I’ve tried to write this twice. The first time I deleted it. The second time, WordPress did.
“Spiritual Refugees – Take 3.”
I was sat in a coffee shop a little while ago and ended up in conversation with a stranger – as I am prone to doing. I listened to her story of how she had grown up in faith, her family were members of a fairly mainstream but still conservative church. Her story of childhood and adolescent faith was very similar to mine. The story ended with her being publically asked to leave by the church because of the boyfriend she had chosen to be with at the age of 20. The relationship had lasted 4 weeks. She hasn’t ever returned to a church, and the thought of it, ‘brings up fear and pain from almost 20 years ago.’
I spoke to another person recently who also grew up in an evangelical church. From a young age he was asked into leadership roles, worship team, sharing at youth services, volunteer roles with youth camps etc. From the age of 13 he knew he was gay. His experience with his friends was that they ogled and commented on the girls and how they looked, whilst he feigned interest. He copied those around him whilst realising that he had no interest at all. Sadly, what happened to him is what has happened to so many young Christians , he went through the trauma of ‘conversion therapy’ and had well meaning but entirely misguided pastors ‘pray the demons out of him.’ He was eventually asked to leave. He still carries the scars of those ‘inteventions.’ The God he loves and the Jesus he follows, are often hidden behind the angry and terrifying experiences he has had. He doesn’t go near churches, he has tried but can’t get out of the car when he parks in the church car park. Instead he has a panic attack and returns home.
I’ve been asked to leave a church before because of a situation over which I had little to no control. It was one of the hardest days of my life. I’m still recovering years later, but have been fortunate enough to have had people who were there the next day, and the days after, who held me in community as I lost the community I had given my life to. If I am honest, I don’t know if I will ever recover fully, it felt like a bereavement, but I’m a lot better than I was then.
It’s very easy to react to stories like these and react with something like, ‘well we just need to get over it and find new communities,’ or ‘that was a long time ago, move on.’ Its easy to say that if you’ve never been through it. Being asked to leave a church is not like being asked to leave a club, the roots go deeper into your heart than a shared interest in golf or chess and tearing those roots up against your will is incredibly destructive.
Believing people often say that their faith is the centre of who they are. When you’re faith in God is central to your identity, impacting on every decision you make the community with whom you live that faith-life becomes family. I’ve been more honest and vulnerable with people from churches I’ve been part of, than I’ve ever been with my biological brothers and sisters. Churches are often places in which people flourish, they are loved and supported, in times of crisis they are held by the community. To those who’ve never experienced church like that, it is hard to describe the deep sense of commonality you feel on every level.
This sense of identity with church and our sense of identity in God become so incredibly intertwined that when the church rejects you it is impossible not to allow that to leak into your sense of who God is and how He views you. It is heartbreaking. The foundations crack and the house starts shaking. What do you hold on to in those moments when everything you relied on has become insecure?
My experience is that a lot people become emotionally numb around their sense faith. Untangling the twisted mass of pain may require a faith community, even a small one, and that seems impossible to find, a second rejection would be too much to bear.
My life is becoming more and more full of these spiritual refugees, those who made a home in a place and a community, but for whom that community and place became too unsafe to be in, or who were forced to wander into the desert because of their life choices, their tragedies, mental illness, understanding of science or who they love.
In a lot of cases those who sent them out to wander were trying to love them. They thought it was that twisting of God’s love – they call it tough love it it translates as cruelty in the heart on the receiving end. The misguided pastors or churches would be hoping that ultimately their rejection, would force the ‘sinner’ to change something that they couldn’t, to alter who they were or miraculously recover from something they were battling. I can forgive a lot of these behaviours because prejudice is more often due to a lack of understanding or education than it is due to bigotry. In one sense, I have to forgive, as I’m sure unknowingly I was the cause of this pain in some when I was a pastor. They thought it was love but it wasn’t. Love casts out fear, it doesn’t amplify it. Love holds people close, it doesn’t toss them aside.
What do we do for these people, whom I often feel like one of? How do we help our brothers and sisters, those words that have lost their meaning through the years, these children of God like us, to find homes again? How do we create spaces that are safe enough for the wounded to express their faith in community again? How do we form homes in which you can be who you are and change or stay the same but still be loved just as much?
If you’re a spiritual refugee, who longs for what you’ve lost, who still loves Jesus but is afraid of His church, I want to know what we can do. In our home we are thinking about this a lot. It’s a daily conversational What can we create that is safe for everyone, that doesn’t place impossible requirements on you, but that wants to celebrate our commonality and our difference – a place for those who are and aren’t like us?
I want ideas, stories and hopes. Tell me your story and what we could do to make the ending of these stories better for all of us. Can we build home together for those who are wandering lost or in shelter that won’t sustain them? Our Father’s house has many rooms, even room for us.