Catalyst Church had panelists discuss the revelations in “Surviving R. Kelly” and the wider topic of sexual abuse on Tuesday in West Philadelphia. — TRIBUNE PHOTO BY SAMARIA BAILEY

Local activists and public officials say the Black community needs to be more vocal about sexual assault at an open discussion hosted Tuesday evening at Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia.

The conversation, “Surviving Being Black: Response to Sexual Assault and R. Kelly,” was spurred by the revelations in Lifetime’s docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly.” The discussions centered on how the allegations of abuse and predatory behavior against Kelly plague the Black community overall, and steps that are necessary to end the cycle.

“After watching the R. Kelly documentary, I thought as a pastor that it would be due diligence for us to really take the bull by the horns and do something about this,” said Keon Gerow, senior pastor of the church at 5541 Baltimore Ave.

“I believe that Jesus was a socio-religious, political revolutionary who did not sit on his laurels but the same hands he lifted up on Sunday morning to give God glory are the same hands he extended Monday through Saturday to make sure the community were better,” he said.

“It’s impossible to teach the full Gospel and not talk about victims of sexual assault, rape, molestation and violence because they are sitting in our pews,” Gerow added. “Oftentimes people are suffering silently and all of the praying and laying of hands is absolutely fine but afterward we’ve got to direct people to practitioners, therapists and counselors who are trained to do what they do.”

The multi-part series on the cable channel explores the R&B singer’s rise to fame and the history of sexual abuse by Kelly, a Chicago native whose birth name is Robert Sylvester Kelly.

The conversation about the series began with a group of speakers — all Black women — discussing their reactions to the sexual abuse allegations against women and girls by the singer. The talk ranged from disgust to triggers of their own abuse.

“When you have been abused, you become very hypervigilant about that abuse. It affects a variety of areas in your life,” said Movita Johnson-Harrell, the director of victim services for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

“So, the first thing was me dealing with my own abuse. Secondary, I’m the supervisor of victim services for the city of Philadelphia, so my phone began to ring off of the hook with advocates who were having multiple victims come to them saying this triggered them; victims that I know personally who it triggered and lastly it brought to mind how this is not new,” she said.

“Historically, women and children, girls of color have been beaten and raped by — many, many times — people who profess to love them. So, when this happened, while it opened so many wounds and boiled the pot, it also gave us the opportunity to begin to have the conversation about what is going on in our own home, what is going on in our own communities and how do we protect our women and our girls, and not only that, our boys and our men,” Johnson-Harrell added.

State Rep. Morgan Cephas (D-3) said she was alarmed at the number of people who defended Kelly or excused his behavior, stating that “it made me realize more and more we got a long way to go.”

Gerow also questioned how people, including Black women, could continue to protect Kelly.

“They still have that idea about protecting the culture, [that] if we paint a Black man as a monster, that’s only allowing what other people say about us to be put in the forefront and they are trying to protect that,” said Laquisha Anthony, founder of Victory Over Inconceivable Cowardly Experiences and a Catalyst Church member.

“But we should be protecting our children, our women and girls and I think that’s the issue — we are not protecting women and girls in the way that we should,” she added.

Teresa White–Walston, director of education services for Women Organized Against Rape, shared a similar view, stating that too often the victim, especially girls of color, are blamed for being “fast” and “wanting attention” rather than focusing on the root issue.

“We have put this environment of sexuality around our kids, our young women and it becomes normalized for them and then when a travesty happens like now…then we don’t blame the person responsible,” said White-Walston.

“What we need to do is train our young men. When we do psycho educational groups and workshops around sexual assault prevention and consent, we ask our young men to become guardians. We ask them to engage,” she said.

Speaking to how Black men can be advocates or supportive of women, including those who have survived abuse, Cephas advised them to not be “dismissive.”

Harrell-Johnson told the men that if a woman “discloses” abuse, that they should “believe her” and that “Black men need to raise their Black sons to be responsible and caring.”

The community, they all agreed, has to come out of any denial around sexual abuse and be open to having a conversation and seeking help.

“We need to have more of these conversations in our churches, in our mosques, with our families because this is affecting our community. A lot of parents don’t want to have this conversation because they are survivors themselves and they don’t know how to deal with their own pain,” said Johnson-Harrell.

“That’s why we need to have these conversations in church, let people know it’s OK to talk about this — this is how we going to save our children,” she said.

This WOAR 24-hour hotline is available for victims and survivors of sexual abuse (215) 985-3333.

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