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Protestors Demand Accountability at First Baptist Church of Hammond

In December 2023, a significant demonstration unfolded outside the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, as over a hundred individuals, comprising survivors of abuse and their advocates, gathered in a peaceful protest. Their collective demand was for accountability and justice in response to longstanding abuse allegations associated with the church. This event, protestors at First Baptist Church, was not merely a local outcry but symbolized a broader movement advocating for reform in religious institutions.

Protesters outside of FBCH
Protesters outside of FBCH

The Deep-Rooted History of First Baptist Church Hammond

Established in 1887, First Baptist Church Hammond (FBCH) underwent a dramatic transformation into a leading institution of the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement under Pastor Jack Hyles from 1959 to 2001 (Chicago Magazine). Hyles' era was marked by significant growth, positioning the church as one of America's most prominent megachurches. However, this expansion was marred by controversies, including allegations of authoritarian leadership and an unwavering adherence to the King James Bible.

The IFB movement, spearheaded by Hyles, has faced criticism for its ultra-conservative ideology and authoritarian governance (Ministry Watch). Critics argue that such an environment is prone to abusive practices, as it creates a culture where questioning authority is discouraged. The movement's strict interpretation of the King James Bible is often linked to perpetuating gender inequality and marginalizing dissenters.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding FBCH are allegations that under Hyles' leadership, a culture of abuse was fostered, and perpetrators were protected. This is notably seen in the case of his son, David Hyles, who faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. It is alleged that the church's leadership systematically covered up these allegations, failing to hold perpetrators accountable (Ministry Watch).

The December 2023 Protest: A Call for Justice and Reform

The December protest, as reported by NW Indiana Times, was a rallying call for systemic change within religious institutions. The demonstration underscored the need for transparency, accountability, and cultural shifts to prevent future abuse. The protesters highlighted the importance of addressing the statute of limitations on abuse cases and implementing survivor-centered reforms.

Organized by April Avila, the protest aimed to elevate awareness both within the church community and across Hammond. Avila emphasized the need for justice, reforms in the statute of limitations, and a cultural shift within religious institutions to prevent future abuse (NW Indiana Times). This demonstration was a clarion call for attention to the systemic issues that allow such abuses to persist.

Voices of Survivors and Advocates

The protest was a convergence of many who had directly suffered abuse within FBCH or the wider Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement. Among them was Lori Shaffer, who left the church after facing victim-blaming and experiencing the church's culture of covering up abuse (Fundamentally Reformed). Their stories, raw and powerful, underscored the urgent need for change.

Participants in the protest included individuals featured in the "Let Us Prey" documentary, which shed light on the history of scandals associated with FBCH. This documentary played a crucial role in bringing to the fore the hidden narratives of abuse and the systemic failures within the church (YouTube).

The presence of these survivors and advocates at the December protest was a testament to the growing nationwide solidarity against abuse perpetuated in insular religious environments. It was a powerful demonstration of unity and a collective refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice.

Harms Endured by Survivors: A Spotlight on Lifelong Trauma

The December protest at First Baptist Church of Hammond (FBCH) brought into sharp focus the enduring trauma faced by survivors of abuse within the church and the broader Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement. Many former members, having left the insular confines of the IFB, find themselves grappling with isolation and severe mental health challenges. This distressing reality underscores the deep and lasting impact of the abuse and the environment that fostered it (Baptist News Global).

Joy Ryder, a leader of a survivor support nonprofit, characterized the IFB movement as an "abuse-ridden system." She highlighted the movement's tendency to treat those who leave as subversive outsiders, creating a culture of shunning that further victimizes the survivors. This exclusionary practice, Ryder explained, not only deters victims from coming forward but also allows the cycle of abuse to continue unchecked (Ministry Watch).

FBCH has been the subject of intense public scrutiny in recent years, particularly regarding its handling of abuse allegations. In a notable case in 2022, Joy Ryder took legal action against the church, alleging that it covered up her rape by former Pastor David Hyles in the late 1970s, when she was a teenager. This lawsuit, and the church's inadequate response to its disturbing claims, drew widespread condemnation (Ministry Watch).

Adding to the church's controversial history, in 2012, Pastor Jack Schaap, a successor to Jack Hyles, was convicted of sexually abusing a student from FBCH and sentenced to 12 years in prison. This conviction further highlighted the systemic issues within the church (Christian Post).

In December 2023, the current Pastor John Wilkerson issued a statement acknowledging the harm caused under previous leadership and committed to reforms. However, protesters and critics argue that such acknowledgments are insufficient. They demand concrete accountability measures and tangible redress for survivors, emphasizing that mere promises of reform do not equate to justice (Ground News).

The ongoing controversies and the deep-seated harm endured by survivors underscore the urgent need for FBCH and similar religious institutions to move beyond mere acknowledgments. There is a clear call for actionable steps towards accountability, transparency, and comprehensive reforms to ensure that such abuses are not repeated. The voices of survivors and advocates, as heard in the December protest, are a powerful reminder of the work that remains to be done in addressing the legacy of abuse within religious communities.


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