On choosing to challenge, or why we must stand witness.

(Trigger warning: spiritual abuse.)

A couple of weeks ago. The first warm Saturday of the year and my eldest daughter and I sit outside in the sunshine. I have my book and journal with me. Before I open either there is something I feel compelled to do.

I decide, for the first time, to read about the abuse suffered at the hand of Bill Hybels (for many years was senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church). To hear from the women who suffered. To stand witness. Not from some desire for lurid details but because it feels important to acknowledge ‘yes, this happened to you, it was wrong, and I stand with you. I believe you.”

I don’t know these women. But in reading their words, I was standing by all women who have been abused by men in positions of power, and – especially important for me – those abused within the evangelical church, the church of which I have always been a part. To try and understand how a culture meant to stand on principles of love, acceptance and grace could have covered up this abuse for so long. I want to learn so if I am ever a part of a community of faith I can be on the alert, I can advocate for justice and stand against systems of power and patriarchy which allow this kind of behaviour to go unchecked.

It isn’t easy reading. It is hard to discover these women made countless attempts to be heard, in some cases for years before they were taken seriously. It is hard to unpack how the cultural climate in the church allowed these accusations to go unheard, how verses from the Bible and threats about the impact of others’ losing their faith were used to coerce and control victims into remaining silent.

When I was thirteen a man came to stay with our family. He was some big-shot preacher from the States and had been invited to speak at the church my Dad led. This was not uncommon, we often had guests and it was nearly always a fun time, an opportunity to meet people from around the world, to hear their take on things.

This man was supremely confident and styled as only an American travelling preacher from the Southern states could be. Black suits, heavy on the shoulder pads, and crisp white shirts. Black hair, short on the sides but longer at the back, slicked back with wet-look gel, curling at his collar. After preaching when he came back to our house he seemed too big for our kitchen, dominating the space with his loud American drawl and large leather briefcase. My over-riding memory of him was the handkerchief he carried with him, which he frequently used to wipe the sweat from his brow and upper lip.

In one particular meeting I attended, I became the focus of his attention. After speaking he turned his gaze to me, called me “Elli honey” and began to prophesy over me in front of the rest of the congregation, praying fervently, laying hands on me until I was slain in the spirit*. Many others gathered around to pray for me, voices overlapping. I remember the heat of it, feeling the fuzzy carpet under me and the hot hands of those interceding laid on my shoulder or arm. I remember feeling special. I had been chosen, selected from the crowd. It felt good.

Later that night or maybe it was the next day I was standing in our family kitchen, leaning against the radiator at the end of the table, chatting to whoever else was there when the preacher returned home from another meeting. He was pumped, energised from his performance-preach, whatever. He walked into the kitchen, laid his large briefcase on the table and came up to where I was stood. He then leaned in to me and, in front of everyone as though it was the most normal thing in the world, licked the side of my face, right up my cheek. His wet tongue leaving what I can only describe as a slug trail across my face. “That’s called a ‘dog-lick'” he said.

I froze, unsure what to do. Around me there was nervous laughter, but moments later the kitchen went back to bustling again, the kettle put on as the incoming crowd pulled out chairs to make themselves comfortable. I looked around. Was this a normal thing where he was from? No one else was acting as if this was a strange thing to happen. But if it was normal, why did I feel so uncomfortable? I was 13 and knew very little of men, but somewhere deep inside me, I felt this wasn’t right. My body knew. I felt both very young and too grown up all at the same time. I left the room.

I have debated telling this story. Given the abuse women have bravely reported over the past few years, it felt kind of silly and unnecessary. But it wouldn’t leave me alone, and usually when this happens there is a good reason.

I believe it is moments like this one remaining unchallenged that build to a culture where more sustained and serious abuse takes place. Incidents where there are allowances made for questionable behaviour because someone is older/ more powerful/ in this case apparently in some kind of ‘spiritual authority’.

I believe there are many other women with stories like mine. Maybe not stories quite so bizarre, but memories of other moments when they were made to feel stupid or used or vulnerable or exposed. Moments when powerful men used their positions to get what they wanted and left women confused, guilty, or ashamed.

For me, I didn’t understand what was going on then and I am not sure I do now. But there are a few things I would like to tell myself and anyone else who has a moment like this from their life that felt and continues to feel bad, something no one else commented on at the time so they have tried to ignore:

1. It was not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve it, or prompt it. You need feel no shame.

2. It was wrong. You were right to feel weird/sad/strange about it, it was not appropriate behaviour, these feelings were your body trying to protect you.

(And this is for my 13 year old self, but take it if it is relevant: What happened in the church meeting with the praying and laying on of hands was probably connected to what happened in the kitchen. It was about power and the whole thing stinks.)

3. I am sorry you were not kept safe. I am sorry no one stood up for you and protected you at the time. They should have.

As I was writing this at times when it all felt too weird or painful I stopped to do a little gardening. As I did I listened to an episode of my favourite podcast; Poetry Unbound with Padriag O’Tuama. The episode happened to be based on a poem retelling the story of Lot’s Wife. The poem is called Of Course She Looked Back and is by Natalie Diaz. You can listen to the episode here.

Listening to this podcast episode and this poem gave me the courage to write this piece.

I wrote a short poem is response to Natalie Diaz’s poem. It is called Lots’ Wife and is about why we need to stand witness to each others pain, why it matters.

Lot’s Wife

She looked back

and so became a pillar of salt.

A monument of tears

to season the ground from that day forth.

Because she chose to pay attention,

To bear witness to their pain.

*’Slain in the spirit’ is a term which refers to the practice of someone being overcome by the Holy Spirit and falling over while being prayed for. This was fairly normal at the time in the church I was part of. As a 41 year old woman I have many questions about it now. I wasn’t pushed but did I allow myself to fall because then everyone would think a. their prayers were working and b. I was good at receiving from God. Did I fall to make myself and everyone else feel better about the situation: probably. There is a lot more to say about the kind of emotional hype in these situations, but that is for another day.

Hi, I’m Elli and for the past decade I have been on a journey of discovery, re-learning how to live. Finding my way through depression and anxiety, questioning my purpose, my faith and my priorities. It has been the best and hardest work of my life.

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  • Cathy Earnshaw
    Posted at 12:53h, 12 March Reply

    Elli, I’m so sorry you had to go through that incident.
    It was not right and you were right to say so.

    I do think it’s helpful to separate God from people who claim represent Him. He, I’m sure is just as angry as you are about the conduct of that man.

    When I’ve felt disillusioned by people I’ve respected and by those who have meant to have been protecting me – I try to remember and focus on an experience of God that I know was truly Him.

    Identifying and remembering those concrete and pure experiences are like finding anchors for your mind and Spirit, I find.

    Lots of love and thanks x

  • Jude Burrows
    Posted at 12:55h, 12 March Reply

    Hi elli, thank you for this brave post. I feel like I know you as we have a shared history. I feel like I probably know the man that made you feel this way – at least I have been made to feel similarly uncomfortable in over-spiritualised situations. Thank you for not being afraid to unpick your memories and to question the ‘normalcy’ of your (our) weird upbringing. It is helpful for us going forward and is especially helpful for me in the raising of my daughters. Please keep being a voice of truth and courage, that plainly states how things were, how things are and how, at times, it sucks. Thank you. Xx

  • Wanetta Lynn Monan
    Posted at 14:57h, 12 March Reply

    Thank you , I needed to read this today!!!

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