Survivors of abuse within Adventist environments share their stories.
Four survivors of abuse within Adventist environments shared their stories with me. While it is always the hope that such things never occur in a marriage and family built around the faith, or a workplace dedicated to spreading the message, or in a church that should be a place of refuge, this sinful world does not assure that.
What can we do as a worldwide church family? We can start with refusing to be silent, to listen to survivors and help them find a way forward, and to work harder to ensure that our homes, churches, and places of work truly reflect the One in whom we are all supposed to model our lives after.
A Mission-minded Workplace?
Heather* is a lifelong member of the church, living in an area of North America well known for its significant Adventist population. For several years she worked for a church-run media ministry in which she believed she was giving the most of her talent and time to God’s cause.
But in this place of mission-focused work, she found herself exposed to lewd jokes, crass sexual comments, and humiliation at the hands of three key leaders of the ministry. While one of the leaders was the main perpetrator, the two other leaders protected his position and covered for him, allowing him to continue in his role of authority. He was made to apologize and take an online training course on avoiding sexual abuse in the workplace; but he remains in his position at the top of this organization, with no consequence for his conduct.
Heather wasn’t the only one. Other women targeted by this man also reported him to HR. She sought help from a therapist during this time, as not only was she dealing with the psychological abuse of being sexually harassed in the workplace but was also in the middle of an imploding and toxic marriage. When she was finally offered another job in a different organization, her exit interview did nothing to assure her that this problem would be dealt with properly. In it she was told that if she came forward and spoke up, this man’s career would be destroyed. The guilt and blame were then squarely placed on her when told she could be responsible for tarnishing his image.
And while Heather is now free of her broken marriage, happy in her new job and current life, the man who made her work environment a living hell remains unchecked.
When Church Was No Refuge
Flora* was married almost 30 years when she finally walked away. Her marriage—to an Adventist man rooted in local church life—involved financial, spiritual, verbal, and emotional abuse, and adultery. With each episode of money being deceitfully drained from the family expense accounts to evidence of porn addiction and her ex-husband’s use of prostitutes, she reached out to her local church leaders for help. Sadly, Flora was met with anger from her pastor, sermons that seemed to target her unique situation, and even guilt that her divorce would shed a negative light on the entire congregation. Unable to display the truth of her home situation fully, the family continued the farce of a unified family when they attended services every Sabbath—something that has now resulted in church-related anxiety for her children.
Once she left—for her own safety and that of her children—Flora tried to break communication with her husband by changing phone numbers and other contact information. But when she did this, her pastor and his wife posted this information on a public social media outlet. The details of her split were even discussed with members of the congregation. At one point during her separation, her home was broken into and the family was held at gunpoint. The pastor didn’t reach out to ask if they were OK or needed support. Through all of it Flora was never called on, prayed over, or counseled in an appropriate way.
To date, Flora’s experience with her local church in getting any help and support in her divorce has been overwhelmingly negative. Her former husband continues to serve the Pathfinder Club and lead Bible studies. What has kept her in the faith are her own convictions. “If it wasn’t that I truly believed that this church had the truth, and leaving would be a major conflict of my own convictions, I would have walked away and never looked back.”
Home Was No Haven
Meredith* says her earliest memories of her emotionally abusive father was of him standing over her mother verbally tearing her down while she sat crying. She remembers him threatening to kill her mother on two occasions, going into details about how he’d do it and how no one would find out. While she says he didn’t physically assault them, his violent tendencies and volatile behavior were enough to terrify the family on a regular basis. Nothing was good enough for him, and Meredith grew up feeling severely controlled while always at the receiving end of his hateful tirades.
It got so bad that for eight years—from her midteens to early 20s-—Meredith was severely depressed to the point of thinking about suicide. But to outside eyes the family was perfect and her father was a very nice person. No one had any idea.
Reaching out to friends proved futile, as Meredith felt no one understood. People advised her to forgive her father simply because he was her father. Therapy hadn’t always yielded the help she desperately needed. Meredith feels she has finally begun a meaningful healing process from the trauma and PTSD. She holds no ill will toward her father, but stressful situations can trigger her feelings in several ways. She believes her perceptions of truth and reality can often be warped.
While she always felt that God was with her, and that He wasn’t a harsh or cruel God, she says in looking back she wished she would have looked to Him much more than she did.
Meeting Her Abuser in Church
Zoe* met her husband in church. While he had previously been jailed and discharged from the military, he was received warmly by the congregation and quickly became involved in leading youth activities. Well-meaning members quickly found ways to put the two of them together. All of this seemed to be good signs in Zoe’s mind.
The two dated for nearly four years before marrying. Zoe can see now that there were red flags early on, but she had no idea how much they were truly signaling. Once married, her ex’s true colors were revealed, and the relationship quickly came to involve physical, sexual, and mental abuse.
Through it all a son was born, but the abuse never de-escalated. Her husband continued the violence, and Zoe learned of his addiction to pornography and adultery with young women in the church. Once she was finally able to leave the marriage, the cruelty extended to fights over custody of their little boy, many of which included psychological manipulation and harassment.
The mess of her marriage became embroiled with members of the church because of her ex’s inappropriateness with young women there. The church was not much help to her in sorting through the mess and helping her to stabilize her life. Zoe’s attempts at getting help from local authorities also didn’t work out as she hoped.
Zoe is currently waiting for her divorce to be finalized. Because of all that she has endured, she suffers from panic attacks, depression, and PTSD, and has lost interest in many of the things that once brought her joy.
Zoe’s relationship with the Lord also struggled. But she believes now that no matter how horrible things appeared to be, God was still taking care of her. She knows He has brought her through way too much for her to run from Him.
*All names have been changed to protect the individual.