I Survived Religious Abuse: This is My Story
I was never born to experience trauma. I did not have to suffer to bring glory to an all-powerful being. I deserved a childhood free from abuse, manipulation, fear, and religious trauma. I longed having safety as a priority during my growing up years. I should have been protected.
As a child, the church was the center of my world. Truth is, it was my only world. I believed and breathed the movement I belonged to: the Independent Fundamental Baptists (IFB). I thought we were the “true Church,” that we were separated for a reason.
I was taught that my place was beneath a man as he was my authority, which included my father as my headship until I would be old enough to marry and then my husband would take over that role. The one thing that was always true no matter if you were a man or woman was that the pastor, the man of God, was always in charge of everything.
I had a total of two pastors throughout my 21 years in IFB churches. The first I recall being pretty kind, but hurtful IFB teachings were still there. The second, and final of the two, was my leader for 15 years. I entered that congregation at 6 years old, converted at 7, and was baptized by 8. During my time there, the pastor married family members, buried my mother, and spoke during my high school graduation. I treasured the man of God, considered him closer than my own grandparents. I looked up to him. I loved him. I learned from him.
Those lessons were things that would sadly hurt me even years later. I learned that being born female meant I was lesser than a man, had to submit to my husband in all things, even in spousal abuse (I’m fortunate that I did not marry in that environment). I was taught that even as a child I could tempt a grown man to “lust” after me and that I was at fault for my childhood abuse. I was to be meek and quiet, smile and stay sweet, and be a lady, period. Sermons from that pulpit screamed that I was worthless, horrible, and undeserving of love.
Out of fear and loyalty, I believed every word.
As time went on, I started to question things, especially the mishandling of abuse in the church. My own abuse had been mishandled, but I was led to believe that I was at fault and not the adults in my life. It was witnessing the mistreatment of rape victims, domestic violence victims and the turning of a blind eye to child physical abuse that I started to disagree with my pastor. Little by little, I started to form my own opinions on these controversial topics in the Church.
I started to become angry with the cries of children being beat in the church house and became enraged when victims of abuse wept to the pastor about what they had or were experiencing, and nothing was done to help them. At 17, I dared to speak up as I advocated to hold the hand of a victim while they shared with the pastor that they had been assaulted by a church member. He raised his voice at me and told me never, ever again contradict him. I paced and stomped angrily outside of the door I was forbidden to walk through while I waited helplessly outside.
The breaking point was one Friday evening that I did not attend a church event. Someone who had physically, sexually, and mentally abused me for years showed up and when they were confronted about their abusive behavior the leadership did nothing. My health was failing at this time, and I no longer could attend after the fear of being in the same church building as someone who had abused me throughout childhood. For six agonizing months, I struggled to know if I should return. I felt terrible for making my pastor’s ministry look bad. He lost half a dozen of his young people in a span of 6 months. All of us had grown tired of the mistreatment and felt we were pushed away. During that break, due to my health and my trauma welling up to the forefront, I found that I did not want to return to my former church of 15 years. All the tears, hurt and wounds were afresh. Everywhere I looked those wounds bled. I was eventually shunned and shamed, and I didn’t want to return to that “spiritual family” again. I found that they were much like a good amount of my family of origin in their hurtful actions.
That step was a step towards freedom. Not going back, denouncing the title of Independent Fundamental Baptist, and bravely whispering to myself that I was a survivor of abuse were all part of my breakthrough in escaping religious abuse. I told a family member very nonchalantly I felt the church was more cultlike than churchlike.
For two long years, I struggled in a deep dark depression. My health completely failed at this point. I couldn’t manage anything. I did not realize then what I know now: I was experiencing severe PTSD symptoms from both the spiritual abuse and the other traumas I had experienced over the years. I had no tools, lost my only community, was shunned by many family members, and had no future. It was so incredibly lonely.
Then, I stumbled upon online support groups for those of us that survived the IFB movement. I was in shock and that’s when it clicked that it was, in fact, a cult. That support saved my life if I’m quite honest. If I hadn’t learned that what was wrong was not me, but the abusers that hurt me, I don’t know how I would have gone on or would have gone on to make decisions that would have hurt me further as is common with those that escape trauma. I started to find validation, answers, and my voice.
In the winter of 2017, I shared my story publicly but withheld my last name, still too scared to call out those that had harmed me. With time and with the more I wrote, it became easier to speak my truth and I found freedom in doing so.
Just a year later, that is where I dived headfirst in researching my roots, and with the help of my twin sister, started cataloguing crimes with IFB connections. This project found me in countless conversations with victims of abuse. We had found hundreds of abusers: both pastors, church staff and members of Independent Fundamental Baptist congregations that had harmed so many victims. There were abusive homes for children where “troubled” teens and even young children were sent away to be made into good Christian citizens. Instead, these kids were often physically beat, sexually assaulted and spiritually harmed greatly. I lost count how many predatory youth pastors and bus ministry workers there were or the pastors that so often covered up the crimes and shuffled these predators to other ministries where they preyed on more victims. My heart broke with every “new” victim who reached out and landed in my inbox and the horrific experiences they shared in often great detail. And I felt helpless with every parent, grandparent or sibling who asked for help in finding out how to find their loved ones who had just joined an IFB church that made them “separate” from their “worldly” and “unsaved” family and friends. Although it came at cost to my mental health at the time, with the help of so many brave souls, that research and those stories went on to help contribute to an investigative piece on the hundreds of abuses in the IFB movement and the creation of an abuser database.
Blogging became my outlet in 2019. I started breaking down the hurt, the tough memories, and the harmful teachings I grew up with. I began sharing my own stories that haunted my memory and wounded my health and heart. I’ve had people reach out in emails and messages and continue to share their stories with me. Because of these stories and the numberless conversations I’ve had with sometimes strangers and sometimes from those that I knew that have also escaped, I knew I’d never return to places of such hurt.
The biggest gift to myself was the gift of learning to heal. I got help for my mental health, got my chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis, and started the grueling task of trying to heal my body that trauma has all but destroyed. I now have a long-term, chronic illness that does not currently have a cure. I live with daily chronic pain that often threatens my outlook, but in spite of those things, I’m thankful.
Breaking free and walking away from church abuse has allowed me to live life authentically, beautifully, and freely. I’ve experienced so many wonderful things in life that a cult taught were evil. I have felt emotions like love, joy and yes, even peace. I’m happy and see life through a different lens. I’m fortunate on this road that I’m traveling and I’m grateful for this incredible journey that is my own. I’m learning new things about the world, myself, and others every single day. I love it.
I’m also able to give back when I can by volunteering for a nonprofit that helps victims of religious abuse. And I write. I write, write, write about all the things that I feel need to be said. It’s my way of throwing a lifeline out into a vast sea for anyone that feels that they’re drowning, having treaded the water of religious trauma for far too long. There is hope and we can heal, thrive, and live a beautiful life after trauma.
We can give back on that journey by supporting initiatives like Stop Pastoral Abuse. We’re all a community of survivors just helping each other every day by offering support, resources and listening ears to those that are suffering. The mission of Stop Pastoral Abuse speaks greatly to me as a survivor, as someone that has spent time advocating for victims, and as a volunteer. Sharing my story is my own way of giving back. I hope that if you have a heart for victims of clergy abuse, spiritual and religious trauma, you too will help support this cause.