“Go to church,” they said. But it had been over seven months since I had stepped foot in a church on a Sunday morning. I’m still recovering from my last “church” experience. And it has been a messy and beautiful healing process. But having been admonished to “go to church” more times than I care to count, I thought that surely by now, since I had taken some time away from it all, I could probably deal. I was wrong.
I woke up excited that morning and found my Sunday morning groove easily enough, perfected over a lifetime of practice. Donned a suitable outfit, make-up on point, and felt reasonably positive about turning a page into a new chapter at this new place that came with high recommendations. And off we went. Needless to say, the whole experience should have come with a trigger warning for Religious Trauma Syndrome. Yes, that’s a real thing. Spiritual PTSD.
There’s no way I could have prepared myself for what happened. Stepping into the auditorium, neatly lined rows of seats, packed with people, I felt the first pang of anxiety hit my gut. The vibe was stiflingly familiar, uncomfortable, claustrophobic. I swallowed and reminded myself to breathe. Slow inhale. Steady exhale. Someone helped us find a seat as I tried to maintain composure. My partner leaned over asking if I was okay. I couldn’t even make eye contact when I stiffly nodded yes. I wanted myself to be okay. I wasn’t.
The “praise and worship” part of the service was musically astute, but I couldn’t help but wonder if all of this really even meant anything. I was in tears. And not because “the spirit was moving”. I was experiencing what I now know to be an anxiety attack. Try as I may, I could not get myself to relax. The style of music, the songs, the set-up of the stage and auditorium, everything was like the ghosts of services past coming back to haunt me.
The mini graduation for their in-house ministry school triggered memories of my own Bible College graduation service. The pastor praised some of the more seemingly devoted graduates with “prophetic words” about how they were going to make an impact and reach India for Christ. Fundagelicalism 101 jargon. Nothing I hadn’t heard, or said myself, a thousand times before. I felt my stomach slowly fold into itself.
The pastor preached a wandering, theologically obtuse message, pulling from various scripture verses clobbered together to prove his point, lacking any discussion of context. I’m no theologian, but I’m also not biblically illiterate. I was uncomfortable and fidgety, counting down the minutes to when the service was supposed to end. The tears were hot and pressing but I kept blinking them back. I was frighteningly shaky inside. I could feel the growing tightness in my chest, quiver in my lips, and lump in my throat, and hoped no one noticed how distraught I was.
The service dragged on past the listed end time, and then some. I was floating in and out of various dissociative states. I willed my mind to wander to more pleasant places. When that didn’t work I stared at my phone hoping the urge to get out of there would somehow subside. My mind was reeling. I felt sadness and rage, betrayal and hopelessness, shame and anger. The tears kept blurring my vision and slipping down my cheeks as I wiped them as inconspicuously as I could. I was visibly shaky, unsteady, and borderline nauseous.
The closing prayer turned into the pastor praying for people with birthdays and anniversaries, students starting exams, the sick, visitors, and random other people as he “felt led”. And it wasn’t one prayer that stretched on. They were individual prayers complete with people asked to go up to the stage, issuing prophetic words, and a congregational “Amen!”, before starting again. The language, the posturing, the emphasis on certain words and phrases, the predictable “prophesies”, the patronizing way in which it was done, it was all unbearably familiar and bothersome to me.
When it finally ended, we were invited up to the terrace for chai (apparently an after-church tradition in India). I quietly followed my partner because my voice was lost in the grief that had turned into a lump in my throat. Several awkward minutes rolled by. Not one person stepped up to us to say hello or introduce themselves. We finally decided to leave. Walking away, I kept heaving cautious sighs of relief as my agitation slowly died down and the weight lifted off my chest and I could breathe again.
Even though I work in mental health and am familiar with the symptoms of trauma, it took a while before I could even put into words what the experience was like. It has taken almost a month after the episode to even get to the place where I could reflect and write about it. And six months after the fact to even be able to hit publish on this post. I didn’t know who to talk to. Who would even understand? That was a very lonely place to be. The severity of my reaction even confused my partner, and trying to talk about it and make sense of it all was difficult. It still is.
It wasn’t until I spoke to one of my friends who had been through the cult/church experience with me last year that I started to feel better. When I explained what had happened, I was surprised to find out that she had been experiencing the same sort of reaction while trying to find a new church home with her partner. She hadn’t been able to talk about it with anyone either. I hadn’t realized just how deeply we had been hurt until this episode.
I know I’m not where I used to be. I’ve tried to put the whole cult experience behind me. But coming to India landed me in the middle of a cauldron brewing fundamentalist evangelical insanity with a vision to spread the madness all over the country. Quite frankly, it is scary. The last thirty or forty years of American missionaries to India have solidified fundamentalism’s chokehold on the Indian Christian community, complete with the same shallow traditions that have been the downfall of American evangelicalism, divorced from the deeper historic roots of Christian tradition and orthodoxy.
Leaving fundamentalism and the evangelical movement behind has been beautifully freeing and healing for my soul. And people’s admonishments to “go to church” have been entirely unhelpful to my healing process. If you’re where I am, please take heart. Grieve. Stay close to the friends you trust. And don’t make any rash decisions. You will find your way back, or onward, when you’re good and ready. And if you’re one of “those people” who are quick to diagnose that someone is “backslidden” and should “turn back to God” or to “go to church” or whatever, just STOP. You’re not helping. And in fact, you may be doing more harm.
I will find my way. Slowly. Cautiously. But surely. Until then, I am where I am.
[Please note that the purpose of this post isn’t to point fingers at any specific church, and as such, I did not name names. A lot of charismatic evangelical traditions are very similar in their vibe, make up, and beliefs. I am sharing from my own personal experience. It may not be your experience, and that’s OK.]
© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016