“Just because someone isn’t willing or able to love us, it doesn’t mean that we are unlovable.”
I have been doing some deep soul searching. When you first leave a toxic church or family it is all about survival. Then as the years peel away deeper issues are revealed. One of my biggest struggles right now is to see myself as good. Now I know that if you are still a Christian you may not agree with this post and if that is the case please feel free to scroll on past. I can’t ever remember a time when I felt that I was good, from a very young age I felt wrong, off, broken, and dangerous. Some of the blame for that I can lay at my parent’s feet and some of that blame belongs to the church. I was a vibrant child with intelligence and ambition. I was artistic, athletic and loving. Somewhere along the way, very early on my light was snuffed out. Some of that was stress and some of it was from constantly being reminded that I was a sinner, and the worst kind of sinner, a woman.
“We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.”
I’m taking a class right now that requires me to do a lot of journaling and soul searching. As I look back on my child self I find myself struggling to like that little girl. I find myself asking why, why did I always feel rejected by God and why did I always feel like I was somehow the exception to God’s love? It makes me so angry that my light was extinguished so young and that I was taught to hate myself especially my own body. I was taught to see my very existence as sinful and the body that I had no choice but to live in as dangerous and flawed. What awful poison! Now as an adult I try to reach back to my child self and offer her love and understanding but I feel like I’m failing. My only hope is that somewhere in my mind I can find the truth of who I was/am. I realize as I type this how crazy this must all sound. I’ve been out of the church for so long, how can this still be a struggle? It’s a struggle because I am not yet totally healed and may never be, but I strive anyways to heal a little more every day. Part of that process is to grant my child self something she never had, unconditional love and belief in her inherent goodness.
“Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it- it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.”
When I try to hold an image of my child self in my mind all I can see is shame hanging on her like a dirty cloak. Shame because of my parents’ behavior and choices, poverty, shame about what was done to me, and shame about my early blooming body. I knew that I did not come from the right family and yes I felt shame because of my skin color. Shame about my intelligence and shame because I had questions. In the past, I have worked hard to let go of shame but this work is showing me that there is still work to do in that department. I have to remind myself that the shame they heaped on me was not my shame to carry. I need to find a way to see my child self without the gray filter that is always present.
For now, I’m going to keep pulling the past apart and reminding myself how the adults around me were wrong and deceived. I’m going to try to love my child self the way I love my own children. This might be an unpopular opinion but I believe we all come into this world good. I refuse to believe that a child deserves hell or is even capable of sin. I’m also going to remind myself that all of those statements include me. I am not the exception, I am good.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking and not writing. There comes a point when you have expressed all of the surface junk and everything underneath seems so much harder to put into words. I am at a point in my life, 49 years old when things are not moving as fast for me as they were when my kids were little. I have a bit more time to breathe and time to reflect on things that I want to unravel. One of these things is stress.
I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t stressed. Stressed about my parent’s marriage, school, money, food, church, and god. Some might say that stress is a normal part of life and I agree with that to a point. Being stressed shouldn’t be your set point and for all of my life, it has been my normal. My first teacher about stress was my mother. She was always stressed and for good reason. Money was tight, her jobs were stress-inducing, her marriage was a disaster, and she was always afraid of missing the rapture. Along with that came other things like untreated Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She and my dad were always overly concerned about being late and so they created a child who is always early and never not stressed about time. Before we could leave the house my mother would have to check all of the nobs on the stove to be sure they were turned off and then check the door multiple times to be sure it was locked. Sometimes she would have to tour the rooms of the house to be sure all of the lights were off. She taught me to always check the backseat of the car for a masher even if all of the doors had been locked while we were away because…you never know. You never know became a big part of my life.
My experiences with the church and the UPC specifically only added to my stress response. I never felt good enough and always worried about my salvation and along with that came all of the end-time theology. The church was well acquainted with “You never know” and so they reinforced that message. You never know the day or the hour when Jesus might return. You never know you might have some unrepented sin hiding in there. You never know what book, movie or music might be a doorway for Satan to get into your heart. All of this made me one stressed-out kid and that in turn led me to be a stressed-out adult.
As you probably know we lay down these patterns as kids. Our brains and nervous systems are being formed and habits are laid down before we can even comprehend what is happening to us. So even after becoming an adult and being in a place of being able to make my own choices about what I believe my default is to be stressed. It’s funny how and when things hit us, it just hit me today that I’ve always been this way to the point of having ulcers when I was in grade school. I have always had what my grandmother would call a “nervous temperament.” So some of it is a natural disposition and a lot of it is learned. The whole time I was growing up and surrounded by religious adults I never felt the peace of god or grace. I felt like my mother, teachers, youth leaders, and others were always wagging their fingers at me saying be careful. Starting really young, “Oh be careful little eyes what you see, for the father up above is looking down with love.” Hmmm kind of a weird song, be careful because he is watching but “with love.” I learned the hard way after my interactions with Steve Dahl that I couldn’t trust myself or my body. My body could really get me into trouble simply by existing. This caused enormous stress and made me wish I could disappear. I started to feel like all men could be dangerous, also stress-inducing because well half the population were men. Along with checking the backseat, my mother would check closets and under the bed when we returned home from being out. She was checking for those dangerous men.
So what do you do when you realize your default is stress? One thing that brings me some relief is moving my body. I like to hike, go for dog walks, get to the gym, and do yoga. I enjoy dancing when I get the chance! I try to remind myself to breathe and I enjoy a hot bath from time to time. These are all coping mechanisms, what I am seeking to do is move my set point and that is not an easy task. There was a time when this would have been an impossible task. Before I started to give voice to my trauma and really deal with it I couldn’t have even approached this work but now I feel like maybe I can start. I am going to begin the process by just trying to move the needle a little bit. Rome wasn’t built in a day and so I’m going to try not to stress myself about stress. One simple thing I’ve been doing is trying to change my self-talk. When I get up in the morning instead of thinking, “I have to do all of this stuff today”, I try to say “I get to do all of this stuff today.” I remind myself that so much of my stress is self-generated and that I can cut myself some slack. I will probably post about this more after I have been working on it longer.
Does my experience sound like yours?
Halloween is my favorite holiday. This probably comes from how much I enjoyed it as a child. My mother was a candy hound and liked going out to get treats almost more than I did. My mother was very conservative but never saw Halloween as anything more than good clean fun. I’m sure my grandparents didn’t approve but they lived too far away for it to be a problem. Mom could be counted on to take me out even if it was very cold and near blizzard conditions. This was back in the ’70s when everything was made out of plastic and the masks would stick to your face once you started to sweat. We often didn’t have money to buy me a costume and we would be out shopping at the last minute trying to find something in the right size. I was a good-natured kid and could be happy with almost anything. My favorite costume memory is from the year I was “Police Woman”. This costume was modeled after a popular 70’s show featuring Angie Dickenson. After we were done my mom and I would go through all my candy. I would give her whatever I didn’t like and we would enjoy a few pieces. If I was lucky “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” would be on TV and everything would be right in the world.
We had these wonderful decorations for the windows. They are coming back into style now. I was at World Cost Market the other day and saw they had replicas of the ones my mother used. We had witches, black cats, bats, and all the usual fare. It was innocent and a bright spot in a sad childhood.
When I was a kid I was never a fan of the really scary movies and didn’t come to embrace them until I was an older teenager. The church was always talking about the ways in which the devil could trick you and lead you straight to hell. This was more than enough scary for me! There was a time when the church would hold parties around Halloween. These parties involved going to church in some sort of Bible character costume and I avoided these gatherings like the plague. If I wasn’t going out to get candy (because I was too old) then I wanted to dress up and give it out to the little people coming to the door. It was one of the only times I felt like we were normal. We were participating in a community event and a part of things instead of being on the outside looking in.
When I think about it I rarely ever heard people talking about the devil, Satan, demons and the like outside of the church. The church acted like the devil was some kind of boogie man who would jump out at you from the movie screen or record you were listening to. He could be found roaming your thoughts and wanted nothing more than to pollute your soul and make you one of his. They believed that if you listened to music about the devil like the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”, you would instantly be inhabited by a demon. They warned us about how reading the wrong books would open a doorway to hell. Really they seemed very fixated on Satan and demons, much more so than the rest of the world I encountered.
There is a point to all this I promise, let me use this as an example. The church focused on sexuality and talked to children about it too much and the adults seemed to always be thinking about sex. To be honest they seemed to have their minds in the gutter, always expecting the worst. Within the congregation of CGC so much inappropriate sexual activity went on and some of it was criminal. I have to wonder if these things would have happened if the church did not have the attitudes about sex that it has. Where every little thing is sexualized and made unclean and evil. I wonder if they made Halloween, metal music, scary books and movies more enticing and interesting to certain young people because they railed against it and at the same time talked about the devil like he was a real entity that might try to get you. I feel they introduced some of the demonic stuff they were telling us was so wrong and so real just by talking about it so much. Was it the world that had been turned over to Satan because the world did not seem as impressed by him as my church was?! CGC really brought all the scary things into my life during my childhood. I think if I had been raised like a normal kid I might have encountered those things as I grew up and it was an appropriate time to be exposed. My children were only able to watch scary shows and movies as they were mature enough to handle the material. I was the mean mom that said no to certain things I didn’t feel my kids were ready for. They never knew the terror of being raised with a devil around every corner, you have to attend church to get that kind of horror.
I have been struggling to write anything. Both here and other places. I am proud of all that I and other survivors have been able to accomplish over this past year. At the same time it can be hard to handle the fact that CGC still exists and my abuser is still a pastor. People have asked me what comes next and to be honest I don’t know.
Ultimately I think I and others need a bigger platform to create big change. I’m not sure how to get there. I have been trying to engage the help of people who offered assistance but replies have been slow and silent. I’m happy to remind people of things but I don’t want to chase them down. Most of the time I feel pretty good about the work I have done but there are times I feel like I’ve failed.
Everything has its season and so I know it will pick up again and there will be more work to do. I might write some here about childhood stuff that has less to do with CGC because it was never my intent that this blog only be focused on one thing.
What would you like to hear more about?
Over the last year, I have written about how much it saddens me that the congregation within Calvary Gospel Church seems to have completely lost their hearts and capacity for compassion. I have turned this over in my head repeatedly and this post comes from the conclusions I have reached.
I believe that CGC is a cult of personality. In the beginning, it was focused on John Grant and now by extension his family. The congregation was mean spirited when I was a child in the ’70s and ’80s and it seems that it has only gotten worse over time. I do not see any evidence that CGC is all that interested in following what most folks would consider to be Christian principles. Instead they follow what the Grant family says and in some ways John Grant has replaced God in their hearts and beliefs. At the very least their version of Christianity is harsh and devoid of lovingkindness. There is a coldness present that leaves no room for understanding. It seems like a perversion of the gospel to blame victims and hide criminals.
When churches are run with such a strong leader in control of almost everything they run the risk of becoming cults and that is how I feel about both CGC and the UPC as a whole. When those in the pews hang on the words of the pastor or organization leadership and can no longer see the words within the Bible or hear the voice of God then haven’t they shifted into cult territory? There is such a strong focus on tongues but not on love. There is a legalistic focus on standards but very little is ever said about grace and grace is rarely shown, unless you are a man who has committed sexual sin against a child. Has the church board ever said no to John or Roy Grant? Have the elders ever called them into question? My guess is no because the church is set up to “question not God’s anointed.” Once in that territory, I would argue that the pastor can do almost anything and use hearing the voice of God to justify it. This doesn’t seem like a safe or sane situation to me. Because of this I firmly believe that the Grants have surpassed God in the hearts and minds of the rank and file within CGC. When I was a child they taught me that something becomes a cult when it is no longer Christ-centered. It seems to me that they have more than strayed into this area. Many people talk around the word cult and seem scared to apply it to the UPC but I am not one of those people.
It is shocking how they as a congregation can shut their eyes and ears to the stories coming from those who have walked away. Many of us were children when we attended and we grew up under the influence of the church, and many of us have had very similar outcomes. Pretty much everyone who has read my story and commented to me has said they are so sorry and sad about what I suffered as a child. The exception to this has been CGC and their leadership. They have referred to us as bringing damnation down on our heads, as bitter women, and as demon influenced, but have they spoken to any of us? Have they weighed our experiences against the Bible? What does the Bible say regarding people who harm children? No, they shut their eyes and ears and applaud the man who covered it all up. They believe it is them against all of the survivors never once considering the body of Christ might be more than just them. They seem to agree that protecting the church from scrutiny and Grant’s leadership from being called into question is more important than the lives of so many people.
Judgment features heavily within this congregation. Are you sick? Hmm better get your heart right so you can be healed. You must not have enough faith, better work on that. Are you poor? It’s probably because you are not tithing enough. God would bless you if you would be more perfectly in line with what the church teaches. Were you preyed upon by a pedophile, well you must have lead him on in some way. Anything that is wrong in your life or a hardship can be tied to some sin you must be guilty of. This puts the congregation in the role of guessing what your sin might be or standing in judgment instead of offering aid. I think all of this comes from John Grant and not the Bible. As a pastor and now bishop he has shaped the congregation into his own image. He has shown no compassion for the children driven from his congregation and seems more worried about his legacy and reputation. So why would we expect anything different from the congregation? If he or Roy were teaching the folks in the pews to love us and show compassion and mercy my guess is things might be different. If they were saying that older men with young underage women will no longer be tolerated then that would reflect in the congregation as well.
I’m not writing this as a takedown piece on John Grant or his family. I’m writing it to illuminate how far CGC has strayed from “normal” Christianity. I’m writing it in hopes that it wakes up even one person, saves one child from the fate I suffered, or even just causes someone to examine things a little closer.
Today I want to tell you that you are worthy. If you were sexually abused as a child you are worthy. You did not draw that older man into sin. He made his choices and he was an adult. You were a child and children cannot consent. I am so sorry if the church did not protect you, love you, and help you to heal. You deserve love, support, and an apology. I am still stunned at Calvary Gospel’s silence. I am experiencing them as no more loving now than they were when I was a child.
You are worthy even if your family did not dress right, or if you are brown or black, and even if your family did not tithe enough. A child shouldn’t have to pay for their parent’s choices. None of us can control the color of our skin or the family we are born into. We certainly could not have controlled our parent’s actions.
You are worthy even if you made mistakes, snuck into the movies, or listened to top 40 radio when your parents were out. These things are not sins, they are a normal part of growing up. No one perfectly listens to the adults in their life. Normal human development dictates that teens challenge adults, it is how we grow and become independent.
You are worthy if you wore a slit in your skirt, asked too many questions, or got bored in church. If you kissed a boy behind the church camp auditorium when you were supposed to be inside, if you faked being sick to stay home from church, and even if you faked speaking in tongues because you were afraid to disappoint your parents.
I see you trying to pretend that you are ok, trying to heal, trying to deal with the coldness coming from the people who raised us. I see you dealing with trauma, being the family outcast, never being 100% sure if you made the right decision when you left the church. I see you wondering if you should have kept your mouth shut about it all.
I understand not being educated properly and how that stays with you all your life. I understand playing small, staying invisible, always waiting for something bad to happen. I understand feeling weird in the world like you can never quite fit in. I understand the world not understanding where we come from and how exhausting it can be to try to explain.
For the men out there I see you too. Struggling to come to terms with what has happened to the women you grew up with, ministered to, your sisters and friends. I see you having many of the same struggles as I have only different at the same time. I know that there are survivors among you and when you are ready to tell your story we will be there for you as you have been there for us.
Consider this my love letter to all the survivors out there no matter what your damage is. You are worthy. Please don’t let those who refuse to ask for forgiveness, who refuse to take responsibility, and who choose to stand in judgment rather than lend aid define you. I see you as strong, brave, and overcomers. We have overcome the lack of love, support, grace, and normal human kindness we should have received as kids. We have found each other and created a life raft for one another and any new survivors who choose to join us. You are good even if you are not perfect. You are worthy.