(Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect identity)
I didn’t grow up in the church. Mom was more of the “open the Bible to a random place, and there you will find your answer” type, along with various other borderline woo-woo things. I did attend church on a rare occasion, and went to a Catholic school for a couple of years. Mom was very ill when I was growing up, and one of the times when it looked like she wasn’t going to make it, we called in a priest for Last Rites. He wouldn’t give it to her because she wasn’t Catholic, AND she was divorced. Nothing says “love of Christ” like being denied a comforting ritual on one’s deathbed because one didn’t meet some arbitrary criteria.
Mom did manage to make it, and is alive today. She still has her beliefs, rituals and things that she does, and seems to be ok with it.
I was kind of the “loner” kid in school, somewhat bullied and mocked. I didn’t have a whole lot of friends. The friends I did have then aren’t really friends now, as when I left home for college, I never kept in touch.
The summer right after high school graduation was the summer where I “got saved.” Western North Carolina is a hotbed for Bible summer camps and conferences, as it is right in the heart of the conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Bible belt. Working with a bunch of college students who shared this type and brand of faith at a conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I wanted to be a part of their clique. I heard their message, and wanting to be a part of a group (don’t we all?), I “got saved,” and even managed to get baptized in the conference center’s pool before the summer was over.
After my first year at party-central University of Florida and still sparkly in my newfound faith, I thought I should go to Bible college. I applied and got into one of the most conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Bible colleges in the South. Upon my arrival, I was handed a half-inch thick Student Handbook, which outlined in detail every behavior which was expected of me, with an arcane Scripture verse to back it up, and with an unwritten, yet very present innuendo that to violate any one of these rules and regulations was akin to not being Biblical, and therefore, unclean, and therefore, worthy only of being spewed out of God’s mouth by way of the college. Since I was new in the faith, I figured that they knew best, and I tried very hard to comply. Yet, inside I knew, something was Just. Not. Right.
From a developmental perspective, I was just a normal college student with normal thoughts, questions, ideas, urges, longings, etc. Yet, we were informed that none of these were to be acted upon, and there was this great dark depression that consumed the campus. To some degree, it seemed darker on the women’s side, than on the men’s side.
I had a few friends, but mostly I was busy trying to play catch-up with all the Bible knowledge that these people seemed to be born with. My grades were not all that impressive, and I was still having issues with the faith, and how it was being demonstrated. In my first year, in daily chapel, I prayed aloud before everyone that it was very hard to believe in a God which I couldn’t see, who doesn’t seem to care, and who (or that) seemed to allow so much pain to exist when he could step in, if he was God and all. This was not met well. I was whisked away to be “discipled,” and to mold my mind to the collective. Later, someone said to me, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when you said that. We all think it.” I wondered why he wasn’t being “discipled.”
The next year came, and I was still busy with classes, among other things. The school instituted mandatory college service hours (we had to clean and/or maintain certain areas of the college as part of the “Total Life Training” for no pay, or be penalized with even more college service hours), mandatory Bible reading (had to read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation before one graduated. While this was on the “honor system,” it was seemingly monitored. We got more college service hours if we failed to complete it. There is a story that the hiking trail to The Point was built by some poor guy who didn’t finish his reading.), Field Education (evangelism using the D. James Kennedy method of “Evangelism Explosion” in combination with Bible teaching), and working at the library (my college work-study grant). The dorms at the college would have dorm dates from time to time, and West 2 was our “brother” hall to Walker 2. They’d walk through the library at dinnertime, and I’d see them and wish I could go.
One of my very good friends, Liz, was the RA (resident assistant) for Walker 2. Liz, Carol (another good friend) and I hung out a fair bit. Carol was hopelessly in love with some guy out of state that went to Word of Life Bible Institute (known also as WOLBI. When we heard all of THEIR rules and regs, although many were the same as ours, Liz and I deemed it a cult) and eventually followed her heart and studied there for a term or two. She came back the following year in the Spring quarter.
When one lives on a campus that small, rumors spread quickly (although “gossip” is allegedly forbidden), and “truth” gets bent in all manner of fashion to make a good story. It seemed that when a guy and a girl had dinner together three times, and they were alone (we weren’t allowed to single date until we were 21 years old, and free of curfew), they were considered pretty much engaged, as in engaged to be married.
One of the women on Walker 2, Kris, was dating a guy named Joseph. Joseph was very particular about how he dressed, and how he looked, but I wrote it off to an affluent Southern thing. He seemed nice enough, although I didn’t know him. They broke things off, and I never knew why, but she was rather angry, and there was some talk about some guy named Mark.
Time went by, and Liz told me that she was going to be Women’s Dorm Council President, and live in Founders Hall on the 3rd floor. When making room requests for the following year, I managed to get onto Founders 3, which thrilled me to no end. Carol was following her heart and was off to WOLBI, and I was looking to finish up that next year. All was going well.
Fall Quarter started, and I was in Bible 401: Bible, God and Angels with Dr. B, who insisted on reading aloud, in an authoritative/angry tone, a chapter from Psalm 119 every day. I took a seat next to Joseph, and made small talk. We both seemed to have the same quirky sense of humor and I thought nothing more of it. We spent more time together, and before I realized it, we had had dinner together three times, alone. We were considered dating. I had fallen in love.
As twenty-somethings are when in a new relationship, I began to not see my friends much after that, and spent almost all of time my time with Joseph. Fortunately, the “dating hours” policy had been dropped the prior year, so I didn’t have to time my dates with him to make sure I didn’t go over the allotted time.
At about that time, there was talk about establishing “accountability partners” to ensure that we were abiding by the rules and regs, and to make sure that we having a quiet time every day, and enjoying a healthy spiritual life. Some of us on campus were aware that “accountability partners” were a euphemism for “informants.”
After Joseph and I had dated for a couple of weeks, he told me that he had used to be gay, but was “healed” of this sin by Exodus International, an ex-gay ministry that did some form of “conversion therapy.” I believed him, although I had never heard of such a thing. I never had any experience with anyone in the LGBT community, although I remember one of the churchy folks from the conference center where I “got saved,” seemed very worried that one of his friends was gay. He was so worried that he couldn’t even say the word “gay.” The whole thing was inferred. I didn’t really think of it being a sin, but the Bible college people were pretty sure that it was, and made sure that we knew it. Of course, being new in the faith, I took whatever they said as “truth” since I was not knowledgeable about such things.
About a month into this relationship, we began to get physical. By this, I mean we kissed and mildly made out. This was in direct violation of the Standards of Conduct as found in the Student Handbook. No physical contact between persons of the opposite sex was to be had. At all. Ever. Unless you could be dying. Maybe. But with the rule of no single dating until 21, only those who were 21 or over would ever have to worry about that. Also, there was the rule of no reclining in the presence of the opposite sex past a certain degree. So there was that. And we couldn’t be in a car alone together. They had rules for everything. And we broke them, and it didn’t take much.
Not long after that, Joseph came out to me and said that he was gay, was always going to be gay, and that was the way it was. I was hurt, confused, and felt a bit cheated and used. I fell into a dark depression, and as women sometimes do, we talk to our women friends, although I hadn’t talked to anyone really since I had starting dating Joseph. I talked to Liz. I told her everything. She remained silent. I trusted her.
Winter Quarter was difficult, as I still saw Joseph every day in some classes. I just ignored him and went on with classes, “Christian” service hours, Field Education, mandatory Bible reading, and working in the library. Liz and I hung out more, and my depression simmered along.
I went home for Spring Break, and came back to campus, ready for my last term. Joseph was in fewer of my classes, so I saw him less. Liz and I didn’t hang out as much because Carol came back from WOLBI. I saw Kris and Joseph hanging out together, and guessed that somehow, they figured out how to be friends. Joseph and I started talking some, at his worksite at the switchboard in the Administration building. It felt good to just be friendly and silly, and laugh at the same things.
One evening, I got a call on the hall phone from Joseph. He was clearly shaken and upset. He said that Kris was furious, and planned on informing the College Administration about him and his sexual orientation, and said she had names. I said that I’d meet him for dinner to talk, and figure something out. We met and talked for a long time. We met the next day. We went off campus, downtown, and as we rounded a corner on the main street, Kris drove by us, as we were walking and talking. We had passed the “three date test.” Somehow, Joseph and I were dating. Kris was livid.
Not long after, I saw Kris talking with Liz and Carol, and more than just once. They were eating dinner together, or talking in Liz’s room. It was strange, as they never talked much before, even when we were all on Walker 2. I didn’t pay much attention, and then, as I was on the hall phone with a friend, Kris left Liz’s room and walked towards me down the hall. I held my hand over the mouthpiece. Kris said, “When you are done with the call, Liz, Carol and I need to talk to you.” I said, “ok” and got off the phone.
Kris said, “We need to go down to the prayer closets,” as we walked towards Liz’s room, where Liz and Carol were waiting. Liz, Carol, Kris, and I went downstairs, and sequestered into one of the very small rooms in the breezeway. Someone turned on the light and shut the door.
“We know about you and Joseph. And all the things you have done,” said Kris. Liz and Carol were silent.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We know that you had a physical relationship with Joseph, along with some other things,” Kris said. “We’ve prayed and we think you need to go to the Administration about this, and if you don’t do it, we are ready to and we will,” Kris said.
I looked at Liz. She was the only one who knew. She looked at me with a look of mild disgust and a strange look of holy smugness. I looked at Carol. She didn’t make any eye contact and just sat there. I was done, and I knew it. I figured that I’d better tell the Administration, because God knows what they’d tell them, and it would probably look better coming from me, than my being ratted out.
The previous month, there were a group of women who were kicked out for allegedly drinking. That was the story anyway. No one I knew actually knew for certain. It seemed like it was “cleaning house” time at the College.
The next morning, I went to the Dean of Women’s office. Cinderblock walls with pictures framing various Scripture verses surrounded me as I sat in one of the chairs in the assistant’s office. The Dean called me in.
“So I hear you have something to tell me,” she began.
“Yes, ma’am. I need to confess my sins. I had a physical relationship with Joseph. It didn’t last long, and we kissed a few times and made out.” I felt whisked back to my time in Catholic school, where we were coerced into going into the confessional to confess our misdeeds to a priest on the other side of a perforated panel. I wasn’t even Catholic and I had to do it.
“And there are other things,” I said. I rattled off various other things which were considered sin-ridden, including my ongoing battle with bulimia. To the school, and to the conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical church, mental illness and substance abuse/addiction were viewed as moral failings by and large at that time.
The Dean had a very stern and mildly disgusted look, with an edge of holy smugness. She said I had to call my parents to come and get me. She also said that I had to right to a hearing before my peers, then the faculty, and then an appeal to the President, if I so chose. I said that I wanted to pursue this. There was a strong part of me that wondered if anyone else could see through this mess, that at the end of the day, it was an envious woman trying to smear as many people as possible because she couldn’t get the man she wanted.
The Dean of Women pushed her desk phone over to me, and turned around to face the window behind her desk. I called Mom. I asked Mom if she wanted to see me for Mother’s Day. She said that she would be delighted to. I asked her if she wanted to see me the weekend after that. She asked what was happening. I told her that I was being expelled, but I was planning on going through the channels of appeal. She said that she was coming up, and would fly in.
I was informed that the next day, there would be my appeal/hearing before a panel of fellow students. I continued to go to class, work, do my college service hours, read my Bible, and Field Education, as though nothing was amiss. It was not an act of bravery or courage. It was mere survival. I expended all of my effort on staying upright, and talking to Joseph, and trying to advocate for and help him. He had been called into the Dean of Men’s office, and was expelled. He didn’t even fight it. He packed up his side of the room, shipped a ton of stuff home via bus, and drove home. Evidently, he’d been through this kind of thing before with another conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Christian college.
Every time I would go into any of my classes, everyone fell silent. Everyone seemed to know something, but no one asked me outright what was going on. I was given a mildly wide berth whenever I walked past someone on campus. I was horrified that everyone seemed to know what was happening. Knowing what I knew about how “truth” was enhanced to make a good story, I could only imagine what was going on in their heads.
The time came for the panel hearing with my peers. I walked into a conference room in the Student Center. The tables were placed in a U-shape, and as I walked in, nearly everyone stood. It was a rule/tradition at the College that men were supposed to stand when a woman came to the table. It had become mocked among the students, to the point that men would roughly shuffle in their seats whenever a woman would come to the table in the dining hall. When I saw that nearly everyone was standing, I realized that it was a nearly all-male panel. I looked straight ahead, and saw the male Seminary co-worker I worked with in the library. I thought that only the underclassmen knew. I didn’t know that my misdeeds had ventured up the hill to the Seminary. I was horrified. I had to work with him that night.
We all sat down, and the litany of my sins was exposed to them, with a few added in that I hadn’t known were going to be on this list. Back when I was in my second year, I had taken a Biblical Ethics class. In the class, they presented some menagerie of arcane Scripture verses to support every single one of their ethical viewpoints, and I flat out disagreed with some of them. I said, “Well, I guess I must not be biblical, then.” This was one of the misdeeds for which I was now held accountable. I wasn’t biblical, and admitted to it, out loud, to others. A moment of hyperbole, shrunken to literalism, and used as a weapon. It wasn’t looking good. By the end of the meeting, they concluded that I was not worthy to be among them, that somehow, my being on campus would be problematic. I couldn’t even finish the quarter, which had only 3 weeks remaining.
I was getting tired, and had lost more weight. I wasn’t even trying, but was happy to see that the scale was showing something like improvement. I hadn’t eaten sufficiently in days, and sleep was patchy at best, and riddled with nightmares when it was there.
Mom came, and I picked her up at the airport. She didn’t even recognize me, as I had lost as much weight as I had. We rode back to campus, not saying much. There wasn’t much to say. She didn’t know the level of insidious spiritual pretension that I lived in daily.
I told the panel that I was going to take this to the faculty. I had met earlier with one of my professors that I had had from the previous year. He was a gracious man, who had clearly different views on grace than the school held. He seemed to be in a battle with them over this, and I told him that I would defend him, if it could help. I believed then, and still do, that all philosophical views need to be allowed to be respectfully expressed and believed if one chose, especially in a place of learning. He said that he wanted the panel to call him before they made a decision. He wanted to advocate for me.
The next day, I continued with classes, work, college service hours, and the like. That afternoon, Mom and I went into the faculty meeting. Looking back, this was probably an unwise move. I should have just gone in there on my own. Mom tried to advocate for me, but she was clearly out of her depth. I knew, pretty much at the get-go, I was screwed. Only one faculty member, the English professor, understood the hyperbole, which I used when I described my ethical viewpoints. All of the other men were just matter-of-fact, and wore the holy smugness look, in combination with an air of spiritual superiority. At the end of the table, Kris, Liz and Carol sat, reflecting the same pretension. It was over in an hour. I was expelled. I could take it higher, to the President, but decided that it was a losing battle, and probably already decided before I even got there. I called my professor and told him. He said, “Why didn’t they call me?! They never called!”
As I was packing up to leave, I got a note on my corkboard message holder outside my dorm room door. It was a folded note, written on college rule notebook paper. It read:
I don’t know how you feel or what you’re going through but I do know how maturely you’re taking this. For all the middle school antics that these people have taunted you with you have spat right back in their faces by doing all within God’s power not to lower yourself to their level. Remember: the ground is level at the foot of the Cross – they are no better or no worse but they have chosen to degrade themselves. Your actions in recent days have amazed me under such pressure that you are under. Remember that we love you. I am so glad that have gotten to know you before you left and hope we’ll meet again. I hope your job goes well this summer. God’s grace has covered you and showered you even though the school’s grace wouldn’t, but please don’t let it hinder your beautiful personality and spirit. Thank you for your openness and being real.
We love you!
KP and RT
It was this letter that saved me from taking my life. I figured if God didn’t want me, because those who claimed to know God best, and therefore, teach as a result, expelled me, then it meant that I was awful and should be spewed directly out of God’s mouth, and directly into the fires of Hell. The professor who wanted to advocate for me said otherwise, but the other voices were far too loud, and all of this grace and love were drowned out. I was done. This was May, 1990.
That following summer I had the opportunity to work again at the conference center where I “got saved.” To this day, it remains one of my very favorite times in my life. I was free, and could stand in my truth, and not be cursed for it. Yet, while I was free, I still longed for fellowship. I knew the ways of the type and brand of faith that I left, and still went into bookstores promoting such because it was familiar. There is a saying that goes to the effect of “people will choose familiarity over survival,” and there is a measure of truth in that. I wanted to feel a part of something bigger, and share fellowship, but I wasn’t allowed. Both my internal triggers screaming “THIS IS UNSAFE. GET OUT NOW!” and the expulsion in general placed me in a quandary.
I walked into the spiritual Land of Nod, expecting to find Cain. I girded my loins as I had been warned that anything outside of the gates was suspect and not to be trusted.
It was out here in the Land of Nod that I found grace, acceptance, and respect. Even if people had completely different worldviews, they could dialogue in a way that didn’t throw the other person under the bus, or write them off as intellectually inferior.
Yet, trust takes a long time to build, and I am still never completely sure that what I see, hear, or feel is real.
It was no small miracle that I found the Episcopal Church. University of South Florida had “church row,” where all of the various denominational ministries had their Student Centers. The Episcopal University Center, as it was known at the time, had small rooms in the back that they rented out to students. It wasn’t even mandatory that one had to be Episcopalian to do so. I talked with Father Bob Cain (no small coincidence there), and he allowed me to move in. It was there that I heard wildly differing viewpoints from within the faith, debated in a way that showed utmost respect. These folks mutually conceded on some points, and fiercely, and with great dignity, disagreed on others. There was no “Ha! I got you!” and its consequent gloating. I remember thinking that these were some of the most intelligent people I had ever witnessed in my life. I had found fellowship again, although it was outside of the “truest” church.
Honestly, I felt safe in the Episcopal Church because it was not too far outside of what those at the Bible College considered to be “true.” I knew of one student who had been there, who was related to the faculty, who went to the local Episcopal Church, and raved about it. Oddly, he wasn’t there long, and left before I did.
There was an internal skirmish at the end of my second year, and Bibles were brought out, and prayer and wringing of hands was done, to do what they could have done with simple communication and discussion within the community, and with the people involved. It smacked too much of my time at Bible College, and I left.
I was without a fellowship again. It didn’t seem to bother me as much this time around, as I had graduated from University, and had begun my career in social services, and eventually in social research. I kept myself busy, and didn’t think much about church or the faith, except with a mild lingering mix of warm nostalgia and mild disgust. This was 23 years ago.
Where am I now? I went into some woo-woo churches for a while, and still do from time to time. There are fundamentalist, evangelical woo-woos, too. They are also conservative, in the sense that change is regarded with high levels of suspicion. I found myself in one of those, early on, without thinking that other types and brands of faith could be just as controlling, and socially dismissive of those who don’t share their viewpoints.
There are some vestigial responses bodily when I go into a church that is not of the “approved” variety, from my time back at Bible College. I worry about lightning bolts and such, zapping me from Heaven where I sit, and of the potential for collateral damage. However, it is easier to contemplate being zapped by God, and God possibly missing, rather than going into a church of the “approved” variety of which I am not “approved,” and the folks in there zapping me with their own type of lightning bolts, and not missing, as they have me surrounded.
All of this is to say, my field trip in Spirituality Land has been a wild ride, and I have met a bunch of people from all over the landscape. I want to let people know that they aren’t crazy, that this stuff does happen, and there are ways to heal. Shunning and social isolation, and not of one’s choosing is real, and it is damaging. I think of the LGBT community, and being shunned or kicked out of one’s own home, and then not even being able to find solace in a place which states “God is love” and the double damning which occurs. Where can they go? Smart, strong, and outspoken women have no place in some denominations, and while the denomination may not tell a woman this outright, and offer a sick consolation prize to her for being born female, where can she go to feel supported, accepted, and heard?
I am here to offer resources and support to those who have been through various types of spiritual trauma. While I wouldn’t say what I went through was spiritual abuse (and that is very much a real thing), I would call it trauma. All abuse is trauma, but not all trauma is abuse.
For me, the most important message that I want to drive home is it does NOT matter what you call your experience. While I may consider something abusive, others may see it as traumatic. It doesn’t matter how I perceive it if I am trying to help. What matters MOST is that I can perceive something in the same way that you perceive it. I cannot help you if I can’t see, hear, and understand you in the way you experience this. I cannot connect with you until YOU have the sense that we are connected, and that I “get” you.
If this seems like something which may be helpful to you, consider subscribing to this blog. As a licensed mental health counselor, I am working on being able to offer my services individually to those who may need or want to have these.