I was twenty, and I had it bad. I hadn’t just fallen in love with a man; I had also fallen in love with his church. I was looking for a community. My own family wasn’t in a great place relationally at that time. And so I was really looking for a family – somebody to do life with who wouldn’t hurt me. And when I found this sweet, attentive, handsome young Christian man and fell for him, I attended his church and saw a group who really did life together. The whole package appeared to be just what I wanted. I tied up my life into a neat little bow, put it in the back of my Dad’s truck and my rusty blue ’84 Chevy Caprice Classic, and moved 133 miles to try out this new “family.”
Because I don’t do things halfway, I didn’t just move to a new city and join a new church with my new boyfriend (who soon became my fiancé). I took a job in the church daycare, joined the choir, the praise team, and even the dance team. I taught Sunday school and Monday night Bible study. And my fiancé and I began working with the youth group. And as long as I was working my heart out and not making waves, I was loved and treasured.
And then, I rocked the boat. Not just once. But several times, in succession.
First, a young girl came to me and confided that she had heard the pastor threatening her parents. She was distraught. And I, assuming she had misheard and that if the pastor knew she had misheard, he would straighten it out. I went to him to start what I thought was going to be a healing process for that young girl, and quickly learned the hard way that the pastor had made the threat, that he wasn’t going to admit it publicly or apologize, and that he didn’t take kindly to being questioned by me – an inferior – about it. Suddenly, other leaders in the church who had trusted me with responsibilities before weren’t trusting me with them any longer…
Second, my fiancé – one of the pastor’s protégés – and I broke up. This man who had asked me to share his life admitted to me that he wasn’t in love with me, but that we had a good partnership and he wanted to marry me anyway. I wasn’t willing to settle for that and broke off our engagement. As often happens in a break-up, our friends (aka our church and my entire support system – including my income) took sides. The bottom line was that suddenly, my fiancé – the pastor’s protégé – was the golden child and could do no wrong, while I was the black sheep and the odd man out.
And then came the nail in the coffin – another leader in the youth ministry admitted to me that he had inappropriate feelings for a fifteen-year-old in the youth group. I urged the leader to go to the pastor and seek counsel, but he repeatedly refused. Eventually, after agonizing over the situation, I decided that I – as a victim of abuse myself – needed to let the leadership know what was going on in an attempt to protect this child. I went to the youth pastor and his wife and told them everything I knew. They thanked me for telling them and told me they would handle it. They subsequently called the other youth leader in, he denied it, and I was called back in before the pastoral team and told that I was a liar and a gossip (although they were the only ones I’d told), and that if I didn’t recant my story, I would be branded a liar and a gossip in front of the entire church.
It was final – I had been betrayed and abandoned by the “family” I thought I had found. And I left.
(Months later, the young man admitted that he had raped the fifteen-year-old before I had even told the youth pastor what was going on. Not a single person from the church reached out to me to apologize or mend relationships.)
“Betrayal is one of the most painful acts we can inflict on another human…. Such relational duplicity may not leave the visible scars of a knife or scalpel, but still cuts to the core. We are created for communion with God and one another; abandonment is fundamentally wounding.” (Margaret Feinberg, “Fight Back With Joy,” e-book location 1712)
For months after I left this church, I decided that the least painful thing for me to do was to withdraw. I got a job in the office of a local landscaping company, and I spent my days at work and my nights at home. Sunday mornings, I would curl up on my bed with my Bible and my journal. I theorized that all I needed was Jesus anyway; people would only hurt me. It literally took a group of people starting a home church around me to get me back into church.
Today, 15+ years, and countless churches later, I’m finally back in a church where I feel like I’m part of a family. And I have faith and hope that I won’t get betrayed or abandoned this time. But reflecting, I realize that as painful as that experience was, it tenderized my heart and made me more able to help others who have been hurt like I was.
This post is part of a weekly book discussion on Margaret Feinberg’s book, “Fight Back With Joy.” You don’t have to read the book to participate in the discussion, but if you have written a response to this week’s chapter, please go link it up at my co-facilitator Jason’s place.
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