I grew up in church. To say I was a “church girl” was an understatement.
I was dedicated, as a baby, in the church that I would spend 18 years at. From the time I can remember, I went to church twice on Sunday, Sunday mornings for Sunday School and “big church”, and Sunday nights for the evening service.
Then, when I was old enough, I started attending Pioneer Girls every Wednesday night. Similar to Girl Scouts, it had a spiritual aspect to it. I earned every single badge you could earn the six years I attended.
When I was in first grade, I started singing in the kids choir, then transitioned into the junior high, senior high, and finally, the adult choir. We went on tour as a high school choir, and I was even the “top” of our Living Christmas Tree Christmas presentation for a couple of years during my time in the adult choir. I played in the church hand bell choir. I played the piano as an offertory during “offering times” repeatedly in my elementary and early adolescent years.
Starting in junior high, I was an integral part of the the youth group, even being chosen as part of the “elite” spiritual leadership group in high school. Whenever the youth group had an activity, I was there. Seven years of summer camp, winter retreats, Christian Nights at Great America, missions trips, and first attending, then helping, for years with Vacation Bible School and in Sunday School.
I was baptized as a junior higher. And rededicated my life to God in high school during a Dawson McAllister youth conference.
Pretty much, if the church doors were open, I was there. I loved Jesus. A lot.
And, as a young adult, when I finally left my home church, it was only to go to a more multicultural church in Oakland, after a friend had invited me.
At this church, I was involved in Bible study. The next church my then husband and I attended, I led a women’s Bible study.
For a few years after I was divorced, my children and I attended a small church a few towns over, where I played the keyboard/piano, and sang in the “modern” worship band, never missing a Sunday.
Finally, my kids and I landed at a church where we felt like we had found home. My daughter sang in the worship band, went on all the youth group activities, including summer camp, winter camp, and Mexico to build houses over Memorial Day weekend. My son was involved in every children’s ministry event that the church offered.
I first worked in the children’s minstry, then eventually moved on to women’s ministry, where I was one of the three leaders for all the women’s ministry events. We planned and led retreats, created outreach activities, Bible studies, repainted and redecorated the church….you name it…..once again, if the doors were open, my kids and I were there. We became very close family friends with the pastor and his family.
Then came the summer that everything changed. A girl in our youth group got pregnant. My freshman daughter came to me and said, “Mom, I want to give her a shower. I want her to feel God’s love surrounding her. I want her to know that within this group of people, she’s loved.” And since she was an at-risk child herself, and I had always taught her to take all of her pain and heartache, and turn it into compassion for those around her who were hurting too, I agreed to help her pay for it. So she started planning it. She sent out invites to all the girls and youth leaders in the youth group. Everyone RSVP’d “yes”.
We were down to the few days before the shower. Everything had been bought or ordered, everything was perfectly lined up, ready to go.
And then the pastor told me he needed to talk to me. I had no idea what about. I had no idea about anything I had done worthy of needing to meet like he informed me of. He came over to my house, and firmly disparaged me that he didn’t agree with the shower, that my daughter was “celebrating teen pregnancy” by giving this girl the shower, and thus sinning herself…..oh, and what kind of a mom was I? He then told me that he had informed all of the youth leaders not to attend the shower, and to tell their “girls” not to either.
And, true to what he said, the day of the shower , five people showed up, my daughter, the two friends who helped her, one woman from the church, and the pregnant girl and her mom.
My daughter was devastated. Distraught. Disturbed. Dismayed. I was livid. After calming down, I respectfully and diplomatically first spoke with the pastor, then the youth pastor and leaders, explaining to them that, whether I agreed with their decision or not, how they handled their decision was completely wrong and destructive. If they had decided not to attend, for whatever reason, they should have said so from the beginning, not after they had already RSVP’d “yes”, and after they had talked to my daughter so excitedly about the plans for the shower.
From most of the people, I was hit with a wall of silence.
I then spoke with my prayer partner, who was an older Godly woman, and wife of an elder, about how to handle the situation.
I ended up having to go, by myself, before the Board of Elders, who were all men, and explain to them that, of everything that had happened, my biggest frustration was that my daughter was devastated. She felt betrayed and devalued by how everything had been handled and communicated, by the very people that she had once felt the safest and most at home with. I asked the Board of Elders to apologize to her, and have the youth leaders apologize to her, for how it was handled because, me? I could handle my anger and work through it. I’d been in church my whole life. People disappoint. You make amends. You move on together. It’s the circle of church life. But my daughter? She had been through way too much pain already in her short life, pain that these youth leaders had helped her work through. She needed to see modeled for her how to handle a person when you have wronged them, and how to be loved through restoration and reconciliation. She was a CHILD, not an adult.
But rather than acknowledging a SINGLE point I made, or perspective that my daughter had, I was simply told that my daughter had been WRONG for even wanting to give a shower to the pregnant girl in the first place ( the church needs to condemn, not condone, I was admonished), and that both she and I needed to stop being emotional, get over ourselves, and respect the men’s decision.
I was speechless. I left that meeting feeling like I was a two-year-old who had been dismissed with the wave of a hand. And worse, I felt like my daughter had been “left out to dry” in every way possible, disrespected, disregarded, discarded, like SHE had committed an unforgivable sin.
I was stunned into paralysis. I didn’t know what to think. What to say. What to do. So I fasted for a week, sought wise, Godly counsel ( from other churches), and prayed about what to do.
Finally, I made the incredibly hard, but not hard, decision to leave the church. I sent a letter to the Board of Elders thanking them for all of their years of ministry to my family, but that at this point, I could not place myself, or my children, under their spiritual authority anymore.
And we grieved. And we mourned. And we wept, broken wailings of all that we had lost. Of all that we had been robbed of. Of all that we felt mistreated by. And time seemed to stop.
My son, the day I told him of my decision for us to leave, who was 11 at the time, told me that he was glad we were leaving; that from his perspective as a guy, he hadn’t been able to respect the pastor, or most of the elders, for quite a while because of how he saw them parent, or treat other people, or how they represented the Bible. So he was relieved.
My daughter gave it one last effort to partially reconcile on her own. She wanted to sing the two more times she was scheduled to be in the worship band. And I wanted her to do that since she wanted to serve like that.
Then came the phone call informing her that, because her mom had the issues she had with the church, the youth pastor believed that it would be best if my daughter didn’t sing anymore in the band. I could not believe that they were further “punishing” her.
She was done. Broken in half. Wanted nothing to do with church.
Neither did I.
But I knew that the God that we loved was not the imperfect people who make up the church, but He WAS the church Himself. And I knew that one day, we would need to go back, not to that church, but to some church.
So I gave us 6 months off. No churches. No services. A mourning time to grieve all that we had lost.
And then slowly, we got involved again. My daughter has now been attending a new church for three years, involved in working in the nursery, and youth ministry. My son and I went to the same churh for two years, and now he and I attend a different one. He’s very involved in the youth group.
But for me, it’s hard to get involved again. You can forgive and let hurt and betrayal go. But it forges something new in you. It scars you in places where the perspective will never be the same again. And what was once a sheer joy to be involved somewhere, I am still trying to rekindle that hope.
And so this tattoo came about after I had spoken my final conversations with the church leaders, and after numerous people had contacted with me, thanking me for taking the stand I did, for speaking up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves, for fighting for what I believed in…..that because of what I did, they had a little more faith in people who called themselves Christians. I was stunned at the beauty that God once again brought from the ashes of my life.
So this tattoo is a mandala. It is a symbol that has been used for generations, across numerous cultures and religions. A mandala is a circle that represents wholeness, that represents the divine, our relation to the infinite, the world within our body and mind, and the world outside. It represents the fact that I was broken, and the very foundations of everything I had ever believed in, were shaken to the core. But I chose to heal and become whole again anyway. I chose to use the pain and betrayal, and have it grow me closer to the God who I know loves me, rather than tearing me away from Him.
Now, I am a firm believer that God created women to be a larger part of the leadership role of the church than they traditionally play in many Western churches. Had women been a part of that particular Board of Elders, to bring a balanced outlook and perspective to the situation, the outcome for everyone involved might have been a very different scenario.
I’m still a church girl at heart, but my vision for what a church should really look like? That vision has definitely changed. It’s not just when are the doors open, but who’s involved in opening them.
And I still love Jesus. A lot.