Last Sunday, I preached the final message in a sermon series called “Against All Odds: Stories of Survival and Redemption.” The main point: Every crisis is a spiritual crisis, a test of faith, an opportunity to grow. And whereas I had other church members share their stories in the three previous sermons, for this sermon I shared my own tale. And it was harder than I thought it would be. It was hard to share the necessary details in the short time I had. It was even harder to recount such a painful time in my life.
*Update: Just last night (Tuesday, the 19th) I went to enjoy dinner at Souplantation with my family, only to encounter not just a few people from my former church/school, but the former pastor himself. I did not confront him, though I was very tempted to do so. He walked in alone with a young girl, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. It’s not that I am afraid of him, but I am nervous about what happen if I ever confronted him. The emotion and pain is still very real for me.
I will not recap what I shared in the sermon, though you can hear the sermon and my story it in its entirety on our church website. No, I am writing this as a followup, as a way to fill in some details that I simply did not have time to explain. I know if I were hearing someone else tell this story, of many years under a corrupt church leader in a toxic church environment, and how he finally escaped and healed from it all, I would have asked me a lot of questions. So with that, some explanations.
Were touching women inappropriately and insulting people in church the worst things this former pastor did?
No, not by any means. There is much worse, and as Ephesians 5:12 points out, there are some things people have done in secret that are too shameful to even mention.
Did my parents know about the abuse I was enduring from the pastor?
Yes, they did. However, it wasn’t perceived as abuse at the time, by my parents or me. Don’t get me wrong: I often felt a terrified hatred toward this man, and I was sometimes sick to my stomach with dread at having to go to school or church or basketball practice and face him. Still, my parents had so much misguided respect for him that whatever seemed like harsh treatment was explained as “tough love” or “spiritual challenging.” Eventually, I developed my own misguided respect for him, believing that everything he had done to me in my youth was for my benefit. Obviously, that was not ever the case.
And this has been one place where God, in His amazing grace, has brought healing to my family: I have been able to forgive my parents for allowing my sister and I to endure years and years of this torture, and my parents have been able to receive this forgiveness and forgive themselves. And hey, there is an upside to what all this verbal and emotional abuse did to me: You will hardly ever see me taking myself too seriously.
How come we didn’t just do some research ourselves to find out what this pastor and his church were all about?
Short answer: We were afraid to. As I mentioned in my sermon, we had heard rumors, but no one that we considered credible had ever come to us directly to reveal something horrible that this pastor had done. Nobody, that is, until this student whom we knew very well came and changed everything for us. It even happened way back in the 90s that there was a lawsuit brought against many people in the church, including my parents. A couple of families named all the people in the church who supposedly knew about some of these grossly inappropriate things that were going on, but just looked the other way. I think some really did know all that was happening, and did nothing about it. Others, like my parents, still had a limited knowledge of what was really going on. It was a civil suit, which was settled out of court. The full details, of course, were withheld from the church members.
Other than that, much of it was simply a matter of having invested so much of our lives to this church and school–not to mention the foolish trust we put in this one man–that we were afraid of what the truth would mean. And he was such a dynamic preacher and spiritually knowledgeable teacher, that we would often feel that it would be a sin to even question his integrity. How could he be all these godly things, and yet be the monster he was alleged to be? Good question. How could he be? I still ask myself the same thing to this day.
What did I say when the pastor asked, “Can God ever forgive a sinner like me?”
It was in his office, at the end of our third and final marathon meeting, in which I begged him to leave and get help, and he and continued to resist. He was on his knees, crying. This was as pitiable side of him as I had never seen before, one he would probably never dare show to the people who so fiercely follow him. And I said what I still believe to be the truth: “Of course, God forgives sinners like you and worse.” I remember what I prayed over him: “God, even when his own heart condemns him, remind him that you do not. That he is your son, and that you love him.” The thing I didn’t have the heart to tell him, which I probably would today, is this: “I don’t know if you are ready to receive God’s forgiveness, though, because you are not willing to change and actually repent.” Never fails. You always think of what you should have said once the moment has passed.
How have I handled forgiveness toward this pastor and the other church members?
I have forgiven this pastor and the church members who so quickly jumped to his side rather than hear us out. However, forgiveness is almost never something that happens in a moment and then remains for the rest of time. When it comes to deep, long-standing abuse and hurt, forgiveness is a constant, almost daily practice. Every time I think of this man or that church or the things I saw and heard, I have to rely on God’s grace to forgive all over again. And again and again and again. This is certainly not something I can do on my own strength, and it is not easy. More often than I like to admit, I have dreams–waking and sleeping dreams–about me confronting him, cursing at him, even fighting him. Forgiveness is a choice, and while it’s not an easy one, it’s necessary if I’m to move on and heal from this ordeal.
People often say that the abused will abuse. How do I avoid this becoming true for me?
I have already taken healthy steps to healing, so that the abuse inflicted on me does not become my own way of living. Shortly after leaving the cult church, I signed myself up for personal counseling, which helped tremendously. I also landed at a church that was like a spiritual hospital for me, which I hear is the experience of many people at that church. Just something about it heals the aching soul. A year and a half later, I found another healthy place to grow and heal: Trinity Church. Mostly, however, it’s been through conversation and counseling, reflection and healing, that I have come to a point where nothing of what I saw is desirable for me. I want to be faithful and loving to my wife and family, and I have surrounded myself with men who desire the same. I want to learn to control my anger, and I am out in the open about my endeavor to do so. As much as possible, I try to be an open book, so that others can see what God has done in my life and what God can do in theirs.
What ever happened with the church, school, and that pastor?
Since leaving, my family, some other friends, and I have sought ways we can combat this school and church. (Strange that we now so persistently fight what we spent many years helping to build.) Sadly, there is only so much we can do, and the church and school are still in existence, and this pastor still has as much access as he wants to the people therein. For a while after we left, he stopped teaching classes at the school, stopped preaching on Sundays, and basically pulled himself back from everything. But, after a while, things went back to (grossly ab)normal. Knowing him and the way he has operated whenever he’s gotten in trouble for the things he’s done, his temporary stepping back was only a way to try and get dissenters either off his back or to stay and keep towing the party line.
A bit of good news is that more people and organizations have seen this church, school, and man for what they are and have pulled their relationships away. I feel bad for the students at the school, many of them international students who are desperate for a place to belong and all to vulnerable to predators like this man. I feel bad for them because it is not their fault that their school’s inner workings are as they are. But, this man and the church/school he leads are the epitome of injustice, and one way or another, God’s justice will be served once and for all.