In 2018 — 12 years after walking away from the church — I finally went to therapy and confronted what I came to understand was trauma I still carried from my religious upbringing. The more I realized that I still carried so much trauma within myself, the more I knew that I needed to confront it. As I read the book LEAVING THE FOLD by Marlene Winell, I decided that the best path forward for my healing was to write about my experiences. I followed several prompts within the book, adapting them in ways that would better enable me to confront my past as I felt ready to do so. It was the first major step toward healing.
I wanted to share one of these prompts with you today, so that those struggling with overcoming religious abuse can see the ways that this process can work. Keep in mind — there’s some shame and guilt in this prompt that manifest in the form of self-deprecation, and these are feelings that I needed to validate before I worked through them. Also keep in mind that if you are currently struggling with shame, this writing prompt might be triggering. It also includes some fairly graphic depictions of some assault that I was told about in my years as a youth group church leader, and I feel I should let my readers know that I wrote this first and foremost from a place where I wasn’t holding back my brutal honesty.
These disclaimers made, I also think that sharing it — like writing it turned out to be — is an act of empowerment and ownership. I think it is important to share this, so that my readers who are still evangelical understand that I do not exempt myself from the damage I did to others as a Southern Baptist preacher simply because I’ve deconstructed — just like I’m not calling any of you intentional abusers. I’m finally at a place of emotional healing and reconciliation toward people I wronged that I’m willing to share, because I’ve come to forgive myself for so many of the confessions I made in this prompt. But please understand: If you choose to try writing your story like this, sharing it is NEVER an obligation. But today, I’m feeling brave, and I hope this inspires you.
I wish you peace and healing on your path, wherever it may lead.
I sometimes have dreams that I’m chasing millions of feathers down an endless street, as the wind blows them in circles high above my head and scatters them so that they are impossibly out of my reach. And I know what this dream means: No matter what I might do now, no matter how many wrongs I forsake, my life is a collection of the feathers I have already dumped into the wind. They cannot be recovered. I may try to run from them, but they are all on their own individual journeys now, and they cannot be taken back.
These feathers have many faces. I’ve memorized them all.
I once knew a sixteen year old girl who was drugged at a party, dragged under a bridge, and raped by seven different men. She was in my youth group, back when I was a preacher, and it was my duty to counsel her. She poured herself out to me, laid herself completely bare. Trusted me with the wholeness of her being. I patted her on the back, told her the answers she needed were in the Bible, and sent her on her way. Didn’t recommend any further course of action. She overdosed on drugs, and has been in and out of rehab her entire life.
A little boy once told me he was afraid to go home because his mother was crazy and his father was abusive. I told him he had to honor his parents, because that’s what the Bible said. Don’t know what happened to him.
I preached against everyone who wasn’t a Christian, time and time again from pulpits. Told young, eager minds that it was us against the world. That if you weren’t a follower of Jesus, then you were the enemy. That every word of the Bible was inspired, and anyone who didn’t believe that was going to be judged as an opponent of divine truth.
I once gave a homeless man a gospel tract, instead of buying him a sandwich. I performed this action deliberately in front of a few teenagers, so that they would think I was an “awesome man of God.” I’ll never forget the blank look on his face, and theirs.
I once walked into a prison and told the prisoners that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that a relationship with Jesus Christ would make all their pain go away. Many believed my words and converted, the shame and guilt twitching on their faces. I told them that God liked their shame and guilt, because they served as reminders that we were nothing without Him. Earlier that day, I’d spent all morning talking to a ceiling and wondering if there was really anyone who was listening.
I told people that God wants you to feel bad. He wants you to feel miserable for making his Only-Begotten Son die on the cross. I’ve spoken to hundreds of kids in packed mega-churches and told them that the reason we exist is to live in constant fear of breaking God’s heart. We should not strive to be ourselves, but creatures driven by the shame of Christ’s sacrifice for us. They believed me, and followed me. I nearly believed myself.
I challenged youth everywhere to hold anti-abortion and anti-gay rights rallies. Walked in some myself, as I preached against the freedoms of people who would dare have a different lifestyle than my own. There was this one boy who I’m certain was gay who attended the rally in which I suggested that AIDS was God’s judgment against gay people. He had an alcoholic father who used to call him a queer, and I thought this might teach him a lesson to grow up and become a man. This boy later asked me if it was better to be gay or to be dead. I told him the latter, because at least he wasn’t using up all his blessings if he was already in heaven. I recommended Exodus, the conversion therapy institution, to his parents. I’m grateful that I can’t remember this brave young man’s name, because it would kill me to look him up and see whether or not he survived the conversion therapy that his parents inevitably made him endure. I realize that’s terribly selfish.
“We do not mourn the death of Matthew Shepard. We only mourn the deaths of human beings.” I said those words. From a pulpit. To teenagers who believed in me. They were words I’d heard from my eleventh-grade Sunday school teacher, and I’d taken them to heart.
Many of those same teenagers, by the way, continued to proclaim the message that I crammed down their throats until…well, I suppose they still do, but I’ve quit following them on Facebook so I could sleep at nights. They marched at the rallies I organized and then organized their own based on my example, and preached the same rhetoric to more oppressed people in desperate need of acceptance…whose lives hinged on it.
In all of these instances, I betrayed both those youth and the ones they went on to preach to… encouraged them to betray their own sense of goodness and humanity in order to follow the teachings of the Bible. I allowed my narrow understanding of the Bible dictate which “sins” made us human or sub-human, and I passed that polluted message on to the next generation of believers. These are all feathers I chase and fail to capture in my dreams.
But one feather stays the farthest from my reach. On it is the face that haunts me the most, representing the day when I finally betrayed myself. Where I finally went so far that, if I was someone else looking in, I’d be certain that there was no turning back for me. Or, at least, I was out of chances to take any of it back.
Christ, I can’t even remember the girl’s name now either. But I perfectly remember that I’d been the leader of my youth group for ten months when I promised her that her brother went to hell. He’d been drunk, she explained somberly, and put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger without checking to see whether or not it was loaded. He literally died with a mischievous smile stuck on his face. The authorities couldn’t find her parents—they were off in Miami, doing what people do in Miami—so she was the one who had to identify the body.
Police wrote it off as suicide. She wasn’t sure if she would call it a suicide or not. She only knew that her brother was dead because he put a bullet into his head. She explained all this to me meticulously one afternoon on my front porch, because she’d been told by someone else her age that I was someone she could talk to, someone she could trust.
I have to admit, I was a little in awe of this young lady when she came to my house and emptied her guts into my open palms. She was strong for someone whose entire planet had just crumbled underneath her pink-sandaled feet. But I gently resolved to break her. For her own good, you understand. I needed her as vulnerable as possible, so I could move in for the kill—the revelation that she needed to accept Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior, which would be a surefire relief from her pain. We were having a special service the next evening, at a youth hostel about an hour west of our town. We were taking the church bus. I invited her as my special guest. She hesitated, as if unsure that the invitation was the correct response from an evidently helpful youth pastor to a girl who’d just told him the most devastating news she had ever received. But she agreed, and that was all that mattered to me.
She came in a lovely, conservative black dress. Overdressed for an informal occasion. She stuck out in a blue jeans-wearing youth group, but she was pleasant and chipper enough to pull it off. I remember her face—those round eyes that pleaded for my mercy, the cropped and spiked hair. A large gap between her from teeth that made her lisp. The naïve, shy tone when she said, “I ain’t been to church since I was a little girl,” and then she giggled and wiped at her nose with the back of her wrist. Didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was still a little girl. Wasn’t her fault she’d grown up in the last day or so.
At the service, which took place in a white-washed, air-conditioned auditorium in which twenty teenage boys with buzz-cuts and gray jump suits sat in folding chairs and watched our music and preaching stoically, she was among the lost souls who accepted Christ as her savior and thus secured the salvation of her eternal soul.
There’s this little trick I picked up from all the preachers I’d watched in my life, especially the ones who’d groomed me — not least of all my father and grandfather: I retold a Bible story in my own words and turned it into a sermon about redemption and God’s grace—in this case, the story of the Prodigal Son, about a spoiled brat who decides he’s tired of kissing his daddy’s ass, runs away from home, ends up covered in pig shit, and then decides to return to his daddy and ask forgiveness. It’s a cut-and-paste example of the mercy of God, revealed in the patient father who waits for his worthless son to come home so he can absolve him of his sins and throw a big party to welcome him back. Sort of a one-size-fits all kind of salvation message.
I made sure to play up the emotions of the story with a tone of voice that revealed the Holy Spirit’s power working through me, to convince them all that I was a God-empowered superhero. In the end I told everyone to pray with me, and then I asked the bowed heads, hers included, if they wanted to accept Christ as their savior and Lord. Then I led them in a little prayer that went something like, “Dear Jesus, I’m sorry for my sins. I recognize that you are the only one who can save me, and I ask you to forgive me for all the wrong things I’ve done and come into my heart and take total control of my life. I surrender my will, and hand the reins of my soul completely to you. Thank you for coming into my life, at this moment. Amen.”
Then, with every head bowed and every eye closed, I always asked for whoever said that prayer to raise their hand. By now my helpful youth band, in on the scheme, played generic worship music on the little stage behind me. Helped make the seriousness and the emotion of this decision absolutely clear, and it better encouraged the unforgiven in the crowd to make the call to Jesus. I was pleased to see her hand rise, timidly at first as her elbow bent upwards, and then with a little more confidence once her whole arm was straight in the air. I usually count hands, but hers was the only one I noticed that day. “Alright,” I said, “put your hands down. And thank you for being honest with me and Jesus today.”
And case closed. Soul saved, problems over.
I expected her to beam as the Holy Spirit entered into her heart. But when I told everyone that they could open their eyes again, her shoulders sagged in her pretty black dress. Her jaw locked and rotated thoughtfully under her cheeks. Her eyes looked more tired and guilty than elated as they should have been.
We didn’t say another word to each other until we were on our way back to our church in that rickety old bus driven by one of the band leader’s parents. It was my job to intermingle and congratulate the team on a job well done and souls saved. She was sitting in the farthest seat in the back, her jaw still dancing sadly. I sat down next to her and smiled as warmly as I could. “You made an important decision tonight,” I told her.
Then she asked me what I’d been expecting her to ask since she first came to my porch. It was the question, I knew, that would finally break her spirit once and for all, and would let the Holy Spirit Himself take total control over her heart and brain. “Do people who commit suicide have a shot at heaven?” She lisped the word “suicide,” because of the large gap between her front teeth.
My answer, immediate and prepared: “Everyone has a shot at Heaven, just as long as they’ve accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Anyone who hasn’t goes to hell, I’m afraid. That’s what the Bible says.” I looked at her sullenly, mustering up some sincerely false sympathy. All this was overtime now, since I’d already saved her soul. And her breaking point came after the brief scan of her memories, as she confirmed with unconditional clarity that her brother was indeed burning in Hell. Because that’s what God’s Eternal Word insisted upon.
She cried for the whole hour back to my church, and I just put my arm around her and rocked her. All my youth could hear her sobbing, but they kept their eyes forward and their conversations muted because they knew I had a job to do. I felt so proud of myself as I held that girl.
I never saw her again after that day. I dropped her off at her aunt’s trailer, about ten minutes from my house, and left her to the Lord.
Somewhere inside of me, in some deep and suppressed place, I knew what I’d done—I could feel a quiet entity that I’d have assumed at the time was the devil glaring up at me in disgust. I was a sibling myself, with no idea yet how much those who called me “brother” would become my world: Someone who was yet to discover what it would feel like to stare down the possibility of losing such a person. I didn’t understand that sense of loss, but I still knew that I loved my brother and sisters very deeply. And despite that love, despite that knowing, I looked at a thirteen-year-old girl in the eyes and, representing the authority of no less than God Almighty, I told her that someone who she loved as much as I love them—someone who she’d lost—was burning and screaming and begging for release from eternal torment.
I saw the look on that girl’s face as I told her that I was certain she’d never see her brother again, in this life or the next, and I felt pride….even as that entity within glared up at me with all of the sickening humiliation that it could muster. It wasn’t the devil. It was the once-and-future love I had for my onw siblings, and I was betraying that love by following my divine orders. And even if I, at the time, had comprehended the depths of my devotion to them—on that day, I know that I still would have betrayed him. I was doing the Lord’s work.
I wish I could tell you that I decided not to suppress that guilt—that I decided to actually listen to it at that moment. Because if I had, this would have been the day that I knew there wasn’t a God, and this girl’s face would be my last feather. Not because God wouldn’t ever let some drunk teenager kill himself, and certainly not because his poor, thirteen-year old sister could be so emotionally devastated at his tragic, inebriated stupidity. I don’t pretend to know what God would or wouldn’t do, if He actually has the courtesy of existing. No, I wish I quit believing in God at that moment by instinctively understanding that no God could exist who would want me to revel in this girl’s tears—no God who wanted to draw them out of her, so that I could hold her tightly and tell her that Jesus loved her. So that I could feel good about myself, at this girl’s expense.
Because if I was that God I claimed to worship, I’d have killed myself right then and there for being such a morose conqueror of poor, confused children’s ripped open, bleeding hearts. I’d spent so much time inventing a God in my image that it was the only God I cared to know, and if He didn’t stop me then once and for all, He at best wasn’t real, and was at worst not worthy of my reverence.
Either way, I would like to hope that the fire of rebellious clarity gave birth as I stole the last remnants of a young woman’s happiness in the Lord’s holy name. But I was far from done breaking hearts for Jesus, far from lying to the lost and sad about fairy tales like Hell, far from the place where I wake up at nights trying to remember this girl’s name, so that I could find her and promise her I was a fool and that I’d told her a terrible untruth about her brother and that no God worthy of any praise at all would have ever devised of a perfect plan in which suicide and hell would have existed at all. But that if they did exist, if I had to choose a heaven without my siblings or a hell with them, the decision required no thought at all.
It’s the same dream, every time. All those fucking feathers. But I don’t mind that it keeps me up some nights. Because it can’t be a tenth of the sleepless nights I gave to this precious life, whose only mistake was that she trusted me.
They all trusted me.
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