“I’m so tired of being in pain all the time, so tired of constantly struggling. Friday night I had another anxiety attack. I freaked out realizing that with the way I’m treated at every church I go to, eventually my primary community will have to be a non-church group. But I feel so uncomfortable in those groups most of the time. I also feel very uncomfortable in almost every church, so if I have to choose between two groups I feel very uncomfortable in, I’d rather have genuine people who are lost than supposedly saved people who are fake and malicious and abusive.” – 11/15/15
This was my first realization that I might not be a “church girl” for the rest of my life. It was a terrifying thought. Church was all I had ever known. It consumed every part of my life. As a child I had been happy at church. Sunday School, Summer Camps, Homeschool Cooperatives, Christmas pageants… I had a few friends and everything seemed fine.
As I grew into an adolescent, my weeks were filled with Youth Group and Bible Studies and volunteering for the nursery and service projects. My friends and I met up to study devotionals together for fun in our spare time. Around this same time my anxiety started increasing as I became more aware of the performance culture, gossip circles, and the high stakes at play if you didn’t keep everyone in the church happy, or as they called it “protecting your reputation”.
When I started attending college and doing edgy things like *gasp* making guy friends and you know, exploring concepts of nonviolence and social justice, my parents’ church – the only community I had known for the first 18 years of my life – disowned me and basically excommunicated me. This is how I first developed PTSD. I joined multiple church groups as a young adult and while all of them were healthier than my church of origin and gave me more wiggle room for individuality, I slowly learned the hard way that each of these church groups had their own unique and arbitrary limitations placed on me. The Christian club at my college allowed me to explore different theologies on sexual orientation for instance, but then I discovered I had to eventually land on a traditional viewpoint that was not affirming to LGBTQ folks if I wanted to continue in leadership. Usually this community didn’t reach too far into my personal life when I was a student, but once I became an interned staff member, the national organization that backed them prohibited me from drinking, dating and riding in cars with anyone who was male. Additionally, I was now accountable for how I spent all of my time, down to 15 minute increments, even on my days off.
During these years, I started attending a tiny church plant in my college town on the weekends, and at first I loved it. They had a woman lead pastor. It was a small enough community everyone knew each other, so there weren’t the same assumptions or rumors that ran rampant in larger churches. It was more relationship-based and less rules-based. There was more trust between the members and better communication. I felt valued as an individual and not disposable like at my parents’ huge church. But because it was such a small church, I often felt used for volunteer hours, when I really just needed to come and rest and be ministered to after a long week of ministry leadership at the college. I didn’t need to work at church all week and then work at church more on the weekends! I also needed a place to confide in the pastors about my pain from past church experiences. However, when I tried, the pastor’s husband informed me that “being in ministry is like being a boxer. If you want to enter the fighting ring, you have to be willing to be punched in the face a lot. Never trust a pastor that doesn’t walk with a limp.” This confused and disgusted me. So, doing God’s work has to hurt me? I can’t hope for or work toward a better church culture that doesn’t hurt people, maybe even heals them? Clearly this wasn’t a safe space to process my trauma! Abuse I had suffered was considered normal or not a big deal – it’s just how it is.
This was too much. I metaphorically threw my hands up in the air exclaiming “I’ve tried everything! Every church is the same! I thought I had found my people, but it’s always just another form of abuse and control or apathy toward it. Maybe I can’t do this anymore.” I felt like a caged animal. Something I really wanted was being taken from me so unnecessarily. It didn’t HAVE to be this way! And yet it was, again and again. And my attempts to change things for the better were met with resistance and hostility.
Evangelical churches ensure the children they raise have as little exposure to the “outside world” as possible. If I stopped being a “church girl”, I didn’t have the slightest clue what my life would look like. I felt ill-prepared, naive and years behind understanding my own culture and typical social interactions that didn’t revolve around a Bible or youth group event.
Looking back at this diary excerpt I’m so proud of me. With no outside help, I was starting to identify what I was looking for in a community and what my deal-breakers were. I needed people who were genuine – no show, no gossip, no lies, no arrogance. No claiming to take care of the poor and the oppressed and then turning a blind eye when victims speak up. I was starting to realize that maybe what I needed wasn’t exclusively under the Christian umbrella. Maybe labels didn’t matter so much. Maybe somebody wasn’t so lost if they embodied the values Christians often failed to.
I was opening my mind to see that even if I might lose everything familiar and dear, sometimes walking away is the only way. Even though I was scared, I was starting to imagine a future that was radically different from everything I had ever known. I was able to recognize that “genuine people” would be healthier community members, better friends and safer confidants, even if we didn’t share beliefs, even if they didn’t identify as Christian. I didn’t feel comfortable yet with non-Christians or progressive Christians – the conservative church had made sure of that. I had been trained to either convert them or avoid them. I was intimidated by their experience and confidence in the world and I often didn’t understand the non-churchy things they would talk about. I felt awkward and clumsy trying to be “normal”.
I felt stuck between two worlds, but I knew that one of them hadn’t been explored yet, and I might just have to give it a chance. That, or give up and submit to a lifetime of the same pain and trauma I had suffered for years – but I was never one to give up.