I didn't want to touch this subject. I can promise you that. I can whip up wisdom on heartbreak like cake batter. I can pound out reps on what it means to be a good person. But I have never wanted to stand before you and talk about religion... and what my experience has been with it.
It's a sticky subject that Indian burns the wrists of individuals on a daily basis. We all have some opinion. We all want to talk loud & louder & loudest. It all gets really ugly and I find myself wanting to pull into the shadows of the conversation, not because I don't believe in anything but because my journey has been more tender than that.
To me, faith is not an argument I am hell-bent on winning. To me, this whole "believing in something" question has always been more fragile than the words we strap to the backs of one another and call it a belief system. And if you want to know what I believe in then you have to be willing to know the depths and the darkness of my heart. And you have to promise you won't judge me. That you'll leave me with the dignity I so deserve after I tell you everything. Because that is where I was failed before. When I couldn't exit the doors with dignity, that's where I was first failed and I learned to understand all the hurt that gets pent-up inside of the houses of "religion" that we humans know how to build.
I am a Christian and it stings to admit that in everyday life.There's judgement packed into that position. You can be honest, you may have judged me already. There are assumptions about how I live my day-to-day life. There are more beliefs stapled to my sleeves because of my declaration of faith than anything else and I just want to whisper, "Know me first... Know my heart first. I am not trying to make you want my God."
Wanting God is a personal decision. It's an inner heart work that most of stumble into. It's a craving inside of your heart for more water, and more depth, and something bigger than your body. It's a need that meets us at all different points in life. And we go on a journey to find something outside of ourselves. For some people, that's God. For other people, that's faith. And for others, that's just the belief in something bigger, with more glitter, than human hands. We have to keep in mind that we are living in a gritty and hard world. One person wants a savior. Another wants unconditional love. All of us are craving the things we have never been able to give one another.
My brother has struggled with the grips of drug addiction for the last ten years but he is still the most beautiful fighter I know.
It is the only reason I embarked on a faith journey in college. I watched my mother tumble in and out of rhythms with her little boy and I envied the foundation she stood upon. Even amidst the turmoil, she handed her life to a God who she believed was good. So good.
Meanwhile, things were starting to mean less to me. The empty kisses. The hangovers that left your insides feeling ransomed. How it felt to wake up in a bed alone, knowing someone had left your side the moment they got what they wanted out of your body. All of it stacked -- one on top of the other on top of the other -- and I asked myself, "Is there something more to this? Does my life mean more than this? Am I ever going to feel like you are there, God?"
Almost like Elizabeth Gilbert, minus Italy & India & Bali & hot Italians, I went on a quest to find God. I was 19 years old. I was broken-hearted. I went barreling around a Catholic campus to find him. I was hungry for anything that would make my existence seem more real, like there was some kind of substance to this life that I was leading.
I was a hungry traveler. A desperate, hungry, broken-open traveler.
There's no eloquent way to tell you that I fell into the hands of a Christian based mind control cult. One that is banned across different cities and college campuses. It's been cracked open by dozens of news stations who have gone undercover to produce exposes. It's listed in encyclopedias that get down to the bones of cults across the world. There are thousands of testimonies tucked into the internet about wives that left their husbands, daughters who left their parents, all for this one group. My 15-page testimony is buried somewhere in the clutter of the noise. I chose to be anonymous when I first wrote down all that had happened to me. I thought if it was anonymous then it meant it would all get erased one day.
Back then -- as a pretty college girl with the world sitting upon her pearly pink nails -- I would have laughed if anyone told me I could be unraveled so easily. I had always cluttered the word "cult" close to a series of other synonyms: Kool Aid, Charles Manson, people who abandon their families overnight, brainwashing. The list could go on. I never realized how easily a person can become undone by a force of evil until I had already been dragged into the damage and it was hugging me tight. So tight.
No amount of words or syllables can express to you the bruising my spirit went through during that time. I don't have any poetry for you. I'm sorry.
I was a victim to what experts call a "spiritual tear down." I was told that I was worthless. They convinced me that my previous faith practices were worthless. They told me their way, their group, was the one way to be saved. I was called selfish for having other obligations. I was expected to give up all my past life for this group. If I denied their beliefs, they tore me down. I was emotionally manipulated to feel guilty and fearful because of the person that I was.
I watched scriptures that I had grown up with be twisted into knives right in front of my eyes and I sat complacently with my hands by my side, not fighting the emptiness that came with each breath of silence. I disclosed information and sorrows that I had never shared with anyone before and watched as they were spat back into my face in the form of a word called "sin." I was dirty. I was shamed. I was forced to share the most embarrassing, vulnerable, and bare moments in my life with leaders of the church. They instructed me to write down every sin I could ever recall committing and read it aloud before a group. And then sit and soak with that sin as I waited in line to get to the light.
I was told, over and over again, that I was not in the light. God didn't yet want something to do with me. The road to salvation was narrow, narrow, narrow. The only way through was this church. My friends would go to hell- I needed to save them. My family would go to hell- I needed to save them. The whole of my campus, "all wolves in sheep's clothing," were going to hell. And me, if I stepped away from this path, I would be the damned one. I would be eternally damned to hell if I chose to walk away from them.
I told no one that I was studying with this group. Not my friends. Not my family. The group warned me, "People will think you are in a cult. Just stick close to the light." I drew a heavy line between my friends and I. They were in the darkness and I was headed towards the light without them.
Someone was going to love me at last. A group was finally going to take me in for all the quirks & oddities that made up a Hannah with curly hair and freckled knees. That was my mentality; a hungry look perched in my eyes that would make anyone believe that I had never been loved before.
My body told other stories though. I woke up each day and found less of a reason to get out of bed. I was exhausted. Tired. Emotional. I was empty and even God did not want to speak to me. I was not clean enough for him yet. I pulled away from normalcy more and more each day, caring less about my commitments, my school work, or my writing, and fixating on the happiness I could only achieve through surrendering myself to this group. My point in life was to disciple others. My purpose was getting more people into the water and more people into the pews. Becoming baptized became my sole reason for existence.
On November 5, 2008, the day of my baptism, I wrote this in my journal:
You knew it all along God. That I was coming. That I was giving it all up for you. No turning back. You knew that even when I begged and pleaded that I did not want this, there was something more urgent in my selfish, selfish words. A girl who was crying out between every syllable, pleading with her father in a broken nature, "I don't want this. But I need this."
I trace those words back, years later, and I ask myself, what went wrong? What went wrong? How did they get to you? How did they crack you so good?
I can speak today as someone who was saved from this group. People don't understand how I chose to believe in God after all of it but I have always told them, "I believe in God only because he pulled me out." I was saved from the destruction just 20 minutes before I was scheduled to be baptized into the group. I had a complete breakdown brought on by friends who were concerned with my behavior and placed an intervention in my hands. Crying, screaming, and cursing, I remember yelling through the tears, "I AM GOING TO HELL! I AM GOING TO HELL!"
I screamed outwardly, inwardly. Screams that are still the saddest sounds to ever come from me. But then someone reached out a hand to stop me and then to save me. Saved. Saved by friends. Saved by family. Saved by ministers. Saved by strangers.
Even after I was pulled away from the long hours of studying with the group and the beliefs that became my backbone, I was ashamed that I had been so vulnerable and manipulated, that I put so much faith in a group that I feel used me. But people stitched me back together. People who loved me stitched me back together. Little by little. The journey back to a life that looks less fragile than this is too long to type all in one place.
I don't have much of a moral to this story. No bigger purpose I want to tether to this post. I just wanted you to know. I just thought you should probably know where I have always been coming from.
The world wants to talk so loudly about "religion," and Christianity in general, and I simply wish I could fold all of people's anger, and bruises, and hurts, into one big apology letter. To tell you I am sorry for the way human hands get their fingerprints all shoved up against the beauty of what grace was always supposed to be. Untainted. Untouched. Unfathomable for little things like us. I am sorry for the way imperfect, ill-equipped people have judged you, and scathed you, and shamed you, and forgotten you. That was never the definition of grace. Salvation was never a human thing.
I only hope that whatever you choose to believe in, whenever you choose to believe in it, will reveal and unfold itself in time. It will give itself a name. It will make itself known to you, roaring on the inside like some sort of lion. It will save you if you let it.
But whatever that is, whenever it finds you, I truly hope that it is tangled in love and no fear. That it is laced with dignity and nothing short of that. Because you deserve dignity, beyond anything else in this world. You deserve a god, and a faith, and a belief that finds you dignified at the core. Not less than. Not naked and shamed.
Humans building religion with their bare hands have hurt the world in that way and I only pray, with my tiny hands, that you find a light inside of you that declares your worth, and your goodness, and your value.
If it's not there, please walk away. For the sake of everything inside of you that has always been worthy of much, please walk away.
This post first appeared on Hannah Brencher's blog.