Monday, February 17, 2014

Growing Up In Fundamentalism - BJU, GRACE, And Sexual Abuse

I grew up in fundamentalism. I had small reprieves, and alternate church experiences, but mostly I was surrounded by fundamentalism every day for most of my childhood.

It scarred me.

I internalized so many of the messages, even as I wanted to run away from them. To this day, I struggle with those beliefs, those inward tapes of shame and legalism, and I have to consciously remind myself they are wrong.

There are so many stories from those years.

The funny stories: My father almost getting kicked out of church over an umbrella. Learning that sitting down at the wrong time can get you expelled from school. The six inches rule. A teacher calling my house to speak to my father about my mother's signature - apparently my father had to verify my mother's signature because her femaleness might interfere with her ability to recognize her own handwriting. Not being allowed to speak for eight hours.

Those last two stories probably aren't funny, but sometimes you have to laugh when things are so very ridiculous that the only alternative is to cry.

The serious stories: Someone I know got hauled out of a church service by the police when a church leader made a call accusing him of trespassing. There had been a falling out between his father and the church over a piece of property years earlier, and it was decided to use this moment to teach everyone a lesson about being expelled from fellowship. Wildly different rules for men and women. People leaving in the middle of the night - leaving their homes, their jobs, their lives - because they knew better than to tell anyone what was happening, for fear the people they spoke to would also have to leave.

I remember the feelings I had when, as a twelve year old, I struggled with signing a piece of paper (Can twelve year olds even sign things?) that felt so wrong to me. The ability to make that choice, to sign the paper or stand up for what I believed was true, was taken away when I understood that I was not welcome back anyway, because I was on the list. The list of undesirables and people related to undesirables. It was just another way to be shamed and silenced.

There was rampant spiritual abuse. Guilt and shame reigned supreme, and there was a never-ending list of legalistic rules. The most important rule being: protect the reputation of the institution at any cost. This rule was cloaked in the guise of protecting the name of Christ. An environment of suspicion and mistrust was fed by a system of informants and the naming of names internally. There was no safety to be found there.

That is what fundamentalism was like for me: a poison that seeps into your bones, and throws out symptoms at the most inopportune times, even years after the fact.

I am very aware of the blessings I did have in my childhood. I was given opportunities to attend more mainstream church services and question the rules which surrounded me, and eventually my family left the fundamentalist institution. Many people growing up in fundamentalism have not had those blessings in their lives - they are raised strictly in the bubble of fundamental legalism, and expected to toe the line at all times. No mistakes. No excuses. Very little, if any, forgiveness. I have never seen someone leave that place unscathed.

How did those fundamentalist views play into the dynamics of my family and the enabling and covering up of sexual abuse? I believe they played a big part. Even as some members of my family privately decried the very institution and beliefs in which we were enmeshed, they acted out behaviors that fit very much in line with the darkest parts of those beliefs.

The same manipulation and control that exemplified the institution was reflected back in my father's family. The same worship of "having a good name" and not embarrassing the church or the family. And although I never tried to disclose the sexual abuse from my uncle to anyone at the institution, I have little doubt that the response would have been far from helpful or healing based on chapel sermons and adult conversations I had heard for most of my childhood.

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I tell you this story, because it is part of the reason I am gutted when I read news about Bob Jones University firing the consulting group GRACE one month before they were to make public their findings of how BJU handled sexual assaults and disclosures of sexual abuse students made to faculty when they were looking for help after leaving home for the first time.

This feels very much like the move ABWE pulled when they dismissed GRACE weeks before their report was to be shared publicly. In fact, it is basically the exact same move.

Cover up. Circle the wagons. Protect the institution at all costs, with no regard for what you are doing to the lives and hearts of the people you silence. Blame the victim.

I have never been to BJU (when I was growing up, I was repeatedly told that BJU was too liberal, which I now realize is laughable) nor been a part of ABWE, but when I read accounts of people who have walked those paths, I feel a familiar strangling of my heart.

The fundamentalism. The manipulation. The abuse. The control. The pain.

I do not own the stories of the people who have walked those paths. I will not try to speak for them, but neither can I stay quiet when I hear their stories. I have to reach out, to stand with them. I have to tell everyone who will listen that I believe they speak the truth. Because I hope, even in a small way, it will support them somehow, and let them know they are not alone.

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I found a blogger last week who touched my heart deeply, Tamara Rice from Hope Fully Known. I read post after post detailing her feelings about the BJU situation, the abuse that happened when her family was a part of ABWE, and ABEW's firing of GRACE, how fighting for justice can be a whole new trauma, and what child protection training should really look like.

But her post, 5 Reasons The BJU Scandal Will Go Away is what fueled me to write this post today. Please read it. Her closing statement is so very true,
"...remember that your consistent, persistent, and tireless collective outrage and unified voice is likely the victims’ only hope."
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This week, Bob Jones University will meet with GRACE, and determine if the investigation may move forward. I fully believe this meeting is only happening because of the public questioning of BJU firing GRACE, and because of pressure from the media and alumni for BJU to answer for their decision.

My hope is that the investigation will be reopened, and GRACE will be allowed to publish their completed report. This is what every person who was abused, silenced, shamed, or re-victimized at BJU deserves.

9 comments:

  1. Indeed, fundamentalism, whether lay or spiritual, can be poignant,difficult and I dare say painful.I have had some experiences with this too! Thanks for your frank sharing, Tracie. It was so brave of you.

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  2. Wow. Thank you for sharing all of this. I wasn't aware that this was part of your story.

    I makes me so made with horrible people do horrible things in the name of Christ.

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  3. Oh Tracie, this couldn't have been easy to share. I'm headed to read Tamara's post now. I have a hard time understanding how people can abuse religion in this way. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. When so much abuse is tangled up with religion, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to fully separate God from pain and fear. All of this is so heartbreaking, and I am incredibly impressed with your ability to see things clearly and speak for those who can't speak for themselves. This was a powerful read, Tracie.

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  5. I am so sorry for the pain you experienced. Shame is what keeps so many silent, when it's the perpetrators who should be ashamed. Thank you for sharing this.

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  6. I can't imagine such a life, I know I was lucky to grow up in a safe environment and suffered no form of abuse every

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  7. How heartbreaking. I hope that writing about this helps you to heal. You have a wonderful and compelling voice.

    I wish you peace.

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  8. It is always amazing to me how a God I believe to be loving can be used to hurt and oppress so many. How you could ever be deemed "Undesirable" I do not know but I believe that truth lives in light and as light is shown on abuse (spiritual and sexual), it cannot stand. It lives in shadow. You are a light bearer my friend. I wish sometimes that this weird, wild internet could actually bring me close to those I have met through the years and this is one of those moments. You make the world better. I hope that through voices like yours, GRACE is allowed back on the BJU campus because they serve no one, especially God, in allowing abuse to continue.
    Traci

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  9. Okay I thought my church was fundamentalist but now I realise it is not. We just stick closely to the Bible.

    There have been mistakes in being too legalistic in the past, but the church rift ensured that those thing got repented of. And in my own worship, my eyes are always fixed on grace.

    But I can see how easy it would be to bring legalism into the church. It's always heartbreaking when it happens.

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