Heads up to those reading this: I mostly use this website to talk about my creative efforts. This isn’t that. This is a personal piece of writing I’ve done in solidarity with others speaking up. I wan’t to make sure you are jumping into this from an informed space. I’m also including links to the RAINN helpline, the Trevor Project helpline, and this list of global crisis lines, in case they are needed.
TW/CW: Child sexual abuse, homelessness and precarious housing, homomisia, suicide, neglect, religious abuse, exorcism (yeah, it gets weird).
With all that in mind, I’ll begin.
When I started to write this, I was sitting in my backyard. Small birds danced in and out of my yard-sale bird feeder. Like most of the objects in my personal sanctuary, the bird feeder had been lovingly sanded down and given a fresh coat of paint. I find satisfaction in rescuing discarded things and offering them another go round. I believe—maybe to my own detriment—in second chances. When I was very young, I believed in infinite chances. Circumstances have required that I pare that down.
Between bird visits, I was reading articles about restorative justice on my phone. I sought answers to the not-yet-fully-formed question that (my partner pointed out) was taking up far too much of my bandwidth.
The question is nebulous and too broad to ever answer: What is the right thing to do?
Here’s the deal (and this is where those trigger warnings I mentioned above start to kick in):
A grown man who was a once a precious child shared a recounting of a church leader abusing him.
(I find, already, a challenge in communicating this. There are so many adjectives that we use to describe the sexual abuse which adults inflict on children. Devastating. Horrifying. Heartbreaking. I don’t think any of them nail it. Is there a word big enough, and yet precise enough, to describe what a recounting of abuse is?)
A grown man who was a once a precious child shared a devastating, horrifying, heartbreaking recounting of a church leader abusing him. He also talked about the church’s response and the further devastation, horror, and heartbreak it caused.
When I think about the church, I’m suddenly inside a red brick building that smells like lemon soap and everyone’s best Sunday perfume. I’m walking on the orange carpet to find a seat in the section where the youth group sits. There are hymnals, but most of the songs we sing are projected on a screen using overhead slides. No PowerPoints yet. This was the 90s.
You know it’s a cool church because they have a band. You know it’s a serious church because the head pastor used to be a scientist. You know it’s a patriarchal church because all of the elders (like a board of spiritual directors) are cis men. That’s still true. They recently voted, again, against allowing anyone of another gender to serve in this role.
For a most of my high school years, I loved this place. My first visit came when a classmate invited me to a youth event. When she moved across the country the next year, I just kept going. They couldn’t get rid of me. My home was full of abuse and chaos, but here there was a promise of found family and of shared goodness. Here there were cookies for snack and sometimes concerts in the sanctuary. Here there was an all-powerful something-or-other that could hear my prayers.
My question—what’s the right thing to do?—they had an answer for that. And it was a magic answer. It was an instant answer. It was an answer that I could get for a few words, though I’d have to commit for my whole life. And I wanted to.
This is all part of the puzzle as I try to figure out the right thing to do.
I’m not going to drag this out. I’ve known since that very brave man spoke out what the right thing to do is.
It’s to state unequivocally that I support him. It’s to make sure he knows he’s not alone. And it’s to share parts of my experiences at RAC, in the time and way that I’m able, so that other people can see that there are more of us.
I don’t know why numbers change things when it comes to organizational and institutional abuse, but they do. We know that the more people come forward, the less folks get to act like nothing happened.
(Look at me, using the passive voice.)
The something is abuse. And it didn’t just happen. An individual chose to do it and others colluded to cover it up. It’s part of the history of that building, that organization, and that community.
To clarify: I’m not a christian now. I exist in that wonderfully queer space between atheist and pagan that allows for ritual and wonder but doesn’t require promising bits of myself to folks who wont take care of them. One reason I’ve been slow to respond is that I know non-christians, like myself, who challenge churches are easily dismissed. So are queer folk. We don’t exist in their moral hierarchy. They’ve got a holy edict and I worship good karaoke and bad thrift store finds. I’m a very different human than I was when I sounded the alarm about the layperson youth leader who harassed, groomed and solicited me. I can’t fit back into their boxes and they likely won’t be willing to visit mine. We’re at an impasse.
I’ve emailed the organization—The Clergy Abuse Resource Team (CART)—that the larger governing body set up to take in reports of abuse. I’ve not heard back from them. Please know that I am resisting making a CART before the horse pun.
I also have no faith (in the practical, not the mystical sense) in any of the other systems in place to seek something called justice. The police are not a friend to survivors. The courts are not a friend to survivors. The press is not a friend to survivors.
I also hesitate because in the branching history of my existence, this isn’t the most rotten branch. What happened at RAC, it’s not small potatoes, but they’re in a pretty big bushel.
When this potato hit, I was a precariously-housed teenager who travelled from a different city on two bus services. I did it to keep this church in my devastating, horrifying, and heartbreaking life. I mean, it was also a normal life. It wasn’t just me being sad and destroyed. I was in high school when Boyz II Men were a thing. It’s hard to be sad listening to those harmonies. I, with my off-brand walkman, spent way-too-much of my almost-no money taking those buses to RAC. I did it because after losing my home, my school, and my mental health, I couldn’t lose my church too. I couldn’t.
Long story very short, because the details don’t serve me shared here: A layperson youth leader (like a volunteer, but with a degree from a bible college) saw this busted, destroyed, occasionally suicidal child and thought…
Actually, I have no idea what he thought. I used to obsessively read anything I could find about why grown folks hurt kids. There are myriad reasons and I’m not qualified to say what his were.
I can say it sucked. It mirrored my experiences at home. I’m not going to oversell it. I got out of it better than lots of others. But yeah, it sucked. There’s no cautionary tale here. Don’t accept a ride home from an evening church event with a youth leader? Was I any safer on the late night bus? There were no safe options for me. I don’t believe in safe options. They don’t exist. Vulnerable people, especially once someone has abused us at home, get targeted over and over in life. We often don’t have the skills or resources to seek justice. And what even is justice? They (whoever they are in any situation) know that we lack credibility because our society’s metric of credibility also sucks. They choose us precisely because of this.
It all sucks.
(But I have a backyard now and sparrows come to my bird feeder and that doesn’t suck. My current life is full of things that don’t suck.)
But this? This sucked. And what happened after was worse.
Almost immediately, I reported it to the church leadership. I earnestly believed something would be done.
They told me he’d repented and…
That was it. It was over. The head pastor, when I tried to push for more, gave me a look that read disdain. Pure disdain. He was having none of it. There was no sympathy. Not for what my life was like. Not for this added chaos. Not for any of it. I can bring up the look in those eyes. I have a picture of them in my head. If I ever felt the need to remind myself how little I mattered, it’s the picture I’d go to.
The church’s response was to send me to see a counsellor. 6 separate individuals told me I should go see this woman. I thought it was a sign from god. More likely, it was coercion and manipulation. These were folks I trusted, though, so I went.
The counsellor worked out of one of the side offices near the youth pastor’s. By counsellor, I mean a woman who possibly didn’t have any official counselling training. She was your average church lady. Floral dresses. Pageboy cut. Motherly in that way that straddles the line between caring and deeply punitive—heavy on the punitive. She told me the problems with me (yes, the problems were with me, apparently) were caused by demons (no, I’m not kidding). If I wanted to extricate myself from their corruption, I had to take a course from her in spiritual warfare. It’s why, she insisted, this type of thing kept happening to me (hello passive voice, my old friend).
Why is this the worst part? Because it made a sort of sense to me. People did bad things to me because I housed a bad thing. Many bad things. Bad things that might have come to my family eons back that were passed to me via generational sins. And my own, of course. Hadn’t I used a magic 8 ball? Or done yoga? Listened to Prince? Hadn’t I had impure thoughts? If I purged all those things, and let her cut the tendrils the demons had tied to my soul, the bad things would stop. I’d also be saving my future, non-existant children from the same fate. I stuck it out until the end, through an exhaustive, multi-week recounting of every way in which I was bad.
At the end of the course, she prayed over me so the demons would be gone, taking all those pieces of me with them. Years later, I’m still trying to get some of those pieces back.
Sometimes I joke with friends about my exorcism. The idea is bizarre. It’s a shorthand for how different my reality was. I was taught that demons were coming in the cracks—and I was mostly cracks. My emotional well-being was like the San Andreas fault. I could have been a rooming house for demons, had they been a real thing.
What stood out to me the most was the heat and the wetness of her hands when she laid them on me. That ubiquitous floral dress. The scab where she’s dropped a curling iron on her arm. My discomfort with being touched. I did it, though. I made it through the course (yes it came with photocopied homework). I let them try to get rid of what was wrong with me. I was on board. The problem was me and I was working to fix it.
When I saw the youth leader in church, I learned to turn panic into disassociation. I didn’t tell any of my contemporaries. I performed in plays and sung in choirs and dropped whatever change I could gather in an envelope to tithe for the right to share space with the man who’d hurt me. I even applied for church membership.
I could say something about how hard it is to leave abusive spaces. I could make a quip about Stockholm syndrome. Really, though, I still wanted that family. I wanted a tether, any tether, to stop me from falling away.
Do I need to tell you that they rejected me? I guess I was a liability. I was a problem child and I just wouldn’t go. Remember what I said way back at the beginning about second chances? I really believed that someone, maybe a group of someones, would make it right. They’d make sure I had a place to live and food to eat. They’d make sure I was treated like what they’d preached I was—a child of their god.
Shoot, I wasn’t anyone’s child. I was no one. I drifted off into being no one.
Within a year, I was living in a group home. That summer, I went to my first Pride event. That’s where I started to find my family, in bits and pieces. The PFLAG tent had a hug-a-mom section and suddenly there were hands around me that felt loving. I still had issues being touched, but this was like coming home. I drank. I danced. I lauged. I celebrated everything I’d been told was wrong in me.
I’m solidly middle aged now and that year feels like a death. I’ve had a few years like that. Trauma survivors often do. A version of me that believed in demons died. There were no demons. There were only people playing the part. There were only systems that tied sex to shame and holiness to gender and I had to exorcise them. I did it with theatre and sunshine yellow wall paint. I did it by slowly figuring out how to engage in community without anyone steamrolling each other. I’m still working on how to be a friend. I’m still trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.
In this case, the right thing to do is to say to my very new friend these words:
You are not alone. You are precious and brave and hilarious. I respect you so damn much. I’m glad you kicked at this door. I’m sorry you had to, and I’m sad that so many people will probably be walking through it. But we’re here together now. You. Are. Not. Alone.
And I guess that means I’m not alone either.