by Wenda Dottridge
In late January of 2008 I made a long-distance phone call to my sister.
Nothing spectacular about that for most people, except that our relationship had mostly become a perfunctory phone call on major holidays or when I needed to order promotional items from her business for my business. Until the previous summer when we met at my parents' home and for the first time in years, we really talked. Since, I'd made a point of calling every few weeks. Or she called me.
On this particular day, I was on my cell phone while I waited for my kids in the school parking lot. The day was one of those brittle winter days with hoar frost-covered playground equipment and car tires that squeaked over hard-packed snow. I listened while she told me what was really happening in their lives. The crystal sparkle of snow blurred and then shimmered through my tears. I cried and cried, my heart breaking for my sister, her husband, and their three nearly-adult children.
But I'm too far ahead. Let me back up....
This has been a fascinating week at Inkwell. The idea of Battle Wounds has been tackled in different ways. Like Dina and Niki I thought we would be dealing with those mothering wounds: childbirth scars and you know, all our scary delivery stories (which makes me wonder why I volunteered, because I'm one of those horrible women who popped babies, sans drugs, like I was "shelling peas." (As an Irish friend observed when I was out for a walk with baby three and two active toddlers within hours of escaping the hospital--see, what woman can resist the opportunity to share her birthing stories?). Ronnie's post yesterday dealt with the very real and often hidden wounds of soldiers in a heartrending way.
After much consideration, I decided to tackle the most dreaded topic in Christianity, the Battle Wounds of a Believer.
Before you tune out, let me say I know this isn't a popular topic. I started a romantic suspense manuscript last year set in an "abusive" church. After I finished the first three chapters, I sent it out to a contest to get some anonymous feedback (as us writers often do) and the response was pretty overwhelmingly poor. I'll grant that my writing might not be the greatest, and that the story execution was lacking. But even acknowledging those factors, one judge summed the general response pretty well when she commented, "I don't want to read another church-bashing story. We get enough of that from the world."
And she had a point. People pick up fiction to escape, not to deal with issues. So I set the manuscript aside. I was still too angry and yes, wounded, by my sister's family's experience to write a good story. And while church abuse might not make a good escape read, I still feel that it is a topic we need to acknowledge.
You see, on that cold day in January my sister told me she and her family had made the decision to leave the church they'd belonged to - and I say belonged in every sense of the word - for over twenty years. I wish my tears had been from joy for a thousand faithless prayers answered, but they were of grief. Because even though they were finally leaving, they were still very much prisoners of a pernicious system of mind-control. Their battle had hardly begun, let alone been won.
My grandmother had a twin-sister who lived with an abusive husband all her married life. There was always a bit of a hush about her and her children. They were loved by my family, but there was a distance, too. An aunt once explained it by saying my grandfather could never tolerate his abusive brother-in-law and refused to have much to do with him. In the days before women's shelters and social workers, interfering would never have occurred to anyone. And so it is with the wider church and the abusive churches in our midst.
We either don't know they exist, or we blame the victims for being victims. If we are aware there might be a problem, we can't interfere because part of the abuse is the very effective "us and them" siege mentality that exists in abusive church families. Any word against the abuser spoken to a victim might damage an already fragile relationship.
It is now understood that when a battered woman leaves her abusive partner, her life is most at risk in the period immediately after she leaves. My sister and her family found this to be true after they left their abusive church. While their physical lives were not in jeopardy, their spiritual lives were assaulted over and over through vicious public character assassinations from the pulpit. And a lifetime of twisted scriptural interpretation voided the power of God's word for them and nullified what comfort and grace could be found in His arms.
I believe absolutely in the power of Christ's blood to heal and redeem every wound in our lives. But I also believe that in God's infinite love for us he granted us free will. And when our innocent trust is violated and we are emotionally and spiritually wounded, our capacity to allow God's grace in our lives may be limited. There is seldom a quick fix for serious injury.
If this were fiction I could wrap it up by writing a happily-ever-after ending with everything tied in a neat bow. It's not that simple. They are still healing from a lifetime of deep wounds, and so are those of us who have shared in some of their journey. But, to borrow from Dina, the wounds are becoming scars, badges of battles fought and overcome. For that we can be thankful and praise God!
Do you have battle wounds as a believer? If so, how have you dealt with those wounds?
Often I hear of people who go from church to church, finding excuses for moving on, rather than stick through something that in reality is a minor offense. It's so easy to take offense, isn't it? But when we do, such as the 20 yrs your sister invested in that church family, it must be devastating.ReplyDelete
I'm sorry too, that your contest feedback made you reconsider tackling such a subject. Perhaps those judges were too sensitive on the issue.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Wenda. Thankfully we do have that God who is willing and able to heal our wounds. And time is a great assistant in that process.
And there is something about God's timing and the growth during the healing!
The only perfect church is the one with no people in it. I've been hurt by people in the church, and it can be very difficult to not equate the whole church with that person or group.ReplyDelete
It seems that Christians have a greater power to hurt one another. I guess because our defenses are lowered. So sorry for the wounds your family has suffered. I hope and pray that they have found a safe haven.
Good morning Deb and Lisa,ReplyDelete
The difficulty in tackling this subject is that, like Deb says, there is definitely a revolving door in many churches where people come in, take offense at some real or perceived slight or slights, and then go out, hurt and wounded by their experiences.
And like Lisa points out, churches are made up of fallible people, and wounds in churches, where we are often vulnerable, is inevitable.
What my sister and her family experienced wasn't like that.
The church (congregation, I know) was abusive in every sense of the word. It attracted them as a young family looking for certainty and the pastor and leaders promised if they followed his teaching, they would succeed as "sold-out for Jesus" Christians, as parents, and in life. But they had to do everything his way.
Under convoluted teaching that incorporated delegated spiritual authority and the twisting of scripture in subtle but persistant ways, the church assumed control of every aspect of their lives: spiritual, social, marital, familial, and financial. Through a system of promised but withheld reward (mission postings, status or position in the church, and even employment with or the business patronage of the church)along with the teaching that they could only serve God by serving their annointed leader, the church controlled them and their children.
They were fortunate they got out before marriages could be "arranged" for their kids--of course the church would deny any such activity, but the leadership of the church "counselled" young people into "godly" marriages all the time with long-term tragic results. And by doing so tied families to each other and the church in unholy bounds. What parent or spouse would leave knowing that by doing so they would likely forfeit any future relationship with their loved ones? Some of the situations described by my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephews make it sound like they lived in Soviet-era East Germany. The kids, in the church school of course, would be pumped for information on their parents and each other. Likewise, there was a network of informants regularly reporting to the pastor. Any misstep involved "counselling." Any open rebellion would result in the misterial staff spreading hints about a person's or couple's instability and resistance to counsel.
You could say they were slain by a thousand small cuts, although some cuts hit deep. Churches that abuse, not just inadvertently wound, do exist in every flavour, theology, and denomination. Just like any human organization, the potential for the systematic victimization is always there. But sometimes that potential spills into a toxic mix of abusive power concentrated in the hands of the wrong people and followers who are at first attracted by the shallow promises of often charismatic (in a non-religious sense) leaders.
That is probably way more than you probably wanted to know and thanks for your patience.
Hi Wenda and Inkies,ReplyDelete
Wenda, you said: You could say they were slain by a thousand small cuts, although some cuts hit deep. Churches that abuse, not just inadvertently wound, do exist in every flavour, theology, and denomination. Just like any human organization, the potential for the systematic victimization is always there.
This is a very powerful post. I love fiction and I love to escape the difficulties of everyday life. My writer gut is saying you could do a lot of good with a non-fiction book about this issue. Think about it.
Thanks Jill for your understanding. There are some excellent non-fiction books on church abuse if you know to look for them.ReplyDelete
I'm also pleased that survivors of this particular abusing church have created an open message board where they are breaking the code of silence and sharing their stories with each others and, hopefully, people still enmeshed in this system. That they are doing so in a graceful and grace-filled way is a testamony to God's continuing presence in their lives.
Wenda, what a powerful post. My heart breaks for your sister's family and all of those affected by the abuse in their church. What a sad, frightening situation. Like Lisa and others, I pray that these folks will find a safe harbor and continue to grow in the Lord as they heal from this devastating experience. Thank you for sharing this story with us.ReplyDelete
Hi Wenda -ReplyDelete
I'm glad your sister and her family found the courage to leave. Although wounded, they're alive and on their way to recovery.
Having been a believer for many years, I've seen a lot. Authority has been used by some to dominate rather than protect. This is true both in the home and the church.
Too often the problems of abuse are equated with the minor ups and downs we all experience. The battered wife is treated like one with a husband who rolls his toothpaste the wrong way. And victims of an abusive leader are told they're not committed.
Thanks for having the courage to address this subject.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your prayers.
You have provided a great analogy! That's it! That was my challenge in sharing about this subject. How do I cut through the prevalent and real "minor" stuff to talk about real abuse.
Thanks for your contribution to the discussion!
I went to a controlling church for a while in my teen years. I've been very careful about that ever since.ReplyDelete
Wenda, I think I book about this subject would be great. I just think you should go a more serious women's fiction/literary type genre where readers aren't looking for escape, but want to tackle tough issues.
Thank you Wenda for tackling this issue by bringing it into the open. I personally haven't experienced anything like this but I've heard others speak of similar stuff.ReplyDelete
I'll be praying for your sister and her family. Praise God they were able to 'come to their senses' and leave before the kids became corrupted and in too deep.
Wow, Wenda. What an incredible story. It just makes me kind of sick to my stomach. I am so glad your sister and her family broke away from this, and I pray they are healing and able to worship in a joyful, spiritually true church.ReplyDelete
I must confess to being a little on the sheltered side, because I honestly have never heard of a church like this-other than a cult. I, too, believe this would make a powerful non-fiction book, or a more serious women's fiction.
Hi Suzie, Anita, and Dina,ReplyDelete
As always, thanks so much for your encouraging support!
I'm so glad Dina you learned to steer clear of controlling churches, and that Anita and Suzie have been able to avoid abusing churches. Of course church abuse is NOT the norm.
Sadly, though, it happens and when it does the impact is, as I've said, pretty devastating.
Wenda, powerful post! Thanks for having the courage to speak up about your sister's experiences. I'm sorry the contest feedback was discouraging and, like Dina suggested, I hope you'll think about reworking your story as women's fiction/literary.ReplyDelete