Safe Places

When I was about eight years old, my life fell apart. I instinctively knew that there was only one safe place for me. Although I didn’t feel safe anywhere else, I knew that each night, when the lights were turned out, I could lie in the very center of my double bed –where no mean hands could reach me—and God would sit with me while I cried.

God has always been a safe place for me.

I always hoped that church would be a safe place for me, too. I mean, it’s made up of God’s people, right? But it never has been. My earliest memories of church are of having to hide my hurts to live up to the expectations of people. And when you add to that the hateful things that were occasionally inflicted upon our family—no, church was never a safe place.

When I grew up, I hoped that leaving my pastor-Dad’s church, I could finally feel safe in church. I hoped that I could just be myself and not have to perform. I hoped that I would be loved and accepted. I found a church and dove in headfirst. I taught Sunday School, was assistant director for the choir, volunteered in the nursery, and worked with the youth group. I NEVER said “no” and I went out of my way to be the best church member that anyone had ever experienced. And then, one night, a fellow twenty-something volunteer confided in me that he had inappropriate feelings for a fifteen-year-old in the youth group. Having been a victim of abuse myself, I did the only thing I could do—I went to the youth pastor and told him. He thanked me and told me he would take care of it. And then, my “safe place” crashed down around me.

The weekend of my twenty-first birthday, I got hit with a horrific stomach virus. I was throwing up everything but my toenails. To say the least, I felt wretched. The youth pastor and his wife called me and asked me to come to their house to talk. I told them I was sick, but they insisted that it couldn’t wait. They wanted me to come anyway. And when I arrived, they unloaded on me. They had gone to the other youth volunteer and told him what I had said. He flatly denied it. They took his word for it and called me in to tell me that I was a liar. Further, they told me that if I pursued the issue, they would stand me up in front of the church and tell the congregation that I was a liar.

I felt that I had no recourse. I quietly left the church and never went back. Ever. Eight months later, we all learned that the adult and the teen did have a brief sexual relationship. I lived in that town for another several years, saw staff members from that church numerous times. None of them ever apologized for how I had been treated. In fact, I was told by a couple of people that it was believed that I was “backslidden” because I’d left the church. I lost every friend that I’d had for the previous two years that I had lived in the town and attended the church.

No, church was never a safe place for me.

For years, I’ve felt like I had to defend the church.

Oh, I’m so sorry you’ve been hurt by the church!

I’m so sorry you were treated that way!

I hate that you’ve been abused and neglected and forgotten!

Honestly, I’m tired of defending the very institution that has hurt me the most in my life.

Yet, I know that church was created by God. And I know that God loves the church—wounded and messy and screwed up as it is.

But you know what, I’m wounded and messy and screwed up, and God loves me, too. So, maybe I’m being too judgmental…

This week, I’ve given counsel to three people from three separate churches who are being or have been kicked in the teeth by churches and/or church people.

It makes me want to scream!

Where is our safe place?!

For me, my safe place is curled up on a double bed alone with my Bible, legal pad, and laptop. It’s sitting at the dinner table or the bar with any of a variety of my friends—who represent different faiths and beliefs, but who respect and accept where I am and love me exactly there. It’s sitting wounded, next to a fellow wounded friend, holding his hand and saying, “It’s okay to be where you are. God loves you there.”

Some days, I feel guilty that I’m not currently attending a church. What a horrible example I am! But at the same time, I recognize that maybe, for me, it’s more important to heal a bit first. Maybe my example right now is just loving God each day, wherever I am, whatever I do, and however I feel and sharing that love with the people who share my life, in spite of the fact that I don’t feel welcome in God’s house right now.

And so I’ll tell myself—and I’ll tell you—what I told my dear friend earlier this week: It’s okay to be where you are. God loves you there.

About Sarah Salter


  1. I have come to realize that the “church” isn’t, shouldn’t and can never be the building or the denomination. Too often, if one does not attend regular services and participate in the goings on at the “church,” one is labeled as one who is not of faith, not conforming to the “religion.” Obviously not a Christian. Hmm.

    Well, through various experiences, some great, some hideous, I’ve come to know that the church is within us, not in a building. Sitting with a wounded friend, praying with a soul who is so completely damaged, that’s the church. I had a friend in high school who’s church purposefully made a point of NOT always meeting at their church, i.e., building. They made sure to meet in living rooms, in a restaurant, in a park. I attended several of these services and, due to my own less than savory experiences within an actual church building and specific religion, I was blessed with knowing and understanding a true congregation of Christians, even if I did not completely espouse this church’s ideology. I was welcomed with open arms and my opinion was also welcomed. That was the only time in my life where I ever felt like I was a part of a “church.”

    I love this post. God’s house isn’t a building or even a specific denomination, unlike what a majority of people might think. Never. God’s house is You. Holding your friend’s hand and showing God’s love? That’s “church.” Well done, sister. Well done.

  2. Sarah Salter says:

    B, the only church I’ve ever been a member of that I didn’t get beaten to death (mentally, spiritually, & emotionally) in was a church that met for four years in someone’s living room. I learned more about love and acceptance and God in that four years than most of the other 30 years of my life.

  3. Yes!!! Big hugs my friend!! <3

  4. Sarah Salter says:

    Thank you, Mary! You are loved so much! 🙂

  5. As a fellow PK, I, too, have seen first hand how hurtful the church can be, not only to other congregants, but to their pastors. Funnily enough, I’ve been working on a post about this very issue, as it pertains to special needs folks. I’ve always said some church folks are some of the ugliest people I’ve ever seen.
    I love you, Sarah, and from one currently unchurched PK to another, I love Jesus and I don’t have to be in a building to do that. I pray that we will find a church home again and soon. In spite of all its messy, screwed up-ness, I miss it.

  6. Sarah Salter says:

    Ah, Joell, I know you know where I am and where I’ve been. But honestly, for me, it’s harder to see OTHERS being hurt than it was to be hurt myself. This week, listening to others’ hurts, I found myself wanting to take Jesus’ example and head into the Temple with a whip, if you know what I mean. But then, I’m reminded of my own weaknesses and sins and I realize that I’m not in any position to hold the whip.

  7. Another wonderful post! It’s like I was standing right beside you, telling you my story. And don’t worry about not attending a church. My grandmother did not attend church and she was one of the most godly women I have ever known. As you well know, attending church is not required to do God’s work.

  8. Pauline says:

    To me, the Church is formed by all those who believe in Christ regardless of their denominations. There is nothing wrong with distancing yourself from church to take care of yourself. You are important and you matter too. I am sure you will find that this time away will not only help you heal, but also help you grow in your faith.
    I have done that many times in life and everytime I come back, I rediscover Jesus, and love Him even more.

  9. Sarah Salter says:

    Vicky, when there’s no hurt, I LOVE being in church. One great example I can think of is that I visited a church with a friend one time. And from the moment the service started, it felt so sweet that I just cried through the entire service. But that same church ended up hurting another friend of mine. But yes, I know that you don’t have to go to church to love God or be a Christian. I just love it when I CAN go to church and spend time with God’s people.

  10. Sarah Salter says:

    Thank you, Pauline! I love how you put that — rediscovering Jesus. And I love that I can do that by spending time with Him — anywhere — not just church. And that I can do that by spending time with His people — anywhere. Thanks for coming by! 🙂

  11. I don’t go to church for similar reasons. It’s never been a safe place for me either, and though I may start going again someday, I don’t think it will ever really be safe for me.

  12. Sarah Salter says:

    Sarah M – I live in the constant hope that one day, I will find a safe church. I know that there’s no such thing as a perfect church, but I KNOW that there are good ones out there! Also from experience, I think that smaller ones are safer. The people know each other better and tend to care for each other more. My experience with large churches is that you get lost in the crowd. No one ever really knows you and so people tend to just ignore you. At least, that’s my experience.

  13. It’s so sad that so many churches fall under this category of unsafe. I feel that every believer needs a true community to be a part of and that will not only hold us to a godly standard but just hold us! I’ve always encouraged our congregation that I want them to know they are where God wants them to be. It doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunity to be offended or hurt, but we can make a commitment to one another. It can be so tough sometimes, but when it’s God-breathed, it changes us so deeply! Thanks Sarah.

  14. Sarah Salter says:

    I’m certainly part of a true community. But the community I’m a part of right now includes everything from near-hostile atheists to a large number of extremely wounded former church members who are some of the strongest people of faith I’ve ever known. This wasn’t the “church” I was expecting to be a part of. But as I’ve been kicked and cut and wounded by more “standard” churches over and over and over again, I’m thankful that I’ve found somewhere to love and be loved; to minister and be ministered to; to believe and be believed in. And I know a lot of churched people that would shake their heads at me and cluck that it’s bad or wrong. But this is where God’s put me and so for now, it’s certainly where I’ll stay.

  15. Came over from Glynn’s. I’m just so sorry. No one should go through what you have.

  16. Sarah, it always burns me also that the “church people” can be the meanest people in the world. Makes me want to get that whip out also! I’m so sorry for all you’ve gone through. I pray the Lord will lead you to that place of service and safety according to His plan and timing. Blessings to you!

  17. Sarah Salter says:

    Megan, thanks for coming by! And honestly, no, nobody should have to go through it. But because I have, maybe I can help others who have, too. Also, I remind myself that as long as we are all imperfect people, church will never be perfect. Happily, I have plans to attend church with friends NEXT week. 🙂

  18. Sarah Salter says:

    Lynn, thank you for your kindness and the love you came by to share today! I appreciate very much that others–even others I haven’t met–would love me enough to come by and share such great encouragement and prayers! This means very much to me today!

  19. Megan A says:

    I LOVE your honesty. Always have. And I think most of us who were raised in church – especially PKs – have been right where you are.

    My husband and I just got back to church in December after taking a hiatus. He’d been hurt, I was frustrated … we needed time to heal. When the time was right, God drew our hearts back to a desire for congregational fellowship. But in the interim, we had plenty of meaningful conversations with friends, acquaintances, and unlikely strangers – in other words, a glimpse of what heavenly fellowship must be like. 🙂

  20. Sarah Salter says:

    Megan A, I thank you for taking the time to come by and comment! And I really mean that. For the six and a half years I worked for the NCIPHC, I lived in perpetual fear that I was going to finally write something that was going to tick somebody off enough to write me up or fire me. I know it must sound HORRIBLE to a lot of people that “the church lady” (that’s what many have called me) would get hurt and leave the church. And so to know that I’m not the only one who has been hurt or frustrated… To know that there are IPHC folks that will come by and leave a little love… Well, that heals my heart just a little bit. And for the record, I love the IPHC, and most of the church horror stories I tell didn’t occur in IPHC churches. It’s just now that I’ve left the IPHC, it’s nice NOT to hear an IPHC person say, “You left us? You must be backslidden…” 🙂

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