For most of my life I’ve been afraid.
In the middle of the night, I would hear things. I’d wake up screaming and thrashing. Every night, I’d wake my parents with my screams and then try to fall asleep again on my mother’s side of the bed, clinging to her hand. I had to hear over and over that the dream wasn’t real before I could calm down enough to sleep.
Once I finally started sleeping in my own room, the voices didn’t go away. But instead of monsters, I often thought I could hear my mother’s voice in the middle of the night, usually asking for something (her Bible, some food, nail clippers). No matter how many times she told me she had been fast asleep and to stop waking her up with these “jokes,” I continued to go into her room, convinced that, this time, the voice was real.
In the Old Testament, Samuel hears the false voice of somebody he trusted. After coming to Eli several times, he learns it was the voice of God, but the voices I heard were not the voice of God. They were evil. I was afraid. And later in my life, I continued to feel that God had left me alone, giving me no voice or guidance that I could trust.
It was at age twelve that I truly knew I could not trust God.
My sister and two of our friends from church had been in a prank war with the pastor’s sons. They had recently forked our lawn, and we decided to leave “girly” pictures and phrases written with washable car markers on their truck. Determined to stay silent, we sneaked into the driveway, but we couldn’t help giggling from time to time. As we were finishing, we heard a dog bark and a light from the house blinded our eyes. Thinking we might be seen and identified as the culprits, we rushed to our car and drove away. As I turned back to see the house, I saw our pastor clearly, backlit by the house.
He was brandishing a gun.
True fear began to settle in as we continued to drive away, but we had only driven for a few minutes before my older sister got a call from one of the pastor’s sons: “You have to come back right now or else.” We had no idea what “or else” meant. We didn’t know yet what our pastor was like when he was angry, but after attending this church for a year (and going to the school where he was also our principal), we knew saying no to him was not an option.
The car turned back toward the house, almost as if someone else were driving it. We all silently watched the light of the house becoming clearer. As we pulled up, the pastor rushed out to our car and ominously stood in front of the driver’s window. “Get out now.” We sat for a moment, in shock, seeing the gun was still in his hand. He used the gun to wave us into the house. He closed the door behind us.
We were trapped.
He lined us up against the wall, sat in his large armchair with the gun resting near his hand, and stared at us as we waited. The next hour is a blur. Much of that trauma has become vague in my brain’s attempt to keep me safe. Here are the things that I do know happened: the pastor’s wife and two sons peered fearfully from a separate room before quickly closing the door, leaving us alone (it was clear they knew the consequence of his anger); he told us that we all deserved to be raped (this was said as his eyes rested on my 12-year-old body that had developed too quickly); he assumed our parents would agree that we deserved to be trapped and threatened, and he called my friends’ father (their father yelled that we should be released to go home immediately, at which point the pastor quickly hung up, angry that he could possibly be disagreed with). Eventually, we were told to go home.
The next day we learned that the neighbors heard yelling and saw a man pointing a gun at four children. Policemen came to our house, but we didn’t press charges. The deacon decided that in spite of what happened, it would be fine for the man to remain our principal and pastor. It was a small, Independent Fundamental Baptist church, and his power controlled everyone. The pastor was simply told to give us an apology. His idea of an apology was to say, “I am sorry that you were foolish enough to come near my house.” And a couple of weeks later, I arrived for the new school year. I was forced to pretend that I loved him, as if I hadn’t feared for my life just a few weeks before.
After this, the nightmares only got worse. When I was awake, I began to see things that weren’t there – monsters, men, and dark shapes, all reaching out to hurt me. It was the furthest I’ve ever felt from a God that I was convinced hated me.
Finally, in college, I escaped by moving away. A year later my family ended their membership at that church. I left behind the image of God as an angry punisher with no love, who would not just allow, but encourage, my pastor to abuse me. I thought this meant I could finally go to a new church, and maybe I could find a loving God somewhere. But going to church was not as easy as I had hoped it would be.
Every Sunday, as I pulled up to a new church, that I thought would finally be the one to heal me, my chest tightened. Silently sitting in the car, I would attempt to find the strength to lift my arm to the car door handle. If I were able to open the door, my heart would beat even faster as I stood up and looked toward the front doors. Tears would begin to form in the corners of my eyes that I would quickly wipe away. Sometimes, I would find the strength to enter and silently sit in the back. Handshakes and introductions from congregation members never felt sincere. I could see something else in their eyes – pain or fear. Eye contact with the pastor made me nauseous, and kindness from him frightened me. People can develop the skill to seem kind and genuine. Usually, I would never come back for a second time. It has now been two and a half years since I have stepped past the threshold of a church. I had thought I would never try again.
A couple years after this decision, I met my partner. Her life has been riddled with hardship, and yet her faith in God withstood it all. She says she can see aspects of God in the people surrounding her. In me, she found the safety of God. I didn’t really understand this when she explained it to me. Safety was never something I found with God – only authority and fear. Slowly, after over a year and a half with her, I’ve started to see what she sees.
People can be genuinely kind, which I thought was impossible for a long time. Through her, I’ve found some trust. I don’t know if that trust is something I can find in God yet. I feel like I don’t even actually know God. It’s possible that the God I knew wasn’t God, but that pastor. I hope one day I can know. I plan on trying to go to church again with my partner, and maybe I will also find the strength to stay.