I was seven-years-old when my family began attending our non-denominational church. My mother was raised Catholic, and my Dad wasn’t raised much of anything. I still don’t know how we found the church, but my family found it. It had a few hundred attendees in the middle of our small New England state.
I don’t remember much of my Sunday school days. I liked to think when I was older that the lessons we attempt to indoctrinate children with at that age would stick, but I know now they rarely do. What does stick, though, is what came after the Sunday school days. I was 12 when I first began going to the youth group. It was comprised of 12- to 24-year-olds, and I was terrified to begin going each Sunday night at 6 o’clock.
I never fit in with the youth group. My innate awkwardness was made more profound by the rules they enforced: the separation of boys and girls, the necessary belonging to a small group of other pimply middle schoolers.
Leaders were typically a few years older than their attendees, and their purpose was simple – enforce the rules. No tight clothes, no fraternizing with the opposite sex, and make sure their group members were there, every Sunday night.
I learned early there was a separation of “cool” church kids and myself. I was never a sarcastic kid, and I couldn’t sing or play instruments, so my chances at being on the worship team were shot. Those kids, though were the ones who had it going on. They were mostly boys who worse skinny jeans and button down shirts – whose small group leader was the youth pastor, a large, black, former football player who had a knack for intimidation.
As the years continued and I entered high school, I became more immersed in the youth group. I’m still not sure why or how, but the fear of questioning anything other than what I was being taught was enough for me to keep my pants on and remain a picture-perfect, nerdy Christian kid. As good friends began to rebel and leave, I stayed. I began teaching in kids’ church on Wednesday nights, and before I knew it, I was a freshman in college, with my own small group of high school girls.
My junior year of college, though, I chose to transfer schools and move to Boston. I was determined to be “straight-edge” – I had a 12 pack of root beer under my bed during my first week and panicked at the thought of someone offering me alcohol. But, like so many kids do when they leave home, I slowly began to discover life outside of my little church bubble.
And as I did, the secrets of that youth group began to surface as well. Scandal had already unfolded in the church before I had moved. Our worship pastor had an affair with his daughter’s best friend, and he was instantly removed from the church. A friend who sang on the worship team, and whose fiancée lead worship, confided in me that they were having premarital sex, and that they had both slept with fellow youth-groupers years before.
In fact, everyone was sleeping with everyone. Sex was rampant, and the gossip was scathing. It was enough for me to question the people I had spent the last eight years of my life with – the ones I admired, respected, and longed to be like. But what I heard next was enough for me to hate them.
My closest friend, who began to pull away from the youth group around age 16, told me she was raped.
She wasn’t the only one. A charming kid, whose family was more or less like church royalty, had a knack for getting girls drunk while home alone with his younger brother, and raping them. He did this to my friend. He did this to other high school girls in my small group. And to this day, he remains a pillar of leadership within that youth group.
Something snapped in me that day. It wasn’t explosive, but it was ugly. I was sickened, and I was angry. I was angry for five years. I’m still angry now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever not be angry again. But looking back, I see now how poisonous my little youth group was. Men and boys were empowered to be leaders. Women were encouraged to work at Baby Gap and marry young, forgoing college educations. We were quiet. We catered to the men. We didn’t question anything. And within our small groups, gossip was our saving grace.
I’ve been out of that church for nearly six years now. For five of those years, I vowed never again to attend another non-denominational church. Yet somehow, I found myself back at one, this time surrounded by Christian people who understood my hurt, and who were the first to tell me that those who despise the church the most are the ones who have been hurt as a direct result of it. At the same time, I learned I could be a single, educated, professional woman and a Christian. From authors like Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans, I learned women deserve more in a church, and the church owes more to women. I learned that my God was bigger than the hate, the misogyny, and the gossip.
Recently, my closest friend came to visit. We rarely talk about her rape, but it came up this time. On the floor of my bedroom, my friend sat crying, the hurt still pouring out of her, the hate and disdain still unresolved. She told me her rapist’s younger brother had taken up the same activity, getting younger girls drunk and taking advantage. What hurt the most, though, was hearing how he recently did so with a young girl I had taught in kid church.