Often over the past week, I’ve caught myself thinking about forgiveness. When is it appropriate to forgive? Is forgiveness necessary? I’m suspicious of the idea of radical forgiveness that is often taught in self-help books, new age philosophy, and some Christianity. I’ve tried it and it has never really worked for me.
For much of my adult life, I’ve tried to forgive the worst crimes committed against me. Everyone told me to do it for myself, I wouldn’t heal without it. It did not feel right at the time and it doesn’t feel right now. Where do we get our ideas about forgiveness? I would argue that our ideas about forgiveness come from our culture’s Christian underpinnings. I have had many Christians tell me that I must forgive because god forgave me. Those types of arguments do not work on me because I am no longer a Christian. They’ve also pointed out to me that I’m sinful and therefore have no right to cast stones. This too has no meaning for me because I no longer believe. I have to wonder where that line of logic ends. So if someone murders my child will I be accused of casting stones if I call out the killer? If a person’s home is robbed are they supposed to stay silent because they have sin in their past? Maybe this rule is only applied to church abuse victims? I do not believe that casting stones is the same thing as calling attention to a problem.
I’ve been accused of being bitter and of trying to destroy a man’s life. I don’t feel that finally having the courage to speak truth to power is being bitter. My actions will not be what destroys his life, his actions set that all in motion many years ago. He continues down the road to destruction by minimizing what he did through referring to it as adultery and not child abuse. I suspect his dishonesty will be his undoing. He claims to have asked for forgiveness years ago, but how can that be so when he cannot even speak the truth about what he did? Those around him seek to protect him from his crimes and part of that is by turning the focus onto me and what I may be doing wrong.
In the end, telling victims that they need to forgive is a way to take the heat off of the perpetrator and focus it back onto the victim. It becomes about whether or not she/he has forgiven and whether or not she/he believes they’re sin free and therefore worthy to call out sin. It gives the victim a task to complete and a way to judge the victim whenever they attempt to speak up for themselves. Using the coded language of adultery instead of child abuse is a way to minimize the crimes of the perpetrator and create crimes for the victim. She/he is now no longer a victim but a sinner just like the abuser, guilty of sexual sin and therefore unworthy to cast stones. Pardon my language but that is some bull $%^&.
Since I started writing this blog I’ve noticed a few things. I am becoming stronger and stronger every day. Through telling my story I have received so much goodwill and understanding from people. By bringing it out into the light and revealing the crime I’ve gained support in a way I’ve never experienced before. This blog has led me to others like me and allies that I would’ve never had contact with had I just forgiven and kept it hidden. I don’t see forgiveness for Steve Dahl in my future. This doesn’t mean that I intend to think about what happened 24/7 and let it consume my life, it means that this happened to me and it was awful and I will never forget. I believe there is a time and place for forgiveness, it comes after getting honest about what you’ve done and trying to make amends. It doesn’t come through victim blaming and minimizing your crimes.
Childhood can be a very confusing time no matter where or how you grow up. I was a pretty logical kid and so when things did not make sense I would comb over and over them to try to make it all fit. We had a youth pastor at our church and I really liked him. He was fun and not too serious about the rules. It was a relief to be around him because I felt like I could breathe. He worked in our Christian school and so we saw a lot of him. On the one hand it was a relief to be around him but then, on the other hand, it was confusing. He would let us come over and watch television in his basement, and often that would include a chance to make out with whatever boy you liked at the time. He walked in on me once. I was making out with a boy on a bed. The boy was much older than me. The youth pastor said nothing, he just closed the door and walked away. He was permissive. He was also the pastor’s son. I think he was probably in the midst of his own rebellion and I have no idea why they had him in that position. We would sit in church and hear about sin and burning in hell and then the youth pastor would not only condone sin but invite us over to watch television which was considered a sin. He is now the pastor of Calvary Gospel Church.
I’m not saying any of this to throw Roy Grant under the bus. When I was a kid I liked him a lot and looked up to him. I’m sure he was not thinking about how his actions would cause confusion. He always seemed like a big kid himself, I never saw him as pastor material. I do wish he would have stepped in when he saw things like kids being sexual. I was about 14 when he walked in on me with that boy. First of all the boy was too old for me and secondly, it was just inappropriate. It was happening in his home and he was supposed to be supervising me. I would have listened to anything he said, he had influence over me, but he said nothing and just let it happen. He could be a very nice guy. He gave many of us rides to school and I have warm memories of him doing donuts with us kids in the truck with him. I have some weird memories too. On one occasion he had me and one other young teen female over to his house for the weekend. His wife was there but we rarely interacted with her. It was just the three of us hanging out. That’s just odd. From the outside, it probably looked like he and his wife were being kind to two girls in the youth group, but his wife was not around. The strangest part of the whole sleepover was bedtime. He tucked both of us in and gave us both a kiss on the forehead goodnight. That might seem innocent to some but to me, it just seems off. An adult man kissing two teens goodnight and tucking them into bed within a culture where you are not supposed to touch the opposite sex is confusing. I remember the two of us looking at each other after he tucked us in, both of us kind of in shock and without words. I have since heard other stories of unusual behavior coming from Roy, but those stories are not mine to tell. I can’t help but wonder if he is more careful now that he is the pastor?
About halfway through my teens years, the church switched things up. Roy was not as prominent and we had a new youth leader and school principal John Seidl. John was a very different person. He was harsh, judgemental, and by the book. It was like whiplash, suddenly everything became very serious and there was no wiggle room. I suspect they were trying to correct the direction of the youth group and make it more godly. John was stern, unbending, and kind of cold. To be honest I was a little afraid of him. I did not feel like he understood me or would be capable of extending compassion. My worst run-ins with him happened in school. He was my teacher for pretty much everything and he wasn’t very good at it. When I struggled in school he would give me demerits for not finishing my work and then detention. It did not matter to him that I did not understand my work or that I had cried all night trying to figure it out. All that mattered is that I came back to school with unfinished algebra. He did nothing to figure out how to help me and continued to punish me knowing I was stuck and after watching me cry at my desk because I couldn’t understand the problems. Other than that I tried as hard as I could to stay off of his radar. I think he was more focused and harder on the boys. I feel he looked for infractions and I think he was a scorekeeper, not a forgiver.
One thing I learned as a kid was how to adapt. Within the church and my family, you had to figure out what each adult expected from you and then be that person. I could never be myself or let my guard down. The adults around me were not into helping or being compassionate towards young people, they were into being judgemental and gossiping. My mother followed some of the church rules but not all of them so, at home, I could relax a little, but then when I stepped foot into the church or school everything was different.
I knew that they believed the wages of sin were death, but I also knew that Jesus taught plenty about loving your neighbor as yourself. It was confusing because our church seemed stuck on the punitive part of the Bible. They were focused on what you shouldn’t do but not so much on what you should do. The “shoulds” consisted of their rules. No pants for women, no short hair, etc…Not much was being done to feed the poor, love your enemies, or show compassion. Because I knew the Bible so well over time I was able to see them more clearly. It’s all about who you know and who you are related to. They are mostly hypocrites. If your parents are the right people you won’t get heat for doing the wrong things, if you’re not in that crowd look out because they are looking at you. Sadly being judgemental has become part of the lifestyle. When I was a young person I could not understand how the elder’s kid could get away with so much but it felt like they were just waiting for me to make a mistake so they could pounce.
I have been struggling lately. I have not known how to move forward with this blog. I have been depressed. More and more victims of the UPC church are being uncovered every day. Most of them are too fearful to take any action against their abusers and so along with feeling sad about their stories I feel helpless. Let me be clear, I have not given up, but I have been taking a moment to gain some clarity.
This is my message to all victims of the UPC church…Come forward and tell your story. If we all told our stories it would be so much harder for the church and the authorities to ignore us or brush us aside. Yes, the statutes of limitations might be over for your case, and it might be true that the police cannot do anything about it, but if the cops keep hearing from us whenever someone comes forward then they will have to pay attention. Remember this isn’t just about us as victims it is also about those who are still there. If I can keep another young girl from being abused I will do it! If you want to tell your story but are too afraid to come forward let me know. I will stand beside you and have your back the whole way.
When I was a child I was taught that we were not supposed to associate with people outside of the church. The church was very narrowly defined as the United Pentecostal Church. I even got the impression that my pastor did not approve of some of the churches within our Wisconsin UPC district. I know that he thought the church in Janesville was too liberal. If someone left the church they were generally shunned unless the purpose of talking to them was to bring them back into the fold.
It is peculiar to me that so many people from UPC churches here in Wisconsin associate with Steve Dahl. He is not ordained as a UPC minister but that doesn’t seem to matter to them. His doctrine mirrors the UPC doctrine but that usually would not be enough. These are very insular people and they do not associate with outsiders. In my view, there is no bigger outsider than Steve Dahl. I’m sure that not everyone within the district knows about his past but enough of them do. I wonder what he says when they ask why he is not ordained within the UPC? What is even more strange is they preach at his church and he travels to other churches within the UPC. He has followers on his Facebook page who attended CGC when he committed his crimes and yet it seems that time has healed all memory of what he did.
I never felt clean after what Steve did to me. I struggled through my adolescence always feeling judged. As a young person once you have the stain of sexual sin on you it can be impossible to remove. I felt like the adults around me were always assuming I was acting inappropriately. I could never grow past what happened to me. Shame was applied liberally and I soaked it all up. Now as an adult as I try to tell my story from a vulnerable and honest place I am aware that nothing has changed.
Just like when I was a child they prefer the child abuser over the abused child. As I and others have tried to speak out and tell our stories we are scoffed at and declared to be liars by some who don’t even know us or the details of our stories. The church has gone out of its way to be friendly with Steve. They are friends with him on social media and they visit one another’s churches. Just like when the abuse happened he seems to be accepted and I am denied. They did not report his actions at the time and he was taken in by another UPC church. He was eventually put in charge of a daughter work and now it is like nothing ever happened. He does not hold a UPCI license but that doesn’t seem to matter much to them. Meanwhile, when I speak my truth they do not want to hear it. My story is automatically met with denial, disbelief, and scorn. there is no willingness to even entertain the idea that I might be telling the truth. Steve is enjoying a fair amount of support on his page. People are offering him prayers and verbal encouragement as he goes through this difficult trial. Not one person who is still in the church has reached out to me.
It isn’t like this is even a he said she said case. At 12 I had no reason to lie and he was caught in the act with another girl at the same time. At the end of the day, I think accusing Steve would not irritate them so much, what really gets them is my calling out how badly they handled it all. They can’t stand that I am saying Bishop Grant is wrong. They view me as a fallen woman and not as a victim.
Watching how well Steve has been received and how much the church wants to deny all of this has hurt me. When I see people I used to respect, like former Sunday School teachers being friends with Steve online that is pretty hard to witness. The really awful part of this is that Steve is not the only one. I know of multiple men who go on being accepted while the women they abused are labeled liars and troublemakers. As far as I’m concerned they lose all credibility when they behave this way. They are not behaving Biblically or in accordance with their own UPC rules.
I know that the light casts out the darkness and so I have no doubt that the truth is going to come out. I intend to keep working to hold them accountable and I hope that someday soon Steve will have his day of reckoning. I’m going to keep telling the truth. The truth doesn’t change just because people don’t want to believe it.
My parents had a rocky relationship. I can’t remember them being happy. My mother came from a small town and moved to Madison after high school. She married the first guy she dated and it did not turn out the way she expected it to. My mother went into the relationship with expectations that my father did not share. She assumed he would follow the rules of the church and those rules were very important to her. My father was a serial cheater, drinker, and poker player. My mother dealt with most of that but the cheating was a deal breaker. They did not immediately divorce because my mother believed that divorce was a sin. So she hung on and they were on and off for much of my young childhood.
I know very little about my dad’s past. I know he was born in Mexico and that he became a citizen of the U.S. I do not know where in Mexico he is from and I know next to nothing about his family. He never shared things like that. It was very rare for him to talk about his past and sometimes his stories did not add up. It is a sad part of my story because not knowing his family or anything about that part of my ancestry has left a hole in my heart. I often wonder who they are and I wish I could ask them my questions. Maybe then I would understand my dad better, maybe if I spoke with them I would know why he seemed so broken.
My father was unreliable. He did not pay child support and that kept my mother and me in poverty. He had a habit of disappearing. He often would not show up for visitation. I would wait for him to drive up and many times he just never showed. After hours of waiting my mother would coax me into bed. As I grew older my resentment started to increase. By middle school, I became aware that he only came around when he was between women. I started to feel like a consolation prize. Our relationship became strained. When I was little I was a daddy’s girl. I loved him fiercely and forgave him for every terrible thing he did. As I was approaching my teen years I could see who he really was and it was pretty ugly.
My dad had high expectations. If I got sick or struggled with anything he would blame it on my mother’s bad genes. I was a reflection of him and therefore I had to be perfect. He was emotionally unavailable. I could get affection but I could not talk anything through with him because everything was always about him. I have come to believe that he had some sociopathic tendencies. Perfection was not about how you treated people it was about what you looked like and how successful you were.
In middle school, my dad started flirting with my friends. By high school, many of my friends did not want to be around if he was around. The church already treated me badly because of Steve Dahl, then on top of that my dad was a creep. In high school, I became aware that he was dating girls my age. At one point when I was around 16, I told him about Steve Dahl. Then the unthinkable happened, he told me that he knew it was happening the whole time. He figured Steve was tired of his wife and would eventually marry me. This crushed me and it changed the way I saw my father forever. I did not cut him off but it was the beginning of the end. My dad never saw an issue with a man having a much younger wife or even multiple wives. I have no idea where this thinking came from. It seemed to grow stronger over time.
When I was in my twenties he was sent to prison. He was convicted of molesting my little step sister. After prison they deported him. He never forgave me for not supporting him in court and I only spoke with him twice after they released him. He has disappeared from my life.
I have daddy issues. I am sure that my father’s bad parenting is partly why I was so vulnerable when Steve Dahl came into my life. Knowing that my dad knew what was going on and did nothing to help me has given me self-worth issues. Men, in general, failed me during my childhood. Whether it was the babysitter’s husband who touched me when I was in elementary school, my pastor who did not report the abuse that happened at his church, my abuser, or countless others. My only real positive male relationship during childhood was with my grandfather. This brings me to God, Yahweh, Jesus, whatever you choose to call him. He really did not show up for me either. He was silent. I felt rejected by him as well.
This story is tragic and so I’m going to try to end it on a happy note. I did get some good things from my dad. I am very tough and strong-minded, I hold myself to high standards and I’m a hard worker. I have some charm and charisma which I’m pretty sure comes from him. I’m also in a much better place spiritually. I have stopped chasing after god. I have embraced a spiritual path that feeds me and where I feel accepted and respected. At times my daddy issues bubble up and then I have to work through some new layers. There is so much more I could share about my dad and maybe I will in a later post. Sometimes writing all of this down drives home how sad it all is and it becomes too much for me to handle all at once. I’m grateful I survived my childhood and I’m grateful I am in a better place now.
Since I have been writing about my childhood within the church many people have contacted me. Through those contacts, I have had contact with even more people. One thing that has become clear to me is that Calvary Gospel Church (CGC) seems to lose many of their young people. Why does this happen? Is it because of abuse within the church? Sure in some cases but I feel there is more to it than that.
When young people are abused the church tends to minimize the damage and try to cover it up. They do not listen to the victims and they don’t offer any kind of aftercare/compassion when these things occur. Because the police and social services are not involved that pathway to help is not available to the victims either. Those young people are left to twist in the wind and try to make sense of the devastation in their lives. This often leads to depression and a low self-esteem. Victims are made to feel less than and because of that they eventually leave the church.
When the survivors leave, the church writes them off. Time after time I have heard about people leaving and never hearing from the church again. Young people who have spent their whole lives within the church are treated as if they never existed. This has bothered me for years. I don’t know how they can see this behavior as Christ-like. When I left no one came after me. It was like I never existed. What the church often does when someone leaves is they gossip about that person. Eventually, the person in question hears about this gossip and is reinjured and suffers trauma all over again. This makes it very unlikely that the young person will ever want to return to the church.
Questions are often off-limits. When young people go through their teen years questions are natural and should be expected. Teenage rebellion and acting out should also be expected. Within CGC questions and questioning authority is not ok. If you ask too many questions you will be told you have a rebellious spirit. If you are a naturally curious person you will not do well within that congregation. Normal acts of teenage rebellion are often used to label a person forever. Things that all kids do are seen as worthy of a life sentence. If you do anything wrong in the future your past will be brought up as if it happened yesterday.
Mental illness is not treated seriously. Often they will attribute it to sin and tell you to pray harder. They treat the consequences of abuse the same way. If you have anxiety because of their end-time teachings that must be because you are not ready for the rapture. It could not possibly be because those teachings are not healthy for young children to be exposed to. If you are depressed and struggling because of abuse that happened during your childhood they will tell you to forgive and let go. Let god handle it. When that doesn’t work some young people will turn to alcohol and sex to try to quiet the demons. They often leave the church looking for help wherever they can find it because the church did not help and in many cases made things worse.
This brings me back to my original question. Where have all of the children gone? Many of them have left in search of a church that teaches love and grace. Some had to leave and even cut off family members just to save themselves and their sanity. Some, like me, have found other paths that have proven to be healing and helpful. The church seems upset that so many of us are angry. They don’t understand why we can’t just forgive and move on, they feel attacked. I would say they need to look at themselves. They need to ask why so many of their children walk away. They need to take some responsibility for the young lives that grew up in their presence and were influenced by their teachings. If I were them I would ask myself why are these people still in pain? Why are they so angry with us after all of these years? What is my responsibility in all of this? They need to come to terms with the role they have played in creating the situation they now find themselves in.
I’m not surprised so many young people have walked away. For many leaving was the only way for them to survive. For those who got out, I’m so happy for you. For those who are on the fence, maybe one foot in and one foot out, we are over here waiting for you. If you ever decide to really leave those of us who have been out will welcome you with open arms. You won’t find judgment here but you will find compassion and understanding. Once I left the church I found my value and I learned I was worthy of love. On the outside, I found acceptance and understanding. CGC isn’t the only way.
Once when I was in therapy the therapist asked me to envision my child self. My mind went to a field we had near my childhood home. I would run around that field playing Wonder Woman. I went sledding with my dog down the hill beside the field and I would make crowns from the dandelions I found in the grass. When envisioning my child self my mind immediately took me to that place and sitting in the grass making crowns and placing dandelions in my hair. That little girl was still pretty carefree but that wouldn’t last for long. By that time I had been exposed to rapture theology and my parents were struggling within their marriage and we were poor. Even with all of that to worry about I was still an adventurous, imaginative, happy-go-lucky little girl.
We started attending Calvary Gospel on and off in 1978. By 1980 I was becoming pretty entrenched. You might think that Steve Dahl was the first thing to interrupt my girlhood but I don’t think that is true. What came first was fear. Calvary Gospel was awash in it at that point. Sermons like the one that lead to my salvation were not the exception they were common. My world kept getting smaller and smaller. It seemed like everything was a sin and the devil was everywhere just waiting to deceive and maybe gobble up a little girl like me. The seeds to all of my anxiety were planted, watered, and tended there. How can you be a little girl when all you can think about is hell, the rapture, and what sin you might have committed while just going about your day? It didn’t take long before innocent things like watching cartoons on tv or listening to the radio could be enough to damn me for eternity. This is where I learned to make myself small and it has impacted my life in a very negative way. I became super fearful and so I stopped taking chances/risks and instead tried to stay safe. Safety is good but it can go too far. I believe all success requires being willing to take some risks.
Soon I learned that women were supposed to be quiet in church. Women’s role in family life was to be submissive to the husband and to raise the children. I was never asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I think it was assumed I would be a quiet submissive wife. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a minster. I would line up all my dolls on the sofa along with my stuffed animals and Barbies. We would have church and I would lead the worship and preach the message. At about age 10 I stopped dreaming about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Soon my goals shifted to being an evangelists wife and going to a UPC supported music school. I knew that a good ministers wife needed to know how to sing and play an instrument in order to support her husbands work. I went from being the leading lady to being a support player. Wonder Woman was long out of my reach.
A.C.E. did not help. I attended the church school and those old PACES did not show women doing much other than working with kids. We did not have many great electives to take and the work itself was not inspiring. Most of the time I was bored out of my mind. I went in a bright straight A student and left hating school and just wanting it to be over. No one ever talked to me about college or offered to help me with picking a career. The staff seemed just as miserable as the students. It was not an environment that fostered curiosity, questions, or deep thinking. It was learning by memorization, no real thinking required. Things that could not be taught that way, like algebra turned into a nightmare for me. I am a kinesthetic learner and I love a good discussion. There was no place for any of that within my Christian education. In my late high school years, I toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher but nothing ever came of that dream. The idea of college just became too much to try to figure out in the midst of all of the other things going on in my life. Even being a teacher was a downgrade from another childhood dream of being a doctor. Public school in the 70’s taught me I could be anything, the church and Christian school undid all of that.
Steve Dahl took what little bit of self-esteem I had and crushed it. That experience made me feel dirty and sinful. I had a pretty good body image before he came into my life but that all changed. I started to see my body as a sinful trap that kept ensnaring this godly man. I felt betrayed by my body because at times I enjoyed the attention he gave me. I started to see my body as something that needed to be hidden, controlled and prayed for. I certainly did not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. I did not feel created in god’s image. All of the things that made me a woman seemed evil and wrong. Eve was my mother and well we all know how things went for her.
Catching a husband seemed important. I worried about being attractive but not too attractive or attractive in the wrong way. I was half Mexican and so that added an extra level of difficulty. I could not get a straight answer about who it was ok for me to marry. At that time interracial marriage was considered wrong and there were no other Mexicans in our congregation. I felt that my being half Mexican meant I needed to find a Mexican husband, and that seemed like a tall order. I dated Caucasians boys but I always felt the undertone of racism that existed there. I would not be anybody’s first choice. I was tainted by my molestation and the color of my skin. I felt lesser. My parents were not part of the in crowd and that also lead to me feeling like a second-class citizen. It made me feel even smaller.
Yesterday I was talking with some other survivors about who we could have been had we not grown up in the UPC environment. We all feel like girls interrupted. Our childhood interrupted and corrupted by Calvary Gospel church. Our innocence was stolen. We were not allowed to be kids. The adults always seemed to have their minds in the gutter and so every innocent thing became an opportunity for sin and especially sex to invade our lives, and yet no protection was offered to keep us safe from the real dangers. Predators were protected and supported while victims were scorned and not to be trusted. We received a substandard education and the church seemed to care more about whether or not our skirts had slits than whether or not be could go to college. The adults in my life didn’t seem to care about the lack of food in my home or about the devastation that my abuse caused in my life. If they had done that one thing, protected me from my abuser my life could have been so different. If they had offered loving support and reassurance my life could have been so much better. They took beautiful, bright, and hopeful young girls and turned them into anxious, fearful, and damaged women.
Now as we try to raise awareness about what happened to us all the church can do is scorn us. They can’t seem to understand or they don’t care to see what they have done to us. These things are not things you just move on from it takes hard work, support, and a lifetime of striving to overcome. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t been striving to be better no matter what our damage is. We don’t desire to be bitter we desire justice and we hope to save other children from the fate we have suffered. We were girls interrupted but now we are women seeking to bring about change.
Last year my word for the year was restoration. I wanted to go back to the time before I was so afraid. I wanted to see my body as a miracle and a blessing and I wanted to say goodbye to shame once and for all. I worked to remember who I was before my worth was called into question. Last year was a big year. My life has totally changed. I feel like my life has been restored. I’m taking chances again and I’m daring to go after what I want. I’ve stepped out of the shadows and I’ve become more engaged in my community and politics. I’ve been reunited with old friends and found many new friends and supporters. I’ve learned I’m not alone thanks to #metoo/#churchtoo. I am not the person the church might like you to think I am. I’m not bitter, I’m strong. I’m not trying to engage them in spiritual warfare, I’m trying to seek justice for my child self. I’m trying to tell the truth and speak for all of those who cannot speak for themselves. Wonder Woman doesn’t seem so out of reach now.