Book, Childhood, Family, Rapture, Trauma, United Pentecostal Church

The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid

Yesterday I finally finished Ronna Russell’s memoir! I posted a review on Goodreads.

“This book was not an easy read. I grew up in a UPC church as well and at times it all hits too close to home. The author is so brave in her telling of her story! This is a wonderful read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the Christian denominations that exist on the fringe. The author’s vulnerability allows us into a world that many people never see filled with rapture anxiety, purity culture, and the pressure to be good enough. Beyond the church and the damage, it caused is a story of hope, self-acceptance, and self-love. She touches on religion, family, love, lost love, and finding and accepting oneself. I’m grateful she shared her happy ending because it gives hope to all of us raised in that atmosphere. I can’t wait to read what she writes next!”

 

I love memoir’s and this one is even more special because I can relate to it so strongly. It is not often that I have the opportunity to read about another woman’s experience within the UPC. When I talk with other survivors their stories always share common threads. For many, the fear of the rapture and hell is very real and then there is the sense of never measuring up. Normal sexual milestones tend to be suppressed and twisted leaving women feeling wrong and dirty. Secrets are everywhere and there is a knowing that comes with that. They are only secrets because they are not openly expressed but that is not the same as no one knowing or suspecting.

Ronna’s story isn’t just about the bad times it is also about hope, determination, and self-discovery. I owe her a special thanks because she has been an encouragement to me with my own writing. Women supporting women!

D

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Family, Uncategorized

How Religion Continues To Hurt My Family

This week something really painful happened to me. It felt like being punched in the stomach. It came completely out of left field and so I was not prepared. Earlier I posted on Facebook this cute photo of my dog and myself at the park. One of the comments left by my extended family included condolences for the loss of my grandmother. The thing is I did not know that my grandmother had passed. I was already experiencing a rough week and this was an added hurt that I did not need right now. I quickly went to Google to confirm that my suspicions were correct, and sadly I was right. My grandmother had passed and no one in my family told me. I instinctively knew that my brother had not received a call either.

Both my parents have been gone for a while. I have an aunt and an uncle plus cousins who live in Florida. All of my extended family are Pentecostal even if they are not United Pentecostal. Just like the church I grew up in they all feel they know the truth and are special, even better than other churches. Only they have the real truth! These beliefs have done so much damage to my family.

When my mother had run through all of the “acceptable to her family” churches in Madison we started to attend Calvary Gospel. Calvary Gospel was very similar to the other churches we attended except for one thing, baptism. They baptized in Jesus name and not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My mother’s family was so angry when we started to go to that church. They told my mother to never let herself be rebaptized because she would be damned if she did. They also did not believe my baptism was valid. Fast forward a few years and all of our family picked up and moved to Florida leaving my mother, brother, and I alone up here in Wisconsin. We drifted apart. Some because my mother was always the black sheep and some because of the distance. My mom’s family didn’t like who she married the first time and then again the second time. They did not approve of my leaving Pentecostalism and eventually Christianity. They also turned their back on my brother when he came out as gay. They have a very narrow idea of what is acceptable and none of us ever fit into it. Over the years my grandmother would send me letters and cards on the holidays. They were always very surface based and they always ended with a warning about getting my heart right before the rapture. Merry Christmas, watch out the devil is going to get you, was the feeling they always gave me. When my beloved grandpa passed no one in my family told me. When I found out I was heartbroken. He had been sick for a long long time and so I was kind of surprised when he finally passed. Once I found out it was too late to send flowers or fly down for a funeral. I learned of his passing months after the fact. I cried for days right after my third child was born during a time that should have been filled with light and joy. I cried for my lost grandpa and for the cruelty my family delivered.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, my brother and I had this conversation and I told him I assumed grandma would pass soon and I did not think anyone would tell us. That is exactly what happened. You might wonder why I was shocked, I wondered that myself. I think cruelty always shocks me even when I know it is coming. How could they be so mean and cold? I might be hard for them to find after all of these years but my brother lives in the same area as they do and they could have found him easily. My grandma was not always the easiest person to be around. She never asked about my children her great-grandchildren, she really never asked about me. It was like in her world I did not exist unless I was saved and in the manner she expected. I was not fully human in my lost state. She always cared about my salvation but I know that is because she felt she would be held to account by God if her family was not “living right.” My mother’s siblings feel the same. They did not tell us about her death because they do not wish to talk to us. We are lost and unclean. They, unlike my grandma, have never cared about our salvation. They have made no attempts to proselytize, they have just turned their backs and wiped us out of existence. It is like annihilation. We don’t exist to them. We have no worth because we are not exactly their brand of Pentecostal. Plus there is some racism mixed in. I am the brown grandchild and that makes me even less acceptable. They have no desire to have the brown granddaughter and gay grandson at the funeral to ruin their day.

My grandma’s passing hurt me more than I could have anticipated. I was bewildered by the pain. It was so deep and there was so much of it. After a few days, I realized what was happening. I was grieving all of the lost years. I was grieving the relationship I always wanted to have with her. I was feeling the rejection and abandonment of all the time without her. I was reminded of how much my mother’s family dislikes and rejects my brother and myself. All because of religion (well and a dash of racism). How sad that they have allowed this to keep us apart. How sad that she never knew her great-grandchildren. How sad that after losing her daughter she let herself lose her grandson and granddaughter, her only remaining link to my mother. How sad that even though I walked away from it all so long ago it can still reach out and hurt me.

In all of this, I am trying to hold onto the good things I feel I got from my grandmother. I’m tough and resilient just like her. I’m physically strong and strong-minded just like her. When I was a little girl she always marveled at my sturdiness and made me feel like I was invincible because of it. I’m sure there is more but that is all I can see right now.

Because of how my mother’s family is I have strived to be more accepting of my own children. They are all adults now and they all believe different things about God and spirituality. I try my best to always let them know that I love them no matter what. Nothing can tear them away from me, least of all religion.

Grandma

 

Childhood, Dad, Divorce, Family, Father, Self Esteem

Daddy Issues

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.

Debbie and Armando (4 months old)

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.

Daddy

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.

Dad

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.

Childhood, Family, Fear, Rapture, United Pentecostal Church

Beginning

I guess the best place to start a story is at the beginning. My mother was raised in the Church of God. She came from a small town and her parents were very religious and conservative. The church of her childhood was very charismatic. She told me stories about people dancing in the spirit and speaking in tongues. When she moved to the big city (Madison Wisconsin) it was a pretty big shock. She married young and had me quickly after. My mother was always looking for the “right” church. Her and my father attended an Assemblies of God church close to our home for the first few years of my life. Eventually they left that church, although I’m not sure why. In the corners of my memory I think I remember her saying something about not liking the new pastor. I was dedicated to god in that church and one of my earliest memories is of that church. A Thief In The Night was a movie that played a big part in my childhood. That film came out in 1972, at that time I was 2 years old. It was not released in theaters but instead traveled from church to church like a virus. I don’t know when exactly it was shown at our church but I know I was not much more than a toddler. It is one of my earliest memories. I don’t know what scene it was exactly but it was a scene where someone (probably Patty) screams, at that moment I started to cry, hard, and my dad had to carry me out of the auditorium. At the back of our church there was just glass, you could stand outside the sanctuary and look inside. It was probably like that so that parents could take their kids out and still hear and see what was going on. My dad paced the floor with me and I cried because I was scared. I sometimes wonder if the scream I heard was even in the movie or if it was someone in the congregation who was freaked out by the film. That sort of movie was still pretty new for that time period and I’m sure many people had never seen anything like it. It is now considered the grand daddy of all the end time films.

During my childhood we visited many churches and my mother would only stay in a church for a short time (couple of years) until we started attending the United Pentecostal Church in our city. That was when our whole world changed but that is a story for another day. One thing ties all of the churches we visited together like a sinister cord of fear, and that is those damn Thief In The Night movies. Watching them punctuates all of my church experiences. They were a big deal in the 70’s and I could not escape them no matter how hard I tried.

My mother was a church hopper. She struggled my whole childhood to find just the right place. She was never satisfied. I hope you understand that I am not trying to be critical, I understand her struggle it makes sense to me now that I am an adult. My mother grew up believing that her church was the right church. She was raised that you had to be Church of God to be saved. My grandparents were livid when they found she was attending a “Jesus Only” church. In order for church to feel right for her it had to have charismatic worship, fire and brimstone preaching, and a strong belief in end times prophecy. They also had to baptize in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. The UPC had all of those but not the baptism part. She spent the most time at the UPC but never fully embraced it, because of the baptism question. I think she stayed there because it felt the most like home. My mother struggled with depression and I’m sure that is why she struggled to find a church home that fit. Our life was full of drama, her depression, my father’s cheating, poverty, and divorce, I think many pastors just did not know how to deal with all of those issues. They gave her non-answers and non-help.

She was very talented. My mother could sing and traveled from church to church with a gospel singing group as a teen. She played multiple instruments and often played and sang in church. Because of her religious upbringing and depression, plus our often dire straits, she spent a lot of time in prayer. Not bow your head kind of prayer but weeping and speaking in tongues. I would sit outside her bedroom door and wonder if she was ok. She was always worried about hell and the rapture. She heard it her whole life and then passed it down to me. The fear of being left behind punctuated my childhood. I believe it led to the anxiety issues I have today. I no longer worry about the rapture but I do struggle with anxiety and I can trace it directly back to her.

D

Childhood, Family, Sexual Abuse, United Pentecostal Church

Church Too

Over the last few days, I have been taking part in #churchtoo, which is like the #metoo movement, but specifically sheds light on sexual assault in churches. It has brought some dark memories to the front of mind, things I have not thought about since they happened. I have debated with myself over and over about whether I should tell my story. The thing is, my story is like a poison in my guts that is seeping into everything, and so I am making the choice to talk about what happened to me.

I was an early bloomer. Before I reached age ten, I had already been assaulted twice. The first man was a babysitter’s husband. He groped me while I watched television on his lap, I was eight or nine years old. I told my mother and she confronted his wife. The wife became angry with my mother and I no longer went over there. As a teen when I asked my father why he never told the police about what happened to me his reply was that he did not want to ruin an old man’s life. At that moment I knew my value was not the same as that old man.

The second incident happened when I was around ten years old. I was playing in my favorite arcade at the mall. My dad was sitting just outside talking with some other adults. A man came up behind me and grabbed my breasts while I was playing a game. I shook myself free and the man ran out of the arcade. With my heart in my chest, I ran out and told my father. He went inside the arcade and alerted the manager. I don’t think the guy was ever caught but the damage was done. I paid a price for my early development. I learned that men saw me as prey and I had to be extra careful.

My mother always had trouble finding a church she liked. She finally settled on a United Pentecostal Church, which is like evangelicalism only far more extreme fundamentalist with lots of speaking in tongues. When I was in the sixth grade my parents took me out of public school and put me into the private school our church ran. This meant I was at the church all day every day. It was a very insulated experience. I was a very active young person. I was captain of my Bible quiz team and very involved in various church ministries. My home life was hard, so I tried to stay busy and out of the house as much as I could. As a young girl, my dreams were to go to Bible college and major in music. I loved to sing and took any opportunity I could to learn more about music.

My parents did not attend church regularly. My mother would attend in fits and starts. That being said, they were both in favor of my being there whenever the church doors were open. I would often get rides to and from activities by other adults in the congregation. This is where the trouble began. I was a very bright child and many of the adults treated me like another adult. My parents had always done the same thing. I was accustomed to adults treating me more like an adult than a child. This often left me open to inappropriate situations. I think my parents used my intelligence to discharge them of their parenting responsibilities. One afternoon on a day just like any other day I met Steve Dahl. I was standing amongst a group of adults and I asked if one of them could give me a ride home. I was eleven and in the sixth grade. I knew all of these adults very well except for Steve. He volunteered which seemed totally normal to me.  I knew he had recently joined the church and was married there, I just had not been formally introduced. Once we were in his car he asked me if I needed to be home right away. I said no, my mother was preoccupied most of the time and so my being gone wouldn’t be an issue. We stopped and got ice cream and drove around. We chatted and all seemed fine until it wasn’t. At one point he reached over and grasped my hand and held it like it was the most natural thing in the world. At this point in my life, my father was never around. He would show up when it was convenient for him, mostly when he was between women. I was happy to have a man acting like a father figure and so I said nothing. He was thirty-one and I was eleven.

Things snowballed from there. His job was selling church pictorial directories for Olan Mills and he was often on the road. I became friends with his wife and she and I hung out often. He asked my parents if he could take me along on his long day trips to keep him company and to get me out of the house. We often did not have electricity and so there wasn’t much for me to do around the house. None of the adults around me thought this arrangement was odd. I mean a better solution would have been for the church to help my mother with our electric bills or for some of the women to mentor me.

Things escalated. He began to tell me how unhappy he was in his marriage and other things. I was ill-equipped to understand or help with. At times he acted like a kind uncle who took me for ice cream and spent time with me. And other times he treated me like a lover. Those were the bad times. He took so much from me from me. My first kiss, my first almost everything. He tried to have intercourse with me but he could not do it, it was physically not possible. He acted as though I was some experienced woman and would say things to me that I did not understand. He laughed at my inexperience like he could not believe how naive I was. Somehow in his haze, the fact that I was eleven and knew nothing about sex escaped him. At other times he seemed in awe at how mature my body was for my age. He would repent at the altar and then tell me how sorry he was for what he had done and how he would never do it again, but he always came back for more. I became attached to him as other parts of my world fell apart. My parents divorced, my mother struggled to keep us in food and being in the Christian school turned out to not be what I thought it would be. I started to disassociate and I felt trapped in a life that I did not want and did not know how to escape. Plus there was the all present worry about hell and the rapture. Yep, I grew up always fearing hell and the wrath of an angry god. After he would touch me I would go home and beg god to forgive me. I felt like my very body was a sin, a trap for men to fall into. I thought that something I was doing or saying must have made him do these things. Usually, when I was with him I would try to make myself small., I liked him and wanted him to want to be my friend, but I knew the other stuff he was doing was wrong.

He was very popular. He played the trumpet in our church band. He was friends with all of the adults in my life. Then his wife’s sister came to live with Steve and his wife. She and I were friends. We would mail each other letters like pen pals and I really liked her. I was eleven and so it was all scented pens and stickers. We were kids. When I found out she was moving here I was super excited! But once she moved to Madison she became cold to me and I did not know why. She was about three years older than me. She was very quiet and shy. She came to Madison so she could attend our church school, or that was what I was told. I have no idea if Steve had a plan bringing her to Madison or if things happened between them only after she came here.

After things had been going on for about two years I finally went and told my pastor. I’m not sure why I was afraid of him. He was a big man and preached fire-and-brimstone so that might have something to do with it. I thought he was imposing. I told him and he recorded it. I did not tell him everything because I could barely speak I was so afraid of what was going to happen to me. So he asked me questions and I answered “yes” or “no.” He knew what happened, just not the details. He said he would get back to me and I left his office.

He never got back to me.

He never said anything at all. I waited for the next shoe to fall. When my mother found out she called me a hussy and was mad at me for a long time. I received no counseling, support, or justice. The police were never called nor social services. I was told by some adult that we should handle things within the church so that we would not bring shame, reporters, or cops to the church doorstep.

The order of things become foggy at this point, probably due to trauma. Within days Steve phoned me and told me he had to leave town and it was not my fault. That was it, that was all he said. Soon after I found out that right after I went to the pastor Steve’s wife came home and found him in bed with her little sister, who was fifteen years old. Steve fled to Vegas and I have no idea where she went. I imagine back with her parents. At the next midweek service, I was confronted by Steve’s wife. She came close to me and said that I had to talk with her after the service. I was scared out of my mind! I went with her into the church basement and into one of the school classrooms. She told me she was so disappointed in me for cheating with her husband. She said she trusted me with him. I said nothing but “I’m sorry.” Then she insisted that we pray together for my soul and repentance. All I remember about that was how she loudly spoke in tongues next to me. She didn’t talk to me much anymore after that.

Here is what I have pieced together since then. Steve was sent to another church for restoration. He and his wife divorced. She was allowed a divorce by the church because of adultery. This is where things get really nuts! He then married his ex-wife’s sister, the one who was fifteen when they were caught together. I was told that her parents let her go out to Vegas to be with him.

They are still married and he is pastoring a church in Wisconsin.

I have spoken to him once. Remember he sold church directories? As an adult, I went to a Southern Baptist church and he came by to sell us a directory. My stepmother was helping with the directory and when she saw who it was she alerted me. I was in my early twenties. I went to my church elder and told him about Steve. He said he thought we should talk so I could get closure. He bullied Steve into talking with me but closure was harder to get than I thought. In the elder’s office, the three of us sat. Steve explained to me that I was a very mature eleven-year-old. He said he thought I wasn’t really angry with him but that I was angry with how the church responded to me. He told me all about how Christ had forgiven him and restored him. He told me how my childhood pastor has embraced him with forgiveness. I don’t remember much about what I said., I think I fell under his spell like I was a kid again. After he left, the elder said that he felt Steve did not take any responsibility. I wish I could have that moment with him back. It took me until I was in my late twenties to discover feminism. At twenty-eight I left the church and blossomed into the woman I am now. If I had that moment back I would call him what he is. He is a pedophile. I would want to rage at him for all he took from me. He is pastoring a church in northern Wisconsin. He has a Facebook page where he posts about his church. His church has a YouTube channel where you can watch him preach. In the bio part of his church’s website, there is no mention of what he did to me or the fact that he married his wife’s sister. He has children and I have to wonder if he ever abused them or anyone else.

I left the UPC church at sixteen. Eventually, I landed in a Southern Baptist church. I left that church when I was twenty-eight. I left because they told me that it would be a sin to divorce my husband. He was physically violent towards me along with being mentally and emotionally abusive. I felt I had to go to protect my kids. They told me that I could separate from him, but not divorce. In order to get the help I needed from the state, like benefits, I needed to be divorced. Plus he was threatening me all the time and I knew he would not just get better. We had been together for twelve years. At this point, I decided that if god was going to send me to hell for protecting myself and my kids, then I would pay that price. Hell seemed better than where I was. I tried other churches and just couldn’t stomach it anymore. I stopped believing. I turned towards history and tried to understand how the Bible came about and how women were treated because of it.

What Steve did to me ruined my adolescence. I think the adults in the church viewed me as a slut and adulteress. Some of them avoided me and others gave me evil looks. People have said to me why not just reveal who all of these people are. My question is who do I include in this crime? My parents, who were too enmeshed in their own crap to look out for me? The man who did it? The pastor who did not call the police? The wife of that perv, or any of the other adults who knew about it?  No one ever checked in with me to see how I was doing. I was met with knowing silence. Later at about fifteen, I would see Steve again, at our church’s family camp. I was sitting in a pew with my puppy-love boyfriend and Steve just shows up like nothing happened. Was he removed? Nope, he was forgiven. He sat in the back but I knew he was there.

I can tell you that The United Pentecostal Church had a sex problem. I know of other cases where older men helped themselves to the young and I know of young people forced to marry at fifteen or sixteen years old due to having sex together. Don’t come at me and say I should forgive and come back to god. I have a god and she doesn’t require that of me.