A Story of Abuse in a Faith Community and My Path to Healing and Forgiveness
A lot has been made in recent years of different pastors being removed from their positions of authority due to abusing their authority or abusing their parishioners in one way or another. It’s different than most, but this is my story.
Most of my posts (when I do post) are about food, but lately I’ve decided to include more variety. This one is by far my most unique and vulnerable sharing…
This weekend an every day, normal conversation lead to a painful memory of a time that I thought I had moved beyond…and I had in many ways, but sometimes the scars from the past can get scratched a bit and remind us where a wound once was. As I share these various, loosely connected thoughts, I’ll allow you come to your own conclusion; no wrap up, no 3 points, no packaged take-aways – all with the hope that this is beneficial for someone reading. Allow my words to individually speak to you as they should.
Imagine me with my legs curled up underneath me, cup of hot tea in hand as I sit perched on my soft white sofa. The (excessive) throw pillows are all on the floor around us to make room for a heart-to-heart couch conversation. You say something that sparks a memory and I think back, long ago, to a place where I have some of the best and worst memories, to a time when I was still figuring out who I was and the world seemed somewhat simpler and yet complicated all at the same time….
I worked and volunteered at a local camp growing up. My mother volunteered as a counselor and craft lady and I quickly became an awkward teenager junior counselor/program assistant. I relished it and it was there that I realized that I had a talent for working with children. Not just any children, but ‘The Challenges’ that make you want to pull your hair out and, in some cases, adopt them out of their current situations all at once. When I turned 17 or 18 I got to be a full-grown counselor with my own cabin of little girls. I loved spending time there and looked forward to volunteering for a few weeks every summer. I have some lifelong friendships that I made, tested, and strengthened on those beautiful wooded grounds. I poured my heart and soul into the work and it was there that I decided to become a teacher.
This is Melinda as a teenager, several years after she was the youngest 8 year old in my first cabin. Now she is grown and I had the privilege of attending her wedding 5 years ago.
During my sophomore year in college a great offer was made to me: All summer long Assistant to the Camp Director (the title later morphed into Program’s Manager). I got to spend my whole summer in a place I loved, serving children and working under a woman that I deeply admired. Eventually I was in charge of the planning of the various activities and games that the kids enjoyed. It was great. It was hard work. The hours were long, the pay was dismal, but it wasn’t about that; I loved my work. It truly was a labor of love.
There were some late night shenanigans about to go down and I was ‘on watch’.
Every now and then, I’d catch wind of the dark side of this camp, but I was so shielded from it and didn’t have to face ‘The Board’ since they rarely made any appearance at the camp. It was tough on others though and I saw ever so slight glimpses of soul-weariness on their faces as they bounded on with the tasks of making a summer camp run properly.
This is me doing cabin role-call at the morning flag poll. I had lost my voice so someone is speaking for me through the walkie-talkie :) Some weeks the kids would come up with an original song to serenade me with when I called their cabin number.
My second year on all-summer-staff some changes were made to the staff directly above me. I continued on under new leadership, sad to see some of my favorites go, but hopeful for what the change might mean. I was blindly optimistic. Quickly I learned that my one boss, let’s call him No. 1, had no camp experience and was relying on his time from his military years. I am not sure what his rank was, but I imagine he must have had spent some time being yelled at by drill sergeants and appeared to be super excited to have his shot in a position of authority. His coworker, let’s call him No.2, under No.1, but above me, looked at this man as an incompetent mis-hire, but confessed to schmoozing him to make the team work. No. 2 had a fiery temper, but knew who to use it on (i.e. not the board members or any parents of campers – hired staff was fair game) and was ready to wield his control. The entrance of these men into the camp and into my life turned my happy place into a nightmarish hell.
To me, and to several onlookers, it appeared that I could do nothing right. I was, on some occasions, spoken to about my lack of modesty in my dress (one time I was wearing khakis and a button down shirt). To clarify, I have a body like a woman. I have curves where woman have curves. My one co-worker joked that this is what the men found so offensive and thought that my only option was to wear a burka (I did not). I was told to wait on and ultimately wasn’t given promised supplies I needed for my job or given resources to get those supplies for activities (and so in order to do my job, those 12 hours off were often spent with my mother going to various stores, spending our family’s money for said purchases). I was berated for answering the phone, for not answering the phone, for dressing too nice (it made me “look like I wasn’t working”) for being too close to my other summer staff coworkers, for not being close enough to others, for things I did not do (see story below**) I was even told that I had lost my ‘sparkle’ (something some of us still laugh about today). Really to list it all would be too much for me to emotionally go through or for you to hear, but it was bad. Really bad.
Sometimes others would witness the coal-raking, other times, I alone was the witness to my castigation. Often times I could count on a gentle hand on my back or a ‘I’m so sorry’ and ‘I’m here for you’. I had a band of brothers one summer that constantly looked out for me and checked in on me to ensure I was okay. I wasn’t the only one that endured what happened, but my staff position gave me the best seat in the house for it. I DO think that some of it had to do with the fact that I was a woman. No doubt about it. Despite what I endured, it must have been nothing compared to one of my co-workers. He took his own life that summer. I still don’t know the full story surrounding that, but it is my firm belief that if different staff had been in those positions of authority, he would still be alive.
I was not faultless or perfect and did not handle the adversity like I probably should have in most cases. I could have been more gracious in some instances, I could have been bolder and less passive in others. I made some choices then that I would definitely change now. I have the hindsight, maturity and life experience to know that I could have done better. My guess (and hope) is that some of the offenders probably feel the same way about some of their actions.
Years down the road I am still intrigued that my well-intentioned mother was totally okay for me to live and work under these conditions and yet, traveling to Indonesia to live with my best friend’s missionary aunt and uncle was just too far and too dangerous. My mother was concerned about my physical safety, but didn’t fully know to be wary of my emotional or spiritual safety while I worked under these emotional-abusers. Like a glutton for punishment, I came back until my ‘position was eliminated’ at the camp.
Don’t be like me. If you experience this or any type of abuse, get help and get out. I know that’s so much easier said than done. If you see it happening, do what you can to stop it. Do not allow a person in authority to feel comfortable and welcomed treating people or holding power in this way. Our communities will only change if this kind of behavior is simply not tolerated.
You might read this and wonder what my faith looks like now. Did I leave The Church? Am I still a believer? I am very happy to say that I am still a believer and a member of a local church. God in his graciousness surrounded me with loving, godly men just when I needed them. In addition to those camp brothers, when I returned to college, I worked under a remarkable man in my campus ministry. He built me up when I arrived to our team retreat crying, broken, and insecure. He was medicine to my soul and he and his wife are a very important part of my faith story. He took risks on me as a leader. I sometimes came up with outside-of-the-box ideas, and he’d encourage me to go for it, not knowing what the outcome would be. To him and his wife, and his coworker that spent countless hours teaching me what it meant to let go, I will be eternally grateful.
After college my best friend’s aunt and uncle took me in for a summer and allowed me to work together on their camp programming in Indonesia. I learned so much from her and garnered so many fantastic ideas. I was essentially her shadow, going where she went, doing what she did, always learning. He welcomed me as part of their family and provided for me in numerous ways during my stay. They were patient and generous with me. I have fantastic memories from that time and from the people that I met while there. A piece of my heart is reserved specifically for Indonesia and for that family in particular.
The thing is, God isn’t like people. God doesn’t wield His power in the way that insecure humans do. My God doesn’t look like the man screaming a 20-something year old girl in a camp office. My God looks like Jesus, speaking kindly and gently to the woman at the well. He is Jesus writing in the sand while the religious men drop their rocks and walk away from the woman who was caught in the act of adultery. My God looks like the camp brothers that heard I was crying and said, ‘Why you frontin’?’ when I greeted them with a smile after being yelled at.
I have to make the choice to forgive – every day. Sometimes, years down the road, you’ll realize that you need to lay the hurt and anger and betrayal all down again when a memory sparks something deep inside of you. It’s then that you make the choice to forgive all over. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time act. Forgiving doesn’t mean that what was done was, is, or ever will be okay. On the contrary, forgiving acknowledges that something wrong was done, brokenness occurred, and something needs to be restored. Forgiveness is your first step to restoration.
I pray that you never feel any type of abuse, specifically the kind that comes from a faith community, or someone in authority over you professionally or theologically speaking. I pray that you have people that will catch your tears and build you up and make you strong and bold in the best possible ways. I pray that you have wonderful memories of places you hold close to your heart and times that you laugh so hard it hurts until someone has to say ‘Camp Face’ and you hold it as long as you can until someone busts out in laughter all over again. But mostly, I pray for grace and love and peace and forgiveness, for they are the foundations of our faith.
And, as promised……
**The Story of the missing golf cart
I have to share this one ridiculous thing that happened. One day 2 of my coworkers and I spotted some blackberries on the trail. We asked permission from No. 2 and took the golf-cart to surprise our coworkers with some fresh berries for that evening’s staff bedtime snack. When we returned, we tried to be stealth-sneaky but were met with disapproving glances and warnings of ‘you’re in big trouble’. It appears that somehow No. 1 was told that we took the golf cart on a 20 mile trip – yes you read that correctly, TWENTY MILES in a GOLF CART -to a local fruit farm without permission. No. 2 NEVER SAID A THING to clarify or offer vindication and allowed this to be believed, never correcting it to say what we were really doing or that we had his permission to do take the golf cart! He actually denied all knowledge, sat in on the scolding…and had the biggest bowl of berries that night (ummmmm….I think I might still be a little bitter about that. Time to go deal with that, but I’m sure if I called my two coworkers and even began to mention it, we’d all bust out in raucous laughter about how silly it all was).