[Andrew Jones – 1998]
One of her many bracelets was made of car parts. A silvery string of carburator cable to wind around her puny wrist. A treasure, scored form the streets she had called home since being abandoned in New York City as a bewildered child of 11 years.
She was not unlike the hundreds of street kids that came in and out of our apartment in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. But my encounter with her would change me forever.
We sat together at our dining table, peering intently at the plastic pregnancy test that any moment would or would not change color. Its result would change her life and that of her boyfriend in black who also watched on with anticipation. He impressed me. Still a teenager yet carrying the burdens meant for one much older. He was committed to her. Was going to marry her, he said, if the test proved positive.
He would be back in a few days, his face all bloodied from a fight with another Gutter Punk. His tooth had been pushed into his bottom lip, making a hole that almost made it through to the other side. I thought he was using our bathroom to clean up. Instead he was trying to push something through the hole to get a free lip piercing. I laughed for days after that.
But this pregnancy issue was no laughing matter. The destiny of two teens was about to be decided by the color pink or blue.
A few hours earlier, we had a discussion that I want to talk about.
I had asked her why she had decided to be a gutter punk. She thought that was a really dumb question.
“I didn’t choose this”, she protested. “My mother was a punk and she sent me to kindergarten with a f***ed up haircut. I have always been this way. But I didn’t choose it.”
Her answer humbled me and I determined to think about my questions carefully before verbalizing them. She took the next step.
“Do you like to read?”
“Would you like to see my journal?” she offered
I could tell what was being handed to me was a secret treasure and one that very few ever looked into. I felt even more humbled that she wanted me to read her innermost thoughts and feelings.
I began to read. Her vocabulary had increased but the spelling skills belonged to an eleven year old who never got to finish school. A lot of swearing. A great releasing of anger. Poetry that gave vent to a lifetime of abuse. Hers was a story that could have belonged to thousands of kids like her. The selfish mother. The abusive stepfather. The loss of innocence. Childhood stolen again and again. The safety of her bedroom door violated.
The words grabbed me. She poured out her feelings onto paper to a mother that would never read them.
what kind of f***ing mother abandons her child?
i was good
i did my homework
how could you abandon me?
The words burned into my mind and I knew that I would remember for a lifetime the sentences I had just read. Still, there was a lot more to read and I began to think of how useful this poetry would be.
Useful to kids who could read a similar story.
Useful to parents who could use encouragement to love their kids.
Useful to me for publications, to move people emotionally, to get attention, to raise finances for street ministry. Whoa! Wait a minute! Was I really thinking that?
Yes! But I suppressed it and focussed on the other reasons for getting this information into my own possession. Should I ask her? Why not. She’s only a street rat. She has nothing to lose, and nothing to give, except this journal.
“Could I have a copy of this?” I requested.
Her body tensed up and recoiled like a snake that was threatened and may need to strike. Somewhere within the change of mood and body gestures was the answer “No” but it was just one of the many things that I had set in motion and it almost didn’t need to be said.
As she drew back physically she looked at me with an expression of unbelief and horror, as if she had been betrayed by a life long friend, which was impossible because we had just met a hour before. Perhaps for her it felt longer because she had trusted on such a deep level and now that trust had been violated.
Her glare exposed me. As if a stranger had just opened the curtains of my darkest secrets and shone a flashlight into everything I had tried to conceal. My darkest side was now transparent, open to all, bare naked and flopping around like a hooked fish.
No hiding it now. In an instant I had gone from confidant to traitor, saint to sinner, protector to violator. I was now outed as one who could have been any other abuser who had ever held her down and took something from her. I was as bad as anyone I despised. As guilty as any criminal. As slimey as any two-faced preacher who walked down Haight Street pretending to care for the street-kids while taking mental pictures of the Freak Show to use as trophies and sermon illustrations.
In an instant she had helped me discover who I really was in my unregenerate Self, my Self without the grace of God. She helped me see what no other preacher could show me in vivid color: that my heart is sick and desperately wicked. And that I could never presume to be judge over the sins of humankind since I was as bad as any other who ever walked this planet.
I gave the journal back.
“I don’t need to copy it”
It was at once my reply and repentance. I encouraged her to keep writing.
Then she came back at me with a statement that showed me I was forgiven and trusted again.
“I really want to be parented”
I didn’t know if it was a statement or a request. In a way I really did want to adopt her but she was too old. I thought about my answer for a while and told her that she couldn’t go back, not even if she wanted to. I then told her the story of a father who let one of his sons go. He went to an exotic location and spent all his inheritance on babes and partying. When he was broke and abandoned by his friends, he decided to return to his father. His father ran out to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him They threw a huge party to celebrate the son that had been dead but was now alive.
I told her that story was from the Bible and meant a lot to me because I was like that prodigal son. I was far from God and not attractive to anyone. But I came back to him and he treated me like a loving father would treat a son. And God offers to adopt us today into his family, to be his sons and daughters, to experince his secure love.
“I still feel his embrace” I said, and suddenly realized that I had been talking for about 15 minutes and the Gutter Punks sitting near me had sat intently the whole time. I could tell that they had never heard anything like that and were struggling with if the story could be trusted.
A little while later we were sitting around the table, waiting for the blue to turn pink.
It didn’t. Negative. No baby. No marriage ceremony to perform.
They moved on the following week and I never saw them again. She has probably forgotten our conversation. But I will always have it. For we exchanged precious gifts that day. I gave her the knowledge of what was inside her womb and she gave me insight into what was inside my heart.
I was entrusted with gift that is priceless and rare.
A gift that would alter my posture in this world forever.
The gift of seeing myself.
2004 – Thanks for reading my confession. Since this experience 7 years ago, I have been constantly aware of the potential for spiritual abuse, and i harbor a nagging fear of the stage, in particular church stages, which always seem to loom higher and more foreboding than other stages.
When i am preached at, i often feel abused. Sometimes it happens when i am asked to give money.
When i am the preacher, i often acknowledge my privileged position behind the pulpit – and the abuse that can so easily happen in a monologue situation. I often verbalize it, invite participation, hand out paper and pens so that listeners can respond with poetry – that sort of thing. But just acknowledging it vocally seems to put people at ease and gets rid of this invisible barrier of potential abuse that seems so easy to happen in a church building, or anywhere. . . .
I now work as a networker and consultant. I constantly come across young leaders and emerging ministries that want to connect with something larger, but are afraid of being colonized and spiritually abused by stronger ministries. They don’t want to become someone’s number, or story, or picture on a newsletter . . . and yet they also need fathering.
I can say that i have been there – in both places. Abused and Abuser. I have run ministries that others tried to colonize and own and abuse for their own end. I have also been the Abuser, the one looking for an angle on how to draw strength and favor that rightly belonged to someone else. Being aware of the potential for abuse is now part of my toolbox in bringing ministries together. And one person that helped me see clearly, was this girl on the streets of San Francisco. We spent a few hours together but she is remembered. She saw me. She saw through me. She forgave me. She is dear to me. A partly adopted daughter. A part of my life.
If you would like to discuss spiritual abuse, i invite you to come back on Sep 6, at 7pm London time, to meet Renee Altson, author of Stumbling Toward Faith: My Longing to Heal from The Evil That God Allowed.
You will be given directions to the virtual space we call “Suddenly Seminary”. See you there.
But in the meantime, you may want to leave a comment below. You can yell at me if you like. Call me a BASTARD! I wont mind. I wont strike back. Or maybe you have found yourself being The Abuser, like me, and you want to just say it out loud. Be my guest . . .
As far as London is from San Francisco, so far he has removed our transgressions from us. Sort of Psalm 103:12
A, thanks for the vulnerability. A live issue for all of us…and some thoughts I’m taking on holiday with me now.
Hope you’re on the mend from the lurgy.
Wow Andrew, that was some story. I have a heart for the prodigals of life. They come in all shapes and sizes. Having been one for most of my adult life I know the journey from the streets, from the pit, from dispair, to the loving arms of a Heavenly Father. He is a father for the fatherless, a shelter in the storm, a place of forgiveness and hope. Keep on keeping on. I’m still praying for you each and everyday.
thanks for the honesty andrew.
this is so often something that stays in the background in church – something whispered, or thought and not said.
until more preachers and leaders are more open and honest about this whole area, and have strategies to counter peoples often well founded fear, the longer it will remain something unspoken.
thank you. this is beautiful and honest, and … holy.
Thanks TSK. “Ministry” is seductive. “Ministry” is heady wine. It tempts us to violate the trust of others and of God Himself; tempting us to hijack their stories and use them to promote ourselves and “the ministry.” The temptation comes from having to justify and somehow validate what we do – and how we do it – to others and perhaps even to ourselves. We want their stories to make our story worthwhile.
Thanks for your honesty. And transparency. Validation comes from God. His ‘well done’ should be enough. Enough. Thanks.
I visit your blog occasionally – and find little jewels (for me) to think about here and there. The post above moved me more than anything I’ve read so far; thank you for being honest, real and for your acknowledgement of brokenness.
thanks andrew-this really blessed me
this kind of awkward truth-telling and truth-hearing – among mobile and powerful people – is hope in a massive bun- good news for the poor that ye can eat! or at least get yer teeth into!
TallSkinnyKiwi blogs on spiritual abuse. I wish I had a working definition of Spiritual Abuse to use as a label for some of the things I’ve seen and done that I know just aren’t right….
Thank you Andrew. Much to ponder.
these are the stories i need to hear.
Being so completely middle class and having worked in trailer court ministries and inner-city ministries, I too have used/thought of using a young person’s vulnerability to me to use as a support/fund raising opportunity. You point out the subtleties of spiritual abuse. Your story brings to mind a couple of kids that I have ashamedly done similar things to in the past. It’s nice to know I’m not the only bastard out there ;-).
You are not afraid to look into the mirror. That makes you grow.
I remember someone once admitting that while he was a pastor, he would manipulate others to fit into his mold.
Now he’s making the mistake of assumming that all God’s servants do the same (or those of a particular denomination). He hates himself and therefore cannot love others.
You cannot love God and hate people. You cannot call yourself worthless and find worth in others.
Only God can give you the love, approval and acceptance that you thirst for.
We will always struggle with sin this side of heaven. When you get depressed, that’s the enemy
-the author of discouragement making things worse.
Despite all this, we belong to Jesus and have experienced knowing Him! That makes it ALL worth it.
Working with street kids and displaced people this is something that has been in the back of my mind but I have only ever been half aware. It is too easy to manipulate and abuse those we are supposed to be helping… How many thesis have been written about the poor that have benefited the author and left the poor to continue in their misery… Thanks for making thins conscious to me…
I’m humbled by your honesty.. may you find the healing you need… may we all find it..
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It’s good to see you’ve grown as a person fromt his and can now look back upon it as a mistake you could learn from. In my life i hear words from the preachers mouth and it makes me hate them cause i can’t help feel that they are lies. I have my faith but i pretty much despise the church and it’s conformist ways. But i can now see there is some good in the ppl that i put so much energy into hating. Thank you for that.
In November 2005, I raised some concerns about certain breaches of Child Protection Guidelines in the Youth Club my children attended. The Youth leader and Minister, chose to view my raising these concerns as a personal attack on the Youth Leader.
Within two weeks of raising these concerns my name was being passed around the church .
As a direct result of my raising these concerns lies have been circulated about me and my family, and my children’s relationships with club members have been systematically destroyed because of the lies told about them by the leadership. I have been informed that private briefings and public announcements have been made about me by theYouth leader and the minister to the whole youth club and some parents, as well as other youth club helpers and church members.My own relationships with church members have also been destroyed. One strange feature is that in the three months since this happened not a single church or youth club member has asked myself or my children for our side of it. They have all just stopped speaking to us almost overnight. Fortunately some of what has been said has now started to filter back to us and the lies that have been to.ld about us are disgusting.
To involve the youth club children was highly irregular in itself, but to seek to isolate and discredit my children as well as myself by lies, false accusations and statements, is beyond belief..
The leadership banned my children from club as” spies” even though I had made it clear that what I reported I had seen for myself when helping as a volunteer over summer 2005.
The lies and rumours being circulated are so nasty and untrue, and the effects of the hatred being stirred up against me and my children are so devastating, that there have been times when I have been afraid to go out in case I saw anyone from church.,particularly since the lies have resulted in threatening and abusive behaviour directed specifically at my children. There have been phone and computer messages and they have even been pushed and shoved in the street and at school.One message even threatened to kill us though since these messages are from teenagers we don’t take them seriously, though they are very upsetting to read as they contain such hatred and the people responsible for them were confirmed into the church alongside my own children only three months ago.
I have also received the impression from what a number of people have said that my actions have been talked about as being of the devil. If this has been said, it is a very strange stance to adopt since I somehow cannot see the devil worrying too much about protecting children! Quite the opposite. I think it would serve his purpose more to have children left unprotected and isolated.
I have tried several times to resolve this situation by face to face meetings but the leadership refuse even requests from the senior minister of the team ministry..
Does anyone else have similar experiences?