This Is What Church Trauma Looks Like

by Madison Hayes
Originally Published: 
Little girl praying in church

I grew up bowing my head before family dinner, dressing my best on Sundays, and making sure I said my prayers every night. But I don’t think it was until I was a teenager that I began to navigate a more profound sense of spirituality for myself.

My mom and I found what we would eventually refer to as our “home church” when I was a freshman in high school. The services were lax, the people seemed genuine, and the worship team sang engaging songs instead of overdone hymnals. But perhaps what captivated us most was how the preacher could deliver a message. He spoke in a way that moved you, almost as if every sermon, no matter the topic, was hand-written to resonate with you in some way personally.

But it wasn’t just the pastor who made the church a place of solace. To find a group of people you can connect with on a level much more substantial than geographical location — something heartfelt and deeply spiritual — is empowering.

I think that’s what I miss most about attending Sunday services — that wholesome sense of community. The kind that says, “You look cold, darlin’. Why don’t you come on in and take a load off?” without having to say that at all. You know the feeling. Like a grandma’s hug when you’re having a bad day, the sensation of being at home, or what some might call the “warm fuzzies.”

As months passed and our home church continued to grow, services began to look more charismatic than contemporary. There was a lot of talk about the gifts of the Holy Spirit: speaking in tongues, the gifts of healing, prophesy, working of miracles, etc. Of course, it wasn’t every Sunday, but it wasn’t unusual to see someone “falling out” in the Spirit during altar calls. If you’re unfamiliar with what that means, it’s when someone passes out due to the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit, or so I’ve been told.

Questioning the authenticity of these gifts displayed by those in leadership led the congregation to believe that the doubters weren’t ready for that level of spiritual intimacy. It started to feel like a hierarchy within the church. And if you weren’t baptized in the Holy Spirit and given some divine gift, you weren’t on top.

My involvement in the church was substantial at this point. Sometimes I’d be there nearly every day of the week, serving or simply hanging out. The church leaders took to me like I was their own, and it made me feel special as a kid who was having a rough go in life. Like I was part of the “in” crowd and a crucial part of some big happy family. So when they asked me if I was ready to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, it weirdly felt like an honor.

It’s hard to explain, but it was like the leaders wanted me to speak in tongues. Like they believed that I was unique enough for it to occur. The only thing was, they didn’t want my mom there when it was happening. I remember telling the elders that I didn’t think I could, only for them to reassure me it might come in fragments. Nothing about it felt magical or spiritual, but I started speaking gibberish because that’s what I thought I was supposed to be doing. It was funny how everyone in the room said they got goosebumps instantly. Meanwhile, I felt nothing.

As I started to get older, I began to lose the “golden child” label. I experimented with drugs and alcohol, developed an eating disorder, and suffered from self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts. I was being bullied at high school every single day. Kids were following me to my classes, calling me names, throwing things at me, and writing stuff about me on the bathroom stalls. Any clinician would have taken one look at me and said I needed help with my mental health. But to the church, it was a spiritual problem; if I’m honest, everything with them was a spiritual problem.

My mom was desperate to get me out of my high school and into a private school, but she was a teacher in America, a single mom, and the tuition was hefty (enough said). One day, the pastor pulled us both into his office and told us he had found two “black suit” gentlemen to sponsor my tuition. He made it sound as if he had personally pulled all the strings for me to attend this school, and none of it would have been possible without him.

If I remember correctly, my mom and I both cried when he told us the good news. One thing I know for sure is that we thanked him endlessly, and he graciously accepted. There was also some talk about how he’d put his neck on the line, and I’d better not screw it up. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I learned how that money appeared out of thin air.

I visited my family’s lake house over the summer when my uncle had too much to drink and angrily let it slip. “Why don’t you ask your mom where that money for school came from?” he said in some low-ball form of a comeback. And instantly, it hit me. Those “black suit” gentlemen were my uncles — my mom’s brothers. They lived hours away from us, and neither one of them had met our pastor face-to-face.

This blatant act of deceit should have been enough for us to stop attending the church, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Somehow, the leaders (who were all in on it) shaped the story to where they were still somewhat the good guys in the situation.

The tension between these leaders and my mom ensued when the new school still wasn’t helping me. She was a single parent with limited support, and they would gang up on her with their own toxic beliefs about how to raise me. I recall them coming to my house a couple of times while my mom was at work and praying over me with words like, “I rebuke Satan from this child of God, in the name of Jesus.”

My mom sent me to my first rehab when expelling the demons didn’t work (please catch my sarcasm), and I’ll never forget what my pastor said to me when I left. “If you leave this rehab before you are ready, I will hunt you down.” I couldn’t help but feel this remark, and many others, weren’t very Christ-like.

I did leave that rehab, by the way. It wasn’t a good fit. And when I came back to church with my hair in a messy bun, my mentors said they could tell I was about to spiral because I hadn’t done my hair or makeup. They acted as if they knew me better than I knew myself in every aspect, and I believed them.

The people who called themselves my mentors told me more times than I care to count that they weren’t sure of my salvation because they didn’t see me bearing any “fruit” (fruits of the spirit) in my time of struggle. My depression was a spiritual battle to them, and I was letting Satan win. As a kid who grew up in church and carried a deep-rooted fear of hell, there are no words to explain how much their perceptions of my salvation affected me.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how seriously flawed the dynamics of some of these relationships were. Once I started thinking for myself instead of allowing them to think for me, a few in leadership blocked me on all social media platforms. It was like they were shunning me. I was the “she who must not be named.”

But when you’ve been through trauma within the church, your mixed feelings about the people who did you wrong don’t go away overnight. I still care for these people deeply, oddly enough. And sometimes, I miss them too. But now that I’m the same age as some of the leaders who mentored me, I’m disgusted with how they treated me as a child.

I am still working to deconstruct the beliefs church leaders instilled in me. I’ve had to rework how I view purity culture, realize that being gay is not a sin or something to be frowned upon, and learn how to deal with the debilitating fear I still feel about hell today. It’s become clear that the Gods we worship do not hold the same values.

I would never do to a child what they did to me. I had a mental illness, and instead of seeing it for what it was, my struggles only fueled their savior complex. I wish they would have seen me for what I was — a kid, not a project for their spiritual awakening.

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