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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Interim Pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship and Director of Ministrieslab providing tools and resources to churches, clergy, and lay people to meet need. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book to read.

The Ghosts of Our Past

I just finished reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved part of my commitment this year to read more books by women authors, authors from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and authors of different ethnicities and races. Morrison weaves a devastating tale of African Americans trying desperately to find freedom from slavery. Her main character Sethe is beaten when she is pregnant to the point that she will wear scars on her back for the rest of her life. In a pivotal moment, Sethe’s old owner finds her in Ohio and intends to claim his property back: her and all four of her kids. What is she supposed to do? That moment of decision plagues her for the rest of the book. Ghosts from her past keep her up at night, make her question who she is, and make her wonder whether she is a good mother.

I’ve often said I wish I could go back to the community of faith I grew up in now that I have found my voice and speak into the sexism and spiritual abuse I encountered. I wish I could stand up to that power and privilege protecting the hierarchy and often times missing opportunities to meet the desperate needs of the community. These ghosts of my past keep me up at night, make me question who I am, and make me wonder whether I am a good mother as the theology I grew up in taught that a woman’s most important role was to raise her children, not share God’s word, especially from a pulpit.

This weekend, we saw the ghosts of our past as a country in broad daylight in the violent protests of Charlottesville, VA. We saw the hatred and enmity as one woman was killed and nineteen others were injured. We saw the racism, sexism, and elitism that are usually subtexts and passive aggressive comments broadcast in public. We were confronted with the reality that our country was founded on the backs of treating people like property and animals. We discovered there are still some who believe that the past is not only ok but the way things should be.

The thing about ghosts of our past is that we don’t want to seem them. In fact, most of convince ourselves that ghosts don’t exist brushing aside the missed opportunities to offer a helping hand to someone in need, excusing the privilege we have enjoyed with defenses of why we deserve what we have (forgetting this means others don’t and can’t have what we have), and forgetting that what we saw this weekend, we helped create.

But being confronted with the ghosts of our past reminds us of where we have been and challenges us to ask the question who do we want to be. Do we want to be the kind of people who try to ignore the racism, sexism, and elitism that abounds in our country limiting the possibilities of other people? Are we going to brush aside people’s stories of racism, sexism, and elitism when we hear them blaming the victim? Or are we going to be the community that surrounds these ghosts of the past and exposes them?

At the end of Morrison’s book, there is a beautiful scene of the community gathering at the edge of the property where Sethe lives. They sing, they pray, they stay until she comes out of the house and they stop her from repeating her past. This is the power of community.

We can’t face the ghosts of our past alone. We need the power of community to help keep us accountable and courageous to become something more than who we used to be.

On Laying Low

Yesterday, The State Newspaper released an article on the interactions between the homeless community and the new residents of the Main Street community. The article was supposed to report on aggressive interactions between the homeless and these new residents, but the residents who were interviewed couldn’t think of any incidents in which they felt threatened. The article has received pushback for overgeneralization of a population comprised of unique individuals and unique circumstances as well as being poorly researched.

In my experience with the homeless population, I think the question was correct but addressed to the wrong population. The reporter should have asked whether the members of the homeless community had ever had an aggressive interaction with a member of the population who live in homes and apartments (this sounds odd to generalize all the population who live with a roof over their head into one big category, doesn’t it?). His article would have been filled with the stories of people desperately trying to survive and save for a hotel room, an apartment, or a room at a nursing home facility being victimized again and again. Not only do people who are homeless experience aggressive attacks, but then shame and guilt are heaped onto them for “getting themselves into this position.”

But that’s not what the story concluded. Instead, it reinforced the false belief that people who are homeless are homeless because of their choices or laziness. It reinforced bias of a group of people filled with unique individuals with unique situations. It failed to mention that the homeless population in Columbia is comprised of individuals and families who are chronically homeless, situationally homeless, and seasonally homeless.

The bi-product of this article is not only the reinforcement of bias but a reminder to The State readers that they are released from the responsibility of caring for their neighbors in need. The article will have ripple effects for non-profits who are working in and with the homeless community. They will see more critique, reduced funding, and lack of participation. The article will also serve to send a message to the homeless community to lay low: they are being watched. But more than any of these effects, the article will reinforce the privilege laced into our society that created the haves and the have nots.

Until we can come to the understanding that some of us have been given opportunities others have not had and will not have, we will continue to thrive as a people and as a society by exploiting and oppressing other people. 51% of children in SC will continue to be food insecure because they live in low-income situations and over 17,000 people in SC will continue to be homeless 20% of whom are children.

You might be able to sleep at night in your bed when it’s raining outside and not think or worry about the people and children who are trying to find a warm, dry place to sleep. You might be able to look at these statistics and understand that over half of our population in SC is living in low-income situations and say you deserve what you have because you worked for it and they deserve what they get. You might be able to drive by someone begging for money without wondering if they are begging because they didn’t get picked for the limited day laborer pool or because it’s raining and they can’t work construction, paving, or painting today. These realities might be ok with you because they are the realities in which you have a place to sleep and food to eat without concern.

These realities are not ok with me. I think there’s enough for us all. I think when we believe we deserve what we have, it clouds our vision to what we could do if we worked together and shared our resources.

I am only one
by Edward Everett Hale

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.

 

The Physical Impact of Spiritual Abuse

It is difficult to ascertain the lasting impact spiritual abuse has on victims. Although we are beginning to understand that prolonged anxiety and fear have an impact on victims as well as having a long-term psychological impact on victims, it is difficult to understand how this impact manifests itself in overall health.

Whenever an emotion is triggered in us, our bodies are instantly and unconsciously affected in very specific ways….To be healthy and functional, we need to be able to feel and connect to all of our emotions at different times, even to the less pleasant ones.

For victims of spiritual abuse who have experienced prolonged periods of anxiety and fear (i.e. stress-filled emotions), the journey to becoming healthy and whole emotional beings is often a long road. Victims of spiritual abuse must first identify themselves as having experienced spiritual abuse, then they must begin to understand their own triggers, then and only then can they work their way towards controlling their emotions in these trigger areas. This process may take years to implement.

In the meantime, their bodies and minds have experienced “survival mode” emotions:

Biologically and evolutionarily, all “negative,” or distressing, emotions, like fear, disgust, or anxiety, can be thought of as “survival-mode” emotions: they signal to the body and brain that our survival and well-being may be at risk, and are specifically designed to motivate behaviors and bodily responses that can most effectively deal with those risks and threats.

Being in a surivial mode for long periods of time greatly affects a person’s ability to truly feel love and joy:

when we’re in homeostasis we tend to experience positive emotions and feelings, like joy or love, and when we’re in survival mode we tend to experience negativeor distressing emotions and feelings. Indeed, the activation of a negative emotion like fear is precisely what throws our brains and bodies out of balance, into non-homeostasis or survival mode.

This only touches the emotional impact of spiritual abuse. The physical impact of spiritual abuse can include sleeplessness, digestive issues, migraines, heartburn, difficulty breathing, social withdrawal or isolation, and a myriad of other possibilities.

I have many people who come to me who are experiencing physical issues. As we talk and I get to know their story I begin to understand that the physical symptoms they are experiencing are unresolved spiritual abuse they have experienced. We are connected heart, soul, and mind. When we have experienced abuse in our souls, our spiritual selves, this can’t help but impact our minds and our bodies.

It’s a difficult thing to analyze and come to terms with who we are and what we have experienced, but doing this hard work leads to becoming more whole and healthy beings: in body, mind, and soul.

 

Spiritual Abuse and Failure to Follow Up

Last week I wrote about another story of spiritual abuse. This story involved the woman being told to keep quiet and to let the men handle things. It’s not an uncommon story. I know it’s happened to many people who have experienced spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, but this isn’t the only thing that happens to victims of spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

In many cases, victims are strong and resilience. They don’t listen to the people telling them to keep things quiet and to not report what has happened to them. In many cases, these courageous and brave victims report their experiences. They share the abuse they have been through even though it’s painful and traumatic to recount. They overcome their fears and their shame in order to make it better for someone else.

Even though they show incredible courage and bravery, these victims are often met with people who fail to follow up. Over the past couple of weeks, the tech industry has been reeling from story after story of  women entrepreneurs who have sought advice and investment from men. The story for these women was that they had to endure sexual harassment, groping, and unwanted sexual advances in the midst of trying to grow their businesses and procure funding to make their ideas become reality. When they reported these investor’s and advisor’s behavior to their businesses or firms more often than not, the business didn’t take their accusations seriously or follow up at all. Years of reporting, bravery, and courage on the part of these victims has finally brought to light the engrained sexism and privilege that exists in the tech industry.

But it’s not just the tech industry.

Women who are in fundamentalist and conservative communities of faith often are counseled and encouraged to stay in abusive marriages in order to protect the sanctity of marriage and avoid divorce. Women who are beaten, raped, and told they are worthless again and again are told to remain with their abusers because it is “God’s will.” This is spiritual abuse. There is never, never a reason to tell a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. There is never, never a reason to blame God for the abuse a woman is experiencing. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a matter of life and death:

 More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to intimate partner violence — and in 10 percent of those cases, violence shortly before the killing might have provided an opportunity for intervention.

It would be easier if we just continued on our way without worrying about these deep issues and how deeply engrained sexism, sexual harassment, and spiritual abuse are in our churches, in our business, and in our country. It would be easier, but it would be failing to follow up and we’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

Spiritual Abuse and Keeping Things Quiet

I heard another story of a young woman sexually harassed by a minister of her church who brought the sexual harassment to the leadership of the church and was told, “Just keep this quiet. We’ll take care of it internally.”

This is spiritual abuse.

This is what perpetuates a culture of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. Churches and communities of faith should not operate as if they can handle clergy misconduct internally, especially when a law has been broken. This thinking is how communities of faith become hotbeds for sexual abuse and spiritual abuse.

There have been more and more people interested in the clergy misconduct and the sexual abuse and child abuse that has taken place in evangelical churches, but these stories unfortunately are not getting the press and attention that the Catholic church received as they did the hard work of uncovering decades of sexual abuse and child abuse.

This is something we must expose. We must be willing to share our stories. We must be willing to end our silence. We must be willing to listen to the stories of the number of people who have been impacted by a culture of silence and shaming and spiritual abuse. We must be willing to confront the hard truth of uncovering just how many people have been impacted by spiritual abuse and sexual abuse in our churches.

We must read the stories of child sex abuse and the resulting cover up. We must read the reports of task forces seeking to find best practices. We must read the stories of young women and men who were brought into sexual awareness in an abusive situation by a man of God. We must come to terms with the fact that by keeping things quiet and “handling it internally,” we have created a place for abusers to keep abusing again and again and again.

This is spiritual abuse.

This must stop for the sake of our communities of faith and for the sake of our children.

You are special. You are loved. You are God’s child.

Today began our Youth Missions Week at New Hope. We are so excited to be joining with Koinonia offering arts, crafts, and songs to the students gathered this summer. This morning we read God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and were reminded that we are unique and special and that we are all a part of God’s family.

We asked students to complete the sentence, “I am special because…” It was amazing to see how astute they already are about how they are different than anyone else, but as we were working on the crafts, I noticed that the adult and youth leaders began to make their own. Maybe it was the finger paint, maybe it was the book, maybe it was that we all need this simple reminder:

You are special.

You are loved.

You are God’s child.

Spiritual Abuse and Female Sexuality

I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach, that intuition so long questioned and quieted, that there is a seismic shift occurring. A shift that is turning back time to a society where women are overtly oppressed and discriminated against rather than the subtext of our culture and conversations. 6.5% of senior pastors and co-pastors in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are women. That number is rising even as women were called this past week to serve as pastors and co-pastors. At the same time, the gender pay gap in the White House has tripled in 2017. This is the tension and conflict that is being a woman in 2017, swinging from hope to disappointment again and again and again.

Perhaps it’s Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale that brings to life how quickly a society can turn, how quickly citizens can lose their rights. Perhaps it’s that I can’t get through a week without being confronted with false views of female sexuality that are tied to theological reasoning passed on unexamined generation after generation. The same theology recycled and reused even though technology has changed, the average age of marriage has changed, and churches are in decline.

Or perhaps it’s my own wrestling to try to overcome the lingering impact of growing up in a purity culture so stringent that my biggest fear as a high schooler was getting pregnant, which transformed into the fear of not being able to get pregnant after I was married because female sexuality was so tied into a woman’s ability to reproduce.

Attributing all of female sexuality to the ability to reproduce is spiritual abuse.

It silences expression and creativity. It silences conversation and questioning. It silences a woman’s voice and choice.

It’s not until women start listening to themselves, to that intuition long questioned and quieted, that sexuality will not be full of spiritual abuse, but wholeness and healing. I experienced spiritual abuse, especially surrounding my sexuality, but I am not a child anymore. I don’t have to keep experiencing spiritual abuse about my sexuality. I can listen to my own voice, my center, myself, the one becoming stronger and more sure-footed with God’s help.

Overripe

With all of the traveling I did last week, there were aspects of my weekly routine I had to let go; one of which was checking to see if we had any vegetables that were ready to be picked in our garden. If I’m honest, I forget to check the garden and tend the garden even when I’m not traveling (please don’t ask about the recent flood of the fairy garden I was supposed to be looking after), but I’ve tried to make the garden a cognizant and consistent part of my routine.

When Ben and I finally got the chance on Friday to check to see what had grown after a break in the rain and storms, we found this. I had to look up why this cucumber was so yellow-y orange. I found out it was overripe. It had been left on the vine too long. We could have still tried to eat it, but it would have been sour and bitter; much less appetizing than the cucumbers we’ve enjoyed so far this summer.

This cucumber reminded me of the vast number of churches who are overripe. They have too much building, too much financial responsibility, and have spent too much time tending to their own needs rather than picking the good fruit they grow and feeding people hungry for real, authentic food. These churches have turned sour and bitter. They aren’t appetizing to those who are searching for refreshment and homegrown nourishment. As a result, their overripe buildings are becoming emptier and emptier.

It’s heartbreaking.

Just like finding this almost good cucumber. If I had only gone out two days earlier, just to check, I would have been able to enjoy a little cucumber and tomato salad or a cucumber sandwich, I’ve told myself again and again. And too many churches are stuck in this mindset as well. “If only we hadn’t engaged in that building campaign years ago….” “If only this pastor had stayed one more year…” “If only…”

It’s easy to live in the “if only,” but what if instead churches did what I did this morning with the help of my three kids. Go tend your garden. Pull up the weeds. Harvest the good fruit. Discard the overripe fruit of sourness and bitterness. Open a fresh bag of soil and spread it out. Drag the hose around the house, no matter how hot it is, and water what plants you have left. Something will grow.

There is still time. There is still sun. There is still a Creator God who brings life out of dust.

Thanks be to God for the invitation to create, to get dirty, and to get to work growing the kingdom of God here on earth. And if there happen to be cucumbers along the way, we’ll enjoy those, too.

On the Road Again

I glanced at the notification that popped up on Waze. “Congratulations! You’ve driven 500 miles this week.” 500 miles? I thought to myself. That can’t be right, can it? I thought back to Saturday where I drove to Asheville and back to Columbia with two tired girls who had just rocked a swim meet. I thought about Monday where I had the honor to lead Bon Air Baptist in The Privilege Walk and a Bible Study related to their work with Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church in the Myrtle Beach area. Then I thought about the annual worship gathering for Baptist Women in Ministry in Atlanta.

What a week.

It was the kind of week that has left me road weary. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to lead the privilege walk with this group of youth, I know there so many who don’t want to engage or examine their privilege much less use their power and privilege to help others. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to gather with Baptist Women from around the country, there are still only 6.5% women who hold senior pastor or co-pastor positions in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

There’s still so much work to do and so few people who are willing to do the hard work of breaking down privilege and breaking down gender stereotypes. There are even fewer people who are willing to acknowledge their privilege (rather than defend their privilege) and use their voice to dismantle institutional sexism.

Even though I’m road weary, I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for the women who have survived sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace and have been in tears this week because of the blatant reminder that America is still a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those in socioeconomic situations whose voices are ignored and whose healthcare needs are decided by power and privilege. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those two tired girls and their younger brother to have a healthier, more whole way of living and being themselves.

Desert Longings

The Old Testament lectionary passages have been following the story of Abraham and Sarah and I’ve been struck by these foreigners wandering around in the wilderness as I have prepared to preach each week.

God called Abraham to leave his home and become a wanderer and a stranger. Abraham knew God was calling him to leave, but he didn’t know where he was going except that it was a land God had promised him. He also knew that God had promised to make him the Father of many nations and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, but he didn’t know how that was going to happen since he was old and his wife was barren.

And so we come to Abraham and Sarah in the desert. They are alone. They are living outside of communities and places they know, but as they have journeyed, they have created high places…places that they have encountered God. Abraham is sitting at one of those high places called the sacred oak of Mamre when suddenly there appear three strangers walking towards Abraham in the desert. For the Israelites who would hear this story, their ear would immediately perk up. Strangers who suddenly appear have the possibility of being divine messengers. And so they would listen to this story of Abraham with great interest as to what he was going to do next. In these types of stories, not just in Israelite texts, but also in Ancient Near Eastern stories, extending hospitality would often result in a blessing at the end of the story.

And in the midst of the desert and the wilderness and the uncertainty of where they are going Abraham and Sarah are reminded that God does not forget God’s promises. God even sends divine messengers to us in the desert when it seems impossible that God’s promise will be fulfilled, but too often we are focused on the next step and we forget that welcoming the stranger might just be entertaining angels, angels whom God has sent in order to remind us of the promises God has made.

If you’re like me than your journey of following God includes some laughable moments. Moments when God calls us to believe in the possible. Moments when God calls us into the desert not knowing where we are going to end up, but just that God has promised to walk with us on the journey. Moments when it is hard to believe in anything but the dust and lifeless we see around us.

And I think sometimes we miss these reminders of God’s promises because, like Sarah, we don’t give way to our desert longing. We don’t give voice to the call God has placed on our life, and we don’t welcome the stranger in order to hear the divine message God has for us.

We don’t invite strangers into our homes expecting or believing they might be Jesus or God. In fact, if we are really truly honest with ourselves, we have a hard time inviting strangers into our churches, a place where we should welcome anyone we see walking our way because we have gotten our idea of hospitality backwards. Instead of being welcomed, we should welcome. Instead of being fed, we should feed those in need. Instead of waiting for strangers to come to us, we should be running to greet and welcome strangers.

If we like Abraham welcomed God into our homes, if we got to know God as we sat around our table as served God supper, then our lives would look considerably different, wouldn’t they. Rather than our being the ones to go to God’s house, we would be the ones preparing and serving God. We would be welcoming God instead of being welcomed by God.

When Abraham and Sarah left their home, they didn’t know what lay ahead. Certainly there were enough threats in the desert that could bring their lives to an end and yet they went anyways. When they welcomed the strangers, they could have been bandits or thieves, and yet they still welcomed these strangers, just like the beautiful community of faith at Emmanuel in Charleston.

We have to get to the point as believers and followers of Christ that we not only listen and study the words, but that the study and belief we have moves us to action. We have to get to the point that we welcome the stranger in the radical, generous hospitality that Abraham demonstrated and the radical, generous hospitality that Jesus demonstrated. The radical, generous hospitality that might ask us to give up our possessions, our homes, and even our lives.  

And when we remember that the God of Abraham is Creator God who brings life out of dust and brings life from a barren womb. We are reminded that nothing is impossible with God and as a result we too will offer radical hospitality to the strangers we meet. And when we do, we still start to see a difference in this world full of violence. Instead of hate, we will see love. Instead of hunger, we will see full bellies. Instead of loneliness, we will see fellowship. Instead of helplessness, we will see hope in the faces of strangers we are eating with and fellowshipping with and those strangers might just look a lot like God, once we get to know them.