Several years ago, someone I knew was in the process of separating from her abusive husband, until their pastor told her that she could no longer take communion because she was sinning by leaving him when he was sorry and wanted things to work.
At the time, I was still quietly attending a church whose written mantra was No one Stands Alone etc. That Sunday, the pastor preached about judging and neglecting some people, asking, Who is the leper? As I sat and listened, I thought of the many years of the Church turning a blind and hypocritical eye to domestic abuse. I thought of the pastors, elders, and other church leaders that disrespected and abused their wives and kids. I thought of the platitudes and cliches that slipped out of mouths, the god-in-a-box solutions to broken hearts and broken lives.
I wrote an anonymous letter, sealed it in an envelope addressed to the pastor, and slipped it into the offering box. All week, I felt a bit anxious, but hopeful that this pastor would walk his talk and open his eyes to what I now know is in every church. It’s there. Oh, it’s there.
The next Sunday, I listened carefully to his message to see if there would be any indication he’d read it. At one point, he diverted obviously from his message and talked about how there are always some dissatisfied people, and if they had something to say, his door was always open, but they better come prepared to be part of a solution and not just whining.
I went to back to church there one more time. That Sunday morning, he diverted obviously from his message again. He said that he didn’t read anything anonymous, but threw it right in the trash. He said anyone communicating that way was a chicken, and he actually flapped his arms like wings and made chicken sounds.
Yeah, I never went back. Not because he intimidated me. I actually wouldn’t have minded taking a copy of the letter and handing it to him in person. I thought about it and prayed about it. I decided that it was a waste of energy to knock on a slammed locked door, mind, or heart.
So here below is the original letter of several years ago:
To Pastor ___: One day, not long ago, a long time ago, I was looking for a church. I was looking for a place that was balanced with teaching, doctrine, fellowship and caring. I visited quietly, and came back, then another time, and came back again… quietly… when I could. I wanted to bring my children, but their father was in the habit of having his own time with them Sunday mornings. I was depressed, but fighting the depression. I joined a women’s study… quietly. It was easier than leaving my entire family on Sunday mornings.
Some months went by, then one night, in response to a question by the group leader, I heard the word ‘abuse’ come from my mouth.. What was it I feared? What was I afraid, that if I faced it, I would fall and not be caught safely by God?
“The abuse in my marriage” was my reply. The room went completely still. And then the inane insulting questions began.
“Have you considered marriage counseling?” (which time?)
“What about the kids?” (This is truly an offensive question.)
“What do you mean by abuse?” (This was asked with a very condescending and trivializing tone.)
I answered with the first example that popped into my head. Eyes stared and then couldn’t look at my face. Hands shuffled their purses and Bibles. Women began to walk away. I gathered my things, went as quickly as I could to my car, got in, shut the door, and sat there and wept in the parking lot. No one came. No one called afterwards.
In past years, (more than once) I sought professional Christian counseling, begged and gave ultimatums for my husband to come to counseling with me. The first time, I listened to him swear and yell for half an hour on the drive there. But I was hopeful… because it was a licensed Christian counselor. I studied the Scriptures about marriage over and over, Old and New Testament. I realized that marriage was a covenant… a holy contract, and I knew he was not honoring it in the truest sense. He didn’t physically cheat on me, but he withheld normal intimacy. He worked long hard hours and didn’t gamble, but he used my name and ruined my credit. He did physically abuse me badly once, and that time he went to a pastor where we went to church. I was, of course, counseled to forgive him. He never did that again, but I always know now that he could. The bruises fade more easily than the memory. He doesn’t smoke, drink, or use drugs. He’s charming, funny and sociable. All the neighbors know and like him, but not many know who I am. The details don’t matter really. It matters that it happens, and the Church looks the other way. My people perish for lack of knowledge…I would have you understand that an abusive relationship is about control. Always… about control.
Most of the time, my husband is a very nice person. A very good father. A decent husband. Unless he’s telling me that my contributions equal zero. (He’s always been against my working outside the home, and sabotaged efforts to finish my education) Or yelling at me late at night because he’s pressured about the money that only he controls. Or he’s resentful for doing the grocery shopping because I’ve refused to go unless he gives me at least a few days worth of grocery money so I can actually plan meals (like I did for years). Or withholding conversation, affection and relationship. “Be ye warmed and filled…” says the religious man, and yet he withholds the things most needful. I’ve experienced many kinds of abuse, but emotional abuse has exacted the heaviest toll on my spirit. As he senses my detachment, he turns to me… remorseful, kind, attentive with considerate behavior. It’s a cycle. To be consistently inconsistent is a form of gaslighting that can undermine the strongest soul.
I wasn’t always the depressed, quiet and exhausted dysfunctional shell that I became. In years past, I taught Sunday School, sang in choirs, chauffeured, took meals to families where there was illness, death, hardship. I taught a Bible study for women, and hosted a couple’s study in my home. And I never told a soul of the part of my life that was askew. I prayed. I forgave. I cried and prayed. And prayed more… because I believed that if I would make the choice to do the right thing, that somehow… someday… someway… things would come right.
The last time I came to church, people spoke to me of what a great guy my husband is, and smiled at our beautiful children. A woman from my old study wanted me to know especially what a great Christian brother my husband was. One elder remembered my name, and I thank him for that. Why don’t I leave him? Because I still pray, and I’m not released fully in my heart. Because I’m presently feeling diminished, less than who I need to be to function as a single parent, and I will not walk away and leave him with my children. Because I love him, he loves our children, and our children love him.
But my children are forgetting who I am. I’m a shadow of the mother I once was, and easy to disrespect now. I was taught my entire life to honor my vows and that divorce is wrong. Because he says that he cares, and he prays, goes to church, reads his Bible, and wants to get things right. Because perhaps there is a miracle for me and my family. Because personal life experience has taught me that women are often abandoned by family, friends, neighbors… and the Church when they choose divorce over the slow death of continuing in an abusive relationship. It is almost a textbook dynamic that the husband will switch gears when what once worked for him no longer does. The woman who doubts this change is accused of a hardened heart or lack of faith. The accountability for the abusive husband in the relationship, if there is any, seldom reaches beyond the surface picture, and upon this shallow perception, the wife is judged while her husband is exonerated and admired. It’s time that any kind of abuse ceases to be the proverbial elephant in the sanctuary or foyer. In a recent message, you asked who is the leper? I know that feeling well as people avert their eyes and consciousness from the truth.
Very recently, I reached out to someone in leadership because I wished for accountability and connection for a specific problem. I was feeling drained, overwhelmed and it prompted my reaching out finally. I was asked if I was going to any therapy/counseling (the answer was no, because I had no money for it, and how often is that the case?) I was advised to go to church more often, and to become more involved. I hung the phone up… feeling stunned, hopeless, alone and not knowing where to turn. In my mind, the words resounded… ‘But you are the church… you are the Church!’ Words must reach beyond the pulpit and pews, and become living and active support for those reaching for hope. Without hope, it’s very difficult to grasp hold of the courage and strength to walk upright in a relationship of faith, much less to participate in any kind of healthy fellowship. ‘Be ye warmed and filled…’ No one stands alone? No one is left behind?
Who am I? Does it matter? There is bound to be more than one that could be me. My husband attends here now. He’s well-liked and regarded. My children are here, and you know their faces. They’re good kids, well liked and they’re involved. I’m seldom here. I don’t know why… but I do know that often it can hurt to come. Yet, I’m drawn and pulled to return, and I can only believe the Spirit of God is the source of my yearning.
Why do I write this? Because every time you teach about making marriage work, what marriage should be, how to be a better spouse, and anything to do with marriage, understand that there are those out there in relationships that don’t play by your rules or even speak your language relationally. There are those out there who are driven to control, and not always ruled by love. Precepts and teachings can become weapons wielded and cords that imprison. The ties that bind…
Because I know there are many of me out there. Because you may listen, and next time, you may be the one to remember to call me (or someone like me) by name. You may see beyond the easy smile he wears, and notice the quiet despair in my eyes. It doesn’t matter if it’s actually me. It matters that you’re aware, and looking and listening, because I’m in your midst, one of the lost lambs.