Hannah Kate Williams is a survivor of sexual abuse. Her daughter, Evie Ruth, is a victim of sexual abuse. She would be twelve years old now, but she never had the chance to breathe her first breath. Evie was aborted by her father—who also is her grandfather—and though her mother grieves over Evie Ruth, she “rejoice[s] in the day I see her dancing at the feet of Jesus.” Hannah’s and Evie’s story is dark, filled with grief, and plumbs the deepest depths of sin imaginable. Hannah told me that her father—who was also Hannah’s pastor, a Southern Baptist, and a student at one of our own seminaries—raped her for years, and for years he used twisted theology to support his rape. (Hannah and her siblings have filed reports with the appropriate authorities, and Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, has spoken out in support of them.)

Hannah told me that if Evie Ruth’s life in utero and her the story of her death “can spread awareness and ignite a rage for change, then I believe there is redemption for the life on earth that she lost.” So this part of Hannah’s story won’t have the nauseating details of her father’s warped theology or the physical and psychological pain—and death—that Hannah says he wrought. All of that will come out sooner or later. The focus here is on Hannah’s hope for Evie Ruth—that there might be redemption in this child whose life began and ended in violence. This is the hopeful part of Hannah’s story, the part where she met the God of love and learned who he really is.

In 2008, Hannah told me, her father—James R. Williams—induced the abortion of their baby, Evie Ruth. He reportedly told Hannah that “it was not God’s will for Evie Ruth to be born,” just like it wasn’t God’s will for Hannah to be born. Hannah had heard such things from her father repeatedly: “I wish you had never been born. You’re a mark of the devil on our lives.”

The next year Hannah attended the “Give Me an Answer” conference at Boyce College. Al Mohler spoke from Romans 11:33–12:2. That sermon changed Hannah’s life, because for the first time she heard that God is sovereign and that God had willed life—her life, even (not the abuse she suffered, but her very existence). “To hear that life was willed by God,” she remembered, “completely shattered everything, and I started reading everything I could get.” She wondered, “Is this abuse? Is what my father is doing wrong? Is this evil?”

Hannah started to daydream about the future, that maybe she could go to college one day. She also reached out for help, telling her story of abuse to pastors and professors on Facebook messenger. “They said to pray about it,” Hannah remembered, and no one helped her. The nadir came one night in Pigeon Forge when she confronted her father: “If you don’t stop hurting us, I swear to God I will get all of these kids out of your care, and you will never see them again.” He threw her down the stairs by her hair, yelling after her, “Damn you, you whore of the church!”

A few years, and a lot of tears, later, Hannah walked into a LifeWay store, where an employee asked her if she had any questions. “Yes,” she replied,” “What the **** is wrong with all Christians?”

Barely maintaining his composure, the young man responded, “You know, you can come to church with me if you want, and we can find out together if you want.” She did, and there she found a church that was kind and loving, “and I didn’t know why.” She also met her pastor, John Green. Green and his wife “just kept inviting me to their house. I ask inappropriate questions just to make people uncomfortable, but they kept asking me over.” One night at dinner Green turned to her and said, “Hannah Kate, you’re home. We’re your family. I don’t know your story, but I want you to know you’re home. We’re your people now.”

Hannah Kate is a pastor’s kid. She grew up in a Southern Baptist church with a Southern Baptist pastor who attended a Southern Baptist seminary. But she grew up hopeless and abandoned in the worst possible way. Reflecting on growing up like she did, Hannah says, “Everything logical thing that I have had to hope has either been shattered or stolen from me. The hope of being a child and with that childhood, having a sense of innocence or purity; the hope of having parents who would protect me and love me as their own; the hope of stability and nourishment, of a home where needs are provided; the hope of being a first-time mother and experiencing joy in the birth of my little one. All of those hopes I believed in but were shattered by time and circumstance.”

But that night with her pastor and her pastor’s wife welcoming her home, Hannah Kate became a Christian. Speaking of the hope she has in Christ despite “the worst thing my dad ever did to me, despite the deepest scar he ever left me, the most horrendous crime he could ever commit against me,” she says, “it can be redeemed. I have hope because Jesus came to redeem.” This hope is what Hannah Kate wants Southern Baptists to see in her and why she longs to see us—a denomination of like-minded believers cooperating together for the advancement of the gospel—work together to love abuse survivors.

What does that look like, though, in our day-to-day lives? It looks a lot like being a Christian, it turns out. “Inviting someone into your life,” Hannah Kate told me, “can be the difference between literal life and death for that person.” And once you’ve invited that person into your life, “give them a sense of belonging, because they do belong . . . Remind them that they are loved and that God’s church does not leave a member behind.”

If we’re talking nuts and bolts, listening goes a long way. And, by all means, don’t ask obnoxious questions. Read the book of Job and learn from Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and Elihu. Don’t try to fix the pain—and by all means don’t hoist faulty theological solutions upon them—just listen. And if you want to know more about how to help trauma survivors—and even if you don’t—educate yourself anyway, just not by interrogating a survivor. Instead, ask someone who has done it before—find a Paul to your Timothy.

Do things like cook a meal, invite them into your home regularly, offer to keep up with their medicine, take them to their first therapy appointment. Give them a gift card to the spa or Netflix. Essentially, Hannah says, “be available and practical.” But know this—we probably won’t get it right every time. We won’t mourn and love the right way in every situation. But, we can apologize, learn, listen, and continue to love. “God’s grace is enough,” she says, “even when we don’t get it right the first time.”

If you’re reading this and thinking that it sounds like a lot to love a trauma survivor, that’s because it does take a lot of energy and hope and tears and compassion. It can be difficult because healing takes a long time, and it often takes unexpected turns. “Pain is messy and there isn’t a counselor or Bible verse that can change the depths of trauma’s wounds.” But we’re the church, and loving is exactly what we do.

Despite all of her experience in a Southern Baptist church, Hannah Kate stays in the denomination because “Christ who began a good work in me, also began a good work in my brothers and sisters who are struggling with sin, and he will bring it to completion. I have to trust that God is working in the lives of people in the SBC just like he’s working in mine.” Hannah Kate told me she still struggles with PTSD and suicidal ideations, and really, who among us wouldn’t? “But I have hope,” she said, “and every day is a victory.”

Russ Meek

Author, editor, and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute