Her left eye was still a bit swollen, and there was a blankness to her gaze that I'd seen before. I was standing outside the church, waiting for the last of the kids to be picked up following our park outing when I saw her. Rita (not her real name) flashed me a fragile smile, and timidly asked me where Anthony was waiting.
"He's inside with Joe. They're horsing around in the fellowship hall."
Rita wasn't a member of our church, but she brought her oldest to some of our youth events from time to time. She was a thin woman in her mid-thirties, with a delicate face and long stringy blonde hair, which she continually straightened and patted without realizing it. Her stance was closed, her gaze nearly always centered on the floor in front of her, and the few times I'd heard her laugh, had been quiet and strangled, as if she was afraid to make too much noise. I'd spoken to a couple of her friends, who'd confirmed my suspicions about her abusive husband.
She went inside and picked up her son, but left without engaging anyone else. She rubbed her son's head affectionately as she put him into the car, and gave me a quiet wave before settling into the front seat and slowly pulling out of the driveway. I could feel my eyes starting to water, and I took a deep breath when one of my helpers called me inside for some help. I turned slowly, thinking about Rita, and the life of terror she lived. Her husband was, by all accounts, a Christian. I doubted it, but he went to church each week and paid his tithes and sang the songs. When I'd asked one of the other parents about Rita, she'd told me that Rita's pastor believed that any woman who left her husband, even if she was being beaten, had committed a great sin. And that the Bible commanded a woman stay in such a situation.
It was such a great lie, I thought, that God would want His children to be exposed to that type of torment. And yet, I'd seen it in some of my extended family as well, this idea that abused women were somehow sinning if they left their marriage. It was so outrageous as to almost be unbelievable, and yet, its proponents were not only still around, but in some cases, gathering even more adherents.
It's been nearly fifteen years since I last spoke to Rita. Nothing has changed. So called Christian leaders like John Piper laugh (disgustingly) over the idea of a woman staying in an abusive situation. And when someone asks a woman like Rita why she remains in such a terrible situation, her answer is simple: 'I'm a Christian. I want to honour God. My church doesn't believe in divorce.'
Along the crumbling towers of the old downtown, between the boarded up buildings on one side, and the filth that lines the sidewalks, is a single door that is washed clean and unmarked. The stairs lead upward and open into a large room with a number of couches and a few tables that is again marked by its cleanliness. Sister Mary Jo (not her real name) is wearing washed jeans and an old blue sweater. Her hair is short and curly, and there is a depth to her gaze that grabs you almost immediately. I'd discovered the place by accident, after speaking to some of my kids, and she's agreed to see me, though she asks that I don't disclose anything about her name and location. She has the blessing from her local parish to work here, but she doesn't get many volunteers.
"Who wants to work here?" She tells me with a smile. Her hands gesture towards the world outside the building. "I have a couple of volunteers, but I do most of this on my own."
'Most of this' means the work she feels God has called her to, which is helping young prostitutes get off the street and either into a school or a regular job. Many of the girls are abused, she says, and so it's not a simple thing for them to adjust to the 'norms' of society. A lot of them hold a great deal of anger, and their habits are self-destructive. Think of it this way, she says, most of them do not really have a reason to live. Their life has been hell from the time they were little.
I don't ask to see the rest of the place, because she's been clear about the boundaries. "Seeing a man in the safe shelter would not help them very much" was how she put it. We talk for another ten minutes or so. Sister Mary Jo is a formidable woman with an unusually deep compassion and faith. I ask her how she can maintain her faith in the face of such evil, day after day.
"If I didn't believe that we would all have to account for our actions, I would have ended my life years ago." She says it so matter-of-factly, I'm momentarily stunned. I check my watch and realize it's time for me to go. I ask her one last question before I head out.
"Why do you do it? This… work?"
"I'm a Christian. This is what we're supposed to be doing."
She says it with such conviction I swallow and suddenly feel a wave of self-directed questions.
So, what are you doing, Steve?
There are no answers forthcoming however, as I've had problems attending church for the past five years with any consistency. I think about it throughout the next day, and write about it in my journal before deciding I can't answer the question. That, I'm afraid, will take a few years yet.
As much as I've been able to ascertain in my (hobby) readings and study of neurology the past decade, the best analogy I've heard is the one that compares our brain to a jungle. That the competition to sort through the incredible flow of information and agree upon an idea, which will then be expressed as a thought or statement, is as fierce as it is complex. What most often tips the scales, in terms of what we remember and how we experience something, is the strength of the emotion that goes along with it. In fact, emotional 'tags', provide the greatest amount of weight in how we categorize things neurologically. And to that end, our brain categorizes EVERYTHING. We do it because we must. It would be impossible to catalogue all the information we receive and actually accomplish anything if we were unable to label it. This is, of course, the origins of stereotypes. And more negatively, speaks to racism and misogyny, although those issues are slightly more complex in that they deal with other issues which include selfishness and the prevailing need within a person to feel unique.
Back in my business days (which lasted one year, a 94% cumulative average, and extreme fatigue from boredom), I still remember my marketing professor telling us that for a business a negative experience was worth nine people. That is, if someone had a bad experience with a store or business, they would in turn tell nine people of that experience. And since word of mouth is the best form of advertising for any company, it was crucial that the customer be appeased.
Neurologically, it was also sound advice. The negative emotional tag is hard to escape, in that it leaves a great imprint on how we feel about things and how we, in turn, cognitively label them. We all remember our bad experiences, don't we? It's part of the storytelling process when we talk to our friends and family. (It's usually started by a statement like "Can you believe…?") Negative framing is a powerful tool, and in terms of our experience, a negative experience always outweighs a positive one. (Which is why one positive comment is not equal to one negative comment, for those of you out there, who like me, used to insist on being 'fair'.)
I Hate Church
'Church', as my friend and scholar, Mark Groleau, tweeted recently, is not a 'thing'. It is a group of approximately one billion individuals around the world from a variety of cultures. All of these individuals purport to follow the teachings of what was once a small Jewish sect, a sect that believed the Rabbi, Yeshua, to be their anointed Messiah.
That's what the church is.
It is a group of people, and at the latest count, constitutes approximately 15% of the world's population. What forms our opinion on the 'church', then, will arise out of our own experience. (The 'church' is not a thing like say, a banana. I know that sounds obvious, but it is how most people think of it.) Like any label, it's completely subjective. The problem is in giving a single identifier (like 'church') to one billion people is ridiculous. The label is so massive as to have almost no meaning, but it seems to be the only one we have, so there it is.
I have a number of friends who are atheists and agnostics, and when I ask them why they hate the church, I've noticed that a disproportionate number of them have had bad experiences with Christians (like Rita's asshole husband) or various 'church' rulings. I understand that. I understand it because it was my own position for so many years. And dealing with jerks like John Piper, who has clearly never dealt with the destructiveness of his own ideas and yet receives a ridiculous amount of positive attention from Seminary students throughout North America, makes it even harder.
And yet, John Piper does not represent the church. Neither does Rita's husband. Or, for that matter, does Sister Mary Jo. In one sense, they represent the perception of what many people will label 'the church', and that can feel to those in ministry like an awesome responsibility. It also leads to protecting our reputation and not wanting to say anything for fear of 'bad-presenting' the 'church.' It leads, in other words, to politicking.
So can we finally end this debate? You don't hate 'the church.' (Not any more than you hate 'Americans'. You may not like their policies, but there are a number of terrific people living in the U.S., and a number of jerks, just as there is in Canada or anywhere else.) To say that you hate or dislike a billion people is rooted in the pain of our experiences, and the tendency for us to believe what we already believe. Psychologists call this a Confirmation Bias, the tendency for people to favour their preconceptions, regardless of whether something is true or not.
There's a small town near the Canadian-American border called Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is scenic and quite beautiful, with its cobbled downtown streets and quaint shops. It is also snobbish and rich. I worked for a summer at one of the hotels there, serving as a waiter. Our clientele were mostly wealthy people from around the world (NOTL has a great reputation). As a waiter, my favourite people to serve were Americans, and it wasn't close. They were far and away the most generous, and their tables tended to be fun. The worst people group to serve was the Brits. Snobby, particular, and cheap, cheap, cheap. And yet, not all British people are cheap, are they? And not all Americans are generous. But that was my experience. In labeling them, however, I do a great disservice to everyone else in those groups whose only reason for inclusion is birthplace.
What are your preconceived biases? What people groups have you labeled and then dismissed, simply because of your experiences? For people who have experienced trauma, like abused women and children, to consider returning to an environment (like a church) that was so destructive is not always a healthy option. But what about the rest of us? Those of us who simply disagree with an idiot pastor or jerky politician. What will our road be? My hope is that you will not remain closed to possibilities in the future, simply because of your past experience. Too many people shut down possibilities in their life without examining their decision. And in so doing, cut themselves off from something great in the future. Many of us have and hold great darkness from our past, and we're afraid to look at it, afraid at what we'll find. But when we live in fear, we let others rule us by manipulating that fear. They can say things like "The church" or "Women" or "Gays" and know exactly what kind of response they will get from us. My prayer this week is that you will not allow your past experiences to dictate your future, and that whatever labels that you do use, you'll become more willing to examine them and what they mean. In so doing, my hope is that you'll find the freedom God holds out for all of us, and that no experience or label will keep you from his best for you.