say what?

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“Don’t let a boy get his hands down your pants!”

That was the extent of my official sex education, and it came from my grandma when I was a tween. She declared it nonchalantly as she sat at her sewing machine working on a project. Alrighty then, thanks for that. My parents were silent on the subject. I learned about my period from a “bad” girl at middle school who came in the bathroom while I was in there and wondering what in the heck was going on with my body. I had heard everything pertaining to sex was taboo and bad from my fundamentalist-go-to-church-every-time-the-doors-were-open religious upbringing. Judy Blume, Harlequin, masturbation, and my uncle’s porn blooper videos and magazines were my best “unofficial” teachers. Yes, you read that correct. Go ahead and chuckle, it’s okay. But here’s the thing, what I thought was horrible and what I thought was pure and right were all mixed up and tossed together, I couldn’t separate it out, and it was information overload from all the “wrong” places. Maybe, maybe not.  I wonder sometimes who I would have grown up to be had I not had such a tight noose around my neck from the purity culture shoved down my throat from day one.

The stage was set very early on for sex and shame to be synonymous and linked irrevocably together. My parents never showed physical affection towards one another in my presence, and frankly didn’t act like they really liked one another all that much, tolerating was more like it. My father was very authoritarian, and I was wise to never step out of line, or else. Experimentation made shame worse, friend rape doubled it, then having my pastor want to be more than friends clinched it as a marriage of shame and blame that would last my entire adult life, until now, because hopefully we are on the verge of much needed divorce, shame and I.

Yes, you heard that right. On a basketball court in Mexico, on a mission trip, I was approached and asked about being more than friends. With my pastor. Who was married. Whose children I had been babysitting. Who had been pastoring my current boyfriend and his family most of his life. For several years, this abuse of power and position was happening. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. I craved the affection and the love. As the months and years passed he poured into me emotionally what he saw I was lacking. I saw in him what I thought I wanted in a spouse some day, a family of my own, at times I saw the kind of dad I had always thought I needed, other times I saw what I wanted in a partner. I had no one pouring into me and he stepped up to the plate. I was starving and he saw that. My parents had divorced just before we moved to the area with my Mom, I was reeling from the changes, and I was in the middle of highschool and all that goes along with that. The emotional affair began very early on and quickly. I knew our connection was wrong and cried everyday, but couldn’t stop myself from being involved with him it seemed. I remember wishing someone else saw what was happening and hoping they would come talk to me, to us, that someone would make it all stop, make us stop. Things had fallen apart with the boyfriend I thought I was going to marry, he was emotionally and verbally unhealthy and possessive, we had broken up, and this pastor had provided much needed support during all of that mess too. Part of me wanted to reconcile with my old boyfriend, to make things right there, he was the socially acceptable one I could be with anyway, it wouldn’t be so ugly with him. And surely he would grow out of the immature, hurtful stuff right? I did try to patch things up a bit with him and hide the “affair”. The pastor and I had hoped we could simply bury it and stop and noone would ever know. So we tried that, yet the emotional affair continued. The years culminated in a short sexual relationship lasting only a few weeks near the end of it all.

The watershed moment came when he woke up one morning and decided he was telling the church and his wife, but he wanted to know if his wife wouldn’t have him anymore if I would have him. I had been living in a basement apartment of their home for a few months, so he just came downstairs and made the life altering pronouncement, I said yes and fell to the ground. He left me there to babysit and never came back. Two elders from church showed up at the door several hours later telling me they knew everything, and that I needed to pack my things and leave. My heart fell to the tips of my toes, I felt betrayed and hollow inside. The bad one had been found out, I was the enemy. The “A” on my forehead burned into my skin. They asked me to pack my bags and leave, that the pastor and his wife were waiting down the road to come home, but I needed to be gone first. I couldn’t even say goodbye to the older child, she was away at camp. I was so heartbroken as I packed my things and hugged the two young boys. In the following week I met with the board of elders at the church. I was told that someone had to leave, not everyone could stay, and they had decided that since the pastor had been with them nine years, he needed to stay, and I had to leave. I was referred to a counselor where the church was paying for eight sessions, and I was told I could not come back to the church.

The pastor resigned that following Sunday, naming his sin of “adultery” but not naming me, but everyone knew it was me. I was seen at a local movie theater by a member of the church I had been tossed out of, I was called a whore out loud in the front lobby. I was the other woman, the one who slept with the pastor and almost broke up their family, the one who caused their beloved pastor of nine years to resign. He stayed in the congregation for another year or so and then moved across country to pastor another church, one he is still pastoring to this day, 24 years later. Parting ways was excruciating, the sadness and guilt ate me alive. Depression came into the picture, not surprising, yet shocking in it’s ruthlessness. I had a bottle of tylenol poured out into my hands, a mountain of pills that I almost swallowed. Somehow I looked into the bathroom mirror and into my eyes and I couldn’t go through with it. Now I see there was another realm of reality going on that I didn’t recognize then. I realize now that we never really stood on equal ground, that it really wasn’t an affair as I had always thought. We were not both adults equally consenting to engage in a sexual affair. I have lived under the suffocating shroud of shame for 24 years now, half of my entire life, and all of my adult life. I thought I was used goods and could not be used in ministry and that my chances of finding the kind of husband I hoped for were ultimately gone for good. I have always been treated as though I was more to blame, that I somehow must have seduced him and had plans to ruin his family and his life, as though in the quiet of the night I schemed about how to ruin him. No one told me until just a couple years ago, 21 years after the “relationship”, that what happened to me was really clergy misconduct, clergy abuse, clergy sexual abuse. Until finally someone called it what it was. Someone said, this wasn’t what you have thought it was all your life. Do you see how it is not even truly consensual when the scales of authority are so terribly out of sync?

Everyone pretty much treated me as the disgusting other woman who does not know how to act around married men, and someone to always be suspicious of. My story has been used against me at times. I have been accused where there was no fault, suspected when there was nothing but innocence, had my honesty and integrity questioned because of my history. Why is it that it is I who has seemed to pay the steepest price for what happened? I can’t describe how deep the shame grabbed ahold when I was accused of seducing my pastor, trying to break up a marriage, and soiling my family reputation, being kicked out of the church, having the “affair” used against me later, thinking I had ruined my chances of Christian ministry and a godly husband bc of the “affair”. 

I wake up in the mornings sometimes and in that blurriness before getting up I forget that my life has been marked with shame. For a blissful few moments in the innocence of waking I often forget. I wish my life did not have the story that it does, that my history was not so marred with spaces I want to black out with a permanent marker. But we all know life doesn’t work that way, there is no real way to cross out the stuff we don’t like, it cannot be erased. I am learning though that shame does not have to be my constant companion, that I can choose to be on the last lap of shame in my life and one day I can run across the finish line of that terrible ugly race I entered into. I am learning too that what happened to me was not truly as I thought it to be at the time. That it wasn’t actually something I willfully signed up for and knowingly walked into with a free and informed decision. For all these years I have been made to bear the brunt of what occurred. Everyone rushed to restore the fallen pastor, but the supposed adulterous woman was best left to be stoned and condemned, forever marked as someone untrustworthy. So much untruth in that narrative. Now I am finding hope outside of religion, apart from the God of my childhood, the silent and very absent God I want nothing to do with anymore, whether or not he is even there to begin with. I am healing, slowly but surely.

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