Whether we call it a magnificent defeat or a crippling victory, when we bump up against the Mystery of mysteries, we receive a blessing but we also walk away with a limp. — Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed, p. 86
I think I needed to give in that final time, to know that part of my life was over, because this has been a year in which that resolve was challenged repeatedly and in tough ways. My beloved cat Raffi died far too young in June, and it was a hard and painful death, and I blamed myself terribly. If I’d been less preoccupied with my own stuff, maybe I would have noticed that something was wrong in time to save him. If I’d gotten him to the vet earlier, or insisted he was in pain when they told me he was on the mend, or had more money in savings to allow for more tests…
One reason I didn’t pay as much attention to Raffi as usual, as I wanted, as he needed, was because of a situation that had unfolded over the previous few years.
After bad experiences growing up in evangelical Christianity, I stopped attending church. I didn’t return regularly until I moved to this area five years ago. I visited exactly one church and decided that was where I’d stay.
Returning to church was a slow, painful process. Sometimes I’d stay away for months. I’d get involved and then retreat. Once I broke down sobbing like an incoherent wreck after Communion. But I gradually began to feel like this church could be my home, these people my people, their God my God. At last, on an Easter Sunday, I took the plunge and joined the church.
I won’t go into the reasons now why that was such a difficult decision, but I will say I thought long and hard about whether I was ready and able to honor that commitment. I took it very seriously.
A few months later, I began to have issues with a man in the church who behaved in ways even he eventually admitted were not appropriate. I can’t know his motives, but from my perspective, he seemed to read boundaries as challenges.
His actions hit triggers I didn’t even know I had. He managed to scrape every raw place from the two most significant, devastating traumas of my life. In many ways I shut down: I barely managed the requirements of my job; I’d weep at random moments; my closest friends received late-night texts filled with angsty self-loathing. My counselor was graciously accommodating in scheduling emergency appointments, but I’d still wake up in the wee hours of the morning with anxiety attacks or jar into wakefulness before the alarm with my heart pounding and my senses on a tripwire.
I repeatedly asked church leaders for help in navigating the situation, particularly after I was told by several people that he had engaged in similar behavior with other women. I do not know their reasons for failing to take action. No one defended him or indicated that they found his behavior acceptable; they simply, to the best of my knowledge, decided to tolerate it even if that meant I could no longer safely feel part of the church.
This was devastating to me. I asked for help expecting either that I would be blamed and disbelieved, or heard and championed. I did not expect that I would be heard and apparently believed but that nothing would be done. That this entire church would sit passively by and allow the behavior to continue. That parents whose children I had taught in Sunday school, women I’d enjoyed book club discussions with, people who said they loved me would meet my concerns with “Sorry this is happening; we understand if you go somewhere else,” followed by a white-kid-gloved wall of silence. No one unfriended me on Facebook, but with a couple of notable exceptions — whom I appreciate more than I have let them know — people simply, en masse, stopped liking or commenting on my posts or interacting with me on mutual friends’ walls or responding to e-mail messages.
It’s as though I became invisible.
I can’t know their hearts and I won’t try to speak for them. But what was communicated to me, whether or not they intended it, was that I don’t matter. I do not have value. The talents, skills, and gifts this man brings to the table are of more worth than the talents, skills, and gifts I bring to the table. Who I am will never be enough. I am not worthy of care, concern, protection, or kindness.
During one meeting, the pastor said to me, “I hope you know that you are valued for what you do.” I said, “I need to be valued for who I am.” And it didn’t seem that I was. As soon as I stopped doing — as soon as I decided that since I felt unsafe attending services, I wasn’t going to keep tiptoeing around after hours to serve in other ways — it felt like I had ceased to exist.