Sideling up the aisle, I glanced around the room before snatching the left-over communion bread as I did at the end of every service. Robin, my ballet teacher, mom’s best friend, and all around wonder woman, winked at me. It was definitely not a secret. Everyone knew, but she let nine-year-old me feel the thrill and adrenaline of being sneaky anyway. Over my adolescent and college years, I worked and volunteered in just about every capacity at the evangelical church we planted when I was nine years old. From disinfecting toys to leading parts of the service, I was devoted to the church and her people whom I still consider my family. I could tell you a million stories of the twenty or so families and individuals who were at every birthday, graduation, dance recital, school play, holiday, wedding shower, baby shower, anniversary party, and most recently, we gathered for the memorial service of one who had been such a big part of all of our lives. They knew us well before I walked on the earth, and they are still there today; faithfully serving the congregation alongside my parents twenty to forty years later.
My dad, the head pastor, has always felt strongly about liturgy, church history, and the importance of symbolism. I am grateful for that gift in my life. He holds to three tenants of worship: song, word, table. Table being communion which was, and is, extremely important to him. Every Sunday we would line up to receive the eucharist, and my dad would quietly strum the guitar, looking just down and to the right. He always seemed lost in thought. I would peak over just as I walked past him, longing to catch his eye when suddenly, he would glance up and wink at me. I felt seen and loved, and in all my life I have never met a group of people more loyal and devoted to one another. What they have between them is a rare gift of charity, commitment, and strength. I love these people.
While all the goodness is true and will always be true, the clock of my life stuck midnight and the ghosts revealed themselves.
After a repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse surfaced during my junior year of college, I began an extremely long process of seeing the corporate entity we call, “The Church,” (in every denomination, creed, and region though most of my experience is in the Evangelical Church) for who she is: broken. Immeasurably, historically, fundamentally, she is fucked up; a devastating system that is hurting humans on a global scale, particularly women and people of color, and I think it has probably been like that from the beginning,
Unfortunately for me, I learned those lessons through violence. After confronting the man who perpetrated the abuse during my childhood, he felt he needed to confess to our mutual church pastor at the time. The pastor thanked and praised him for protecting me by not raping me. Another pastor, in another church, publicly declared that my ex-boyfriend hadn’t raped me so I had nothing to be upset about (even though he admitted to verbally, emotionally, and sexually abused me for eight months). In both of those cases, these men were more concerned with my hymen than my mental, emotional, or spiritual health.
An old woman would, among other things, make me strip naked in front of her, stand on the bathroom scale, and stare at the number, while she informed me of all the reasons I would grow up to be fat, disgusting, and shameful. Then she would feed me a sugar sandwich for lunch. There are still people who know this story and don’t understand why I will not engage with her as an adult. They are concerned for my soul if I cannot forgive, which has to look like total social engagement.
To be honest. I have tried to reach out to the church many times for help with my trauma only to be gaslighted, dismissed, publicly humiliated, accused of lying, or given an awkward hug and told to forgive. The soul can only bear so much from a culture that, when the truth comes out, cannot bear to look you in the eye as they blame you, your trauma, and your response to that trauma. You are the real problem, not the damage done to you.
So where does that leave me?
I have changed, and I feel I’m drifting out to sea, away from everyone I love still there on the shoreline. It seems they occupy an island of cannibals and wolves in sheep’s clothing, yet they sit by the campfire eating smores, drinking coffee, and singing along to my dad’s guitar. I feel I’m screaming from the boat, and no matter how hard I row, the current is taking me with her. I can’t get back to the safety of the fire, and more importantly, I don’t think they will come with me no matter what emerges from the jungle behind them.
I cannot unsee, unlearn, or unknow all that I do now. I don’t know where the boat is taking me, but for now I feel I have no choice but to oppose the theological and political climate I occupied with those beloved people for so long. I loved the campfire. But the island is out for blood. Worst of all, as my dad is still the head pastor of the church we planted twenty years ago, I feel I am secretly at war with him even if he isn’t with me. That is to say, I am at war with a piece of my own heart while materially, nothing has changed at all. It’s a cancer in my gut, and it’s eating me alive right now.
Instead of a divergent path and an internal, one-sided, but very real war, I wish I could stand before a expansive, lush, delicious feast where everyone was in and no one was out. Where I could receive the bread of life, and the wine of the a new covenant, Christus Victor, then look over to my dad and catch a wink before turning to a vast and wide congregation of people from every walk of life who are all in it together without having to justify themselves to each other, or to their own souls. I wish I could tell the truth of everything I have been through, all of it, right now. That I could let the poison out, be seen as a complete and dynamic and resilient woman without ruining the lives of other people. I wish I could set boundaries and know that the people who have hurt me would still be loved and welcomed in. I wish that pastor could have forgiven my abuser along side of me, let me teach him and the abuser about real forgiveness, real grace, and real mercy from the one that has been violated rather than downplaying my suffering to preserve the fragile ego of the offender I wish the church as I have known her had space for me now, but I don’t think she does anymore. My family will always be my family.
But I will seek out new saints.