This month, Awake Milwaukee’s board of directors appointed Sara Larson executive director of the organization.
“In my mind this simply confirms the reality we already know,” says Jim Cauley, member of Awake’s board of directors and leadership team. “We thank Sara for leading us all in the work of Awake and for her commitment to our mission.”
Awake first took shape in March 2019, when Larson gathered a small group of Catholics in her Bayview living room to talk about the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Attendees shared grief and anger about the abuse suffered by victims and the leadership failures that protected abusers, and began thinking about possible actions to push for change and help work toward healing in the Church.
Since then, Awake has written its Open Letter to Survivors, now signed by more than 280 people, and has established active working groups to focus on different aspects of its mission, including walking with survivors, advocacy, prayer, and education. Awake has hosted 10 community gatherings to educate and empower Catholics to get involved, as well as 12 discussion groups that provide a safe space for deeper conversation, reflection, and prayer. Awake’s advocacy working group is also engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee about policies and procedures at the archdiocesan level.
Awake is a multigenerational group, with members who represent a variety of perspectives and experiences. The organization became an official 501(c)(3) public charity this July. The executive director role is currently an unpaid position.
A lifelong Catholic and graduate of Marquette University with a degree in theology, Larson, 38, spent eight years working in family ministry at the Family of Four Parishes on Milwaukee’s East Side before discerning a call to devote herself full-time to responding to the abuse and leadership crisis in the Church.
Soon after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was published in August 2018, Larson felt compelled to learn more about what she describes as “the ugly reality of sexual abuse in the Church that I love.” This led to several months of reading, researching, and praying. “By December 2018, I knew that God was calling me to something new, and I left my job in parish ministry to follow this new path,” she says. “I have always loved writing, so my first step was to launch a blog, which I named ‘In Spirit and Truth,’ from the words of Jesus to the woman at the well: ‘Those who worship God must worship in Spirit and truth.’ At the time, I thought I would just be writing for a small group of friends and family, but I quickly learned that there were many Catholics who were hungry for solid information and honest conversation about this deep wound in our Church.”
She launched the In Spirit and Truth blog in December 2018. It now reaches an international audience with information, analysis, interviews, and personal reflection. “The blog has also allowed me to connect with many survivors and advocates around the country for behind-the-scenes support, conversation, and collaboration,” Larson says.
Jerri von den Bosch, a member of Awake’s Board of Directors, and leader of the walking with survivors working group, notes that Larson’s gifts include “a commitment to learning every detail of a decades-old crisis in our Church, her pastoral and communication skills, and her empathetic spirit.”
Larson has many goals for Awake Milwaukee. “I hope we can help Catholics, as well as our wider community, to truly listen to the voices of survivors and become better informed about the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church,” she says. She wants Awake to foster conversation about sexual abuse and to help the Church become more transparent and safe for all. “I’d like us to be part of the long, slow journey toward healing. I know that Awake has made a difference over the past year, but I believe there is so much more we can do, and I’m excited to see where the Holy Spirit leads us next.”
Elizabeth Zimmer, member of Awake’s Board of Directors, called Larson “a born leader and natural choice for Awake’s executive director.”
“Grounded in her faith and love of Christ, she has inspired so many people to open their hearts to victim-survivors of abuse in our Church,” Zimmer adds. “She’s committed to justice and to helping create a Catholic Church that protects all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog