My therapist suggested that I let my feelings out in a controlled environment that was safe. So instead of driving too fast or eating the entire carton of ice cream, or taking a baseball bat and—well, never mind about that one—she advised that I get some newspaper and let ‘er rip. “Make sure you are in a safe, private place where you can express your feelings verbally, without fear of interruption or being heard. Let the anger surface. Let the grief come. Allow tears. Tear the paper, wad it up, throw it, whatever helps you to physically discharge the anger that your body has held for a long time. Verbalize your hurt and anger while you do this.”
The year was 1997. I had finished seminary two years earlier and was in my first appointment as a pastor in the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. By then Alex, my abusive first husband, and I had been divorced for several years. We separated when I was in the final lap of seminary studying the hitpael in Hebrew and healing from childhood trauma. Our daughters were in high school and college by then, brilliant, funny, gifted girls, the apples of my eye.
Because of the divorce I had become, as I expected, persona non grata in the evangelical church where I had been working toward ordination. It didn’t matter why the divorce happened. There was no contextualization for people who could not be together anymore because it was so destructive, or because one of them was sadistic, or crazy, or because of betrayal or one of the partners came out of the closet after years of painful denial, or any other complexity in life. Divorce was always interpreted as evil, period, deserving of eternal damnation and—like sin in general—mostly the woman’s fault.
After the divorce when I found my way into the United Methodist Church, I was welcomed enthusiastically, and treated with respect. Though my life was so much better than it ever had been, now that I was unhindered in pursuing my vocation, I still had some hard work ahead in order to move into deeper inner freedom.
But to get there I had to go through some pain.
The parsonage where I lived was in a tough neighborhood in East Liverpool, Ohio. At one time that neighborhood was a great place to raise a family. People could earn a decent living at the potteries, factories, steel mills and small businesses that contributed to a thriving economy. Then outsourcing happened. One by one the potteries and mills closed, and businesses were shuttered. This happened up and down the Ohio River Valley.
As is so often the case in communities that collectively lose their livelihoods, a new set of industries showed up. Now a toxic waste incinerator near the elementary school provided jobs and burned something at night that sent people to the ER because they couldn’t breathe. Chemical factories provided jobs and spewed God-knows-what but it made the paint fall off the houses. My neighborhood was riddled with drugs and crime and kids raising themselves. There was a busy crack house across the alley from the parsonage.
My new neighborhood was both alien and familiar. I grew up in poverty with the kind of neglect, abandonment, and violence the kids in my new neighborhood faced, but I had never lived by a crack house or in an urban setting of this kind, immersed in hazardous waste. I suspected my neighbors thought I was highfalutin because I showed up with a decent, if old car, and I was a pastor who carried a briefcase and wore a suit. The three small churches I pastored were several miles out of town, not in the neighborhood, so I was gone most of the time and didn’t interact with neighbors much. They had no idea about how I grew up.
My colleagues and congregants thought of me as a polished, professional woman with a great future. I did not talk to them about my history as a child or my long and painful marriage to Alex, or the trauma of divorcing him. Honestly, I wanted to move on. I tried to get away from my own story. But stories have a way of following us, and all that anger that had been stashed in a deep freeze was beginning to thaw.
So it was that on a cold, rainy morning I stood in the middle of the living room doing my homework from therapy, wailing at the top of my lungs. I cried so hard it felt as if my body had turned inside out. The agony of a thousand memories poured out for the neglect, abandonment, rape, assaults, contempt, control, exploitation, frustration, lost opportunities, toxic religion, sexism, pervasive anxiety, and shame. I felt utterly Godforsaken. Heaps of torn, crumpled newspaper and wads of soggy tissue surrounded me.
Someone pounded on the door. It was a fist, not a polite tap. I froze, mid-wail. The pounding became more frantic. I had to answer it. I went to the door and opened it a few inches. There was the scrawny little woman who lived in the crack house and sold her body to support her habit. Her teeth were shot and her hair looked like a bird’s nest. She was in need of a shower. I had waved to her a time or two but we had never had a conversation.
“Honey, are you awright?” she asked, peering past me into the house. She pushed the door open wider and stepped in, looking around with a fierce glint in her eye, her bony hands balled into fists. “I was walkin’ by and I heard you a cryin’. What’s goin’ on, baby?” I realized with a shock that she had come to take on whoever was in there hurting me.
I assured her that I was okay, I had been crying over old hurt from long ago. I thanked her for stopping to check. With one last scan of the room to make sure no one was lurking in a corner, she said “Awright then, honey, you take care,” and left.
I was not Godforsaken. The Bible says that Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, that now he is a high priest who has gone through every kind of temptation we have and every kind of suffering so we can be sure that when we call upon him his seat of authority is mercy and grace. And I believed all of that. What stunned me was how he came to me through this woman. I didn’t know that was allowed. This street angel wrecked my theology.
Don’t get me wrong. I learned so many things in seminary that to this day help me in my work. Even so, living with chronic, debilitating, hard-to-diagnose illness, multiple hospitalizations, an insurance company that didn’t want to pay for treatment, doctors with a political agenda, unbearable stress at home, and going through a divorce after a long, violent marriage were some of the most formative educational experiences of my seminary years.
Never again would I take for granted the ability to walk or to have energy for a full day’s work. Years of Lyme Disease gave me compassion for people who suffer from chronic illness and because of the illness, depression and despair. The divorce opened my heart to all kinds of people who are judged and rejected by the church for deciding to be true to themselves and live with integrity, including those in the LGBTQ+ community. Most of all, I learned what it means to hold space with others who suffer in ways we cannot fathom.
Just as illness and divorce from a violent partner provided transformational learning experiences, my encounter with the crack house neighbor changed how I understood the Bible and the character of God in ways that no classroom experience could. That woman remains with me today in my heart and mind, a raspy-voiced prophet. She’s there reminding me to listen to all my neighbors beyond the church, because God is speaking to me through them. God is with them, and in them. That’s how she wrecked my theology. She knocked down the walls of the church, all the insider outsider categories, all the sanctimonious ways we use pious language to draw lines between “us” and “them.”
When she came to rescue me from whoever was hurting me, I learned there is only us.
Abuses of sex and power in the church crop up with depressing regularity in the news lately. Stories of victims traumatized by authority figures are everywhere. We can’t just look away, even though we may want to. But how can we say anything constructive about the reality of this trauma that doesn’t sugarcoat the truth, yet still leaves us—and, most importantly, survivors—with hope?
One survivor of such trauma became a religious authority figure herself: Elaine Heath, the former dean of Duke Divinity School. With her sister, Jeanine Heath-McGlinn, a licensed therapist, Elaine has written Loving the Hell out of Ourselves, a powerful story not just of trauma, but of healing. These two sisters overcame the trauma of life in patriarchal authority structures, inside and outside the church, to find grace and strength. Their story offers hope for survivors—not candy-coated religious platitudes, but real peace born of hard work, discernment, and love.