I’m sure a question that begs to be asked at the outset of this is “why now?” The answer is, quite simply, because, in the wake of the public conversation regarding Douglas Wilson and the handling of the sexual abuse cases, people are listening. We’ve been thinking and praying for a long time about when would be the right time to share our story. We want to do it in a way that conveys our sorrow over the events that transpired, our love for family and friends who are still in the CREC, and yet still communicates that we are convicted that what happened was not handled appropriately. It, in fact, allowed, and continues to allow, abuse in many forms to take place not just at Christ Church, but in other CREC churches as well.
We’re also cognizant of the fact that we will be accused, once again, of bitterness. We’ve learned that disagreement with the church leadership in the CREC automatically brands one as being bitter. Once labeled as such, any testimony one brings forth can easily be discounted. Please know that our intention is to shed light on things that we find to be disturbing. Things that hurt the church and its members. Our concern is that these actions are pushing people, believing Christians, no less, away from Jesus and the community that should be acting as his body—that is proclaiming itself to be His body.
My first experience begins before Ryan. Before my family as many of you know it. At that time, my sister, who is younger than I am by not quite 17 months, was engaged. I was a month shy of 22, and rapidly becoming an old maid by CREC standards. In fact, I’d even been told by one man that I was “too old and too well educated” and that made me undesirable. And it seemed true. No one was expressing any interest in me.
Mom and I were at a wedding. Once again, the bride was younger than I was. A rather eccentric man at the CREC church we were attending introduced me to a man from a CREC church the next state over. He was 16 years my senior. My initial reaction was “no way.” However, the next day, a Sunday, he sat with us at the regular meal after church and asked for my email address. I gave him my “secondary” email address. We commenced writing. Then calling on occasion. The next month he came to visit for my birthday and a courtship commenced.
I grew to care for him deeply. Even love him. But I was still a bit uneasy and unsure. However, every Sunday a man from church (various ones) would comment on what a great guy he was, and how excited they were, and I would think “I’ll give it awhile longer.” Come February, he proposed. In my naievety, I thought,” If he wants to marry me, he must truly love me!” And therein lay my error. Despite misgivings, I said yes, and the wedding planning commenced. We set a date for mid-summer.
Once we were engaged, he owned me. On one occasion, one of his family members asked me what I wanted to change after we got married, and I said “I’d like to buy two-ply toilet paper.” I knew it was a dangerous question. One I didn’t really want to answer, and that seemed like a safe answer. It was also honest. He was furious. I’d disrespected and undermined him. Talk about keeping me fit and trim—especially after children, was constant. Then came the tickling. He’d tickle me until I was bruised. I’d ask him to stop, but it was like he didn’t hear me. Until I was yelling at him to stop. Then he’d get angry and sulk, because, once again, I was being disrespectful. I’d also had surgery for some health problems, and was on some “maintenance” medications. Several times he asked me how they would affect my sexual performance. I had no idea! Not only was I mortified, but I was becoming concerned by the fact that my appearance and “performance” seemed to outweigh my health in importance in his mind. By now I was scared. Genuinely scared and I had no idea what to do about it.
And then there were the photos. Once I’d gone to visit him, and stayed in his mother’s apartment since she was out of town for the weekend. He had a key, as did I. When I woke up the next morning, my phone wasn’t exactly where I thought I’d left it, but it was still connected to the charger, so I thought I must not have remembered correctly. The weekend seemed to go as they typically went, and I thought nothing of it. Then, a few weeks later, I was at a friend’s house, and she was going through the photos on my cell phone for fun. This was a decade ago, when we all used flip phones and they weren’t generally used for photography. There weren’t many. She came across pictures of me, fast asleep, in his mother’s apartment that weekend. He was the only other person with a key.
Some hubbub ensued, but in the end, it was determined that it was outside his character to do such a thing, and the matter was dropped. Mom and I never felt easy about it, but we felt we really had no recourse, and what could we really do, anyway? Again, we were admonished to trust him.
There was one particular instance in which some things had happened. Like the tickling, my mom and I weren’t heard until it escalated. We apologized for the response that he deemed offensive, and I was genuinely sorry. However, during what was to be our last premarital counseling session, the elder who was counseling us did press the fact that my fiancé at the time should also issue an apology for the behavior, including the tickling, that led up to our response. We sat there for a solid hour. He finally said that he didn’t see how it would make a difference. Awhile later, he grudgingly gave an “I’m sorry.” But I left that session and went to bed for the rest of the day. I kept going over and over in my head everything that was transpiring. How was I supposed to trust and submit to a man I felt genuine threatened by? I kept praying, and praying, but felt no peace. However, all I got from the elders was to trust him. He was soon to be my head.
Two weeks before the wedding, I was physically ill over it. Even though I’d been having misgivings, my mom was being told by the elders to encourage me to trust him. However, at this point, we decided to call it off. I couldn’t do it. We drove the six hours to where he lived to do it in person. I’d written him a letter, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak. After reading it, his response to my mom was “What I’m wondering is, if this is a decision that she should even be allowed to make.” Those words still ring clear. A decision I shouldn’t be allowed to make. Then, in my presence, he threw away gifts I’d given him during our courtship and engagement.
I was instructed by the elders in our CREC church not to talk about why I broke off the engagement. The elder who had been conducting our premarital counseling was a personal friend of my now ex-fiancé, and he had speculated to mom and me that I likely simply wasn’t quite mature enough to get married. A statement was sent to the church saying that we had differences in communication that we couldn’t resolve, or something to that effect.
Afterward, a number of women approached me, saying how relieved they were. That my ex-fiancé had always creeped them out. He was too touchy during church dances. There was just something “off,” etc. That they had determined to be his friend, because he would be my husband, but weren’t sure how to manage that. However, because there was nothing concrete—no solid evidence, the men didn’t want them to speak out about it.
At one point I mentioned on my little blog that I was thankful we hadn’t yet kissed—that that was saved for the man that I hoped to marry someday. Within a couple of days, the elder who had overseen our counseling and was personal friend of my ex-fiancé called me and asked me to take it down, because it was demeaning to his character.
And that was the end of it. The next several months were a difficult time of recovery, but by God’s grace, I did recover. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize at the time that covering up abuse, both mild and extreme, was a pattern in these churches, and we stayed. We weren’t yet rethinking the theology that drives these patterns. That came later. Much, much later.
And my ex-fiancé? He’s now a deacon in a CREC church.