Content warning: Discussion of sexual and spiritual violence, but no graphic descriptions. As always, do what you need to take care of yourself. – HH
Note: I originally published this in 2016, but it got lost in the migration to the new site a while back. I am going through my computer archives and will be resharing some of my favorite posts every Thursday.
I have a friend who, as a child, idolized his grandfather. His grandfather and he were inseparable. The grandfather taught him how to be in the world, how to navigate life, how to act like he thought a man should.
The grandfather was a minister, and highly respected in their small town. My friend became a minister himself, in part to be like his grandfather. His most prized possession is his grandfather’s Bible, which he received at his grandfather’s death.
A few years ago, (long after the death of the grandfather), it came out that his grandfather was a serial child molester. He had not only molested children in his church, but his own daughter, my friend’s aunt. The aunt that was always quiet and withdrawn as an adult. The aunt that had trouble navigating the world. The aunt that had always seemed, somehow, broken.
I always wondered how you navigate that – what you do when you discover that someone you loved and respected, who taught you so much, who you idolized and wanted to be like – when you find out that they did monstrous things.
What does that do to your story? Are the things you learned from him now invalid? Is your judgement flawed? How do you know he didn’t try to turn you into a monster too? How do you process those memories? Are they now questionable?
# # #
When I was in my late twenties, the questions I had around faith were no longer capable of being answered by the Methodism of my childhood, and I went searching. I flirted with Buddhism for a while, but I am far too much a practitioner to ever be happy sitting on the floor.
I discovered the activist Catholics (like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin) who taught me you could be Christian and work for justice, too. They led me to death penalty protesters, who led me to nonviolence, which, if you stay there long enough, will lead you to Mennonites.
To a person, everyone that I asked who I should read to understand the Mennonite position told me to read John Howard Yoder. So I did – I bought Politics of Jesus and realized I had came home. These were my people. I followed that up with Body Politics and What Would You Do – a primer on nonviolence – and I was sold. It wasn’t just that it made sense to me, but it made sense of me.
I joined the church, and then was pulled aside and told by several elders, that it was obvious I had a call to be in ministry. They would query me, shelter me, love me and, eventually, ordain me. They groomed me for leadership.
My work now among people experiencing homelessness is directly because of my Anabaptist convictions – convictions I was first exposed to in the words of John Howard Yoder.
In recent years, it has come to (more public) light that during his lifetime, Yoder was a serial molester – that it is estimated he abused, molested or raped more than 100 women, in the name of pursuing “the perfection” of his theology.
The man who taught me the basics of nonviolence was a perpetrator of violence. The man who wrote in Body Politics against abuse of power was an abuser of power.
What does this do to my story? Is what I learned invalid? Does this invalidate nonviolence? Are the theories I learned about power wrong? Is nonviolence just a pipe dream? How much of my story does this put into question? Hell, how much of the theories around my work does this put into question?
# # #
These days, I pastor people, most of whom have been hurt by the church.
I have had deep conversations with so many people who have been sexually abused by church leaders I have lost count.
A significant portion of my little flock identify as LGBT, and many of them attribute their homelessness to being kicked out of their family’s life once they came out, because of their family’s religious convictions.
My friend Lindsay was kicked out of her home at 16, when she came out to her mom. Her mom called the preacher, who said that tough love was the only thing that would change her sinful ways. Her mamma kicked her out and has refused her calls since then. Lindsay is now 26 and a survival sex-worker, with a crack habit and HIV. And she hasn’t been home in 10 years.
Or the woman – one of the most gifted pastoral personalities I know – who was told she could never be a pastor, because she was a woman. And while she knew there were churches that did not believe that, none of those churches were her church. So she didn’t go into ministry, convinced what she thought was her call from God was invalid.
I know all these stories, and more. They are legion.
But none of them are my story.
I had a wonderful time in church. I was always loved, and taught to love. I belonged, I felt safe there, I grew up there, developed life-long friendships there. The problems I had in my twenties were about religion – they weren’t about church.
I loved church – right up until I learned the truth. Until I was a trusted pastor person, who got trusted with other people’s stories. Until I learned that many people did not have my experience. I loved church until I learned that for many people, the church was their molester, or at the least, the enabling system that allowed the molestation to happen.
I am a pastor. I preach most weeks, and I bury and marry people. I say the words of institution at The Lord’s Supper every week, and I baptize a couple of folks a year.
But I seldom go to church anymore – at least, not when I am on my own. Not when I am not paid to be there. Not for my own benefit.
Because I have too many questions: How much of what I learned was invalid? How much was fake? How much was abusive, but I didn’t recognize it? How much was coercion? How much was propaganda?
How much, dammit, of my own story is now in question?
Notes: I recognize that a large reason I was groomed for leadership was my maleness and my whiteness and my social skills I had learned – in other words, a lot of it wasn’t just my being lucky, it was factors beyond my control. It was privilege. That said, I also recognize that those of us with privilege have a responsibility to use it to the benefit of those who do not.
The oppressed never have an obligation to educate the oppressor, but I am grateful to those people who have been patient with me, who have taught me, who have educated me and who teach me still. Every single time, it has been a gift.
Thanks to my friends Jasmin and Jay for looking over this before I hit publish, to make sure I didn’t make an ass of myself. Any credit goes to those who have taught me, and only the mistakes are mine.