Next to it was a 5-year-old’s thick hunter-green coat, hat and long dress, displayed above sturdy black shoes. “I was never safe and I was a child. He was an adult,” read a sign quoting the survivor. “No one helped me when I told them he made me evil.”
There was also a baby onesie.
“You feel rage when you get a tiny little outfit in the mail,” said Ruth Ann Brubaker of Wayne County, Ohio, who helped put together the exhibit. “I didn’t know I could be so angry. Then you start crying.
The garments on display represented various branches of the conservative Anabaptist tradition, which include Amish, Mennonite, Brethren and Charity. Often called the Simple Churches, they emphasize separation from mainstream society, church discipline, forgiveness, and modest dress, including head coverings for women.
This was part of a larger Plain Church Sexual Abuse Awareness Conference held April 29-30 at Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola and sponsored by two advocacy organizations: A Better Way, based in Zanesville, Ohio, and Safe Communities, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Hope Anne Dueck, executive director of A Better Way and one of the exhibit’s organizers, said many survivors said they heard things like “If you had worn your head covering, you probably wouldn’t have not been mugged” or “You couldn’t have been dressed modestly enough.
“And as a survivor myself,” Dueck said, “I knew that wasn’t the truth.”
“You can get hurt no matter what you’re wearing,” she said. Those who contributed to the exhibit “wore what their parents and the church prescribed, and wore it correctly, and were still assaulted.”
The exhibit was based on similar exhibits that were staged on university campuses and elsewhere in recent years called “What were you wearing?” They show a wide range of clothing in an effort to bust the myth that a sexual assault can be blamed on what a victim was wearing.
Current and former members of faith communities in ordinary dress — not just Anabaptists, but others like Holiness, an offshoot of Methodism emphasizing piety — agreed last year that it was time to stand their own version.
“At the end of the day, it was never about the clothes,” said Mary Byler, a survivor of child sexual abuse in the Amish communities where she grew up. Byler, who founded the Colorado-based group The Misfit Amish to bridge cultural gaps between the Amish and wider society, helped organize the exhibit.
“I hope this helps survivors know they are not alone,” she said.