Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.
I blogged this piece on Tangier Island back in 2017. As I read it today, I found it helpful and thought I would post it again … perhaps it also finds resonance in your life at this time.
And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
The sea came.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work
I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.
The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.
Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.
Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …
I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!
I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.
The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!
So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work
“As a survivor of the gay conversion movement, it feels amazing to know that our experiences are being heard nationally and that there is finally research that confirms the prevalence and damage of the gay conversion movement in Australia… The messaging of the movement that told me that I was “broken” has caused long-term damage to me” – Chris Csabs, survivor.
This article is written by Nathan Despott.
As a gay person raised in a Catholic home, but who spent his late teens and 20s in Melbourne’s evangelical community, the image of a large church with arms open to welcome LGBTIQA+ people is familiar but foreboding. Most of my experience in the ex-gay or “conversion” movement was through long-term involvement in loving and warm local Christian communities that, rather than condemn my sexuality, lovingly intimated that I was “broken”. My ten-year quest for healing was all-consuming and overwhelming.
Since leaving the movement in 2010, it has been morbidly fascinating to watch most formal ex-gay/ex-trans/conversion programs shut their doors, often replaced by celibacy movements and a new wave of churches that call themselves “welcoming but not affirming”.
“Welcoming”, a paradoxical halfway between “condemning” and “affirming”, is the point whereby a church shifts from viewing LGBTIQA+ people as utterly intolerable, instead viewing them as “broken” and in need of gracious support. LGBTIQA+ members often experience close fellowship here, but cannot usually hold positions of leadership or, in some cases, work with young people and children. Researcher Mark Jennings found that most of the Pentecostal/charismatic religious leaders he spoke to held a “welcoming” position.
The recent Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice report (Human Rights Law Centre/La Trobe University, Melbourne) indicates that “while the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture appears less hostile than overt opposition to LGBT rights, when its ‘not affirming’ aspects are withheld or disguised… it can be deeply harmful.”
“Welcoming” churches and the conversion movement share a view of sexual orientation and gender as being distinct from their expression (or “practice”). However, this distinction is relatively recent. It is certainly anachronistic to read scripture in this light. The word “homosexual” did not appear in bible translations until the mid-20th century. Modern “homosexuality” was demarcated by early psychoanalysts in late 19th century Europe, viewed as simultaneously intriguing and problematic for roughly a hundred years, then removed from the DSM in 1973.
The Preventing Harm report traces the development of the conversion movement and its ideology of “brokenness” from this point to the present day, where it has become virtually the mainstream lens through which evangelical communities – whether focused on orientation change or celibacy – engage LGBTIQA+ people.
The SOCE Survivor Statement, released by an Australian coalition of affirming organisations in September, outlined the core pseudo-scientific tenets of the ex-gay/ex-trans/conversion movement. While prime minister Scott Morrison responded by declaring that “conversion therapy is not an issue for me”, so central to the faith of a small number of “purity” groups (read: celibacy for queer people) was the “brokenness” ideology that they saw the Statement as an attack on their religious freedom.
Preventing Harm and the SOCE Survivor Statement present the conversion movement not merely as a type of therapy but as a broad movement that invests significant resources and energy in transmitting an ideology of “brokenness” through myriad channels and activities. Both reports recommend legislative interventions, tighter educational controls, regulatory measures for practice, improved media and broadcast standards, and support for survivors.
“Affirming” is distinct from welcoming. Responding to pastors who considered their churches to be “affirming” following a shift from condemnation to support, survivor support and advocacy group Brave Network Melbourne developed a model statement of affirmation. Could pastors and their leadership teams (and their online communications) readily state “We believe LGBTIQA+ people are a loved and essential part of God’s intended human diversity”? Many could not.
Do not misunderstand me. For some of these churches, their forward movement is honourable. Theologically and personally, their journey has been significant – particularly if their welcoming stance has led to rejection from conservative brethren. However, for LGBTIQA+ people of faith, the safety line lies between “welcoming” and “affirming”. While welcoming churches may have opened their arms to LGBTIQA+ people or even actively shunned the conversion movement in favour of celibacy, only affirming churches have completely rejected the “brokenness” ideology and made the theological and pastoral shift to full equality – and therefore safety – for LGBTIQA+ people.
Cherished LGBTIQA+ allies such as leading evangelical ethicist Dr David Gushee, evangelical sociologist Dr Tony Campolo, mega-church leader Nicole Conner , and out-and-proud Christian pin-up Vicky Beeching have all paid a high price for their affirming stance.
Brave Network and similar organisations have openly called on churches to explicitly declare their theological stance regarding LGBTIQA+ people rather than engaging in ambiguities such as “welcoming but not affirming”, which is widely seen as code for “you’re broken but we still love you”. This would prevent people of faith spending years ensconced in communities that slowly erode their mental health. This is because, as LGBT Christian blogger Kevin Garcia states, “welcoming but not affirming is not welcoming at all”.
To learn more about LGBTIQA+ affirmation and the church, check out Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by celebrated ally Kathy Baldock, Changing our Mind by Dr David Gushee, and Undivided by Vicky Beeching. If you are in need of safe affirming organisations, check out One Body One Faith, Affirm or Two:23 in the UK, Equal Voices or Brave Network in Australia, Q Christian Fellowship or the Reformation Project in the US.
There is a growing number of affirming churches – from progressive to evangelical and every denomination in between – across the world. LGBTIQA+ Christians visiting an “affirming” community for the first time can use a statement like the Brave Network statement of affirmation above as a litmus test.
(Nathan Despott is a co-leader of Brave Network Melbourne and works as a research and development manager in the intellectual disability sector in Australia. He thanks Australian LGBTIQA+ advocates and allies Chris Csabs, Nicole Conner and Michelle Eastwood for their contributions to this piece.)
I met Katecia (Teash) a couple of years ago. Over time we began chatting and I had the privilege of listening to some of her story of courage, resilience and quiet grace. Today I would like to thank Teash for making time to share some of her life experience for this BLOG post. I have no doubt you will be impacted as you read about her journey.
1. Teash, you grew up in a religious setting. Can you tell us a little about your formative years?
Some of my earliest memories are of family and church. As a pastor’s kid, they have always been entwined. I have fond memories of running down aisles, riding a pony as Mary in the nativity play, making clay Bible characters and of trying to sneak an extra cookie at morning tea after the service. Church often felt like a second home. I knew all the hiding spots and I loved all the people. I used to live a block from my church growing up. My brothers and I would often duck past on the way home from school. I distinctly remember running into the church building after school one time when my brother and I were running from kids who wanted to bash us. It was a place of refuge and an enjoyable place for me.
Mum and Dad were quite strict growing up but they were also incredibly loving and encouraging. People often ask what it was like growing up as a pastor’s kid and I never quite know what to say. It was normal for me. I suppose it meant I hung around church more than the average kid. I knew where the cookies were kept and could swing past and utilise the smooth scootering surface in the church hall. At this time, I fitted into the church and its community seamlessly. However, I felt more pressure as I got older to reflect well on my parents as I realised that, unfortunately, people might judge my parents based on how I acted which has, at times, made me uncomfortable.
2. Coming out as gay would not have been easy, especially in a conservative setting. Can you talk about this?
It wasn’t easy. However, I am more fortunate than so many. At the time I had intense anxiety regarding it. If I’m honest part of the reason I came out was that I had anxiety that was causing me physical pain, every day, for several months. I’d been slowly convinced by affirming theology but the move meant that I realised I would probably need to come out. I think if it weren’t for my anxiety I might have waited a few more years. However, given the mostly subtle hostility towards queer people in conservative environments, it’s unlikely I could have emerged from the closet with no mental health issues. I was in so much physical pain from hiding this part of myself that I figured coming out couldn’t be that much worse.
Like so many others, Christian spaces that I had once found so welcoming became harder and harder to exist in happily. People that I looked up to and loved treated me as though I were an entirely different, and less trustworthy, person.
My immediate family has been fantastic and I am so thankful for them. I know how rare their incredible support can be in Christian circles. They may not have always understood but they have always listened and supported and loved me.
I may have been judged by Christians for being gay but I have never felt anything but love and peace from God, fully inclusive of my sexuality.
3. You recently spoke at the “Better Together” Conference in Melbourne and shared some of your faith journey. Would you mind elaborating on this, especially reconciling your sexuality and your faith (which for some may be problematic)?
I was raised in a Baptist church. Growing up in the church I knew what to say and how to act. Essentially, I knew how to fit in. I didn’t know a single gay Christian let alone any other amazing letter of the acronym growing up (at least not that I knew of at the time). What I did know was what I was told: “Christians weren’t gay”. Christians might be same-sex attracted but to act on that attraction was a sin, and if they couldn’t change then celibacy was required. I was a Christian so I could never be gay. It was honestly that simple in my mind. Gay people were them over there and not the people in the pews next to me or eating scones after church.
For most of my teen years, I saw it as a sign of purity and even holiness that I wasn’t attracted to men. The attraction was only meant for your husband, so my lack of attraction to men meant that I clearly just hadn’t met my husband yet. But slowly that logic fell away as I realised that I wasn’t just not attracted to men, I was attracted to women. I prayed and tried to change it as so many of us do. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t change. I accepted that, until I changed, celibacy was the only option and I realised that I would probably be celibate for life. I told no one because I was ashamed and I knew the grief, shame and even scandal it would cause those I loved.
While this internal conflict was going on, I was an outgoing and enthusiastic evangelical. I was in a senior leadership position at the largest evangelical group at my university. I ran prayer groups and Bible studies and camps.
After realising celibacy was something I would have to do I began googling things such as what does the Bible say about homosexuality? I wasn’t looking for the Bible to say it was okay. I was looking for encouragement in remaining celibate. I had always been told that any theology that said it was “okay to be gay” was very “wishy-washy” and was by people who didn’t take the Bible seriously. In evangelical terms, “not taking the Bible seriously” was code for being a bad Christian. Being “biblical” and taking “the Bible seriously” was code for being a good Christian. But I was surprised by what I found. Being the nerdy art student I was, I figured I’d better research the other side – to refute it as wishy-washy, obviously. Only I couldn’t and slowly and extremely grumpily I found myself shifting over and leaning towards becoming affirming. In affirming theology, I could see myself. I saw myself as a whole and beloved child of God. It was rigorous and thoughtful. It was loving and non-judgemental, and it terrified me.
So I became affirming after a couple of years of study and prayer. I wish I could say it was an easy or quick process. It took time. I didn’t want to be affirming because I was comfortable in my beliefs and my life. I just wanted to fit in and be a “good Christian.” Having affirming theology meant that this was no longer possible for me in many circles. I came out as gay and affirming at the same time. I lost a lot of evangelical friends and I was treated as an outsider in the same evangelical circles that I had once fit in to so well. At the time I thought it was one of the worst things to happen to me. Now I’m grateful that I have sat on the outside because it was the wakeup call I needed to look around and see who else was on the margins with me. I worry that if I’d never been pushed out I might have missed meeting and learning from so many who don’t fit into my old evangelical worldview.
What drew me most to affirming theology was that in it I felt seen, known and loved by God. It also made a lot more contextual and theological sense to me. But most interestingly affirming theology brings me closer to a God who made me, knows me and loves me as I am.
4. When we look back we see a turbulent and painful journey for LGBTIQ people of faith and some of the churches that they were part of. What do you see looking ahead? Is there hope for apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation and a better path?
I think there is hope. I think of myself only a few years ago. I held negative attitudes towards gay people like many other Christians today that contribute to our negative experiences in churches and Christian communities.
The queer Christians and allies I have met all have amazing stories of change: of them being convinced to alter their beliefs and attitudes. I’m given hope every time I see queer Christians love themselves fully. I’m given hope every time I see allies step up and love us as we are. I’m given hope when I remember how I used to think and the hurt I could or may have perpetuated, and how I changed. Looking ahead, I am hopeful, but still aware of the past and the present pain. I am filled with hope but remaining grounded in the reality that we have a long way to go.
There is a path for apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation, however, as Christians, we need to recognise the harm and grief that we have caused and continue to cause. The church is overwhelmingly viewed as a source of pain and hateful rhetoric for most queer people, and this reputation is all too often deserved. Everything from homophobic jokes to the psychological torture of conversion therapy to the more subtle exclusion contributes to the struggle queer people can face.
When we ‘other’ queer people in large or small ways we are failing in our calling to, first and foremost, be loving, and failing to walk the better path – the path of Jesus. It is hard to expect queer people to remain in the pews when we are often made to feel unwelcome and unloved. Specific effort must be made to undo what we have done. While I think there is hope for a better path, I think we need always to hold the hurt we’ve caused in tension with the hope we hold for the future. We cannot erase the past but we can learn from it and therein lies the hope for a better future.
Teash, our lives are all enriched because you were prepared to share a bit of your story. Thank you so much.
For those interested in affirming theology, I recommend:
David Gushee – “Changing our Minds”
And for a plethora of information please see the podcasts/library of Inside Ex-Gay
and the Reformation Project
This is a blog post from 2 years ago. As I travel Germany and am confronted by the many monuments that remember the holocaust and persecuted minorities, I am again aware of the fundamental role that dominant religions often play in oppressive regimes. May we never forget.
I still remember the feeling of stifling hot air hitting my face as we disembarked from our long journey at Jan Smuts International Airport (now O.R. Tambo International Airport), in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the early 70’s. State President J.J. Fouché, Prime Minister B.J. Forster, and the National Party were in power. We had started our arduous trek from Frankfurt, Germany, after many months of preparation to migrate to this southernmost African Republic. For a tiny seven year old, the world had just become a whole lot bigger.
Amidst the many new experiences, language gaps, huge learning curves and cultural differences, one phenomenon stood head and shoulders above all others: Apartheid. Apartheid was a political and social system that protected the dominant rule of the 20% white minority through racial segregation. The term literally means ‘apartness’. Although racial discrimination has deep roots in South Africa, it was D.F. Malan and the National Party who formerly established the racist system when they swept into power in 1948. It was toppled in 1994, with the appointment of South Africa’s first democratically elected, black President, Nelson Mandela.
The injustice of a system that discriminated people by the colour of their skin felt like a cultural tsunami to freshly arrived, wide-eyed immigrants. Yet for many people who had lived in and under that system, especially those who benefitted from it, it seemed a ‘normal’ part of everyday life. The memories of what I witnessed under apartheid do not diminish with time: the beating of a man until he was bloodied, bruised and motionless, by a neighbour who thought he should not be in the ‘white’ part of town; the anger directed at my friends of colour when they stepped too close to the drinking fountains that were designated ‘whites only’; and the squalid, overcrowded townships with their tiny ‘match box houses’.
South Africa came under the rule of the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. Christianity played a major role in the shaping of colonised South Africa. But it was in the twentieth century that many churches started actively promoting racial division. The largest of the various denominations, the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk – NGK), became the ‘official religion’ of the National Party during the apartheid era. Fear ruled the day. A white minority began to increasingly feel that their own existence was threatened. Church doctrine and beliefs were fashioned to uphold a political ideology of segregation.
The Bible became the central tool for apartheid dogma. Genesis 11 was used to argue that God divided humanity into different races, with the white race being superior. Difficult Bible verses such as Galatians 3:28, where the Apostle Paul presents the Gospel as breaking down barriers of division, were adapted to claim that he was addressing spiritual, not physical, equality. This teaching became so entrenched that many believed that South Africa’s apartheid was God’s will, that races should be kept apart, that whites had better opportunities because they were ‘favoured’ by God, and that above all, God was the ‘Great Divider’. One of the first laws to come into legislation under the apartheid regime was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, banning the marriage of a white person to a person of any other colour. It was believed that these relationships were sinful, an idea that had been fuelled by the passing of the 1927 Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between white people and that of other races. During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, enthusiasm for apartheid theology began to wane amongst followers, yet many church leaders remained fervent adherers to the apartheid doctrine. At this point, it is also important to mention that there were numerous churches and church leaders who stood in fierce opposition to apartheid.
Gradually societal paradigms began to shift. The work and words of many anti-apartheid advocates was beginning to fall on more receptive ears. The effect of having black South Africans form the majority in all church denominations, except the Dutch Reformed Church, cannot be underestimated. Slowly, and facing much criticism, more church leaders began to speak out against apartheid. The South African Council of Churches became one of the most effective anti-apartheid organisation. Pentecostal churches tended to be more conservative than the older, more established, churches. They expressed vague ideas about the racial dilemma, indicating that God was the only hope for the future.
The Conservative Right, concerned about the growing acceptance of anti-apartheid ideology and the effect of foreign investment boycotts, organised themselves into new groups, like the ‘Christian Forum’, to protest sanctions. The founder of ‘Open Door Ministry’, Brother Andrew, distributed comic tracts in English and Afrikaans to South African defence troops, claiming that the anti-apartheid struggle was an invasion of ‘communism’ against ‘democracy’, and the final contest between Christ and the Anti-Christ. His ideas, that South Africa had a mission to evangelise all of Africa, and that the international movement for economic sanctions was a ploy of Satan “to isolate South Africa to prevent it from fulfilling its divine commission”, resonated with many. Of course, it is important to remember that pro-apartheid support was also found amongst many high-profiled Christians in the USA, such as President Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson. To this day there are still pro-apartheid advocates who argue that the struggle against apartheid was sinful, and that people who were involved need to ‘repent or face the wrath of God’.
At the heart of it all, apartheid was a radical survival plan. It was the construction of a deeply nationalistic and religious Afrikaner minority group who were terrified of being subjugated by another people and culturally swamped by black Africans. It was this fear that gave apartheid its impetus. The renown Afrikaans poet, N.P. van Wyk Louw, supported apartheid because he, like many others, believed that integration meant Afrikaner National suicide. Fear propaganda reached fever pitch as the walls of segregation began to tumble rather quickly in the late 80’s. Pro-apartheid arguments became shrill and hysterical, a rather common occurrence when dominating powers begin to fall.
The rise and fall of apartheid shows the social and political power of religious movements. God is often claimed and ordained by the various religious voices seeking to present their perspective as right and true. “God is on my side” is perhaps one of the most comforting and often deceptive notions of the religious faithful. Deceptive, especially when it propagates oppression, violence and discrimination against other people in the name of God, claiming their suffering is unavoidable and “for the greater good”.
Apartheid, at one stage in earlier South African history, was just an idea. An idea to control a large people group. An idea that would have been difficult to embody without the assistance of religion. Religion provided the ‘divine mandate’ that the idea needed to become a force – a force that brought years of injustice. We need to consider that Christianity, or an ideology based on Christianity, played a central role in this oppressive regime. This is rather ironic considering that Christianity itself began not as a religion, but with a persecuted minority group desperately trying to follow the teaching of a lowly carpenter. A man who became such a threat to the dominant social and political order that he was executed. It was not until Constantine that Christianity became acquainted with political power and a dramatic change occurred. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Overnight the Church moved from the bottom to the top, literally from the catacombs to the basilicas.” Christianity became the religion of the empire and was no longer at the very bottom of society, which is the best vantage point to “understand the liberating power of the Gospel for both the individual and society.” With power, wealth and nobility, Christianity began to deviate from the simple teaching of Christ, whose concern for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised, was evident in his ministry. Apartheid serves as an example of what happens when our ideas about God are driven by an agenda of control and dominion, conveniently hidden under religious robes of moral piety.
This is a most chilling lesson indeed, that if we are not careful, our very notions about God can be misplaced, and instead of bringing life and freedom, become a tool in the hand of the oppressor. History is not short of examples.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. – Nelson Mandela
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is ‘cor’ – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant, ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognise the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage’.”
Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame
What can tell you about my friend Lisa?
Hers is a story of pain, abuse, survival, hope and courage … courage that is so ordinary and yet so magnificent.
Hers is the story of a turbulent childhood, raised in an abusive cult.
Hers is a story through the valley of the shadow of death as she had to bid goodbye to her husband, who lost his life to cancer.
Hers is the story of being exiled from all the people she loved and finding the strength to go on with three young children.
Hers is the story of rebuilding, of finding love again, of raising a blended family with all its ups and downs.
Hers is the story of trusting again, of using her amazing creative gifts in a new faith community, only to once again be disappointed.
Hers is the story of digging deep, starting yet again, of standing tall.
If there is one word I would use to define Lisa it would be courage – and her story will bring you hope.
- “Lisa, thank you so much for being willing to share a bit of your life. You have written more extensively about your experience in growing up in a religious cult (readers, please find the link here and here).
If we could go back in time, what are some of the thoughts that defined who you were as a six, twelve and sixteen years old?”
Hello. Wow what a question:
At six, I was third in birth order and had a small adopted sister 12 months younger than me. At the time, I was still living with both biological parents and three siblings under the same roof. The home was emotionally very turbulent. Being a small empath, those emotional storms were channelled into my body so I was actually a very sick child. I suffered from migraines, high temperatures and dark hallucinations.
One day in my sixth year, the cult leader, Ray Jackson Snr (the then leader of a group called Immanuel, now called Melbourne Christian Fellowship), lined us all up in the kitchen and made us all say out loud, one by one, in front of my father that he – ‘Ray Jackson’ was our father – (spiritual head). This was the last straw for my Dad who was trying to get us all out of the cult. Realising that he was losing the battle he attempted suicide. The suicide attempt was at home and my sister found him unconscious in his bed. This was the event the cult needed to remove us from my father. A truck arrived and whisked us all away in deep secrecy to a ‘safe’ house.
Sadness and confusion would have been my overriding thoughts. I became an observer in my own life and learned very early on that I had little or no control over what happened to me or to those that I loved. This was a lesson that helped me later on in life.
At the age of twelve, my mother was living in a relationship with a woman who was an elder in the cult. I had no contact with my father and very little with my older siblings.
It was the 1970’s and my home life became even more turbulent. Our home was called “Immanuel House” and was also a home for Bible college students and for many young girls who were wards of the state:
“Children have been placed in institutions for many reasons, including family poverty; being orphaned; being born to a single mother; family dislocation from domestic violence, divorce or mental illness; lack of assistance to single parents and parents’ inability to cope with their children … State wards were listed as ‘being uncontrollable’, ‘neglected’ or ‘in moral danger’. In other words, children were often declared ‘uncontrollable’, ‘neglected’ or ‘exposed to moral danger’ and deemed to be wards of the state, not because they had done anything wrong, but because the circumstances in which they found themselves in.” (link)
At times there were 3 or 4 wards of the state living with us. You can imagine how scary this was for a 12-year-old. These older 14 and 15-year-old girls were often quite terrifying, they were traumatised and street smart.
One of the rules for those living with us was that they had to attend our church on a weekly basis. Unbeknownst to my mother, the cult leaders were using this house to collect and groom young women. Ironically, these girls who came to us from situations of moral danger were put directly in the path of those who were morally dangerous. These women have their own stories of sexual abuse and mind control.
Therefore, my home life was unstable, unpredictable and confusing. I did, however, have a faith in God and used to pray and read the Bible a lot. I did have a knowledge of the supernatural and understood quite clearly the impact of good and evil as I saw it out work in my life firsthand. One of the things these girls used to do, as a way of flipping the bird to my mother, was to hold seances. When you are used as a guinea pig in a spiritual ritual and are floating 2 feet off the ground unassisted, you understand that there are supernatural powers at work.
Grief, fear and loss were overriding emotions in my little life at this time. I was also initiated into the supernatural in many ways during this period. The world of angels and demons, prophecies, dreams and hallucinations became very real for me.
By the age of sixteen, I was living 50% of my time with a cult family. My mother, in consultation with the cult leader, ‘gave me’ to another family within the cult when I was about 14. I adored this family and was grafted in very easily. They were a pretty stereotypical nuclear family and I thrived in the order and predictability of ‘normal’ family life (if being part of a cult can be normal). The father was the music director of the church and, being a creative, I absolutely loved the music and creativity of this space.
At sixteen, I was highly mind-controlled and was in weekly private programming meetings with the cult leaders and eldership.I was being groomed for total control and manipulation. My overriding thoughts were of fear and panic as I never knew what punishment was coming or how I would be treated. I received beatings at this age by the cult leader in front of groups of men. I would have to publicly repent and pray out loud for my sins and faults which were brought to my attention weekly. I was by this stage completely consumed by cult life and was 100% submissive.
I believed that submission was the way to God. If that were the case then I must be very close to God because I was too terrified to disobey.
I was defined by hierarchy and patriarchy. I began to understand that to be close to the cult leader and those high on the hierarchy ladder brought special privileges and allowances. It also brought horrifying oppression and dominance.
2. “You have faced some of life’s greatest challenges, including the death of your husband, Ken, and shortly afterwards being totally cut off from your place and people of belonging by the cult. How did you go on? What were the thoughts that pulled you through?”
One of the things that helped me to go on from a place of complete devastation and loss was the understanding that my journey was incomplete. I still had a road to travel and I had to be strong for my children. They were completely reliant on me and needed me to be able to function.
I understood that bad things happen to people, good or bad. In fact, in my life, they happened a lot. Today I see many people completely dissolve under pressure or loss because they have this mindset that bad things shouldn’t happen to them. They are somehow blessed or exempt. These people seem to struggle with the concept of suffering. They feel that they are above it, immune to it.
The biggest illusion is that we have control over our lives. We plan, we save, we dream, we plot our lives and the lives of our children. In reality, we have no control. Illness, tragedy, accidents can hit us out of nowhere. I realised early on that I wasn’t in control. Everything that was happening to me was completely out of my control. So acceptance came to me a little earlier perhaps than those who had led a picture perfect life.
Suffering and grief are a human condition. No one is immune to it and we often have no choice. Up to 90% of what has happened to me has not been my choice. We do have a choice about how we deal with it and the legacy that we leave behind.
Do we allow suffering to mould and strengthen us or do we allow it to break us and make us bitter?
This realisation hit me when I had to choose a tomb stone for my husband. My thought was this. “What could I write that would still speak to my children when they stood here 20 years from now as adults”. I also had a deep faith in God and knew that I was not completely alone in this journey. He was beside me. He could not take the suffering away, but he could support and comfort me.
This was the reading that I chose for the tombstone.
What joy for those whose strength comes from the LORD,
Who have set their minds on a pilgrimage.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping (Baca),
It will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God
These are my overriding thoughts through this time:
We are each of us, on a journey, a pilgrimage.
We will undoubtedly pass through valleys of weeping this is a given.
However, those valleys can become places of refreshing if we allow them to.
The autumn rains come: inevitably life continues, life goes on.
The promise for us is that we can become stronger until it is our turn to appear before God.
3. “You found love again with Phil, and together with yours and his three children became the ‘Brady Bunch’. Yet in so many ways you were still recovering from trauma – can you tell us a bit about these years? What got you through the tough times?”
Out of the frying pan and into the fire. LOL…
Being a stepmother is one of the hardest gigs that I have ever done. (And can I just say that it was the Brady Bunch without Alice).
It was a whole new world. We had just left the cult and did not know a soul. We had to start again. Completely from scratch. I was still very mind controlled and affected by extreme conservative fundamentalist thinking and very sick physically.
In some ways, this total isolation gave us the space we needed to start again without any external influences. I had to hold everything very loosely, all my support structures were gone. I didn’t know which way was up.
I engaged the help of professionals. We had an amazing family doctor and for the first three years we had a standing weekly appointment. I also made regular appointments with a clinical child psychologist from the Royal Children’s Hospital and took all eight of us along. I needed to know:
What were normal teenage and child behaviours?
What was grief?
What was abandonment?
What was it like to blend a family and for children to change birth orders?
I could not have done this alone. I also started seeing a counsellor and psychologist and have continued to do so for the last 17 years. I needed many tools and a lot of help to navigate these new waters.
4. “You rebuilt your life and became an integral part of a different faith community where you served diligently for many years. Yet again you were disappointed, and in a sense betrayed, in a space that had become a safe haven for you. How the heck did you recover from that? Has this impacted you in how you view religious communities as a whole?”
I am slowly recovering from the gut wrenching pain of feeling betrayed and mishandled in this space. It has been a slow road to recovery.
I am very grateful for the time spent in that faith community. I learned so much and was empowered to grow and develop in so many areas. It was a season of growth and reinvention. During this time, I committed myself to academic study which helped me enormously. In regard to the brain washing, I threw out all of my theology and started again. I needed to know what to sift, what to throw away and what to keep. I needed to learn how to think critically. I needed new guides and new teachers.
What I have learned now is that patriarchy and hierarchy are everywhere. There is no perfect faith community because community involves people and people are messy. People generally like control, they like packages and they like order. As an artist and creative I think I have had an advantage in many ways because artists embrace chaos and mess. They know that it’s in the space of mystery and darkness that innovation and transformation occur. We take raw materials and transform them into something else.
I feel more freedom now that I am not involved in an institutionalised space. I have learned a lot about myself and what I believe. I don’t believe in patriarchy, I don’t believe in hierarchy, I don’t believe in inequality, and I am very wary of male dominated spaces. Therefore, there is a disconnect for me concerning many of our religious communities today because they are made up of all of the above.
The last three years for me have been a ‘coming alive’ to the teachings of Jesus – His character, His teaching and His concerns.
5. “You have written quite a bit about trauma and mental health (see link here). What are some practical steps that you recommend for people in recovery, perhaps struggling with poor mental health?”
In your opening, Nicole, you mentioned one of my favourite quotes:
“To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”
For me, mental health has a lot to do with speaking your heart. Healing from abuse starts when you begin to tell your story. Language is powerful – when you can find the words and when you can tell your heart to a safe person, then understanding and healing begins.
Being brave enough to get help is another huge indicator of your ability to recover. You cannot do life alone and you cannot recover alone. You need professionals to help you navigate this space. To give you language to help you to understand where you are and what has happened to you.
6. “Lisa, you are a bit like Fawkes, Dumbledore’s Phoenix in Harry Potter, that keeps rising from the ashes. Today you serve the people in your community, you are one of Victoria’s top 100 Wedding Celebrants, and one of the most others-centred people I know. I am not sure whether I would have your resilience in your circumstances. Can you talk a bit about what goes on inside that makes you rise again?”
Three things: Acceptance, Transformation and Forgiveness
Some people spend more energy fighting the fact that something bad is happening rather than accepting it and getting on with it.
At one, stage in his dying journey, my husband went blind. I was falling apart, crying and he said to me, “Lisa, the sooner you accept that this is God’s will for your life, the easier it will be for you”. The key here is acceptance. I don’t like it, I don’t want it, but this is what it is, this is my life and this is what I need to do about it.
Once a well-intentioned woman said to me: “I don’t know how you do this. I know if this happened to me I just wouldn’t cope.”
My response: Is there a choice? Is there another way to do this? If there is please let me know.
It’s a bit like childbirth. That baby is coming and you cannot get off that conveyor belt. You don’t have a choice, you have to give birth. You may not like it but that’s how it is.
Dumbledores Phoenix is an interesting analogy. This mythological bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. Isn’t this the work of salvation? Jesus said you cannot see the Kingdom unless you are born again.Spiritual vision comes with rebirth.
Being born again and again means death and rebirth. It is the cycle of life. It is how a seed turns into a tree.
Richard Rohr says that there are two things that transform us: suffering and prayer. Suffering is the catalyst that is used to transform us. Prayer is the vehicle that keeps us in the furnace until the change is complete. Prayer, which I call conversations with God, is the thing that keeps us sane through the transformation process.
Forgiveness is the gift you give yourself. It is the key to moving on. You cannot move forward if you are tethered to the past. Only you can cut the bondage that is holding you to the event, the hurt, the trauma. Only forgiveness is powerful enough to release you from this binding. You cannot even mature emotionally. Without forgiveness, you will remain the emotional age that the trauma happened to you.
I had to forgive my husband for getting cancer, for dying and for leaving me. Does that make sense? No. He couldn’t control that, he didn’t intend it but nevertheless, I was angry. I was furious that I was left behind without him. I had to let him go. I had to forgive him and forgive myself for my anger.
7. “I know there will be readers who will deeply resonate with your story on many levels. Readers, who like you, are survivors and have had to draw deep in order to rise again. Is there something you would like to say to them?”
I would say to my fellow survivors – “You can do this. Not only can you do this, you can do it and come out even stronger than you were before. Accept this pain and allow it to forge steel in your bones.”
What has suffering taught me?
Compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, love, acceptance and kindness toward my brother and sister. Suffering teaches you humility in your humanity. Humility makes you realise that we all belong. We are all part of the process. We are not exempt, we are not superhuman, we are not elite.
More than comfort, money or fame; my legacy to my children is the example of my life. Yes, bad things happen, but you are able to survive. More importantly, you have the resilience you need to thrive. You can live in Shalom. You can flourish through the journey of suffering. You can live in community with others as gracious, loving, merciful and compassionate human beings. Everyone has the right to belong. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone deserves to be heard. Your story is your life and your life is your story.
“Thank you, Lisa, for your time, your heart and all you are, dear friend.”
“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –
My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.
It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.
Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.
One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.
Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.
My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.
Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –
“Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be in an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” – Mahmoud Darwish
I remember those in exile from my childhood days. They became outcasts because they protested when people were oppressed and marginalised because of the colour of their skin.
They were mocked and ridiculed as they marched.
The government and church set its face against them. People were persuaded by the lies and slander: “These people will destroy our land as we know it, our families, our homes, our future …” Fear ruled the day.
Many of these exiles never saw liberation. They died with only hope for a different tomorrow.
They fought for justice that they would never see.
We remember those exiled to the margins. We will not forget their tears.
This is my tribute to the exiles both past and present.
The marginalised ones. The forgotten ones. The ones held in contempt. The invisible ones. The ones who have been colonised, murdered, exterminated, raped and beaten, in the hope that they will lose or forget their song and story. The ones who have been displaced and rejected. The ones who have been used as footballs by those in politics and used as scapegoats by those in the business of religion.
This post is to remember those who had a dream: that all people are created equal. It is to remind those who are tired and weary from pleading with deaf ears and stone hearts that every step towards inclusion of people groups that were once socially exiled, both in sacred text and throughout history, was met with great resistance. It takes a long time for the walls of ignorance to crumble. Every privileged generation finds it hard to let go of the safeguards they have set in place that determines who is in and who is out, who is valuable and who is not, who belongs and who is exiled.
To live in exile is to live in a space that does not feel like home. It is standing on the outside looking in. It is yearning for belonging, to be seen, to be heard, to be understood. It is to suffer the disappointment of empty promises. It is to be the target of passive aggressive language by those who become offended when their lukewarm acknowledgement is not met with accolades of adoration from those who carry deep wounds and scars.
This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.
It is to remind you that the margins are sacred, that the Divine sings over those who lament in exile. That the One from whom people hide their faces, who was despised and rejected, familiar with suffering, that very One stands as a prophetic witness amongst the exiled ones to testify to their pain and walk alongside them. You are not forgotten.
This is a tribute to the exiles past and present.
May your path be blessed. Blessed in the truest sense, not the plastic gimmick modernity calls ‘blessing’.
As you are exhausted, with no place to turn, may you be blessed.
As you have lost so much, all that has been dear, may you be blessed.
As you walk with humility, may you be blessed.
As you show mercy to those who showed you no mercy, may you be blessed.
As you seek peace amidst inflated egos of entitlement, may you be blessed.
As you are persecuted for seeking justice, may you be blessed.
This is a tribute to the exiles past and present. You will not be forgotten.
“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” – Brennan Manning