Content Warning: sexual assault
A story published by Business Insider Tuesday detailed decades of sexual misconduct tied to Young Life, an international youth Christian organization, with incidences of sexual assault of former members reported across the country — including at the University of Michigan.
Public Health senior Maddie Malvitz and LSA senior Becca Wong, two of the students interviewed as part of the Business Insider story, both began attending Young Life meetings at the University as freshmen. Wong was promoted to a leadership position her sophomore year.
The two told Business Insider that a male student leader harassed Wong at a block party in 2019 and later that night, invited Malvitz to a house where he and other Young Life members lived.
Instead of going to that house, Malvitz told Business Insider the student leader took Malvitz to the back of another house and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Following the incident, Malvitz said she went to the house where other Young Life members lived and slept on their couch while the student leader went upstairs. During the middle of the night, Malvitz said the student leader came downstairs and demanded they have penetrative intercourse; Malvitz refused.
When Malvitz told Wong about the assault in May 2020, Wong was a student leader and reported the incident to the University’s Young Life leadership immediately, according to the Business Insider story. After doing so, Wong said she was called to meet with leadership over Zoom, where they informed her that she would be terminated from the organization.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Wong said she felt blindsided by this decision and even afterwards still wanted to be a part of the organization. Wong said it took her time to fully recognize the organization’s systemic issues.
“It’s a very harmful experience but when you’re in (Young Life), you really drink the Kool Aid and you really believe everything they’re doing,” Wong said. “Leaving Young Life was a very eye-opening experience, and you can’t really see the problems in Young Life until you’re out of it.”
Malvitz echoed Wong’s point, saying that after her assault and what she believes to be the organization’s manipulative handling of the report, she began experiencing religious trauma that she still struggles with.
“I think my trust in church structures in general has declined extremely,” Malvitz said. “(Young Life) has hurt me so much further than I can explain by using the word of God or saying that what they were doing was more important than the pain I was going through.”
Wong said she believes Young Life will not take proper action unless they are prompted to by people speaking out. She referenced the #DoBetterYoungLife movement, an online forum space dedicated to those who have been harmed by Young Life and want to share their experiences, as an example of how members continue to speak about their experiences in the organization.
“I do not believe that Young Life can change internally,” Wong said. “I think the external pressure is the only thing that will force them to change because we’ve seen how they responded to the #DoBetterYoungLife movement and how they responded to so many stories of people being hurt by their homophobia and their homophobic policies, and they responded with, ‘We’re not changing our policies. This is the Word of God.”’
In an email statement to The Daily, the Young Life parent organization’s communications office said they take all allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment seriously, and “no one guilty of violating or abusing another individual is allowed to continue in relationship with Young Life.” The organization also said they deny all claims from Malvitz and Wong.
“Regarding the specific allegations that Maddie Malvitz and Becca Wong assert, this is an active claim in the EEOC, so we cannot comment. However, Young Life has denied all claims and is defending itself vigorously,” the statement reads.
The Daily also contacted the University’s Young Life branch but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Wong and Malvitz also discussed the shooter threat that was directed at women and shook the University campus over the weekend, specifically mentioning how the threat appeared to target sexual assault survivors. Wong said the threat is one example of the added stress many survivors have about reporting incidences of sexual violence.
“Regardless of whether or not the threat is real, the fear is real and we all experienced that,” Wong said. “I wish the University would have taken this more seriously.”
The University investigated the threat with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and decided there was no harm to the campus, allowing classes to continue in-person as normal. More than a thousand students signed a petition asking the University to hold all classes and activities remotely Monday.
Malvitz said she too was unsettled by the threat, especially considering the fact that the Business Insider article was set to publish within a few days following. Malvitz said she was disappointed by the University’s response and its lack of recognition of how the threat specifically survivors of sexual assault.
“There’s these constant little aggressions that make you not want to speak on campus,” Malvitz said. “A lot of these announcements from the University were just saying, ‘It’s okay now. We are safe.’ They weren’t talking about that it is directly targeting women in the #MeToo Movement It’s dangerous to not notice the violent factors that are going on on campus, and acting like they’re not happening makes it so much worse.”
Wong said she believes it is important to speak about these issues. If survivors choose to report, Wong said, she hopes they feel safe and supported.
“It’s important to speak truth into these issues, because a main weapon of oppression is silence and Young Life has silenced a lot of us,” Wong said. “That’s why we’re speaking out today. We will not be silenced and we are not going away.”
This article has been updated with an email statement from the Young Life parent organization’s communications office.