Fair warning: this is going to be long. But worth it, I hope.
Our recruitment period at the fundamentalist church-cult was over about three years after we had become members. I don’t remember anything before this point being bad– in fact, all I do remember was preferring our church to the other churches we had visited. I’d made friends, a few in particular.
So I was confused when Anna’s* family didn’t show up for church one Sunday morning when I was thirteen, maybe fourteen. They didn’t come to church Sunday night, either. Or Wednesday. They didn’t show up for “Visitation” on Thursday, either. I asked my best friend, the pastor’s daughter Christina*, what had happened. Were they ok? Did they go somewhere? I figured she would know– being the pastor’s daughter gave her an “in” with church gossip. I was worried about Anna– especially since the last time I’d seen her we’d gotten into a tiff and I hadn’t said some very nice things.
Christina told me that her family had been “sowing division in the church.”
“Sowing division? What does that mean?” I’d had a vague inclination about “sowing division” in the context of how people accused us KJV-only types that insisting on our translation was “sowing division,” and basically our response was to blow that accusation off. That didn’t really make sense, here.
“Her father has been holding private services outside of church, without Pastor’s approval, and trying to teach people heresies.”
That was pretty much the the extent of our talk, as words like “heresy” tend to be conversation-ending. I didn’t know what to do with this information, but it just… it just didn’t feel right. Luckily, Anna’s family lived in my neighborhood, as was within easy biking distance. I biked over to her house, all by my lonesome. Anna’s mother answered the door.
“Samantha– what are you doing here?” Her voice sounded surprised, shocked even.
That’s strange– I come here all the time. I knew why I had come– if Anna was never going to come back to church, I couldn’t let the last things I ever said to her be awful. “I have to talk to Anna.”
“I don’t know if that’s a very good idea right now.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to do– should I just turn around and leave? But Anna appeared behind her mother, and it was obvious that she had been crying. When I looked at her mom again, I realized that she had been crying, too. What was happening?
“It’s ok, mom, I want to talk to her,” Anna said, and we went to sit in the backyard on her swing set. We trailed our feet in the sand for a while without saying much of anything.
I finally had the courage to say something. “Anna, I just… wanted to say I’m sorry. For the things I said.”
Anna nodded. “It’s ok. It’s not a big deal, not anymore.”
I didn’t now if I could ask what was happening– how did someone ask “Hey, is your dad teaching heresy?”
“What did Christina say?” She asked suddenly.
I was floored. “Uhm . . . just . . . well, it didn’t really make sense.”
“She, well, she said that your dad was sowing division,” I whispered.
Her laugh was so hard and bitter. “Figures.” Our feet made a scraping-swoosh sound as our flip-flops skidded over the sand. “Dad was just having a Bible study. We were having a few families over for dinner, and then we’d just all sit around and talk.”
That made sense. I could see Anna’s dad doing something like that– he always had interesting things to say whenever he taught Sunday school, and I knew he was smart. And a Bible study didn’t sound so bad. Sounded like a good idea, to me.
“But Pastor found out about it, and he got all mad, and… he said we’re not allowed to come back to church anymore.” And she started crying. I didn’t know what to do except cry with her. I stayed for a little bit longer, and we talked about other things. I even saw her dad before I left, and I remember him putting his hand on my shoulder and thanking me for coming to visit. There were tears in his eyes, too. I wanted to hug him and tell him everything was going to be ok, that it would all work out.
When I told Christina about my conversation with Anna, her reaction was almost violent. She was furious with me– how dare I go behind her back like that. How dare I go to the people who had “hurt her family” and “disgraced the church.” She made it very clear that associating with “those people” was choosing the wrong side. They were filled with nothing but lies. Anna was only going to try to make the church, and our Pastor, look bad. They were out to ruin our reputation.
I never went to see Anna again.
Five years later, during my freshman year at a fundamentalist college, my phone rang. That didn’t happen very often, so I was confused when I picked up the handset. It was Christina. She had been upset with me for choosing to attend college, and we hadn’t been on very good speaking terms since then, so I was relieved to hear her voice. I had been horribly afraid of losing her friendship, as she had been my only constant friend through all of the ups and downs at church.
She was not calling just to connect, though. She was sobbing. “The Stricklands* left the church, Sam.”
“What?” That was shocking. They had been there so long, had gone through so much with us. “What happened?”
“I don’t know!” She wailed. “All daddy would say is that Mr. Strickland said that we were all demon-possessed!”
Demon-possessed? What in heaven’s name? “Are you sure he said that? That sounds . . . so crazy.” Mr. Strickland was probably one of the most down-to-earth, solid people I could think of.
“What do you mean if I’m sure? Of course I’m sure! Are you accusing my father of lying?”
I instantly back-pedaled. “Of course not. That just doesn’t sound like Mr. Strickland, is all I meant.” I thought of his wife, and his children, who I adored. They seemed like a normal, healthy family. They were an integral part of our tight-knit church. For them to suddenly leave . . .
“You are. You think daddy’s lying.” Her rant went on for the next few minutes, and I fell into my habit of listening without really listening. It was the only way to survive some of these conversations with her. “Well, all they’re doing is trying to drag our good name through the mud, but it won’t work. We may be persecuted, but God will make sure that we prevail. The truth always finds us out.”
After she hung up, I sat on my bed and tried to cry. I’d cried for so many families over the years. Families that just hadn’t understood all the good we were trying to do. Couldn’t they see all the people our church had brought to Christ? Didn’t they understand that other churches didn’t really have good intentions when they didn’t preach on sin? We were the only beacon of light in that town. The only people willing to preach the Gospel.
Looking back, now, I can so clearly see what was happening.
The abused were being silenced.
If the dozens of families who “abandoned” my church had been able to tell their story, to speak truth, then the evil would have been exposed for what it was. If we had been allowed to communicate with those who had realized that the church-cult and its leader were horribly abusive, then it would have ended.
But, for all of these families, the only option was silence. Be quiet, don’t rock the boat, keep your head down, and just get out of Dodge as quick as you can. Talking about the abuse they suffered would have been received as “sowing division.” Everyone still in the grips of the cult would have shunned them– just like we did with Anna’s family, when her father tried to tell people what was happening. He didn’t even go about it directly– he just started trying to counterbalance some of the horrible ideas the leader was spouting from the pulpit.
But no. These people were creating discord. These people were liars. Once a family had left our church, the leader would get up and give an explanation for why they had gone– and it was always their sin. Their disobedience. Their refusal to honor God’s word and the Shepherd he had put over them to guide them. We were not to associate with them, lest we be tainted, and bring their evil spirit into our church.
It’s been about seven years since my family left. When we left, we were immediately followed by a vitriolic rampage. My father was weak– he was being manipulated by his “woman.” My mother was a whore. She was bent on destroying her family– see, they even let their daughter go to college, and he lifted up a letter I’d written to Christina trying to explain, directly to her, why we had left– so she’d have something beside her father’s lies. See, he said– see how college only corrupts and perverts a woman’s weak mind.
It’s been seven years, and I am still hearing this. Not necessarily about that church in particular. No– speaking about abuse in fundamentalism, why, can’t you see that all you’re doing is giving us a bad name? All you’re doing is talking about how much you hate the church– and don’t you see how damaging that is? Don’t you understand that you’re just driving people away from other good IFB churches? You’re putting out a spark of hope, Samantha. You need to forgive. You shouldn’t be angry. We need to love. Pointing out all these wrongs is just hurting churches that are trying to do the right thing. You’re not being very edifying, Samantha. You’re a bully.
First off– I am trying to do my damn level best to give IFB churches a “bad name.” It is my sincerest hope that no one will ever attend an IFB church ever again and that the movement will die. Yes, there are IFB churches that aren’t horribly abusive like the church I grew up in– but fundamentalism is abusive. The doctrines that make up the core of fundamentalist theology will lead to abuse in some form, whether mild or severe. Legalism, inequality, dualism, sexism, rape threats, and docetism are inherent qualities of fundamentalism that cannot be escaped, no matter how much “good” these churches claim to be doing. All the soup kitchens in the world cannot overcome the rampant abusiveness in fundamentalist doctrine.
I do not hate the church. My beliefs concerning theology don’t really stray that far from your typical Protestant orthodox. I’m leaning progressive, have some ideas that some might call “universalist” and I just think of as “consistent,” though, just to be honest. My point being: I love the church. It is because I love the church that I am compelled to speak truth. The ideas I talk about, while I can only speak to how they appear in fundamentalism, are not limited to right-wring crazies. Many of these ideas are considered central and moderate, by some. They are everywhere, and they saturate conservative evangelical culture. Left unchecked, these ideas will continue to cause untold damage. I am heartbroken by the countless stories of abuse, and because of love I must speak out. I believe that the church can overcome this. I believe that Christ’s message of reaching out to the oppressed, the abused, the marginalized, can be the message we cling to. I believe that the current culture of shame, silencing, violence, abuse, victim-blaming and slut-shaming can change. That’s why I write.
Being told to just “forgive” and how “forgiveness” is somehow supposed to equal my silence– if I were really forgiving, I wouldn’t be talking about it– deserves its own post. Thankfully, there are many others who have written that post for me, for now– although I might get to it.
So yes. I’m angry, and I’m here, and I will be here, trying to use my story to make the world a better place.