My Story: “Keep My Sister Safe” – A Tale of an Exvangelical’s Prayer

It has never been easy for me to define family. I find this to be a common struggle among exvangelicals, not least of all because those in the evangelical community with whom we share DNA often simply cannot understand the reasons that we have decided to walk away from this path. For so many in the Church, Jesus is such a foundational component that it is hard to know how to talk about anything else around the Thanksgiving table. The difference between belief and non-belief is the constant elephant in the room. 

But there’s more to it than simply that schism. I was a restless preacher’s kid, which meant we moved around a lot from one church to another based on wherever Dad felt we were being “called.” Making friends past the surface is particularly hard when you’re pretty sure that you’re not going to be around for very long. 

So too did our model for love and trust make it difficult to forge meaningful relationships; as I’ve said in other posts, when your standard of perfect love is a Heavenly Father who aims to torture you for all eternity if you do not accept His free gift of salvation, you come to think of God’s love as pretty conditional – which means that your love is conditional too. Love me, or I will punish you – because I love you. Dating was hard. 

The truth is, loyalty to DNA has never been a huge priority to me since leaving the Church and beginning a new path in which I discovered my own definitions of love. You didn’t need to be born of my mother to be my sibling. You didn’t have to literally be my kid for me to see you as such. For the exvangelical me, families are forged from those whom I encounter along my path. People with whom I’ve shared a piece of myself. It’s why I have a tattoo of a puzzle piece rising from my arm, with the words, “There it is, fallen away.” It’s from a line of a book I wrote, symbolizing the piece of myself that I’ve given to others – the sharing of my symbolic DNA, if you will. “This is my body.”

I’ve just been incredibly lucky that the first of those people who carry pieces of me with them – those from whom I learned to forge my family outside of my blood – happen to be my literal siblings. It was being related by blood that made it possible – bound to the same household. But it was the forging of my heart with theirs that has made me so loyal to them over the years – that taught me loyalty to others that would become my family forged. 

I can tell you the exact moment that forging began. It was a conversation between me and my older sister Tirzah. I was 14; she was 18. And we’d both had enough. 

There was tension in our house, as there often was – for a variety of reasons that tension arises in any family. Parents are always going to be the enemy for every teenager; it is the age in which we realize that are parents aren’t gods but rather mere fallible mortals incapable of understanding our pain or listening to us, and driving us absolutely crazy with their rules and regulations. Adding the evangelical preacher component compounded the drama, to be sure. Everything came with a little extra judgment, because God had Dad’s personal phone number. 

So one night, when the drama in the house was so overwhelming that I practically couldn’t breathe, I decided to go out for some air.

It was a windy Tennessee night, probably sometime in the Fall. My little sister Hope and my brother Seth were in their rooms, either oblivious to the household drama or hiding from it. Either way, I was worried sick for them. Tirzah was off to college soon, making a clean getaway. I’d managed to get a couple of good friends who could let me crash at their house and watch horror movies if I needed a break. But Hope and Seth were still too young. They didn’t have our advantages. 

Outside our back door was a pavilion where we parked our cars. I took in a deep breath and entered the wind, toward the lawn behind pavilion. That was when I found Tirzah, throwing items that loudly shattered against the pavilion wall. When she looked up at me, her eyes were on fire the way that they always were when she was being mischievous. We looked at each other for a long time – and she raised the contents of her hands for me to see under the moonlight. 

We’d had this Russian exchange student for a while. She’d just left, and the reasons for her doing so was part of the tension (nothing scandalous). She’d made little boxes in her pottery class that we’d promise to keep safe in order to remember her. Tirzah was smashing them against the wall, one at a time. “Care to join me?” she said. 

Yeah, I really did.

It was so cathartic, taking our time to smash every one of those goddamn pottery pieces. With each new piece smashed, I felt a little lighter. We smashed them all. And when we were done, we just stood there staring at the pile of shattered clay that we’d created. I’d never felt closer to Tirzah in my whole life. I’d never felt closer to anyone. 

The realization surprised me. I loved Tirzah – she’d been fun as we were growing up, putting on plays and tea parties and always down for an adventure (usually she was dragging me). Honestly, I was in awe of her, the way she stood up for herself like I wished I had the courage to. But I’d always felt we were on very different paths – she had Ethan Hawke, Luke Perry, and Brad Pitt on her wall; I had the Marx Brothers, Frankenstein, and the Joker. She sang worship songs in front of church; I sang the soundtrack to Demon Barber of Fleet Street to myself in the bathroom mirror. We were both very stubborn, but that WAS our DNA. 

On that night, it seemed like our paths finally merged. After over a decade sharing the same space, we realized that we’d finally grown into people whom the other could trust and appreciate – people who understood just how crazy all of this was getting. It remained an unspoken understanding between us for many years, the realization that a truce had been made that night – that it was time to be transparent, because now we were looking out for each other. And together, we were going to need to look after Hope and Seth. 

After that night, the natural animosity and inherent rivalry between us more or less evaporated. Our roles had shifted, and something new had been forged. I mean, there was still a lot of bullshit – we’re siblings, after all, and we were kids. But even so, we figured out how to work together to take care of our little siblings a little better than we had been. 

Our childhood hadn’t been easy for any of us. That has much to do with just the childhood’s regular challenges, but growing up in an evangelical preacher’s household comes with its shares of particular nuances. Preacher’s kids always have to be very careful about where we are seen, and with whom– a cigarette’s first puff had the potential of reaching our father’s ears before we’d finished smoking it. 

Other kids watched us curiously, to see whether or not we were okay with the word “damn,” or offering us a beer. Peers wanted to see how far we’d go, and if we were more loyal to each other or to Jesus. 

All of that on top of being taught that love is equivalent to submission and shame – which means that interactions with one other tended to just be a lot of gaslighting. God, it’s crazy to think now how much of a gaslighter I used to be – because I served a God who was a master manipulator. All this to say: It is hard to be a good sibling when you are an evangelical, because siblings are potential snitches and love gives you permission to act like an asshole. 

Being a brother to Seth came a little more naturally. It helped that we shared the same room growing up. He was almost always on his Gameboy, or making an odd reading selection like the Encyclopedia. It was increasingly clear that of all of us, Seth was the one who longed to escape the most. I can’t speak for him, but it seems like as far back as I can remember, he always just wanted to get the hell out of there. That made him a little detached, but we found common ground. You learn the ticks and eccentricities of someone with whom you shared space pretty quickly, and we made the best of it. We had our own inside jokes, and we kept them mostly to always stay amused. Looking after him was pretty easy. 

It was also a lesson that the more insides jokes you have with people, the closer you are. 

As for Hope, well – it took some work. For a teenage boy, teenage girls (no offense to any who may be reading) are chemically incapable of forgiveness – especially when they are sisters. And we’d been positively enemies as kids – so much fighting and bickering. Love too, from shared experience. But it wasn’t easy. She was/is fiercely independent and outgoing — funny and observant… but moreso (in my observation) outside the walls of our household. Reaching her within those walls required me to learn how to actually shut up and listen, to notice when she was sad or afraid, and to stand up for her just so that she could see that I’d noticed. Once I started doing that, I found the most profound friend in Hope – a fiercely loyal, kind heart who had built this wall around her to keep all the noise around her out. And once you’re behind that well with her, she holds you close and keeps you safe.

As the time passed, Tirzah went off to college and left me alone to look after Hope and Seth. But that was alright – I’d learned plenty watching her be so attentive to them, the way she taught them basic tools like combing hair and hygiene. She made my role, trying to be a good listener, actually pretty damn easy. All the while still standing up for herself, still following her dreams – and teaching us to do the same. I’ll never forget the day she left for college – watching that car shrink down the road, and all I could think to utter was, “Keep my sister safe.” 

It was prayer, uttered as naturally as breathing – because in that moment, I’d been terribly sad and didn’t know what else to do. And what do you know – uttering it actually made me feel a little better. 

Soon that prayer was muttered almost as a ritual. “Keep my sister safe,” over and over again. Because now I wouldn’t be around to look out for her. I believed in prayer so much back then – truly thought that God’s ear always hovered, taking in my whispers with eager delight. I said it all the time – “Keep my sister safe.” Yeah, I was talking about Tirzah – sure I was. But in a way, I was also praying for Hope and Seth too. Because watching Tirzah leave reminded me of why having a relationship with Jesus sometimes felt so reassuring: When you had to admit that you no longer had control, you could give it to God – leave it at the Cross. It was the only part of this God’s behavior that I actually appreciated on a deep level – the idea that there was Someone in control, always listening. Every time I prayed it, I released Tirzah just a little bit more, so that I could turn more fully toward Hope and Seth. 

We moved again from Tennessee to Florida, and it was then that I really started to dip my hands into the family legacy. Whereas Hope and Seth participated in church but had other interests on the outside, my life quickly became immersed in the evangelical Christianity. I got my minister’s license and was preaching more – as well as leading Bible studies, actively doing work as the leader of the church youth group. I was one of those kids they drag up in the big rallies so that church leaders can show off to their colleagues how the grooming is coming along. I couldn’t possibly fathom that any other path could be true for anyone, and I lived like I believed every word – because I did. I was born again and wanted to save as many souls for Christ as I could. 

All the while, I watched Hope and Seth grow as people. How Hope was slowly evolving into the rock star that she’d always dreamed of becoming – in her grungy dress, in her rebellious streak, her fierce loyalty. And Seth was just a cool guy to hang out with – knowledgeable about the most random shit, and thoughtful in ways that made conversations always interesting. “Keep my brother and my sisters safe,” I’d say, every time I left for long trips away from them. I was praying for all of them, relinquishing my protection. Leaving them to the God I was sure could hear my every prayer. 

Because here’s the thing: We’d forged real relationships – real friendships. My siblings were the most interesting people. We were best friends. We still are – I would storm the Gates of Hell for them. I’ve known that is true without any doubt since the day I left for college myself and all I could do was leave them to God. “Keep my brother and my sisters safe,” I prayed, every day. It always made me feel assured that they would be alright. I realized, once I left for Alaska for the first time to forge my own path, that leaving souls I loved so deeply in God’s hands was the greatest act of faith. Every friendship forged was measured by the love I felt for them. 

Then – long story short – deconstruction happened, and the rug was pulled out from right underneath me. Reality itself came crashing down, the safety net of certainty and my eternal soul suddenly in dizzying limbo. There was only one thing keeping me weighed to the ground at that time, one person keeping me from spiraling completely into self-destruction: It was Seth, deconstructing right there with me. Somehow we’d reached the same conclusions separately, but at the same time.

My God, the relief in having someone with you at the very start of your deconstruction – I cannot begin to express to you how much I owe to him become of that. How lucky we were, unique among so many in the exvangelical community who somehow have found the courage to do all of this on their own. No longer having a God to hear my prayers – many who deconstruct do not make it past this stage, because they are so overcome with this profound sense of loneliness. But having Seth with me meant I didn’t have to be lonely. We kept each other safe, and he became someone to whom I really entrusted a piece of my puzzle. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing these words if it wasn’t for him. 

By then, Tirzah was married with kids – owning her own journey, looking out for herself with grace and intuition. I wasn’t worried about her – I knew that even if she still believed in all of this, she’d still love me. But it was harder to know what to do with Hope – she was far away, on a path so different than mine. I struggled with really knowing how to move forward with her as I became an entirely different person without any of the beliefs that had unified us as a family. I wasn’t sure how to be an older brother to her anymore, without Jesus as the common denominator. I was too far away – with me in Alaska and her in North Carolina – to have the opportunity. 

I think Hope would tell you that this wasn’t true – that I was present and attentive whenever we saw each other. I’m glad she thinks that – because I spent most of that time personally trying to figure out how to be the best big brother to her that I could be, now that I was no longer the same person who’d looked after her. Now that I no longer had a God to whom I prayed, asking to keep her safe. Nevertheless, she’d taken a piece of my heart long ago, and I always knew it would remain with her. 

Despite our distance from each other, I felt such a kinship to all three of them that I never thought there would ever be anything comparable to it ever again. Oh, I made close friends that felt like family – a few people with whom I trusted much of my story. But they served very different roles in my life… vital and true, but never quite to the level of transparency and vulnerability that I shared with my siblings. I always assumed that this kind of honesty would always be preserved only for them. 

Then, many years later and on while a path far removed from that of a blossoming preacher, I met a young woman named Jane. Part of a circle of friends on the outer rim of my own circle, so that at first she was just a face in the crowd. Until one day, we found ourselves out on a porch together while a party raged on inside – and we just got to talking. We talked and talked – just naturally shooting the shit about everything from the most trivial to the deepest, personal information. It was just stunning to me, how naturally we seemed so comfortable around each other. Man, I told her everything in a way that could only be compared to the way I’d shared myself with Tirzah, Hope, and Seth. 

Ostensibly, we had nothing in common – she hadn’t been raised in faith, and she’d stayed in one place her whole life. But faith is not the only arena where one experiences hardship and trauma; the more I got to know Jane, the more I realized that we actually had quite a bit in common. We’d created very different exteriors for ourselves, but underneath them, we saw the world in a pretty similar way, and it was the way our inner selves were brought to surface around each other that made us feel so comfortable in each other’s spaces. We weren’t afraid to get honest, because we knew that we were safe places for each other. I’d never experienced that with anyone this fully except my siblings. 

I think this is the natural part of the chick flick where the two fall in love, or at least have a passionate affair while the pop star’s song blasts over the soundtrack (we were into EDM). But that notion between Jane and I was quickly and organically eliminated (like romantic love would ever have the kindness to be that easy). I don’t know how or why – maybe it was because I felt safe around Jane like I felt safe around Tirzah, Hope, and Seth. All this to say: After a while, we just started calling each other brother and sister. 

It was sort of a joke at first. When you’re a young woman, it’s good to call the big guy standing behind you at the bar your “brother.” And the world being the way it is, I felt good about that – I never once wanted her to doubt that my intentions were honest. I think we just reinforced it so much with everyone around us – often introducing ourselves as brother and sister to new friends – that it just became real after a while. And man, with my siblings living far away, it was so nice to have a little sister around. Like the four of us, the two of us kept each other safe. And by being Jane’s older brother, I was actually learning how to be a brother to a little sister outside of the cross’s shadow. I would have stormed the Gates of Hell for her. 

During that whole time, I didn’t think of the prayer that I’d lifted up as a common ritual. “Keep my brothers and my sisters safe.” They were forging their own paths now, and it seemed like they were doing okay. Besides, I didn’t believe in prayer anymore. But I’d be lying if I said that having Jane around didn’t mean that I missed those words terribly. Because I missed my siblings, yes, and I loved her with the same transparency. But also because I missed having that ear so close, to whom I could release all of those things out of my control to which I’d clung so tightly. 

Not having God around, even when He is being an asshole, creates something of a vacuum inside of you for a while. Not a Jesus-shaped hole like the evangelicals like to call it – it’s more like a promise that they offer to hook you in, but one that they never intend to keep. They promise you a God to whom you can rest your weary bones. The water is free, they assure you – and the water is deep. Turns out, only the first part is true. That can feel pretty disappointing and make you feel a little hollow. 

It was that hollowness I felt on the day that I stood over Jane in the hospital, unconscious to the point that we weren’t sure if she was going to pull through. 

Long story short – a really adverse reaction to medication had put her into a near coma, and certainly a 

state of delirium. I’d rushed to the hospital to go see her as soon as I heard the news. I arrived to her panicked family, who sort of knew me. The nurses weren’t letting anyone in to see her, because she was a legal adult and they needed her consent. No one was in there to make any medical decisions. She didn’t wake up for any of her family as they arrived, even when the nurses tried. They were all in the emergency room hoping she’d wake up again. 

But a funny thing happened when I stopped by the hospital. She’d woken up for me. “Would it be alright if Danel came to see you?” the nurse had asked her. Jane nodded and answered, “That’s my brother,” before falling back to sleep. 

Well, there’d been no time to waste. No one in her family argued – according to all the paperwork quickly filed, I was now Jane’s brother and I was going to be the family member present for her while we waited to see if she was going to pull out of this. I was in her room for hours, watching her sleep – processing what all of this meant. Because suddenly, it wasn’t pretend anymore – it wasn’t this ruse that we were playing. From her subconscious, Jane had summoned the truth. We were siblings, forged. 

And even if I stormed the gates of Hell, there was absolutely nothing I could do to keep her safe.

So holding Jane’s hand, I knelt down and prayed. I released control, and I gave Jane a piece of myself reserved so far only for three. “Keep my sister safe.”

I don’t know who I was praying to in that moment. I didn’t believe in any God. But the Christians are right about one thing, against all odds. “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes you.” Now, I have come to see that statement as one of those gaslighting cliches uttered by evangelicals to justify their silent God who seems to just like to watch us do all of these unspeakably evil things to each other. But in every myth, there is the kernel of truth, and it was a truth I understood in that moment as I held my sister’s hand and summoned what would be my first exvangelical prayer. 

As soon as I’d uttered it, I understood that would not not be my last prayer. Because even though my explanation of prayer had changed, the experience remained the same. To pray is to relinquish control. That’s what it had been when I’d prayed for Tirzah, Hope, and Seth – the only difference was, I believed God was listening then. But the concept remains identical – there is a universe, and we are all a part of it. We walk into its mysteries, and to pray is to remind ourselves that we are all stardust, collected together and given life. We are a universe experiencing itself subjectively, every time we stand in awe of its ever-expanding vastness. 

“Keep my brother and my sisters safe,” I’d prayed, because it was an act of meditation to think on those I loved the most. To release them from my grip, to admit that I am no longer in control. Because only then can you focus on what you CAN control – which is to be present in the moment, with a sense of awareness that we all exist within that moment together. Smashing pottery with Tirzah. Looking after Hope and Seth. Holding Jane’s hand in the hospital. These moments were prayers in which I relinquished control – in order to truly look around, find my people, and forge a family.

So now I pray whenever I need to admit that I am not in control, to focus instead on what I can control. That means when I pray for someone, I choose to love that person fully and completely – because in them I have found God’s face. It is to them I truly pray – for they are stardust with me. “Keep my brother and my sisters, my friends and lovers, my sons and daughter safe,” I pray, until the day that I see them again – believing that I will. 

If you are an exvangelical like me who feels the often overwhelming panic of loneliness when you think about God’s absence – as cliched as it sounds, try prayer. When you do, think about those for whom you pray, and why – for they are the reminders that we are not alone. Think, therefore, also of yourself – and remember to treat yourself with kindness.

Understand: When I suggest prayer in this context, I do not mean the type of prayer that evangelicals will use as a weapon against us – passive aggressive prayers that we will return to the fold, gaslighting utterances that we will return to God’s grace and see the world exactly the way they see it. Fuck that noise — I’m done with those kinds of prayers. Prayers like the ones I am describing have no rules, nor are they bound to any ritual. Feel free to create your own. Prayers evolve as we do – they don’t have to stay in one place, because neither do we. Try different methods. If the idea of Jesus or the Trinity still carry meaning for you, then utter your prayer to them and know that what these concepts represent is a profound sense of connection to this living, breathing, expanding universe. 

Perhaps you will stay with those traditional images of the Divine, perhaps not. These days, most of my prayer comes in the form of writing – itself a form of meditation. My partner Jenn sets intentions by lighting candles, to release the things she cannot control into the cosmos. There are as many paths as there are people. What’s important is this: When we pray, we remember all of those other prayers being lifted up at once, in the countless forms they can take. We remember those we love so fully that we cannot help but pray for them, as if the universe is listening. We realize that we are not alone.

Jane made a full recovery, I’m happy to report. The path she has found as a social worker is one that might have surprised her to hear when we first met, but I never once doubted that she is this remarkable. Seth is a brilliant expat, a student of the world – learning languages faster than I read books. I’m in awe of that kid. Hope is my favorite rock star, and when the shit hits the fan, she is still the first one I call. Tirzah is the pastor at an inclusive church dedicated to healing wounds caused by religious trauma; every day I am stunned by her courage to speak truth to power. They are all my heroes. I pray that they are safe, and I am suddenly reminded that we are all connected. A family truly forged and still growing.

Thank you for reading. I love you, and I pray that you feel loved. 

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