Surviving Christians

IMG_1132

Like a lot of Christians, I have lived through a number of rotten situations. Like a slightly smaller set of Christians, most of the rotten situations I have lived through were caused by other Christians. They have caused me to question my identity, my faith, and my calling. And because so many of the rotten things that have occurred in my life took place in the context of the church, I thought I had no choice but to tough it out. That became harder and harder to do.

The first time I heard that it was not only OK to leave a toxic situation but was actually described in scripture was after I was accused of heresy, of being a lesbian, and of being a troublemaker… The healthy scriptural advice I needed is found in Matthew 10:14, Luke 9:5 and Mark 6:11. Before I tell you how I began to survive, I need to share one situation I needed to survive. Well, one story, at least. And this story is less tragic for me than it was for several other participants in the narrative. You’ll see what I mean.

The downward spiral began when I received a call being told that one of the girls in the youth group where I served had just been “inappropriately touched” by a friend of her parents, who also happened to be a deacon at my church and the head of the finance committee. I went with her to tell her parents. Her father was understandably angry. Her mother was as well, but not in the way you might imagine. She looked straight at her daughter and said “I thought I raised you better than this! Don’t you know his wife is my best friend? How do you think she is going to feel? What good is telling anyone going to do? You should be able to handle your own business not drag others in to rescue you. You better not mess up my friendship.” I was floored.

I went with her to another family’s house that night. They listened, talked, and prayed with her. It was now my job to report the incident in order to protect her and others.

Our pastor had just retired so I went to our chair of deacons the next day to let him know I had to report the incident. I was after all a mandated reporter. He very gently told me that it was hearsay. It should be handled in-house. I asked to let the deacons know first. He told me that, as a female, I could not attend the deacon meeting but I could send a male representative. Unfortunately, as I was not married at the time, any male I told would constitute gossip so I could not tell anyone. Matter closed…for him.

I did call the police and made my report, but the young woman who was groped and fondled up her skirt recanted. She said I was making something out of nothing. It went down as an incident report and I was vilified by the finance chair and a few others in power at the church. What I found out in this process was that many girls and women had been groped by this man over the years, but all thought it was too disruptive to the community to call him out. He contributed a great deal financially and personally to the church so his indiscretions were overlooked. I was even pulled aside by a well meaning Sunday School teacher and told, “Everyone knows to avoid him, he has always groped women. Just walk on the other side of the sidewalk and you don’t get touched.” Somehow this was acceptable in this church. But not with me. Turns out he also gave porn to boys but no one seemed concerned about that either. Oh…and a year later I learned he had been molesting his own daughter for years. At the age of 13 she was stoned more often than not in order to hide the pain. Still, no one seemed willing to stand up to him.

My time in this church, after all the lies, betrayal, slander, and general angst, ended with the youth group miraculously growing…numerically and spiritually. This is why I stayed. I was witnessing an amazing ministry and believed that if this much good was present, surely something would shift and redemption would come. I had fantastic volunteer youth leaders, wonderful parents, and teens longing to grow more in their faith and put it into action. The time with teens was precious and I really thought I could withstand anything with Christ. What I didn’t see, what I couldn’t see, was that I was losing a lot of weight and getting migraines with the stress of what was happening in church leadership. I was gaunt, sickly and struggling.

After a year, I was pulled aside in the parking lot one night after youth group and told roughly, “We would like to offer you a raise if you would be willing to drop all accusations with the police. If not, we will have to let you go and we will say it is for financial reasons. Sometimes you have to look the other way in order to preserve the unity of the body of Christ.” (emphasis mine). That last part in italics is a direct quote. As if seared into my mind, that phrase surfaces on all too many occasions when I hear horrific stories that have happened in the midst of Christian communities.

And yet here I am. Years later. I am still in ministry. I still love Jesus and the church. I am not the only one to have survived Christians. In the last 20 years I have experienced terrible things. I have walked through even more with countless people. At others times, I have been a listening ear for others to share with me what they have experienced. Sometimes years after the fact; sometimes sharing their story for the first time.

There is power in story and knowing you are not the only one. There is power in hearing how others coped. There is power in learning how to move beyond surviving into thriving. Bullies, predators, and liars all count on one thing: silence by the ones they have wronged.

I want to offer hope to those who are currently struggling. To those contemplating walking away from the church, their faith or worse, their own lives, know this: there is hope.

I was taught as a kid to expect non-Christians to behave like non-Christians. In other words, if they don’t know Jesus how could they imitate Jesus (Eph 5:1). But what happens when they do know Jesus? What happens when it is a Christian or group of Christians destroying the lives of other Christians? These are the things about which we are not supposed to talk. Rapes by fathers, abuse by mothers. Pastors cheating and lying. Professors who are verbally abusive and liars. Church leadership who uses people like pawns. Ministries who dismiss long time employees for fictitious reasons. It all comes down to some form of betrayal. That which was to keep us safe, those who were supposed to be above reproach and trustworthy are too often the ones who torpedo the lives of the next generation. We need to stop the cycle. I no longer expect non-Christians to not imitate Jesus. Many imitate Jesus quite well whether they know it or not. I do, however, call those of us who are professing to follow Jesus to align our lives in such a way as to imitate Jesus intentionally, even when it costs us. Otherwise, what is the point?

What I am looking for are stories from others. Stories of Survival, even if barely. How have you coped? Where did you find hope? I’d love for those in the midst of struggle to know they are not alone. Post your story in the comments. Send it to me directly if you are not comfortable with comments. Use a pseudonym if you need. But share your story. If you know of someone who has a story to share, pass this along to them. Pass it on anyway, you never know who does have a story of survival.

I need your help to get this out there. I will be posting on this topic again. There are many stories that need to be told. We need a repository of hope.

 

Violence and the “Bad Ass Jesus”

It’s national Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’ve been stewing about what to write all month. Raising awareness and fighting violence has long been a passion of mine. This month however I’ve struggled to find what to say. I’ve struggled as I keep reading the statistics that don’t seem to end.

I’ve struggled in particular as I read continuously about Christians, about ministers, about pastors and I think back on the ministers and Christians in my life who have abused others or who have been abusive to me. Turns out, my beloved youth pastor from when I was a teen had multiple girlfriends and indiscretions. I have been on staff with a denomination that uses scripture to keep women “in their place” even recalling a guest speaker at the baptist church I attended who said a woman who remains faithful through abuse, physical and sexual violence from her husband honors the Lord as she becomes a witness leading him to salvation. I asked at that time how long she must endure the violence? I was told until her husband was saved and she would find peace knowing his eternal security was worth all of her pain.

I read this past week about Mark Driscoll’s “Bad Ass Jesus”. Let me be clear…I am not saying Driscoll advocates abuse, but his machismo approach certainly allows for it. See his recent post on pacifism…at least his caricature of it. In a world where it is de rigueur to read or here about violence, abuse, bullying, suicide and murder all around minor disagreements, WE, the church MUST speak out against violence. For many of us we were taught that turning the other cheek was THE only response. (See my article at CYMT this week). It’s not.

Driscoll and those who follow his ilk of Christianity are not right. It demeans men and women. If anything, Christianity embracing a hyper-masculine, violent ideology is advocating a faith that looks more and more like the world and less and less like Jesus. It is in fact, not Christianity. There is nothing about it that resembles Eph. 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of Christ as beloved Children”

Lest you think this is not an issue…check out Watch Keep. I’ve written about Amy’s story before. She was let go from being a long term youth worker volunteer as she insisted on advocating against violence. That was just this past summer (2013). We have a problem and we must speak up.

I’m not typically a fan of bumper sticker theology but I must admit…I like the one that says “When Jesus said love your enemies, I’m pretty sure he meant don’t kill them.”

Death comes in many forms. Sometimes to the body, sometimes to the soul. Jesus came that we may have LIFE! As this month closes, perhaps we need to shift from considering advocacy for peace once a year to all year. From reducing the numbers of those impacted by abuse, To looking at the world and believing that the Prince of Peace is indeed the one who guides our steps, words and actions.

the backlash when speaking up about abuse

ingo_hero

In nearly every class I have taught for the last 15 years two major topics have arisen. One is a conversation around ministry with and to those with disabilities. The second, and all too often not unrelated, is around issues of abuse and violence.

I have no shortage of stories of horrific things that have been done to children and youth. I also have no shortage of youth workers who have been wounded in the process of trying to do right. I have spoken before about the very seminary where I taught being told that there was no place in chapel to have this conversation. As frustrated and angry as that made me, I was simply ignored not told I was a trouble maker for bringing up this very subject.

It is beyond time for leaders, vocational ministers and lay leaders to take a stand. To demand better. To seek justice so that peace may come. To be willing to face consequences and speak truth even when it costs.

Amy Smith has been valiantly speaking up for those who have been abused for years. She has also been a volunteer youth worker for years. It seems that a narrow understanding of what is “good” for our children has distorted the perspective of leadership where she has been. While I do not know her personally, I know her work. I know that what she is experiencing is deeply personal. I also know that being uninvited to the table is not necessarily a sign of being wrong. In fact, it may be that she was a little too right.

Read her story, hear her words. I am telling you now, if you are not angry at the end you need to check yourself. We MUST have this conversation and we MUST encourage those who are being wounded in the process.

Being silent does not mean there is not a problem. It means the problem is sure to continue.

Amy Smith- watchkeep

Denounce blaming the victim

Similar to Calenthia’s post, my mind is filled with thoughts of the new school year. I get excited, nervous, and, in moments of truly sober thought, I am profoundly struck with the responsibility not only for the students in my classes but for the hundreds if not thousands of young people who may be touched by their lives. My teaching takes on a whole new weight!

In addition to actual content, I think about how I teach, how I treat my students, what messages I send by the tenor of class and both by what I chose to cover and not cover in class. I try to be attentive to specific students and needs throughout the semester without having the course hijacked by any one particularly needy student or situation.

I am also aware of the conversations that take place outside of class. For the past fifteen years I have had a full course load in some form or fashion. I am also aware that every semester, I have at least one student come to me and either ask for help from a past abuse or to seek direction for an abusive situation taking place currently. This is above and beyond the expected teaching load, but it is a part of the reality of teaching in higher education.

I read an article in the NY Times over the weekend regarding a Catholic priest’s response to alleged and confirmed sexual abuse of children by other Catholic priests. I can hear the concern this priest has for the abusers. In fact, it is unusual to hear that at all. When I teach a crisis class, I almost always have one person who expresses concern for the people named as or convicted as abusers and what is the church to do with him or her at that point. The reality is that for many of my minsterial students, they would just as soon ship all abusers off to a colony never to be heard from in polite society again…until it turns out to be someone they know. I digress.

What caught my attention in this particular article was the priest saying out loud what I hear in veiled comments or behind closed doors all the time. “(T)that “youngsters” were often to blame when priests sexually abused them and that priests should not be jailed for such abuse on their first offense.” If not a priest, insert the term boyfriend, pastor, youth pastor, mentor, friend etc. I sit with victims of abuse and often find them to be broken young people who believe that they have done something wrong. If it is recent, they are asking what is wrong with them. If it was when they were younger, they are wondering what it means for relationships now. Regardless of timing, it has thrown a wrinkle in their identity formation and ability to trusty. The hardest part is that it is not only about their ability to trust others but their ability to trust themselves. They wonder what kind of person lets that happen. They wonder if they will ever be a good judge of character.

As the semester begins again, I am reminded not only to think of my course content but of the students sitting in class with me. To think of students from past semesters. To think of the young people I may never get to meet who will be impacted by classes I teach. I am reminded to pray for them and to say out loud, if they have been abused or are being abused, it is not their fault. Enough blaming the victim!