If My #ChurchToo Story Hadn't Happened, I Might Still Be a Christian
A true first-hand account of sexual abuse in the church
(Author’s note: I’ve changed some of the names of the individuals to protect their families and the identities of innocent parties)
I’ve been away from Christianity for almost a full-decade now. I left the ministry and pursued academia, convinced that my Atheism was a result of my critical thinking alone and had little to do with my experiences as a Christian.
Then I stumbled across the #ChurchToo thread on Twitter, and a tidal wave of repressed memories and experiences hit me all at once. I thought about something that happened at the end of my undergraduate career that I’d tried desperately to forget.
I was sexually assaulted by an Assemblies of God minister.
It has taken me almost ten years to write my story, and I’m having to will myself to finish through the shaking of hands and the swelling of emotions.
A Father Figure
My abuser was the father of a girl I crushed on while at Southeastern University, and used to be a Senior Pastor of a mid-sized Virginia congregation. Through my proximity to his daughter, he became friend, confidant, and mentor to me. We spoke often about how we felt the church was broken. He seemed understanding, and open-minded. Eventually, we talked about my own brokenness, disillusionment with faith, and my troubled relationship with my biological father.
My Dad and I rarely saw eye-to-eye, and had become even more estranged after he and my mom divorced. He was a fundamentalist farm boy from Missouri. I was a metro, Northern city kid who couldn’t change the oil on his car. Our differences were expansive, and at the time I was extremely vulnerable.
As time went by, my romantic prospects with Mark’s daughter faded, but he had sort of adopted me into their family. We went out for dinners, shopping trips, leadership conventions, you name it. A lot about the relationship felt strange to me, especially when he’d want to buy me gifts like new clothes and books. But he’d always find a way to make it seem alright. “Real leaders don’t put into relationships to get something out of it, Gabe. Love isn’t just an investment,” he’d say
After a few years, it felt like God had sent Mark to me as a kind of surrogate father figure.
I was a Senior Pastoral Ministries major and was planning to begin an internship at a friend’s church in Niagara Falls to fulfill a graduation requirement. Just before I left for New York, Mark arranged for me to fly to Virginia to their family home for a weekend. It was amazing.
Mark offered me a job working with him at his church after I finished my internship, and though I still wasn’t that comfortable with the clothes and other gifts, I accepted. Time has a way of normalizing things that we’d otherwise find uncomfortable. He woke me up the day before I was scheduled to leave and told me that the family had talked the night before and had decided to bless me with a brand new car.
Yup. This guy bought me a car. From that moment, I began to think that any apprehensions I felt toward him were a testament to my own brokenness, not his.
At some point, people started asking me lots of questions about Mark. A former employee of Southeastern University called me on the phone and spent nearly an hour cautioning me about him. My best friends warned me. Other students warned me. I dismissed them all as bitter, jealous, or close-minded broken people who didn’t realize that God could restore our lives and create new relationships for us.
I felt guilty even considering that Mark wasn’t pure of heart.
Later that summer, though, everything changed.
From Son to Victim
One afternoon, while visiting his family’s hotel suite in New York City before an early season Yankee’s game, I was faux-wrestling with Mark’s biological son, who was just a kid then. Mark joined in, and we made contact. Suddenly, I felt his hand wrap around my genitals.
I froze. A second or two passed and his hand lingered. It wasn’t rough, like intending to hurt me, but it was firm enough to stop me in my tracks. It was like time stopped in an icy moment of anxiety, disgust, and confusion. Finally, I snapped out of it and stepped away suddenly.
Mark picked up on my response right away and apologized, telling me it was an accident.
I pretended it didn’t bother me, but the act had seemed deliberate. I was deeply troubled by it, and it probably showed, so he apologized again, and then we went to the game.
As I sat there in Yankee Stadium, millions of thoughts rushed through my head, and I debated with my own mind for hours. Why would he do something like that? If he’d done it on purpose, why would he do it in front of other people? Why did he wait until I reacted to apologize? If he’d wanted to grab my balls or come on to me, he’d had numerous opportunities in less crowded and compromising places to try that.
By the time I’d driven my car out of New York City, I’d twisted my thoughts and feelings around until I totally blamed myself for the incident. I was miserable and so lost in my thoughts that I was pulled over for going 84 MPH in a 65 zone.
A month or so passed, and I spoke to Mark just as regularly as we’d done so before. We didn’t speak about the incident.
Before I started my job at his church, Mark flew up to New Hampshire to meet my mom and two sisters and make the drive down with me. He took us to dinner and everything seemed normal, but I’d begun to feel nervous around him. I dismissed this feeling, again, as my own issues seeping through the cracks in my proverbial soul. I didn’t say anything.
That night, Mark asked me to stay at the hotel with him, since I had been sleeping on a pull out in my mother’s living room at the time. I told him I was a bit weird about personal space (he was staying in a single), and he said that there was plenty of room for more than two people, so the two of us would be comfortable. I agreed after he insisted.
That night, while asleep, I felt something touching my head. I snapped awake. Mark was close to me, almost cuddled up behind me, and he was running his hands through my hair whilst making a kind of moaning sound. I froze up immediately, and to this day I hate myself for not springing out of bed. I felt paralyzed. All I could bring myself to do was close my eyes and wait for it to stop, and eventually it did.
The next morning, I swam a few laps in the hotel pool, and then came back to shower and change. We had a long day ahead of us, a drive from NH to VA, but at this point I didn’t want to go anywhere with him. But, before I could say anything about it, he brought it up.
He told me he did the same to all his kids while he was half-asleep and barely remembered it happening. He said that there was nothing ill-intended to it. I swallowed my protests and told him to forget about it.
I was shaken to my core. “What else happened while I was asleep?” I thought to myself. I used a restroom and started to check my body, but stopped halfway through my self-examination. I didn’t want to know anything else. I still don’t know why I didn’t tell anyone right away, and honestly, my thoughts and feelings in the time immediately after that were a mess.
Once we got to VA, I only lasted for a few days. I told him I was leaving due to fears about my health, as I had to be hospitalized on the trip after becoming incredibly ill. I packed up my car that night and drove straight back to New Hampshire, only stopping for gas and food. I drove so fast that I blazed through the NJ Turnpike without paying.
The Blame Game
Weeks later, Mark sent me text message. He was taking the car back due to the ticket, and his daughter’s boyfriend would be flying up to NH to drive it back down to VA.
I sent him a follow up email to tell him the real reasons why I left. I told him I was uncomfortable and felt like his actions crossed a line. He wasn’t happy, and sent me a scathing response, “Gabe, since I’ve known you, you have run from everyone and everything that could offer you closeness whatsoever. You will think what you will but I will live and die knowing all I/we ever wanted to do was allow you to be part of our family.”
I left the church. I fully embraced all my doubts about religion and openly declared my atheism. I wanted time to do its work and forget everything that happened and, if possible, my entire life up to that point.
As time went by, though, I began to wonder whether or not Mark was right. Had he really been innocent in his intentions? Maybe the problem wasn’t him…maybe it was me. I did what many abuse victims do when facing the past.
I blamed myself.
I eventually reached out to Mark years later and apologized for misreading things. He told me my return was like the Prodigal Son story in the Bible, and that he’d been praying for this day to come.
You read that correctly. I apologized to my abuser for telling him he’d made me uncomfortable.
We stayed in sporadic contact, but didn’t talk as much as we had before. Deep down, I knew something still wasn’t right.
A few years later, I came out as bisexual publicly on social media. When Mark found out, he claimed that he’d always suspected and told me that he was also bisexual. Normally, I would never “out” someone’s sexuality in public. It’s vindictive and could have serious ramifications, but the detail is key to the reality behind my abuse.
Mark began to text me stories of hook ups he’d had with much younger men, which I told him made me uncomfortable. He would go into graphic details about the sex he was having, the contours of his partners’ bodies, and other things that made me feel dead inside. It was like I was back in that hotel bed all over again, freezing up in fearful paralysis while this man who claimed to be “Pop” to me continued to send me sexually explicit texts. I clearly told him that if we were going to keep talking, this would have to change, but it was almost as if him finding out that we were both bisexual made him feel liberated to share every same-sex incident he’d ever had, which really disturbed me.
Overnight, he went from insisting that his relationship with me was always paternal and God-like to devolving into stereotypical, one-sided locker room talk. It was disgusting, especially given his position as a husband, father, minister, and champion of so-called family values. Something clicked inside me, and instead of hating myself for thinking negatively about a father figure, I hated him for thinking he could manipulate me like this.
Our last exchange came when sent me pictures of his own genitals. I told him that was unacceptable and unwanted. He responded by sending me photos of his naked body, the naked body of a much younger man, and his own penis again. I blocked him on my phone and unfriended him on social media. We haven’t spoken since. I saved the messages and images in a locked folder. I would never share or post the images, but I keep them knowing that he could read this and put two and two together and try to come after me somehow.
Bring it on.
In hindsight, I now remember disturbing conversations we’d had throughout the years, back when I had my blinders on. There was one occasion where he told me he wanted to give me a full-body massage. He’d speculate aloud about the size of my genitals. He regularly made sexual jokes on car rides and in phone conversations. Because he made me feel valued and important, I wasn’t able to see him for who he really was.
He was an abuser.
The #ChurchToo thread rocked me into sharing my story, and has helped me come to grips with the fact that I, like countless others, cannot see church, God, or Christians the same way anymore.