In February of 2016, after a few months of off and on writing, I felt satisfied enough with my story to go public with it here. It was well-received by my friends and followers and the few family members I shared it with, and was an incredibly validating experience. No longer was it just a vague cloud of turmoil and bad memories in my mind, where bits and pieces would leak out, but no remotely clear picture. Finally there was a hard copy. I struggle with making sense of things when it’s just me locked in my head in endless conversation – heck, even now it’s hard to have any perspective on it. It feels like another life, another person sometimes, until something happens currently that triggers memory. Overall though, it’s been a good thing for me, and it’s helped me connect to some great folks, and helped free others to share their own experiences, including my sister who wrote hers shortly after I went public with mine.
It hasn’t been without pain though. My good friend Glenn fired a prophetic warning question across the bow of the good ship SS Pappy before I went live with it all, asking me if I was emotionally ready to deal with the consequences. In a very un-me-like manner, devoid of hesitation, I said “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.” I suspected that at some point certain members of my family would set eyes on it, but it seemed out of sight and out of mind. I was writing for my sanity, and to give some perspective on my Twitter persona and the subjects I dealt with, and family could wait. The half still in the cult weren’t ready to have these conversations anyway. But the best-laid plans of mice and men aren’t fool-proof, and certainly the half-assed ones aren’t particularly reliable either. They found it, and things got interesting.
The day my younger brother graduated from the church school, we learned he had decided to go to bible college (a college which was doomed to shut down a month or two later for financial reasons – completely unforeseen, I’m sure), and we were attending the ceremony and inevitable sermon. I was boiling mad. I went on a Twitter rant the next morning once I had collected my thoughts some, which I will share here: https://twitter.com/GovPappy/status/795545198591954944
A week or two before, my sister sent me a Sunday school lesson from the church, in which, among other absurd things, they used Amnon’s rape of Tamar as an example of why one should not speak against God’s man. I tweeted a picture of the page from the lesson at Greg Neal’s church account, asking him if it was still in the Sunday school curriculum. I was blocked without a word. But not before he checked my blog pinned to my profile, printed it out, and shared it with my parents.
My dad, to his credit, did actually read it. My mom, as far as I know, has not, apparently preferring to hear her pastor’s assessment of me over actually reading my own words. One of the 3 referred to it as a “vicious attack on the church”, apparently, even though it’s all true and verifiable with many witnesses. They didn’t talk to me about it, they told my older brother, who read it and then told me that they found it. We talked on the phone for a bit – he got quite a different takeaway from it than they did, saying I was on point and appreciated my tone.
My dad talked to me for a half hour or so a few weeks later, and I got to further explain where we were coming from and hear his concerns, and honestly I had hope at that point. He seemed to get it, at least on some level. I had the space to explain again that bitterness had nothing to do with why I wrote what I did, and out of the 1000+ people who’ve read it, not a single one until then had told me I seemed bitter.
Nothing happened for awhile after that, until one of my younger sisters got engaged to a Fundy “preacher boy” (that’s their cultural term, not mine – remember that). I remember a frustrated tweet referencing the event, but I didn’t say anything more that I recall. My oldest sister was quite vocal about it on Twitter though. But apparently someone in the camp was reading, and word got around.
There really had been no relationship between the halves of the family for some time at this point. We pretended, to stave off conflict, but if any of them thought there was any closeness left between us–mainly me, my wife, the 2 oldest of the 5 sisters–and the ones still in the cult, they were in a state of denial akin to obliviousness, or really have little clue what a real, close relationship looks like.
So one day (October of 2016, or thereabouts), my dad asked me to meet for dinner. Given our last conversation was hopeful, I accepted. This conversation lasted almost 4 hours, a good portion of it consisting of our closest approximation of yelling. I won’t relive the whole conversation here, but it wasn’t very fruitful. He again expressed concern that I was bitter and hurt and depressed, and was going to leave the Faith, and that the things he had read or heard from my Twitter account “weren’t my son”. I responded to that with essentially (over the course of a few hours), “Do you know that? Those things I said are who I am. That is how I feel. That’s my heart. The things I’ve written are true: I’m dealing with my depression and faith crisis, but what are *you* as the head of the home going to do about the issues I’ve put on paper that you know are true, that you know firmly disqualify from ministry the pastor you’re defending, according to your own belief system? Don’t make this about me. I’m getting help. You all are the ones who are avoiding dealing with problems.” It wasn’t pleasant. They also apparently took issue with my calling the soon to be in-law a “preacher boy”, even though that’s literally the term their pastors and evangelists use for male seminary students and graduates, and not always endearingly.
Basically, the problem was me and the two older sisters, and our bitter hearts. Not the the ongoing and unrepentant pattern of toxic church leadership – the gross financial mismanagement, institutional and individual dishonesty, character assassination, extreme pride, and the scripture twisted on a weekly basis from the pulpit by the man of God with “Elijah’s mantle”. No, he even attempted to say that “no church is perfect, they’re all messed up these days” in their defense, to which I quickly responded that no, no church is perfect, but how many churches have you been to in your life? Two? Two. Both of them terrible – the first you admitted sent you into terrible depression from the beating you took, the 2nd you’ve done almost nothing but belittle for their lazy doctrine and shallow understanding of scripture. And you’re trying to tell me what health looks like? I’m not exactly a world traveler, but I’ve at least spent significant time (6 months or more) at 5 different churches, visited several others while searching, and others to see friends, including the afore-mentioned Glenn, who pastors his own church quite well, I think. I’m not going to win any ecumenical prizes for variety, now, but I think I have him beat there for perspective on church health, for the purposes of that conversation.
I felt like I had been hit by a truck after I left (didn’t help that I hadn’t eaten a thing all day – we were going to get dinner originally – and we parted a little before 10 pm). It just became apparent to me that there was very little listening going to happen from any of them – I was a missionary project to my dad, and a heathen troublemaker to the rest of them, along with my “woke” siblings. We weren’t going to be heard. We’d spent our lives seeing things their way, but they weren’t going to lift much more than a finger to see things our way. That’s not a relationship.
So the younger sister got married. We were not invited to the wedding. I wasn’t surprised.
My closest sister in age (the one who wrote for this blog) had her wedding a few weeks back. My wife was the officiant, which was awesome. My parents showed up to the ceremony, but not any of my younger siblings. I can only assume some were not allowed to come, because I know they would have definitely wanted to. My dad attended the reception, but my mom left after the ceremony.
She had added my wife and I on facebook a few weeks before the wedding. Apparently she deleted us shortly afterwards.
Caught this gem on their pastor’s ministry page (which I only saw because my mom liked it), from his new book, presumably:
So that’s me, among others. Satan spawn. Didn’t know my dad wasn’t my real dad.
Related aside, my parents got into a car accident awhile back, and my mom was unable to teach at the school for a bit, and needed help with things around the house. The same sister whose reception my mom blew off went to her house every day for a week to care for her until she could get back on her feet.
Not too long after that, my mom had the gall to tell her that she’s “doing nothing for Christ.” You can’t make this stuff up.
So here we are now.
A couple thoughts.
If there’s one consistent struggle or regret I have about all of this is that I didn’t personally make some attempt to discuss anything confrontational with my parents before writing. I share that with the caveat that I know full well that it would have done no good: my other siblings have attempted on several occasions to have conversations with my parents about church issues, with no good results. I still have the letter my mom sent my brother after he attempted to talk to her about how she gave way more weight to the words of her pastors than her own husband. It was a mess of deflection and denial – somehow the issue is always our bad hearts and lack of commitment to Christ, not the issue at hand. All of these things wouldn’t be an issue if only we’d quit drinking the devil’s juice, never step into a theater again, go soul-winning every saturday, etc. So yes, it very likely would have been fruitless, and probably traumatizing, but I still wish I had had the strength to do that. I can’t help but feel a certain level of cowardice about my inability to confront when it matters most. I did spend 4 hours in heated conversation with my dad as atonement for that, which simply revealed why we never have conversations as a family to begin with.
Tacking onto that, I’d give up alcohol, going to movies, Harry Potter, whatever, if I thought that was the obstacle between us. I didn’t leave this culture because I wanted to live like I wanted – heck, I was already doing that, and so are people still in that church. I left because of all the reasons I discussed in my Sheltered Life post. There’s plenty of “worldly” churches out there that I’ll never put a foot in as well, for similar reasons: abuse of authority, twisting of scripture to justify anything, “us vs them” rhetoric, cover-ups, hierarchies, inability to admit wrongs – whether they believe it’s wrong or not to take a drink is window dressing in light of the much more serious community dysfunction. If alcohol was the only thing between us, I’d give it up today. But that would be like repainting incompatible puzzle pieces and expecting them to then fit.
A church culture that values adherence to systems and appearance over individuals will struggle to find any intimacy in relationship, any real familial closeness. You must hide parts of yourselves to appear as one of the group. You may find someone else attempting to hide the same interests or traits, but then you’re just sharing the guilt of deception and non-compliance together, and it’s sure to be crushed at a future guilt-trip sermon and altar call. What a way to live.
In closing, I just want to say I do not intend to dissuade anyone from sharing their story. Just know that seeking solidarity and healing when leaving behind toxic environments and people does not come without pain, often enough. Making your own way from a high-control environment, and talking about it, will put a target on your back. In our nonconfrontational family, my writing revealed the divide between us in a painful way for everyone, and all I can do now is hope that the airing of the wrongs is the way real healing can start between us all. Just be sure you have a support group around you, and you are emotionally ready to deal with the consequences if they come. My family tends more towards the shunning side of things, but some communities can be quite vicious. The ones who were kicked out of our church for trying to hold the leadership accountable had their character assassinated from the pulpit, for months on end, with legal action threatened. Real nice folks. So count the cost, but also know that truth sets us all free.