| Eternity in My Heart |
Christine Fox Parker
Four years ago I realized I am a survivor of abuse by a church leader.
Four years ago that abuse got a lot worse.
My first encounter with abuse by a church leader took place the summer after I graduated high school. Seventeen and excited to be heading off to a Christian college, I was thrilled by the attention I got from the cool college recruiters at Bible camp. One in particular offered the most flattering attention. Ten years my senior, he did not hide his flirtation. Well-known across many states for his deep spirituality and life-of-the-party personality, I fell head over heels as he invited me to other camps that summer, eventually moving the flirtation to something more romantic.
Until the letter. In the letter he wrote me on yellow legal pad paper he told me his older sister reminded him how much older he was than me and that as a recruiter for the college I was headed to he really should not date me because I was too vulnerable to the power of his persuasion. He apologized and hoped I would understand and not be upset.
A teen-aged, independent, left-coaster, was in no mind to be told I hadn’t been thinking for myself. I wrote back saying, Oh sure. No. That’s fine. I knew what I was doing. Totally old enough to make my own decisions. You did nothing wrong. I'm cool.
Except I wasn't cool. I knew it. But I was way too ashamed to say it.
I went off to college where spiritually deep life of the party recruiter worked and was very much not cool for a very long time.
It would be thirty years before I ever told anyone about that experience. The shame of the “breakup” on yellow legal pad paper still haunted me. I did finally tell a friend who went to the same college and knew Mr. Spiritual Life of the Party.
I will never forget the rush of relieving tears at her immediate response. Oh Christine, she said, I am so sorry! This was so wrong! You were so abused! He abused you!
Six years after this first brush with church abuse, I was a missionary when a visiting professor decided to proposition me. I immediately told my husband and the preacher at the mission church we worked with. They told me to stay away from the theology professor, they would let him complete the semina he was in town to teach, and they would never invite him back.
You can bet I stayed away from him. I avoided him like the plague! It was a tad difficult since he was staying in the small apartment my husband and I lived in, but I found my ways.
A few years later, back in the States, I sat with a woman who shared with me her story of church abuse. She wanted my help. Her husband of 35 years usually lived with other women. Right now he was back home because his latest woman kicked him out. Once he found someone else to live with again, she would be better, but until then could I help?
She grew up going to church, her love for God was profound, and though she struggled to understand her lot in life, she trusted God beyond all doubt.
Where do you go to church? I asked. She answered. And how does your church community support you each time your husband comes home? Slowly I sought to get a sense of what drove the sad person I sat with to keep her hearth warm for her philandering man.
They tell me I am a good wife. They tell me my reward will be in heaven. They tell me to keep submitting.
I froze on the inside.
Church leaders instructed this woman she was not to divorce her husband for any reason. He was not a believer. He could cheat, lie, steal, beat her, and treat her with all the treachery he could drum up, and God wanted her to submit to it, they said, because it might make him a Christian.
I would quickly learn this was a relatively mild form of church abuse.
Over the next twenty-five years people continued to bring me their stories. Victims of incest, rape, chronic psychological and/or physical abuse, pedophilia, and more committed by ministers and members alike against other church members only to be intentionally covered up by church leaders.
I would listen again and again as survivors of abuse sat beside me saying over and over, “The abuse was bad enough. But the reaction of the church, the protection and cover-up for my abuser, the accusations against me, those things were just as painful.”
Four years ago I learned I belonged on the couch with those women.
I discovered the minister I had just celebrated 22 years of marriage with was not the person he said he was when I married him. When I uncovered his dark secrets, his hidden abuse took on a sharper, crueler edge.
But no one believed me.
They told me to be silent. They told me to accept my sin that drove him to his cruelty. They told me to be more submissive. They told me all the things victims of church abuse had been telling me for years. And I listened.
I wanted them to be right. I wanted to believe that if I were better the abuse would stop. If I tried that much harder he would be faithful and loving. It’s what he’d been telling me for two decades. Now they knew the truth too. If they believed him, why shouldn’t I?
It was better than the alternative: That I truly was completely out of control, like he always said, and I could not make this madness stop.
Until I realized it was killing me. Literally.
On that day I dared to tell one elder at the church my husband worked for. Amazingly, he believed every word I told him about my 22-year marriage.
Those two-hours were a lovely respite.
What followed were elders’ meetings, private calls from another elder, public worship, emails from church members in which I would be asked what part I played in causing my husband to sin, in the problems in our marriage (i.e., the abuse), what I was willing to do to save my marriage.
I would be diagnosed and offered treatment for my abandonment issues by people who were not my therapist, told I needed to be more submissive and a better mother, and told I needed to work harder to save my marriage all by folks who never spoke to me or asked me what my marriage was like but did speak to my husband and had been good friends with him for quite some time.
I would be instructed to tell no one what had happened, was happening, or might happen in the future.
I was never asked in any meetings with any elders what I wanted. I was told what my husband wanted and what the elders expected. I was told what would happen should he choose to divorce me and what I should do in the event of each of his possible choices.
I was never asked what I needed.
I was told what to do.
I was sent home to my abusive husband.
Eventually his letter of resignation was read to the congregation.
Nothing more was ever said.
I was told to remain silent.
And I did.
For four years.
Or so it seemed.
For the past 26 years, I have been on a parallel journey. A thousand journeys, actually. Walking alongside whomever God brings across my path. As a missionary, as a graduate student, as a church member, as a writer, teacher, speaker, mentor and listener, God has brought thousands of people into my life. Courageous, vulnerable, amazing, broken people who have shared their lives with me and allowed me to speak God into their lives.
When my life collapsed and all I thought I knew about it imploded, when my closest faith community, the very ones I counted on to support and protect me, abused me in the name of my abuser, these people, now spread across the nation and the globe, rose up and sustained me
No one asked what happened. No one asked who did what. No one needed to I guess.
They simply loved me. They supported me.
While the actions of the local congregation left me and my boys completely isolated from caring and godly support at home, God brought healing on God’s own. God, in God’s way, even in the absence of a local healing community, brought us healing.
And as God brought us healing, God began to send others for healing.
At first it was an occasional message from a minister I once mentored when he studied at Harding School of Theology.
Hey, Christine, how are you? I have a very similar situation to yours in my congregation and no idea how to help. Would you be willing to talk with me about it?
Yes, friend, yes of course I would.
Over time, I heard more and more stories from adult survivors of sexual abuse, so many abused by Christians and by ministers. So many of them told me the adults around them knew of the abuse at the time. Responses were varied. A few were believed. Many were called liars resulting in many more years of abuse. One woman was slapped in the face and spent the rest of her teen years in lock-up. She was variously accused of crimes she didn’t commit to keep her out of the way.
Texts, messages, and calls became more frequent from ministry friends.
Christine, I have a friend, church member, spouse I just found out was raped as a child, raped by a minister, abused by…would you be willing to talk with her/him?
Yes. Yes of course.
Not often. But occasionally.
Then #metoo, #timesup, #churchtoo happened.
Occasionally became monthly.
A most trusted friend works with churches to prevent abuse, identify abusers, and respond to crises in the aftermath of abuse. We have walked through some of the toughest moments together. We refine each other’s thinking. We run by each other some of the most sensitive cases we get. We shepherd each other.
As the #churchtoo movement grew we were overrun with calls and messages from survivors reaching out for help.
Some survivors found me through this friend. Some saw an article somewhere that I was mentioned in. Others are finding their way to me through circuitous routes I cannot even trace.
And still many come from those friends in ministry saying, I just found out I have a member who…and I don’t know how to help this survivor.
I just found out and I don’t know how to help this survivor.
These words from church leaders are both heartbreaking and music to my ears.
It is tragic that ministers are not regularly receiving training in pastoral care for abuse survivors. Some of the most damaging spiritual abuse takes place when good leaders who do not know how to minister to abuse survivors do it anyway without seeking expert help.
When I do hear those words from someone reaching out for help in ministering to a survivor, I am filled with deep gratitude at the humility and respect the minister holds for themselves and others. For their willingness to acknowledge the fragility, preciousness, and strength of the abuse survivor and their willingness to lay themselves down and make way for the healing path, whatever that may be.
Offering healing to Survivors from Survivors.
Helping good leaders learn how to provide healing space for all.
This is what God calls me to.
This is the passion for eternity God has written on my heart.