Recovery (From) Faith: Church Community and Safety

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This week I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Leaving Your Religion by James Mulholland. It is a particularly excellent blog for anyone who has experienced walking away from faith. He is thoughtful and very kind to anyone in the midst of that decision or having made it. It is definitely one of the most thought-provoking and soothing things I read most weeks. This particular week he was discussing how for most people one of the most difficult things about walking away from their faith is leaving their community behind. The idea of having that group of people who supported you through difficult times and just fulfilled so many different roles in your life.

He had a lot of really interesting points that made a great deal of sense… but this was one of the few times that I have to admit I did not resonate with any of them. Leaving my faith community was a tremendous relief to me. The church was not a source of support and love for me, more than anything it was a source of stress and danger.

Understand that of course the church was never a place I chose. It was a birthright. I started coming the week I was out of the hospital. It was one of the only consistent places in my life besides my home. Since I never went to school, it was my only source of teachers who were not my mother, it was pretty much my only experience with adults who were not actually related to me. It was the slightly larger world outside of the one I spent most of my life in. As such, I did spend a lot of time there. If you spend most of your life in a tiny cage, a slightly bigger one is going to seem exciting. When I became a teenager, I was allowed to select other churches. I still had to go with mom and dad on Sunday mornings until I turned 18 but I went to a different church for youth group on Wednesday nights and yet another church that had services on Sunday nights. I went to pretty much every youth event. I attended Bible studies and small groups and camp every year (camp is probably a minimum of one whole entry all by itself). I was involved and invested. Because it was the only thing I knew.

Just because I was invested, just because I knew all the right things to say and argued them fairly articulately for my age (which is to say not that articulately most of the time) does not mean that I felt safe or accepted or at home in church. I did not. Pastors would be the first outside people I would hear talk about modesty. Church was where I was told that my dress was “causing someone to stumble.” It was in church that I was literally walking down the hall hand in hand with an abusive boy for weeks, as “friends”, a boy three years older than myself, a boy no one trusted, a boy whose own mother believed the rumors that got started that he had raped me… but no one would ever say anything to me about it except that our relationship was “inappropriately close.” Do you know what inappropriately close meant? It meant that I was doing something wrong. It meant that I as a 14, 15 year old girl, was sending him mixed signals. It seemed very reasonable to assume that they were correct. When he pushed I did not push back. How could I? I was a bad girl.

It was in church that I had the reputation of being a “bad girl.” I made life difficult for my parents. I was cutting myself, I was sneaking out with older boys. Not once was I ever asked by an adult what was happening. Not once did anyone ever ask me if I was being forced, if I was being pressured. No one asked me a single question at all, as a matter of fact. Well, except maybe one.

“Don’t you know what the Bible says about disobeying your parents?”

It was in church that I learned that my parents were good people, had to be good people. I learned I was the problem, I must be the problem. I was a bad kid, I was broken and screwing up and this was my fault. After all, what 15 year old talks about fighting with her parents and is taken seriously? They were not beating me, they were not touching me and there was food on our table. And I will be completely honest with you, if they had been doing any of those things, I do not necessarily think that the scenario would have been all the different. People loved my parents. They were leaders in our church, they helped with committees and teaching Sunday school and running small groups. I was a problem, they were good people. The rules were so simple and I learned I couldn’t follow them and I did not know or understand why. I deviated wildly between hopelessness and depression to rebellion and semi-reckless behavior because of this knowledge.

When I was assaulted at 17, I did not even have the context to recognize it for what it was. I was a bad girl. I was engaged in a sinful relationship. It doesn’t matter if you fight back at that point, not when you already said yes. It would literally be almost 10 years before I would recognize that it mattered. I would be almost 20 before it even crossed my mind in a serious way that I had a right to say no, at any point in an encounter, not just that if I didn’t right at the beginning I had doomed myself. No one ever told me. No one ever talked to me. They knew who I was. And because they were so sure, I knew too.

My father used to tell me, as I got into my 20’s and began struggling with all my many issues with the church, that the church was just made up of people. I couldn’t be so critical. I had to give grace. That’s what grace means. You allow people to get away with murder or rape or things. You accept that they are human and flawed and sinful and that is our natural state. But God is making us better. You just have to trust that God is making us better. I fought against that concept so hard. It was not enough. It was not enough. It was not enough for me and it has not been enough for thousands like me.

The church is not a safe place. You can say that it is full of flawed people and that is true. All organizations have flaws. But I am going to say that I think that the church, overall, if you looked at it as a whole, is a less safe place than many other places. It is a place that is becoming more and more known for intolerance and hate, a place that is becoming known for not just passivity but an active will to cover up abuse and harm that comes to people. The church is not willing to be honest and that has had devastating consequences and will continue to do so. The American church, when faced with things like a stupid reality tv star saying horribly racist and homophobic things will not say “this is not who we are.” Instead they will scream horrific things defending what they believe is a right to privilege. I literally could not even link to the hundreds upon hundreds of sexual abuse scandals in the church, even the ones that have only come out in the last six months. And do you know what they have in common? Almost every single victim who was brave enough to come forward was revictimized, was told she (or he) was making things up or should brush it under the rug or brought it on themselves. They have protected rape of children and beatings of women and the prolonged mental, physical and sexual abuse of who knows how many because it is comfortable, because they are ignorant and because too many of them want to stay that way. Because it is easier to sweep victims under the rug than to deal with the ugly truth of the world, than to admit that they have not stayed apart from it, it is in their leaders and their friends, it is next door and it is inside their house.

I know amazing Christians. People who truly care about the church, people who truly, genuinely care about people. People who want things to change. I value those people. I hope they can make changes, I do. There are always exceptions, when you are talking about something as huge and sweeping as “the American church” you cannot assume you are talking about every person in it. But they are not enough. They have not been enough to protect the people in their walls, they have not been enough to change the tide of their movement, they have not been enough to even quiet down the increasingly vitriolic hatred from gatekeepers who are terrified to lose an ounce of what they consider rightfully theirs. This does not make them any less incredible people, in fact it might make them more incredible. They probably don’t agree with my perspective, they might even be hurt by it. I hope that isn’t true. I love them and I love what they’re willing to do because I love anyone with passion and vision for something beautiful and right and this belief doesn’t change that to me.

I have a lot of hope for people in general. I believe the world is capable of change, I believe people are capable of change. I don’t think the church is exempt from that, even if I don’t intend to be part of it. I built and am ever in process of building a new community that is full of more amazing people, some of them that I met in that exact place, some of them I met outside of it. I hope someday the church becomes known for something else. Right now I watch and sometimes cry and rage, because you never truly leave your past entirely. But no. I don’t miss the church. I think leaving was one of the most important things I’ve ever done.

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