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The Trouble With Freeing People

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My justice sense was tingling.

We'd been working to help this young girl get away from her abusive home and church for over a year, and I was finally talking to her. Everything in me wanted to come to the rescue, step between her and her parents, and bring her out of the oppressive situation that was making her text friends about her suicidal thoughts and depression every couple of weeks.

But I couldn't, because that's not how freedom works. Stockholm syndrome is a real thing. I didn't know I was up against it until I started mentoring countless other young adults in college.

This girl's situation is not an isolated case. I was homeschooled and went to Christian churches, and while my parents generally practiced at home the love that they preached, I've seen too many hurt people. I've seen churches split, families torn apart by religious legalism and authoritarian crackdowns, and watched friends steadily lose their faith. More than one person I knew from those same churches later came to me saying they struggled with self-harm and depression.

A group I work with had to rescue an adult woman from being forced into an arranged marriage. This is not isolated to Christianity or the homeschool movement. People I've met outside of my subculture need to get out of bad situations, too. My point is about freedom.

That's just my own circle of friends. The website Homeschoolers Anonymous is working to provide a platform for more people to tell their stories, to open discussion on the issues, to bring healing, and to correct past mistakes. Abuse isn't unique to homeschooling, however. It's just where I see it because it's the subculture I grew up in. Humans are everywhere, and they hurt each other, and when I try to help, I run into the problem of freeing people.

The problem is best understood with an example from the fictionalized history of the books I read as a kid:

One book about the Underground Railroad described life in the southeast states when slavery was legal. In the story, abolitionists had to be careful when trying to free slaves. They couldn't pass notes or letters; the slaves couldn't read. They couldn't trespass on the property of the slave owners. They didn't want to put the slaves in danger of making the situations worse by getting caught in the attempt to run away.

The frustration I read about was the slaves who didn't have the courage to leave. The conductors on the Underground Railroad realized they couldn't kidnap and relocate slaves. It wasn't just a matter of legality -- helping them run away was illegal -- it was on the principle of freedom itself. Forcing a slave to run away was a transfer from one slavery to another.

I can't do that to people, and sometimes that means letting people stay in their situations. In the story, one slave was offered the chance to run from her mistress, but refused when a group of her friends left. She would remain a slave for the rest of her life or until she changed her mind and seized another chance.

Working with people who aren't sure about how bad their situations are is disheartening to say the least. In one moment, they're packing and ready to leave their lives behind; the next, they're ready to defend the people who cause their pain.

Not everyone I know supports my efforts to help people escape from bad situations. I'm told to stay away, not to get involved in family politics, and to step away from any adults who would dare to feel depressed and suicidal in their churches and homes.

I've seen too many scarred people to let myself shut up when someone is in need of support. I've also learned from the stories I read in childhood about the fight for justice that not everything will turn out the way I want it to. Feeling like the hero is short-lived when someone moves from one slavery to another.

For now, I'm setting up a network so if this girl gets to another low point, she can text one of us and we'll work together as a quick response team. Whoever is free at the moment will go spend time with her so she'll have someone. It's not because we don't want her to be free; it's because we want her to be alive and whole when she's ready to take freedom for herself.

Helping her feel ready to take freedom for herself is the only way to make her free.