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'The Holy Spirit is doing something' - How Awake aims to support survivors

When Sara Larson left her parish job after the Church’s 2018 scandals began to unfold, she knew that God was calling her to do something to help survivors.

Sara Larson, Awake executive director, speaks March 12 at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, March 12, 2024. Courtesy photo.

At first she started locally, helping to launch the emerging non-profit Awake Milwaukee. But over time, the group’s work with abuse victims and survivors extended well beyond Wisconsin, through opportunities Larson sees as God’s Providence.

Earlier this year, Awake Milwaukee announced it would become Awake, changing its name to reflect a broadening scope of its mission.

Executive director Sara Larson talked with The Pillar about the name change, and about her organization’s work to support survivors, and work for change in the Church.

Sara Larson. Courtesy photo.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Can you tell us broadly about the mission of Awake?

Awake's mission is to awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, work for transformation, and foster healing for all who have been wounded. We are a community of abuse survivors, concerned Catholics, and allies who are working together to respond to the wounds of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

In many ways, we are building bridges between people who haven't necessarily always worked together or been in community with one another. We're creating a space where those people can come together and we can do this shared work of education, advocacy, prayer, and survivor support in a way that really hasn't been done before.

What is the day-to-day work of Awake? You explained what the broad goals are, but what is the actual work? How does Awake spend its time?

It’s been growing and changing pretty constantly and rapidly since the beginning. But when we talk about the main work of Awake, that's where we talk about that education, prayer, advocacy and survivor support. We offer a lot of programming that is open to the public, which primarily takes place on Zoom. We plan both educational and prayer opportunities that can be welcoming to both abuse survivors and concerned Catholics, to create spaces where we can learn and grow and pray together.

So we have our “Courageous Conversations” series that includes a presentation every other month about some kind of topic related to abuse in the Church, whether it's a panel of abuse survivors sharing their experiences or experts speaking about some of the complex theological or sociological questions. We do that kind of educational work as well as with the Awake blog, which shares interviews and survivor stories and explainers to really help people grow in understanding, especially Catholics who may not be very informed about these issues.

Then we also have prayer offerings, which are really designed to be trauma-sensitive opportunities for people who care about these issues, including abuse survivors, to be able to pray together, and maybe to connect with Catholic prayer traditions in a way that is sensitive and speaks to these experiences of pain. 

For example, we have coming up our annual Way of the Cross with survivors, which combines the traditional Stations of the Cross devotion with reflections written by abuse survivors connecting their own experiences to the experiences of Jesus and his passion. 

We are very committed to the work of transformation in the Church, which means not only working to change policies and procedures but — perhaps more important — to change culture and change hearts to help all Catholics, whether priests, lay leaders or people in the pews — to be more trauma-sensitive, more compassionate to survivors, more aware of how we can prevent abuse.

So we're really working with individuals, with priests, with parishes, with victims’ assistance coordinators across the country — to see that change in our culture, and how we think and talk about and address abuse. 

But over time, the core of our work has become accompaniment of those who have experienced sexual abuse by Catholic leaders. 

That accompaniment takes a lot of different forms. The heart of our survivor care ministry is in what we call “survivor circles,” which are ongoing virtual peer support groups for those who have experienced sexual abuse by Catholic leaders. And those survivor circles have just really been a huge grace and source of community and support for people who have often felt alone and isolated. And there's just something incredibly beautiful about bringing people together where they can see that they're not alone and can reach out to others who can understand and offer support.

We have almost 50 survivors currently participating in Awake's five survivor circles. We also have an online community forum for survivors called “The Well.” And we are now planning our second annual in-person weekend retreat for abuse survivors. 

Offerings that are specifically for survivors are really the heart of who we are and what we do. And we also offer a group for family members of survivors because we are trying to be very attentive to the ripple effects of abuse throughout the Church.

Awake recently changed your name: You were Awake Milwaukee, and now you’re Awake. What do you hope the name change signifies?

The change in our name primarily reflects a transition that has really already happened within our organization. 

We started thinking that we would just be a small local group hosting in-person events in Milwaukee. When Covid hit, we shifted to hosting virtual events. From there, beginning to reach people all around the country happened really organically for us. We’ve found that the majority of people coming to our events and survivors who are connected with us are from places outside of Milwaukee. And that's been the case for a while.

So in some ways, the name change is really just a reflection of the reality that already exists within Awake, but we're also hoping that this name change communicates to everyone our openness to being at service of the Church throughout the United States and beyond. So that people, both survivors and Church leaders, see that we are open and ready to serve the Church in a broader way.

What we've offered for abuse survivors has always been open to people from any geographic location, as have our public events. But what we're really dreaming of is different ways that we can expand our reach and to have a greater impact on the Catholic Church throughout the United States. We think that there is a great need for deeper awakening, transformation, and healing, and we really want to be part of that by partnering with people across the United States, whoever is interested in this work.

We've already built some beautiful relationships with victim assistance coordinators in various dioceses who are finding that Awake is a great resource for some of the victim survivors they work with. We would love to continue to build those partnerships with people who are on the front lines in various dioceses.

Over time, we have developed a lot of expertise based on really listening to the real-life experiences of abuse survivors, those who've experienced abuse 50 years ago, and people who are experiencing abuse today. We really feel like we have a lot of wisdom and experience to offer the Church. We’re hoping for more opportunities to bring that experience and those voices of survivors to have a greater impact on the Church throughout the United States.

We're also really interested in opportunities to help priests develop skills around responding to and accompanying survivors. We've heard from priests who really want to do that ministry, but maybe need help understanding and learning and growing in those skills. So we’re just starting to develop some programs to build bridges between priests and those abuse survivors who are interested and open to connecting with priests. We’ll be launching some new programs in the coming months to really build bridges between clergy and abuse survivors. So we're really excited about those possibilities as well.

From the beginning, we just really stepped out in faith and have always trusted that God will provide what we need, and we've always had just enough. We do have a lot of dreams for how we would like to grow, and we just see so much need. And really, what we've learned is that we're stepping into a space where we’re meeting a need that has not been met before, both for survivors and for Catholics who care about these issues. And so we have so much more we would like to do. We now have one full-time and two part-time employees, and we are doing our best. But we are really praying and working and hoping to connect with more opportunities to be able to have the funding to build capacity to do more.

You had been working in a parish before starting this ministry, right? What happened?

In the summer of 2018, I was working in parish ministry in a job that I loved. I had been working in parish ministry for about eight years. But I was a Catholic who had never really thought that much about the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Subconsciously, I thought about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as a terrible thing that happened a long time ago – when we found out about it, we as a Church came together and fixed it, and now we don't have to think about it anymore. I think that's subconsciously what a lot of Catholics kind of think about this.

So in the summer of 2018, with the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the Theodore McCarrick scandal, it was a moment in which I think God really woke me up and invited me to face these really hard issues in the Church that I love. I spent the fall of 2018 really reading, learning, listening to the voices of survivors, praying, arguing with God. And ultimately, I felt that I was being called to address this issue in my Church.

I ended up leaving my job in parish ministry to set out on a new path. I didn't know what exactly that would look like at the time. I started by writing a blog, and ultimately I ended up connecting with other Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who were similarly feeling concerned, feeling angry, sad, feeling like we needed to do something.

We started meeting in my living room in March of 2019 and pretty quickly discerned that we felt called to do something together in community with one another. And that led to founding Awake Milwaukee in August of 2019. So that's the beginning of the story.

What has working at Awake meant for you? How has it changed your experience, your impressions - what's changed about you since then?

When I stepped into this work, I experienced it as saying “yes” to a call from Christ. And I felt very, in many ways, confident in taking that step. But I really realize now I had no idea what I was saying ‘yes’ to, and I had no idea what it would be like to spend so much time seeing the darkest side of the Church and to be faced with that every day, and not just issues of the past, but the current problems.

I really didn't know how much it would break my heart and how much it would change me as a person, and really force me to ask hard questions about my faith and about the Church that I love, but also I had no idea what a grace it would be to enter into these spaces of pain and darkness and to find that's exactly where Jesus is.

I feel like I see Jesus so much more clearly now and know him so much better now that I really am kind of in these deep places of suffering with people. And I would also add that I have learned so much from the faith and courage and resilience of survivors that I'm so honored to accompany. Their faith and the ways that they wrestle with the painful realities of life while holding on trust and hope in God has really taught me so much about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.

What are three things that you know now, that you didn't know in 2018, that bishops need to know? If you were going to speak to U.S. bishop, what is most important for them to hear?

The first thing I always want to say to people is that abuse is still happening now. We hear all the time from people who have experienced abuse in the last 10 years - many people who have experienced abuse as adults, but also those who are connected to people who have experienced abuse as children or teens. I really think it's important for Church leaders and all Catholics to understand that this is an ongoing problem. We have made a lot of good progress, but we still have a lot of work to do in keeping people - both children and adults - safe in our Church.

I think the second thing I would say is I hear almost universally from abuse survivors, including those who have made reports in the last five years, that the experience of reporting abuse to the Church was incredibly painful and re-traumatizing. And many, many survivors will say that that has been the more painful part of their experience - reporting abuse to the Church. There are a lot of good people working within the Church to try to improve our response to abuse survivors, and I don't want to minimize those efforts. But we have a lot of work to do in how we as a Church respond to allegations of abuse and treat survivors with sensitivity and compassion.

And then third, I usually try to add, there's also so much hope. It can be really easy when talking about these issues to be very discouraged. But what I actually see is so much hope because when people come together in a spirit of compassion and courage, I really think there's so much possibility for transformation and healing.

It’s been, for me, such a blessing to see that. We’ve worked with abuse survivors who share how much healing they've experienced over the course of a few years, after maybe holding in these stories for 30 years, and we see how much healing is possible. If we really are serious about what it means to be a Church that is safe and accountable and compassionate, I really believe there are so many good people in the Church who want to help us make that transformation. I feel a lot of hope in that.

And I guess maybe I'll cheat and add into that a fourth one. I really believe that the Holy Spirit is doing something in our Church today, and in particular with bringing things into the light, and we don't need to be afraid of that. The truth will set us free, and God is with us in that process. And if we can just trust the Holy Spirit, we will be a stronger, healthier, holier Church as we move through this.

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