, while scrolling through her social media feed, Lively began to read about mounting criticisms of Paige Patterson. A recording surfaced of Patterson saying he counseled abused women to remain with their husbands. In a video, he was seen objectifying a teenage girl and criticizing the physical appearance of female seminary students.

The stories sparked flashbacks and mounting feelings of anger. One evening after Lively’s son and daughter were asleep, she had an argument with her husband. He asked her what was wrong. She told him about the assault at Southeastern.

“Megan, you were raped,” he said.

“‘No. I wasn’t,” she blurted out, still struggling with the denial.

“I was still that little girl under the control of the Pattersons,” she said later.

But the flashbacks, insomnia and anger she was experiencing were signs that what she had repressed was coming back into focus.

“In a religious system, survivors often lack the vocabulary to name (sexual abuse) as a crime,” said Susan Codone, a professor in the School of Engineering at Mercer University who experienced sexual abuse as a teen. “You don’t have the words to say ‘This was rape. This was sexual abuse.’ Without the words, you tend to put your own words on it: ‘It was my fault. It was a sin I committed.’ ”

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After that exchange, the couple decided to meet with their pastor, who urged Megan to get immediate medical help for her insomnia and to see a mental health professional.

She contacted Bruce Ashford, now the Southeastern provost, to tell him what happened to her in 2003. He told her the seminary would support her if she wanted to press charges against her alleged assailant. Lively decided it was too late for that, though she supports other women who do.

Soon after, a Washington Post reporter called and wrote about her experience without identifying her. Hours after the story broke, Southwestern seminary trustees meeting behind closed doors voted to demote Patterson, then days later, to fire him.

With word getting out about her story, Lively decided she didn’t want to remain anonymous anymore.

“I am the woman you read about, #SEBTS 2003, not afraid, ashamed, or fearful,” she tweeted on May 28, 2018.

Days later, the wife of Patterson’s chief of staff published a blog post contesting Lively’s account and quoting a private letter Lively wrote to Patterson after the incident,

Lively had begun her journey, and though she may not have realized it then, her ministry.

Hers, she decided, would be a coaching role.

Yes, she would talk about her experience, but mostly she wanted to be a resource behind the scenes. Surely this would be a way to redeem the painful episode and refashion her ministry.

At the annual denominational meeting, for example, a group of women protested outside the Birmingham, Ala., convention center. Lively counseled the male pastors inside: Don’t offer to pray with these women, she said.

“They were abused in a church setting. That could have happened while a pastor was praying for them or leading them through the Bible.” It could re-traumatize them, she suggested.

Lively has resumed her friendship with Daniel Akin, the president of Southeastern whom she first met in church revival as a teen and later during college. The two talk or text every few weeks. When she told him she would like to complete her degree, Akin said the school would assume the cost of tuition.

“That was the least we could do,” Akin said. “She was abused and taken advantage of and harmed in all of this.”

This past spring — one year to the day after she first contacted the seminary — Lively graduated with a Master of Arts in Christian studies. Akin personally handed her the diploma and gave her a hug.

But the fallout from coming forward as a survivor of sexual assault has been bruising in many ways. Many of her immediate family members don’t understand her. One warned her she could be sued. Another wonders why she’s not pressing charges.

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The healing continues.

Lively completed a type of therapy called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” to help her deal with the trauma. She’s working with a therapist on the pain of estranged family members.

Every time she gets up to speak, she’s aware of the distance that has been created between them.

She understands that some people believe women who come forward with allegations of abuse are doing so for fame or fortune or to get back at someone.

“I don’t know of any little girl that dreams of growing up to be on this stage, discussing this topic,” she said. “But I believe God can use my broken story of redemption.”

And, she adds, maybe the church can, too.

'The children have blessed us,' say these Triad-area families who adopted older kids

“How do I go about this?”

Mike Allred had doubts about fostering and possibly adopting a child.

“There was a lot of ‘I’m not sure I can do this,’ ” Allred said of the questions swirling in his head as he, his wife, Jennifer, and their then 9-year-old son, Jacob, discussed the possibility.

Nearly a decade later, after adopting three children ages 5, 8 and 18 — and fostering many others — he has a different take.

“If I would have caved in to the doubt,” Allred said, “I wouldn’t have two beautiful daughters, I wouldn’t have two beautiful grandchildren, an awesome daughter-in-law — all this stuff I would miss out on.”

Running out of time

Finding homes for older children, especially teens, is difficult because they carry a stigma that their behavioral problems are greater than those of other children.

Reenee Scroggins, who helps place children for adoption with Guilford County, said there were 103 adoptions in fiscal year 2018-19. Of those, Scroggins’ unit — which includes five adoption workers — handled only 14 adoptions of teens.

Nationally, only 5% of all children adopted were between the ages of 15 and 18, according to AdoptUSKids, a federally-funded initiative to help increase the number of children in foster care who are placed with permanent families.

“There really is a struggle to find families to foster teenagers, much less adopt them,” Scroggins said in an email.

It’s a struggle shared by the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina. The Greensboro-based organization operates statewide and placed 870 children with foster-care families and 203 with adoptive parents last year.

“We are always in need of people who are open to older youth,” said Matt Anderson, the nonprofit’s vice president of programs and business development.

Nearly 12,000 children are in foster care in North Carolina, according to the Children’s Home Society. And each year, more than 500 age out without finding a permanent family.

Along came Dylan

Amber and Travis Thompson of Whitsett were among those who discounted fostering or adopting a teenager. They only wanted children ages 2 to 7.

“We did not want to take any children that were older than our biological children, and we also were done with the baby phase,” said Amber, whose son, Will, was 7 at the time, and daughter, Maggie, was 6.

But the first call they received was for a 5-week-old girl. “We said yes, and (the age restriction) went out the window all of a sudden.”

They adopted Willow, who is now 7.

They next fostered a 7-year-old boy, who returned to his biological family after 14 months.

“The ultimate goal (in foster care) is always reunification, and we support that,” said Amber, 39. “And that’s hard.”

The third call was for one of Amber’s high school students. While teaching a health-science course, she noticed one of her students, Dylan, was having a rough time at home.

“I had mentioned to him that ‘Hey, I know things aren’t that great. I don’t know what else is going on, but if you need a place to stay or something … you’re more than welcome to come and live with us.’

“He thought I was crazy.”

But sometime after that, she got a phone call that the 14-year-old had been taken into foster care.

“(Dylan) gave them my name,” she recalled. “We were very honest with him to say this is the first time that we’ve parented a teen, so you’ll just have to bear with us. We don’t know when your curfew should be, but we’ll figure it out.”

While foster children may have trauma and trust issues, Amber said she’s found they’re like any other child.

“A lot of times the stability of the environment and the care and the being there is really enough to give them what they needed the whole time,” she said.

Dylan’s adoption became official when he was 17. Now 21, he’ll graduate from Appalachian State next year with a degree in political science.

The Thompsons adopted one more child, 5-year-old Christopher, who was a few days old and in the hospital when they picked him up.

“The children have blessed us,” said Travis, 43. “I guess the biggest surprise is how well they adapted and adopted.”

Amber said she was a bit shocked when Dylan, at 16, told her that he wanted to be adopted. “I thought he would just want to age out of the system.”

She said the family still laughs over her reaction, which was to ask Dylan what kind of family he would want.

“He said, ‘Well, like this kind of family,’ ” she recalled. “I was so shocked because teenagers get to choose, and he chose us. I feel like that was a huge honor because he could have said, ‘I want to look for a different family.’ ”

Meet Andrew

Initially, Jennifer and Mike Allred also wanted younger children. The Asheboro couple started by fostering two young boys.

“We wanted 2 to 5 years old,” Jennifer said. “That would fit in the scheme of things — we thought. And then we got the 2- to 5-year-old and we said, ‘Noooo, that’s not what we want.’ That was not a success.”

But they also took in another foster child during that time.

“Our oldest son, Andrew, came to us on his 18th birthday,” Jennifer remembered. “And he just meshed with the family.”

Andrew Allred Rodriguez had been through about 16 foster homes when he was adopted by the Allreds. He’s 26 and married now, with two girls ages 1 and 2.

“We just kind of started taking in more teenagers,” said Jennifer, 44. “They fit with our family and they fit where we were at in our life.”

Added Mike: “And you don’t have to change the diapers.”

The Allreds also adopted two sisters, Amber, 17, and Misty, 14, seven years ago.

They’ve fostered at least a dozen children and are the long-term legal guardians of 17-year-old twins — a boy and girl who were in homes three hours apart until the Allreds took them into theirs. Jennifer asked that their names not be used to protect their privacy.

“They still have family in the community, so it was one of those situations where adoption wasn’t necessary,” she said. “We try — if it’s safe and it’s possible — to keep that connection (to the biological families).”

The Allreds keep in touch with many of the children they fostered, including 20-year-old Nasir Richards, who aged out of the foster-care system but is still considered part of the family.

“This is what he considers home,” she said.

Finding their place

It was while raiding the refrigerator that Dylan believes he began to feel part of the Thompson family.

“It took a little while,” Dylan admitted. “But once you could go into the kitchen, into the pantry,” it felt like home.

And while the other children welcomed him, Willow’s attention especially meant something.

“Willow helped a lot. Already, I was her big brother,” Dylan said.

While fostering him, the Thompsons had a shared parenting agreement with his biological family.

Going to court a lot and seeing his biological family was difficult, Dylan said, but he’s glad he’s been able to keep in touch with them and that both families accept one another.

“It’s always nice to have people accept what your decisions are,” he said.

For Andrew, who had been in and out of foster care since age 7, settling into the Allred family was a longer adjustment. He recalled it took a year or two — and a big argument.

He had left the house and Jennifer — worried about his whereabouts — called the police.

That proved to be the catalyst for Andrew, a self-described quiet kid who found it hard to open up.

“I would hold things in and once we got into that argument, I let things out,” he said.

He also wasn’t sent packing, which is what had occurred with previous families.

“They took that argument well, and I took that argument well,” Andrew explained. “Communication is really what it was.”

Breaking barriers

Although he’s adopted into a white family, Andrew is proud of his Hispanic heritage.

That’s why he kept his last name — Rodriguez — and made Allred his middle name.

“I didn’t want to forget where I came from,” Andrew said. “I was still proud of my last name, and they were OK with that.”

His heritage was something he clung to going from foster family to foster family. And while he appreciated the culture of his various foster families, they didn’t always respect his, Andrew recalled.

Some of the families were resistant to his wanting to attend the Catholic church.

And he recalls one fellow foster child who wanted a quinceañera, a 15th-birthday celebration common among Latinos.

“That’s all she wanted and (the foster family) either couldn’t do it or didn’t know how to do it,” said Andrew, who still keeps in touch with his biological family.

Jennifer admits that some are skeptical a white family can adequately relate to a child of different heritage.

“We break a lot of racial and cultural barriers,” she said. “We appreciate their culture. We appreciate their race. We are the first ones to acknowledge it ... and that they remain in those communities that they were raised in.”

The 17-year-old twins the Allreds are fostering participate in the Village of Barnabas, a nonprofit group that mentors African American youth and takes them on trips to places like The King Center in Atlanta.

“We love what they’re doing. They’re so supportive of (the twins),” said Gene Woodle, the organization’s co-founder and vice president.

Race, the Allreds explained, is not a deciding factor in being good parents and loving children.

“It’s the work we put in, you know, behind closed doors and one-on-one — that’s what counts,” Jennifer said.

Family matters

The Thompsons said some in their family initially worried about their decision to foster and possibly adopt — something they both prayed about.

“They were concerned,” Amber said. “They were fearful of, like, what are you going to do if something happens to Will and Maggie?

“I kept saying, ‘You know, that’s not something we’re going to focus on. We’re just going to focus on how we can help these kids.’

“You do hear horror stories. But it’s like you get one bad story and like 50,000 success stories — and you don’t hear anything about those.”

Meeting acquaintances in public can be a challenge. Their comments aren’t always sensitive to the children, who are often present.

“People usually know you’re fostering, but the number one thing that people say? ‘So, is this your foster child?’ Well, nobody wants that label,” Amber said.

“Or they’ll say, ‘Which ones are yours?”

“All of them” is Amber’s standard response.

“What is she mixed with?” was one question that kept cropping up one summer about Willow, who tans easily.

“Human being,” Amber would reply.

“I think how you answer those questions are really important to the kids,” she said, noting that Willow later asked her what was meant by “mixed with.”

The Thompsons and Allreds say they have gotten a lot of support from their families, churches and the community.

“We could not have (fostered and adopted) this many kids if we didn’t have that support system, with people stepping up to be mentors to our kids,” Jennifer Allred said.

She also mentors other parents through the process, and there’s a Facebook group and a social support group for them.

It’s an experience both families and advocates hope others will try.

“What people don’t fully understand is how transformative it can be for them to open their home and their heart to a child,” said Anderson of the Children’s Home Society.

Mike Allred, who had so many doubts initially, wholeheartedly agrees.

“Luckily, I got a chance to prove myself wrong,” he said. “You’re not a biological parent, but you can still be a dad to these kids.”