Today, I read an article by a fellow HuffPost blogger about how cruelly some individuals in her fringe religion treated her when she was date-raped and got pregnant.
Her words ignited a passion in me to tell my own "church abuse" story publicly for the first time. Maybe her courage and mine will inspire other women with Fundamentalist or other extremist religious backgrounds to speak up, or maybe even escape and find a new spiritual path, one that supports both genders as we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves.
My parents joined an extreme Fundamentalist Christian fringe group when I was six years old.
I grew up believing, among other toxic things, that the world was about to end and my grandparents, favorite teachers and best friend at school would be slashed to death and then burned up by Jesus and his Holy Army when he came back to Earth, just because they didn't belong to our cult. Blood was going to run in the streets, up to three feet deep! Our "church" was actually listed every year in the directory of American cults! I was told I shouldn't worry because my parents were True Believers. (I worried anyway!)
Although I had a passion to become a writer or a journalist when I grew up, I was told repeatedly that my highest destiny was to marry a minister and become a housewife. My role was to bear children who would serve the Lord with all their might. It was drummed into my head that women are inferior to men by Divine Decree. I wasn't sure I agreed, but I didn't speak up.
I wasn't strong enough to leave, but I was smart enough to walk the edge. I started my first business at 15 so I could save up enough money to start at a local community college at 16. I won a journalism scholarship for an article I wrote on solar energy. It gave me the cash and the confidence to finally get away from home. I enrolled at Arizona State University when I was 17.
That year, ASU was voted the number three party school in the country by Playboy magazine. But I never missed a church service. I remember studying cult literature in my dorm room while other students were making out in the halls. To this day, I have never even smoked weed and nor ever gotten drunk. I was a nerd, a dork, a weirdo, a freak...a cult member.
My parents and their brethren were horrified that I was living in such a sinful place, preparing for a career that was utterly ungodly. But I had tried and failed to get into "God's College"," so I gave myself to my studies and took four part time jobs to pay for it all. Adults at church gossiped about my sinful nature, my obstinacy, my lack of godly feminine qualities. I didn't care...very much.
I'd had a church boyfriend since I was 14. I felt certain I'd marry Dave one day, while working at a newspaper or TV channel. I remained a virgin, even in the Bill Clinton sense of the term.
During the second half of my junior year, a string of unfortunate events led to me be accepted at the last minute after all into "God's college". My parents were delighted! I tearfully left Dave and all my close church friends, the professors who believed in me, the staff at the two newspapers I wrote for and all my dreams. My secret intention was to attend for a year, save up every penny and then come home to ASU to finish my real degree. I didn't feel I would achieve much with one in theology.
My friends threw a going-away party the night before I left. During it, I saw the wife of a junior minister making out with her brother-in-law. His hand was up her shirt! As in most Fundamentalist "religions", members are encouraged to tattle on one another. I was torn. I didn't want to get involved. But I didn't want to sin. So I did my duty and told an elder what I'd seen. He assured me he would handle it.
As a female transfer student from a "worldly" [read:pagan/heathen/sinful] university, a girl with a budding journalist's mind and attitude, I was under scrutiny from the minute I arrived on that small campus. The third day, I was called to the dean's office. He asked me if I had accused a godly woman of inappropriate conduct with her brother-in-law. I said yes and told him accurately what I'd seen.
He informed me that I had not seen any such thing, that she had denied it, and that I was to never speak about it again. (Probably not blog about it on HuffPost, either!)
I knew the church rules after a lifetime with these people, so I just let it go.
A week later when the publisher of the campus newspaper I worked for announced that I had to go to bed and that "the men will finish the paper" I was outraged but held my tongue, mostly. He had security escort me to my dorm. The lights were turned off in the women's dorms an hour earlier than the men's.
The next day I started a petition to allow females to stay up as late as they wanted. No one signed. I got scolded.
A few weeks later, the minister's wife whom I had accused called my dean and told him she knew I'd had sex with Dave. I denied it vehemently.
Nonetheless, he told me not to speak to any other students until the matter was resolved; I could not attend classes; I was not to call anyone in Arizona under any circumstances; I was not allowed to eat in the cafeteria - they would send a tray to my room lest I contaminate the student body; and I should pray and beg for God's forgiveness.
He told me to choose a minister to whom I could confess my sins.
I chose wrong.
The minister I chose had me sit on a small, hard wooden chair set a good distance from his large wooden desk. He ignored me completely while I fidgeted and cried. I was terrified of him, of God, of the church itself. Of my blood running in the streets when an avenging Jesus came back to slaughter unbelievers. I knew Jesus would be extra vicious with those who had spurned the truth.
The minister began to ask me horrifying questions.
"Where did he touch you?"
"How did that feel?"
"Did your panties get wet?"
"Did you see his..."
I told him the truth, because I had been taught not to lie. That first day, he just listened to me tearfully confess that my teenage body responded to being around Dave. I was shaking and crying as I told him these deeply intimate, shameful things. He told me to come back the next day.
The next day, after I waited silently in my little chair for what seemed like an hour, he asked similar questions. But this time, he was so angry at me (I thought) that he was banging the underside of his desk drawer. His face got really red and then he made a sound I'd never heard before. Then, in the middle of my next sentence, he seemed to suddenly relax. He told me to leave.
I had no idea what was going on.
He did the same thing the next day. And the next. It was terrifying when his face got so red! And the banging noise!
After four days of isolation and worry, I was drained. I was faint from lack of food because I couldn't touch the trays. I was terrified of Jesus as much as the shame my parents would feel against me. We already didn't get along too well.
I slumped in my little chair and began repeating the same personal details. This time, he asked about how my nipples responded to Dave being near me.
I snapped. I shouted, "Do you want me to show you my hymen so you can see it is still intact?
He instantly expelled me. I was told I would be ex-communicated if I ever contacted anyone at home in Arizona - my friends, Dave, the adults I trusted.
The dean announced that I had been expelled for "Sexual Misconduct" in front of almost 6,000 other students and brethren. I was shunned - no one would talk to me at church. I was forced to attend, but not allowed to contaminate anyone until I had shown signs of sincere repentance.
felt my parents hated me, although they let me sleep on a cot in a storage room. I eventually found a part time job so the church would give me permission to live with a "righteous" older girl from church. She called me a "filthy harlot" every day.
During those dreadful, lonely months, I realized the ministers and God had been right all along: I was worthless. Recalcitrant. A sinner of the worst kind. A bad person through and through. I was not worthy of God's love, my parents' love, anyone's love.
They had won. I was so lost that I just gave up - on myself, on my dreams, on my life, on Dave, on my own happiness. Finally, I was told I had met the requirements of repentance at last.
Very soon thereafter, just before I turned 20, I married a man who worked for the church and who needed a "godly" wife. We made it through ten years of me being someone I knew I wasn't. I left the church the day I left him, and he left it too a few years later. Both raised in that Fundamentalist "church", today we are good enough friends to look back and see the damage those beliefs wrought on our marriage.
I wonder how many women who were also raised to be chattel make it out alive? I think about some of the women in the strict Muslim countries, even though I know there are many thousands of women worldwide suffering under the same heartless patriarchy in the name of religion. How different are we than those poor little 10 year-old-girls in Yemen who are forced to marry their 40-something uncles?
I know there are many women here in America, right under my nose, who were raised to believe that their female gender makes them less deserving than men. Less than capable of taking care of themselves. Less than worthy of being strong, making their own decisions, growing into the fullness of who they really are. Using their gifts for their own joy and service to mankind, living as an authentic expression of love for themselves and others.
I've run my own company for almost 30 years now. My publisher will release my next book in November of this year. I run a popular site on Facebook called the "WendyKellerCompassionPage". I have a new philanthropic venture that helps people going through life crises of all types. I raised our daughter - mostly on my own - to be a confident, strong, self-directed, educated young woman. I have been featured on countless radio and television programs, including Dr. Phil,Good Morning America and Dateline and I've written hundreds of published newspaper and magazine articles. In total, I've been the Real Me since I left that church and my husband.
I've learned to stand on my own two feet, albeit sometimes wobbly. So can you.
If you're reading this and you can relate, please comment below. But also, please know that your perverse, abusive, misogynistic religious childhood doesn't really have to shape your future. At any age, we can break out and start anew. We can grab on to the life preserver and kick as hard as we can to get away from that sinking, stinking ship.
They were wrong about you. They are wrong about women.
You are glorious. You are competent. You are a bigger soul, more beautiful, more capable, more gifted, more creative, more delightful than anyone ever told you. You can set yourself free - the key is right there in your heart.
This article was inspired by this post from @JaymeAllen. Here it is. Read her post too and let yourself be encouraged by those of us who escaped.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.