The other day, I came across this blog post in my Facebook feed (although for the life of me I can’t remember how it got there). I’m glad it did, because I feel a little less alone knowing that others are writing somewhat openly about their damaging experiences of church, and hoping to heal from them as I am.
One thing I noticed is that this little essay addresses the need for those who are churched-damaged to be treated differently from those who are seekers, enquirers, or who have returned to church because they missed it (because their prior experiences were mainly positive). It’s a big piece of why I haven’t yet returned–I am different than I was, and cannot (or rather, will not) be lumped in with everyone else who hasn’t been for a while or is just starting out in the church.
The experience of being treated badly by the church–whether you define that as members of the congregation, or the institution, or specific ordained persons–means you are different. It would be helpful for churchy people (however defined) to recognize that, and for us to be able to recognize others who are spiritually wounded by the institution and its representatives.
During my recovery from ortho trauma, I probably used a cane for longer than was strictly necessary. Not all the time, but if I was going to be in unfamiliar places, or there was a possibility of crowds, I brought it along so that I could use it as a physical support if I felt wobbly, but (importantly) as kind of social signifier. Without telling my story to people I didn’t know or wasn’t ready to engage with, I had something that could send an unmistakable message that I wasn’t up to moving through society ‘normally’, that I was a little fragile, that I moved slowly and uncertainly, and that it would be appreciated if I was granted a little space and consideration. Granted, I could have–and was occasionally tempted to–use the cane to make people treat me as I would have liked. But that wasn’t the point.
We do not have social signifiers to designate that someone is spiritually unwell. Churches rarely admit that it’s possible for that to be the case amongst those who attend–and the ‘cure’ for spiritual unwellness always seems to be the same thing. Go to church!
People who are church-damaged–and even people who are not–need to be able to seek out spiritual fellowship, and participate on their own terms. And we can’t be told that our unwellness isn’t real, or that we’re attention seeking (often, we want less attention), or that we don’t know how to mange our condition.
It’s kind of like my food allergies: they aren’t visible, and I don’t have any way of letting someone else know that gluten and dairy have unpleasant effects on my health. And once I’ve told you, I don’t want you to tell me that it’s all my imagination, or ‘just a little’ is okay. I know my condition, I manage it. I tell you only if you need to know (I had a wonderful server at a restaurant a few days ago who needed to know so I could order a meal that wouldn’t make me end a family celebration with a trip to the hospital). I enjoy healthy participaton in family gatherings, but I don’t partake of what I know has harmed me in the past.
The funny thing is, when children tell you they can’t have something, you are more likely to take it seriously than when an adult does. Why is the self-knowledge of a child more trustworthy than that of an adult?
Same with religious participation. I know what has harmed me in the past. If I choose not to partake of it, it is not up to someone else to tell me I must.
I wish there were the spiritual equivalent of a cane that could act as a social signifier, telling those who participate in churches ‘normally’ that I need to manage my participation differently than some others you don’t see regularly. And I wish people took my self-knowledge seriously.