I don’t touch people. That has been my default response after 14 years of teaching public high school students. It just wasn’t at school where I refrained from touching people, but in all areas of my life since as long as I can remember. There are those few moments and those few people who have broken through that tough outer shell that I have built for decades, but those are few and far between.
I know part of my “no touching” policy had to do with my profession. As a teacher, we go through classes and are warned about touching students. Any kind of physical touch could be used by a student to accuse you of a sexual assault that could end your career. So instead of trying to figure out when physical touch was appropriate, it was just easier and safer to not touch my students. My no touching policy was almost as known by the upper classmen as my classes were. It meant that there were no high fives, fist bumps, side hugs, or physical interaction with students and faculty alike.
One of the other reasons why I wouldn’t touch people was because touch was used against me when I was in 3rd and 4th grades. The three or four boys in my class picked me out as their target for harassment. I was an overweight and smart child, so I was a target. They would sneak under tables during library time watching film strips and pinch my bottom. One time in 4th grade when we were waiting for the buses to arrive, my teacher went out of her classroom to talk with a peer. While she was gone, one of the boys pushed me into a chair and then restrained my hands behind the back of the chair. The other two decided to feel all over my body. Even though it was only for a few minutes, I felt helpless. They would talk about me and look for opportunities to find me alone in the classroom seeing what they could do next. When my mom tried to complain about what had happened, she was told “boys will be boys”.
I went into high school and the harassment changed forms. I was (and still am considered) obese and that became something to ridicule me about. Even though my mom was a teacher in the high school and I had a perfect 4.0 GPA, none of that mattered to those three or four boys. I was so afraid of those people touching me or mocking me that I carried around my books in my bag to keep from running into them in the hallway by my locker. I had a zip-up, knock off trapper keeper that I clutched in my arms in front of my body. I held on so tight that many days I would have to peel it away from the skin of my forearm at the end of the school day. I have scars that look like track marks on the inside of my arms because of this.
All of this led to me not touching people and not wanting to be touched by people. I wouldn’t even touch or hug my best friend in high school. When a stranger would accidentally touch me, I would flinch and pull back. In college I would apologize for bumping a shoulder and would make sure there was always plenty of room between myself and others. I would politely shake hands with people, but a side hug was normally out of the question.
Still, college was great for me. I lost a lot of weight and dropped twelve dress sizes. I gained a confidence in myself mainly by being a part of the honors program and my campus ministry. I was with a peer group who didn’t care what I looked like and accepted me for who I was. I was finally felt loved for who I was as a person.
When I started teaching, I was overwhelmed and scared. Since I didn’t like to touch people, my no touching policy was easy enough for me. Even though I was more confident and self-assured, I still didn’t really want to touch other people. Yet through that time, I longed for someone to gently touch me. Every girl yearns for that special someone to hold her hand and make her feel loved.
Time passed and I started to feel better. I did find that special someone and touch was finally starting to be redeemed for me, but my no touching policy for people outside of my immediate family continued.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2013, that things began to change for me. Through a random drawing, I found someone who would become my best friend. Mo was in our church to minister for the summer with an organization who led mission trips for other groups. Our church decided to adopt out these young adult leaders to families. We would do that person’s laundry, provide snacks, invite them over for Sunday lunch, and be a family for them when they were far from home. Mo pulled our family’s name out of the offering plate and came running for us. What happened next still gets me. Mo came up and hugged me. Not just a quick side hug, but a big tight bear-hug as she wrapped her long arms around me.
You see, Mo didn’t know that I was a touch free person. She showed how much she loved through touch. She was the first one to break that tough shell I had around myself. Every time she saw me that summer, she hugged me.
The summer passed and she left SW Missouri and went back home to Atlanta, GA. We traveled several times to see her and her family. The first time I went to church with her, she held my hand during the service. There was nothing sexual about it, just a touch to say that we genuinely care about each other. Just this last October, when we saw each other for the last time, our hugs lingered and we just held hands. I love her so dearly and our touch shows that. I know that saying things like this may come across as homosexual, but we just have a strong, godly affection for each other. Nothing like I have ever experienced with anyone else.
The years of knowing Mo, broke open the idea of touching another person in a God honoring way. I said that I never touched students, that just isn’t the full truth. When I attended the funeral visitation for the second student of mine to die in 10 days, I couldn’t help but touch. I held the grieving friends and grieving sister. I let those girls just sob in my arms, because they knew I was safe. There were other students of mine there who saw me not only touch but also love those who were grieving.
After leaving education, I started to realize that I could physically interact more with people who were around me. Even though I didn’t really think about it as a change of my view of touch, I started touching people and letting others touch me. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me after a very difficult experience recently, to have one woman at church after another come up and hug me and tell me how much she loved and appreciated me.
It wasn’t until I started reading Lore Ferguson Wilbert’s new book Handle With Care, that I started to process through the changes in my own life and ministry with touch. I started reading the book and was very uncertain about the whole premise of the book. It sounds weird in this day and age to talk about touching in church. With #metoo and #churchtoo, so many people are afraid of any kind of physical contact outside of the handshake in a church setting.
Lore Ferguson Wilbert puts the heart of this book around being more Christlike in our physical interactions with our spouses, children, friends (single and married), and strangers. Jesus came to this earth physically. In the Old Testament, there were so many rules about what you don’t touch: things and people that were considered unclean. If you want to be close to the presence of God, you cannot have anything unclean or blemished. Yet, when Jesus came to the earth, he touched. He touched the unclean to heal them when he could have just said the word and healed them. He touched dead bodies and brought them back to life. He let the unclean and outcasts touch him. Jesus broke the rules about touch and let people touch God incarnate.
Mrs. Wilbert’s honestly addresses her struggles with appropriate touch and the struggles that many people within the church have with touch. She challenged me to move beyond my “I don’t touch people” mindset, to think about ways that I can show love through touch to those around me.
There were times while reading the book that I was unsure of where she was going with a particular topic, but by the end of each chapter I understood the point she was making. On one or two items, I still have different opinions, but that doesn’t take away from the main message Mrs. Wilbert was making in the book. I enjoyed the opportunity to break out of my comfort zone to read something different than what I normally read. Since I am still thinking about the topics addressed in the book, then it is something that I needed to read.