Life was almost always pretty good when I was a child. We didn’t have to lock doors, and nobody ever heard of bad things (other than alcoholism, dancing, playing cards and the like) except in church (or if the neighborhood alcoholic, a member of a GOOD family) walked by. Our family lived in a very safe neighborhood where everybody knew everybody else, and I couldn’t get into much trouble before somebody turned up to get me out of it and take me back home. The preacher at our church lived in our back yard (and also was a frequent pair of knees under our dinner table). I got occasional spankings and slaps from Mama, but it was usually because I had been naughty, like running off to visit a neighbor on our street without telling her where I was going. There were some bad things in my life, like verbal taunts and mean words from a relative, but it was never discussed or called “abuse.” It hurt, but I learned it was just something I had to learn to live with. In the church, about the closest thing to abuse we experienced was being shut in a room and told we couldn’t leave until we had signed a pledge not to drink alcohol ever. I think I was about ten then.
Lots of people weren’t as lucky in their childhood and adolescence as I was. For some of them, the home wasn’t a safe place, and abuse was not unheard of. Nobody ever talked about it, though. It was one of those things that “Just wasn’t done.” Perhaps it should have been.
Abuse means more than physical or emotional punishment. It is cruelty, violence, or improper use of a person or animal (and sometimes of an object, such as forcing it to work harder or longer than it is intended to bear). It’s an all-too-familiar word to us today and has grown to include places where abuse takes place that seem as if they should be free from such evil, places like schools, offices, and most of all, churches. There’s scarcely a denomination where it has not been a suddenly “discovered” or “uncovered” offense. Often it is known about but simply swept under the rug to preserve the good image of the Christian faith.
About eleven years ago, I left a church I loved, not because I disagreed with its theology or positions, but because I felt I was verbally and emotionally abused by a member of the clergy. I had been very active but gradually dropped out of everything because it seemed I was under increasing scrutiny and was unable to meet expectations – or perhaps it was just a power trip for that person. I felt hurt, disrespected, and worthless. I should have developed a tougher skin and let such things bounce off me, but I couldn’t. I knew before I left that others felt the same way, so it wasn’t just me. Still, it was hard not to blame myself as much as the one who, I felt and knew, was the cause of it.
I loved my church. It was my community and like a family to me. But there came a time when I had to do as Jesus said in Matthew 10:14, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet (NIV).” It put me off the church, but not off God or faith. I went by that church every day going to work or shopping, but I could not bring myself to go back in or even ask for help when my husband died, I had cancer surgery, or anything else. I still had friends there, but I didn’t have a home.
Fast forward eleven years. I’ve gone through a lot and grown in the process. The offender has left the parish; there are new people in charge. I was invited to return by a person enrolling in my online Education for Ministry (EfM) group who happened to be from that parish. I took my reluctance in hand and made an appointment with the new rector. He seemed to be someone I could trust and who would respect me as an individual (and that I could respect in turn). I felt God tugging on my heart, and my mind was full of possibilities. It was time.
So tomorrow, I’m celebrating what will be a “Toe in the Water” Sunday. I can’t commit unless I am convinced that this is the place I should and need to be. I won’t be asked the first Sunday which ministry I would like to join, although there are a couple in which I am very interested. I have amends to make to several people for various things, but most of all, it is time for me to do what God has told me so often to do – “Go. Sit. STAY!” God knows I’m not a dog, but I do need to be reminded that I was led to the Episcopal Church many years ago, and that’s apparently where God wants me to be. I need to be reminded of that once in a while, it seems.
I’m nervous, yes. It’s not easy to go back to a place where abuse has taken place, not just of me but of many others as well, just like it’s not easy to jump off the end of a pier into deep water without learning how to swim first. What I’m doing is like sticking a toe in the water to check the temperature and then gently wading out, deeper and deeper, until I am comfortable and once again a participating and contributing part of a community that accepts me and whatever gifts and ministries I can bring them. It’s not rebirth—once was enough for that—but it’s like a reception or hopeful return home. It’s an acknowledgment that I need community, and this one is offering me that. So I’m straightening my shoulders, holding up my chin, and sticking my toe in the water, hopefully for the last time.
Still, I could use a few prayers for courage, please?