Wilma Derksen wants people to know she’s not dead.
That’s the message circulating in local and national church and author circles these days, coming from a woman in Australia who is harassing the well-known Canadian author, victims' rights activist, and mother of a murdered child.
"It’s such a mess," said Derksen, who is also a pastor along with her husband, Cliff, at Maplecrest Church in Winnipeg. "I never expected what I thought was a plea for help to turn into this."
It started in August, when she received a text from a pastor in Australia asking if she would work with "Teri" (not her real name), a woman experiencing trauma due to a murder in her family and years of abuse and neglect.
"I said yes immediately," said Derksen, whose daughter Candace, 13, was killed in 1984. The tragedy pushed her to become an advocate, developing programs and training increasing awareness in trauma experienced by victims of crime, as well as writing several books about healing.
She contacted Teri and began to listen to her story.
While in listening mode, "I never question," said Derksen. "I just want to listen and validate, listen to the pain in people’s hearts."
The deeper Derksen went with Teri, the worse the story got — getting pregnant, then a miscarriage, suicidal thoughts, troubles with a partner, a suicide attempt, a trip to the hospital with no vital signs, on and on and then back to health again.
By the end of August, Derksen was exhausted and felt the need to step away.
"My own personal life was so busy," she said. "Things were falling on the wayside."
She tried to close the door gently, suggesting Teri find professional help closer to home. That’s when the harassment started.
"Things went really crazy," Derksen said.
She started getting e-mails from people in the United States who wanted to make movies and books about her life. When Derksen responded, she would get an email from Teri saying: "'You responded to them, why aren’t you responding to me?’"
That’s when Derksen caught on to what she calls a "catfishing" scheme — where someone creates a fake online persona and targets a victim, often a celebrity, as a way to harass them.
"It was all a ploy, all fake, a lie," Derksen said. "The pastor who referred me to her, the partner, the pregnancy, the miscarriage, the murder in the family, all of it."
In September, she cut off all contact with Teri. That’s when the messages about Derksen's death started.
"She knew my life and started to contact my friends with misinformation trying to discredit me, harass my family," said Derksen, adding: "That’s where the nightmare really began."
Reflecting on the situation, Derksen realizes Teri is ill. But it also shows how vulnerable people in the public eye are to social media slander, threats, lies and harassment.
"I never knew how invasive and upsetting this all could be," Derksen said. "I was cowering from her, almost afraid."
She also feels "embarrassed, stupid and humiliated that I let herself be drawn in so deeply." But as a pastor, and someone cares for victims of trauma, Derksen also knows how easy it can be for someone to be drawn into such a scheme.
"It’s what I am called to do," she said. "It’s a fine line."
Gerry Michalski is a long-time friend of Derksen and lead pastor at Soul Sanctuary Church.
"I was in shock when I got the message about her death," he said. "I immediately phoned Cliff to see what was going on."
What happened to Derksen is extreme, but versions of that kind of harassment happen to other clergy, too, he said.
"People need to know it happens," Michalski said, noting he is currently getting angry messages from anti-vaxxers who take issue with his pro-vaccine stance.
"This is a burden for faith leaders when, for whatever reason, people decide to get mean and nasty over something we’ve done or said."
This is especially true online, where "nameless people" can "say whatever they want."
As for Derksen, she just hopes the harassment will end.
"I just need for people to know I’m not dead," she said. "I’m alive and doing fine, really good, actually, given the circumstances."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.