#Churchtoo, Sexual Abuse is Everywhere- Even in our Safe Places
I had an extremely turbulent childhood. From being bullied at school and a stifling home environment, I was molested several times in my family home, and emotionally abused by those who were supposed to protect me. As a result of this emotional and sexual abuse, there weren’t many spaces that I could call my own, let alone safe. However, one thing my parents instilled in me from a very young age is the idea that nothing is too small to bring to the ears of God, and so, in times where I felt completely secluded and unwanted I would find myself talking to God, just holding on to the idea that he would get me through everything I’d been facing.
Growing up, we would either drive for 2 hours every Sunday to go to our “family” Pentecostal church, or spend Christmases, New Years and lazy Sundays at our local catholic church. Despite being in Catholic schooling since I was 3, I knew my heart had been touched by the way in which Christianity is practiced in Pentecostal churches. Not only was there tea and cake and the occasional bag of chin chin at the end of service, I was surrounded by peers and elders I had grown up with, by the time I was starting secondary school they had opened up a branch of our church around the corner from me! So, in my mind I had finally found a space where I wasn’t picked on because I was crying, I found a space where friendship and family were accessible to me and through the unifying concept that we serve a God, our father, who loves us. So, I decided that this was where I would call home.
Fast forward to my adolescent years, my church base was still the same. The forms of abuse that I had faced were escalating rapidly, and despite experiencing it first hand, I can say in retrospect that this is the point where my PTSD from past molestation started to take a toll on me. I’d cover it up as the average teenager does, drinking excessively, staying up late talking on the phone to distract from bad dreams, consumed by anger that I would exert via self-harming. But on a Sunday, I would be able to walk into church and be my vulnerable, exhausted self, and be sure that I would be free from judgement. At this point a new pastor joined our church. I paid no attention as he wasn’t the first new guy. However slowly but surely, he held a more permanent position in our church and within a year he became the head pastor of our branch. He had claimed to be prophetic, a man of God that misses nothing when it came to his “flock.” It wasn’t unusual for him to make direct reference to something he had “seen” or that had been “revealed to him” regarding specific members of the congregation during service, most marvelled at this, but it created a great unease in me.
I put my reservations down to this being a testament of how distant from God I had become. I had been burdened with a lot of lies and secrets my abusers inadvertently had asked me to keep, and things my mind had shown me but due to the power of suppression I couldn’t be sure if they were real. I knew the drinking and my excitement when Vybz Kartel would come on in a rave were not fruits of God, so I just assumed that my aversion to this man had been because I didn’t want him to see the real me and expose me to my unsuspecting parents.
He made a lot of changes in our church, and the first had been weekly group prayers, where he would call everyone and we would pray as a church over the phone, which required him getting everyone’s phone number. I told him I wouldn’t need to share mine because I would be praying with my mum and dad in the same house. Then came what he described as “a calling” to get members of the congregation more involved with how the service will be ran. So, he added everyone on Facebook as an easier means of communication to set things up for next week’s service. Practical, right? At first that was the case. Until this pastor began to message me frequently at ungodly hours (couldn’t help myself). It started off with him questioning what I was doing up so late, and then proceeding to discuss church based things. Until one night he lead with a serious matter, the moment I had been dreading, he said that God had revealed somethings about me so he needed me to answer some questions. He asked me, at the age of 14, whether I was a virgin. Of course, I’m looking around my living room and peaking behind the desktop to make sure it was me he was talking to. I didn’t respond. He filled the nauseating silence with a statement that hasn’t left me till this day.
He declared that “it is a sin to lie to a man of God, a sin punishable by being struck down by God.”
At this point, I was scared. Looking back, I wish I had the habit I have now to fact check everything that seemed far off. Despite the fact I had been in church all my life and had been an A* fast track student in religious studies, I was not, and am still not that well versed on the scriptures in the bible probably due to the various ways the scripture has been weaponised in the past. And whether this was a calculated move or not, it was at this point I felt completely helpless.
He asked if I had fornicated and said that he’d been seeing me having intercourse with a grown man, he had visions of me having sex in my sleep and being attacked by demons. This meant he needed to pray with me on my own and in secret, because he didn’t want to alert the person who was sending these things to me to our prayers. I can’t remember what I did after that, but from that point on I was reluctant to pray with him via our weekly group prayers, which caused backlash and tension with my parents. I would find reasons to skip church by attending my sisters church first thing in the morning and missing our evening services. Sometime after my 15th birthday, I was raped.
This is not to say that this pastor cursed me to ensure that would happen. It’s the aftermath of this incident that has made me extremely weary of the words that any person in a position of power places into the hearts of those around them.
Although there had been a considerable gap between the attempts of grooming implemented by this “man of God” and the sexual assault, the only thing that kept repeating itself in my head had been that this was my fault. That because I didn’t pray with pastor, everything that had happened had been my fault. I’d been so consumed by guilt that I didn’t even consider the abuse to be rape up until I was in university and begun to unlearn all the things I had believed surrounding sex and consent. A lesson that cost me my sanity quite literally as well as my faith, and sadly I was not the only one. There had been another girl in her late teens who he pressurised into awful acts that lead to her being institutionalised (thankfully he was deported shortly after).
As I write this, I realise I’ve spent a lot of time explaining my faults and the parts where my “bad behaviour” contributed to this man’s interest in me, and that’s the problem. Spiritual leaders have a stand point which many fail to challenge, the fact they rest their actions in Godliness is something that allows them to tap into the most vulnerable parts of your psyche to ensure you do not trust anything, whether it is yourself, or your understanding of the scripture, nor your parents who are placed on this earth, by God to protect you. It’s this immense responsibility and power that I have not been able to entrust into another man or woman of God ever since as he was not the last spiritual leader to manipulate, and attempt to indoctrinate me.
I think a major problem within churches is this misinterpretation of scriptures which ask us to be accountable for one another, as some warp that into a God-given-right to judge and condemn everyone, especially young women. Our sexuality and femininity is attacked quite early on by church members and church leaders, especially when the lines between religion and culture blurs. The scripture is used as a tool to silence those who develop breasts or “curves” at an earlier age. We cannot challenge elders because of a tired system of Filial piety, and so, the abuse that goes on within spiritual context are constantly swept under the rug. Thankfully with hashtags like #ChurchToo, we are able to shine a light on the abuse of power some have been free to inflict for far too long and bring a sense of security, as God intended into the space of the church.
Romans 8: 1-2, 35-38
Written by Nunya Gemegah
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