“St. William is a peacemaking community of faith, inspired by our rich tradition of peace and justice, and empowered by our joyful celebration of Word and Sacrament.
In that spirit, we continue to be voices that challenge one another, our church and our world.
We commit ourselves and our resources to serve the poor and oppressed far and near and to eliminate the causes of violence and injustice.
We open our hearts and doors to all people and hold in high esteem God’s creative diversity.”
Friends, this is our mission statement. And although a preacher’s task is to proclaim the gospel, I come to you this morning with what may seem like Bad News: We may need to change it.
There is nothing wrong with the content of the statement. In fact, it expresses succinctly and powerfully our community’s most cherished values. Justice. Courageously critical and self-critical analysis. Creating a space that is safe and welcoming to all people. I am not suggesting we change any of that—but I do think that our statement needs to ditch the phrase “Voices that Challenge.”
As you remember, last year we held a series of listening sessions as we approached an anticipated leadership transition. At each listening session, the theme for the evening was introduced, and the community was invited to sit in silence and reflect for a few moments before coming to the microphone to speak. During those quiet times I was asked to play piano to accompany the reflection. Each time, I would play the song “Voices That Challenge,” by David Haas. I felt that the song, which inspired part of our mission statement, represented more than any other what our parish is all about. Its lyrics lift up the voices of “the children who long to be heard and respected,” “the women who suffer the pain of injustice,” and “the victims of violent abuse and aggression.” The song’s lyrics suggest that these voices—the voices of oppressed persons, of persons who have been marginalized, of persons who have experienced violence and injustice—are in fact the voice of God speaking to us. The song says that if we want to hear the voice of God, we should listen to and center their voices.
Recently I read a disturbing post on social media from my colleague, Dr. Hilary Scarsella, who received her PhD from Vanderbilt and is now Assistant Professor of Ethics and Director of Women and Gender Studies in Church and Society at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. Hilary is also Director of Theological Integrity at Into Account, an organization that “supports survivors of sexual violence in Christian-connected contexts and works toward transformative justice in communities in which sexual violence has occurred.” Hilary’s post revealed that David Haas has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women; that the company GIA (which publishes, among other things, the Gather hymnal) had suspended its professional relationship with Haas; and that the Minneapolis Archdiocese had forbidden him to minister under its auspices. Over the days that followed, more and more women emerged accusing Haas of sexual misconduct. Into Account has now received 26 independent firsthand reports from survivors accusing David Haas of sexual violence. If second-hand reports from witnesses who have survivors’ permission to share their stories are included, the number is 30.
I reached out to Hilary and she offered to give our staff, representatives from the worship ministry, and the co-chair of the community ministries circle a consultation to help us develop a survivor-centered response. That is, a response that centers the voices that challenge. In what follows I am going to detail what we learned at that meeting. If you’re here for scriptural interpretation, I promise to get to that part briefly at the end. But I am going to devote most of my time to relating to you what we learned Friday, because this is vital information for our community as we continue to discern how to use our voices and our bodies to work for justice. While I will not use graphic language, please be advised that I will be sharing details about the allegations against Haas.
There are now 30 reports of sexual violence perpetrated by David Haas spanning 40 years, from 1980 to 2020. Reports have also been made to the Archdiocese of Minneapolis, beginning in 1987, with the latest coming in 2018. The reports detail a wide range of sexual misconduct: from seeking out and targeting women online with explicit sexual harassment and grooming behavior—that is, using online platforms to gain access to physical sexual relationships—all the way to outright sexual assault. While the content of the reports varies, there is a clear pattern of behavior that emerges from these independent accounts. Many of the women report that they met Haas when they were minor teenagers attending music ministry gatherings such as Haas’s annual Music Ministry Alive conference. During these conferences, Haas would identify these girls and find a way to make them feel special. These women report seeing Haas as simultaneously a celebrity and a spiritual mentor, feeling chosen when he would put a hand on their shoulder or look them in the eye as he sang the lyrics to his song “You Are Mine.” They also report that he had a keen memory for names and 18th birthdays, and that when they turned 18 or 19, Haas sought them out again to move the relationship to a sexual place. While most of the reports describe Haas grooming underage girls and then trying to become sexually involved with them after they turned 18, his ex-wife, composer Jeanne Cotter reports that when she was 16, the then 23-year-old Haas took her out for a Coke to talk about her music and forcibly French kissed her. Cotter and others report that Haas retaliated when they rejected his advances, by using his considerable influence to prevent them from advancing in their liturgical music careers. That is all the background I am going to give today, but in the coming days we will be sending out additional information and reporting about these incidents.
As you all know, false allegations of sexual assault are rare. A pattern of false allegations this extensive and consistent is extremely unlikely.
After detailing the allegations, Hilary transitioned to introduce us to the concept of a survivor-centered response. She noted that because sexual violence (particularly against women) is so pervasive in our society, we have all internalized cultural messages that cause us to focus most of our attention on the person accused of committing violence, and away from the persons who have experienced that violence. Our responses—and as a man, I would add, especially men’s responses—tend to be focused on worrying whether these claims are true, trying to forgive or excuse the violent behavior, rather than on listening to the stories of the people who have experienced sexual violence and working to honor their stories by creating a culture in which no one has to experience sexual violence. We tend to ask questions like:
- What if these allegations are false?
- What if this ruins this man’s livelihood?
- Aren’t Christians supposed to offer forgiveness to sinners and grace?
- If we stop singing this person’s music, aren’t we hurting people who are spiritually benefited by it?
- What about all the good this person did?
- Why not separate the person from the art that he created?
What Hilary noted about all of these questions is that they all focus on the person who is accused of sexual violence, and leave the survivors of that violence out of the discussion entirely. In this case, they all focus on David Haas, not on any of the dozens of women who report that he sexually abused them. Hilary suggested that each of these questions might be reframed. The most powerful reframing she offered, I thought, was of the question “aren’t Christians supposed to forgive sinners.” Hilary noted that survivors are grammatically absent from this question. The “Christians” are those of us who have not experienced sexual violence; the “sinners” are those who have committed such acts. But where are the survivors in this question? She suggested instead that a more helpful question to ask might be, “What would a theology of forgiveness look like that stops sexual violence?” And she affirmed, “the God that I worship does not sanction actions which perpetuate violence against those who have been abused.”
Or, as David Haas would put it, the God we worship would center the voices that challenge.
A recent article on these allegations published by the National Catholic Reporter includes quotations from three survivors. All three have requested that their true names not be released for fear of retaliation from Haas. Megan reports that avoiding Haas’s songs at church has become like a strategic game: “How do I navigate that world where I want to participate in this thing I love, as a full member of the body of Christ? I feel like I can’t. He’s taken so much from me. I can’t sing his music, I can’t see his name, I can’t hear people clap along to his songs, as wonderful as they might be.” Ali reports that after Haas allegedly forced himself on her, she stopped recreational singing, no longer participating in choirs or music ministry at all: “I just kind of lost interest for it,” she said.
In our consultation, Hilary suggested the following three-step process for developing a survivor-centered response in our community. Step 1 is listening: Gathering, and sharing transparently with the community, resources, articles, and information about what Haas is alleged to have done and especially the impact upon survivors’ lives of what he has done, finding out what survivors want to have happen in response, and what power we have as a community to make our community safer by 1) interrupting patterns of sexual violence in our community, 2) empowering the survivors in our parish, and 3) building stronger solidarity with survivors. Step 2 is action: representing survivors’ voices, furthering their goals, and disrupting patterns of violence in our community in a way that is accountable to survivors. Step 3 is self-reflection: engaging in an ongoing individual and communal process, a discipline, of noticing and interrogating thoughts that come up within us that might de-center survivors, noticing what social and cultural messages are keeping us from telling the truth to ourselves and to others.
With these things in mind, we have crafted the following plan. In the short term, we will no longer be singing David Haas’s music. This is probably a good time to remind you of what that means.
The songs composed by Haas we often sing include “Voices that Challenge,” “I Will Praise Your Name,” “We Are God’s People,” “We Are Called,” “Deep Within,” “You Are Mine,” the “Glory to God” we sing during Easter, “Blest Are They,” “Be Light for Our Eyes,” “The Harvest of Justice,” “Now We Remain,” “I Put My Life in Your Hands,” “We Have Been Told,” “God, You Have the Words,” “Holy Is Your Name,” ‘For the Life of the World,” “Song of the Body of Christ,” “Without Seeing You,” and many, many more.
In the long term, Hilary recommends that we invite those of our parishioners who are willing who are survivors of sexual violence to gather virtually to discuss and implement a plan for what to do with David Haas’s music, any public statement we will make, and other steps we might take moving forward. She also recommends that we release a public statement condemning this behavior and affirming our solidarity with survivors. The gathering of survivors would be invested with authority for making long term decisions for what to do about this music. We intend to implement all of these recommendations and will be providing more information in the days and weeks to come.
You may be wondering why I keep returning to David Haas’s lyrics as I advocate de-centering his voice and explain why we are no longer going to be using his music, at least for now. The answer is this: this music has meant a lot to me personally. When I first heard these accusations, my first thought—as someone who is a straight cisgender man who has not experienced sexual violence firsthand—was this: “Oh no, I love this music. I can’t believe that I might have to stop singing it.” My first response was not, I am ashamed to say, “how terribly awful for the women whose lives were ripped apart by this man’s violence!” What I felt instead was a sense of personal loss over some songs that have been important to me. Perhaps some of you are having similar feelings because this loss is real.
As important as it is for us to feel all of our feelings, it is also important to notice when those feelings might be distracting us from care and solidarity with survivors. Hilary explained the situation of sexual violence in a community with this helpful image: imagine that a 1,000-pound weight of sexual violence is bearing down on our community. It is resting mostly upon the shoulders of those who have experienced sexual violence. By silencing their voices and centering our response on forgiveness for the perpetrators, we are ensuring that the entire 1,000 pounds of that pain, suffering, and loss continues to rest on the shoulders of survivors. But if the community can acknowledge that pain—if the community can share in the suffering, in the betrayal, in the loss, even in the small way of losing the joy of this music—that shared loss actually can move some of the burden off of the shoulders of the survivors. Not all of it—most of the burden still rests with them—but some. And that is what solidarity looks like. It looks like standing next to your neighbor who is suffering and saying, hey, would you please let me carry some of this with you.
Now, as I close, a bit of scriptural interpretation. Here I am reminded of the question at the close of Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet. An old priest asks the prophet, “speak to us of religion.” And he says, “have I spoken this day of ought else?” Jesus in this gospel reading today is saying that those who want to be in solidarity with him have to take up their cross—they have to give something up. This is not because suffering and sacrifice are good—it is because suffering is real and pervasive and the only way to make it more bearable is to shoulder it together. And he says that we must value that solidarity—value that care for others whom we may not even know—more than we even value our love for our family members. Now in this case, David Haas is not a family member of mine. But his music has in some way formed me spiritually. And yet I am not willing to sit at my piano and sing his music, if by doing so I am sending the message that the violence that he has done is ok. It is not ok. I want my words and actions to constantly say that that violence is wrong in the name of my God who is the source of all justice and love.
So, all of this may sound like bad news. But if from this tragedy and violence can emerge a voice from within our community that contributes, in any small way, to the growing chorus of those who are demanding justice in this wretched and beautiful world, well, then it is not bad news. It is good news. The paradox of joy emerging, impossibly, impossibly, from unbearable suffering—that is the essence of Christian good news.
 Confirmed with a former staff member who recalls this 1995 gathering.