By Elizabeth Zimmer
Board President, Awake Milwaukee
Awake began to take shape in March 2019, when a small group of Milwaukee-area Catholics gathered in a living room to talk about the Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Through fellowship and prayer, we formed a mission to awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and work for transformation and healing throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. We know we don’t have all the answers, but as members of the Body of Christ, we feel called in this moment to listen, learn, and lead.
Over the past 18 months, Awake’s team of volunteer leaders has reached out to people who have been affected by abuse in our Church. We’ve met with survivors and their family members, Catholics from around the Archdiocese, sexual abuse advocates and experts from around the country, clergy, parish ministers, and Archdiocesan staff. As we listened, we learned from personal stories, continuing meetings and dialogue with Church leadership, expert panels and conferences, and from our own ongoing research into the complicated issues that have contributed to the reality of abuse. We engaged Catholics from around the Archdiocese by hosting community gatherings and discussion groups to reach hundreds of people.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted our in-person gatherings, Awake continues to build connections and provide support to survivors. From our initial Letter to Survivors, signed by hundreds of people throughout Wisconsin and elsewhere, to our Walking with Survivors working group and our new Survivor Advisory Panel, we are making a difference for survivors by finding opportunities to share their stories, build community, and advocate with and for individuals and their families. Our team has connected with dozens of survivors, many of whom followed us online before reaching out directly. For survivors and their family members who have been traumatized by abuse and mistreatment, Awake’s online content and community offer safe, low-barrier ways to access support and information, sometimes for the first time.
“Alone I feel powerless, but the multiple strong voices of Awake give me the courage to address these issues. Together we can make change that I don’t think I can hope for on my own.”—Shared By An Abuse Survivor
We have adapted our plans for the year ahead to meet the needs of our supporters and fulfill our mission under the challenges of the present reality. Our upcoming initiatives include:
- Developing and presenting concrete recommendations to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to build a more transparent, compassionate, and safe Church for all.
- Hosting a series of online presentations that will serve those who are living with the wounds of clergy abuse and provide information that is of interest to Catholics around the Archdiocese. These sessions will bring the expert information we have learned from local and national panels and conferences right to the people who need it most, from the comfort and safety of their own homes.
- Updating our website with educational materials for survivors, church leaders, and all Catholics.
- Expanding our outreach to clergy, sharing our mission and ministry with parishes around the Archdiocese. Awake is uniquely positioned to offer resources that parish leaders can access for their ministry to grow in understanding of the abuse crisis.
Since our beginning, Awake has been a volunteer-driven ministry. Our newly appointed executive director, Sara Larson, our leadership team, and our board of directors all continue to volunteer their time, talent, and treasure to fulfill our mission. Given our new status as a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization in the state of Wisconsin, Awake can begin this fall to accept financial contributions to help run the programs outlined above and provide a stipend to our executive director.
Awake is the only local organization working to bridge the gap between survivors of abuse and the people in the pews of our parishes. We know that so many Milwaukee Catholics want to work toward healing the wounds of abuse for survivors and for our Church. Awake’s first-ever fundraising appeal this fall is another way that individuals can join in our ministry. Donations to the Awake fall appeal will help provide materials for parish outreach, cover licensing costs for our website and virtual gathering platform, and allow us to offer stipends to experts involved in our upcoming virtual presentations. In all these ways and more, financial support helps Awake keep the voices of the wounded front and center to help us all make progress toward transformation and healing in our Church.
Elizabeth Zimmer lives in Shorewood with her husband Eric and four small children and belongs to St. Robert parish. She has been involved with Awake since early 2019, after feeling called to “do something” about the deep wounds caused by a growing awareness of abuse in the Catholic Church. She credits Awake with giving her a safe place to share, listen, and ask tough questions with other people of faith, making it possible to connect with the pain of survivors, and inviting her into the work of transformation and healing.