What’s wrong with me?

I asked myself that question each time I had been assaulted by an older, respected, close,  Christian man I trusted. I was sure it was my fault. I felt guilty and alone. For decades I hid the secret from everyone. I was a Christian. An excellent student in my native Finland, in Japan, in America. An accomplished pianist. A missionary. A Ph.D. A minister’s wife. A professor. A pilot. A social reformer. Rather well-known in my circles. Yet, nobody knew. Nobody could have guessed my secret shame, which made me feel something was really wrong with me.

But, I knew. Otherwise, why would I have been the repeated target of sexual offense by these different confessing Christian ministers and leaders? Something was seriously wrong with me.

That is what I thought. 

This is how it happened.

He was my great uncle, who had been in my life since I was born. We lived close by, spent time together like close families do. We attended the same church; he had been saved there and now sang in the choir. The whole family rejoiced that their prayers about his salvation had been heard! I was excited that one summer I was old enough to take the bus to their summer cabin to spend a week of my summer vacation with the two of them. They had no children of their own. 

As always, it was usual to lay down next to him during his nap. Only that afternoon his hands wandered into places where they didn’t seem to belong. He whispered something in my ear about going off somewhere alone with him – out on the lake to fish and then onto an island – just the two of us. I was somehow more special now than before. I remember being tucked into bed at night by him, maybe the two of them, I don’t know. I don’t remember. I do remember having to hold onto something terribly special and secretive that belonged just to the two of us. I didn’t tell anyone anything about what had happened because I forgot about it. I was 12 at the time. 

I didn’t remember again until I was 40 and happily married when my husband’s stubble happened to rub my cheek in a way that put me back next to him all those years ago. I started to cry hysterically and found myself in therapy seeking for answers for my sudden trauma.

I was in high school. Although I was good at many subjects and had the reputation of being a leader, I had a low self-esteem. I went to church faithfully, played the piano, accompanied the choir, led the youth choir, wrote and arranged music for them, and attended every time the church doors were open. I did little other than go to school and to church.  I still felt I wasn’t good enough. 

My new pastor and his wife took an interest in me. I confided in them and felt warm acceptance. He started to pick me up from school, write notes to me during service, show up at the house when my parents were at work… I thought I was special and maybe even in love. He told me we needed to love one another, just as the Bible said. The wife told me she was going to die young and he was going to need someone suitable to help serve in the church and care for the children. This was a special secret. I didn’t – couldn’t – tell anyone. Who would have believed me?! My own pastor was involved. We certainly were intimate but I don’t remember to what degree. I remember the kissing and the hugging. Was there more? I don’t know. My parents had serious misgivings about him, albeit unspoken to me. Somehow the elders learned about us, and over night the minister and his family disappeared. They were transferred to another location. 

No one talked to me or asked me what had happened. Presumably the elders didn’t want to know any details from me. They swept this whole affair under the proverbial rug, and so did I. This deafening silence only reinforced my belief that there was something wrong with me. It didn’t make any difference in my own assaulted heart that I was much younger, in his youth group, an active member of his church, and, therefore, the victim. Sure enough, upon being questioned by the trustees of the church, the pastor blamed me for being the one who had seduced him. I learned of this fact just this past winter, many decades later. Great. 

By the end of high school, in essence, I had been groomed to be an obedient, guardian of big, uncomfortable secrets. I had become codependent and allowed my boundaries to be crossed so as to become “accepted” and “worthy” by those I held in high esteem. I was perfect good-girl material, ready for the next perpetrator. I knew how not to talk. 

As an exchange student in Japan, I struggled not being able to speak and understand the language or the culture. I knew few people, so I was delighted to be invited to assist at church by playing the piano for former friends, who were preaching at a local church. These Messianic Jews had been in Finland some time earlier. My mother had entertained them in our home, showing them all the hospitality available through Christian fellowship. I showed up at the hotel where they were staying to go over the service arrangements. I was escorted to the hotel suite when the door flung open, and he greeted me with his big, foreign smile. I stepped in and after brief greetings, I learned the wife had just stepped out to make her hair appointment – but sends her greetings.

Without further delay, he pushed me on the bed, pulled off my bottoms, and raped me. Only much, much later did I learn in therapy that my response of shock, disbelief, frozen stillness, and immediate denial and forgetfulness, are common reactions among rape victims. I didn’t even recognize I had been raped until years later. I thought it was all my fault. After all, he had said so. I had been very friendly and sweet on the phone, so there. 

And, horror of all horrors, as an obedient child, I went to the service that night, played the piano, probably sang, smiled as if nothing was wrong, all the while living an outer-body experience, in complete denial and lack of understanding of what had just happened. I have a vague memory of him raping me one more time that weekend, somewhere in a dark hallway of that large hotel. 

Oh, I almost forgot. Some months later, while still in Japan, I had another unbelievable encounter. I would regularly attend a small church that was pastored by American missionaries. They lived in an apartment above the church. Her parents came over for a winter vacation and the dad was a minister, who could also sing. The two of us were asked to perform a song or two together in Sunday service. I went over to the church to practice. As we were practicing the moving Gaither classic “He touched me” by the stove that gave heat to the church and apartment above, we stood side by side with the blue hymnal in my hand. He was strumming the guitar with one leg up on a chair. Suddenly he slid his hand down and through his zipper pulled out a very erect appendage from between his legs. He started whispering to me, so that the wife, daughter and son-in-law upstairs wouldn’t hear him. He was going to be able to arrange a place for me to study near his church in southern California. Wouldn’t that be nice? he suggested. I am certain I couldn’t think because I had come to that place at that time “to serve the Lord”, not to seek college admission, even if it was going to be a full ride! 

For heaven’s sake, what was wrong with me?

In college, I had no idea what to do with the boys who told me of their “blue balls” that I was causing them to have. I really didn’t understand at first. In Finnish we spoke of “eggs” in that context. Somehow I was responsible for their misery. The pictures I had been painted of a Christian couple, their pure dating and eventual consummation of marriage seemed far from reality. I was in a Christian college in the U.S. Midwest, not some liberal city out West. Yet, there too, most of the boys who asked me out suffered from the syndrome above.  I thought I just needed to hurry up and get married because that was better than to “burn”. Or isn’t that what Paul meant in the scriptures? Lucky for me, the boyfriend who did get serious with me soon into my freshman year seemed to have the same life goals, was a Christian preparing for the ministry, said he was a virgin and, best of all, he would take me “as is” and forgave me my past — if only because no one else would. I was damaged goods. See, something had been wrong with me all that time! 

During our first week of marriage, he hit me on the cheek because I ruined his meat, he said. I thought I was supposed to make stew when he had meant roast beef. This should have been a major red flag about him, but it merely told me I needed to do much, much work to become a better wife because something was wrong with me. And so it continued under the submission of a narcissist for 17 years.

Was something wrong with me? Yes. I did not understand my self-worth or my boundaries. I did not know that I had the right to determine who touched me, when, where and even how. I had felt I had no power to decide. I knew nothing about “Christian sex”, if there was such a thing. Even though I had grown up in a country where equality between the sexes is relatively advanced, I believed man was created superior to woman. That is how the Bible was interpreted for me for many years by many well-meaning people — and by some less so. I had also thought the label “Christian” meant “above sin”. I didn’t understand that this whole Christian thing is a journey, that once you meet Christ, you have only just begun, as it were. 

I allowed men to have dominion over me in ways that ruined my heart and psyche for decades. It messed with my understanding of God and trust in Him. It most certainly affected my sex life, my whole sexual being, in the most negative of ways. Even when it was legal and moral to be in a physical union with a loving man, I felt – still do sometimes – that I am doing something wrong. What is wrong with me after all these years? I have seen counselors, psychologists, psychotherapists, grief counselors, trauma counselors, and psychiatrists during different stages of my healing. They all tell me the wounds of abuse are deep and long-lasting. 

This is not a confession. I am done with those. God forgives, but I was the victim! I now know that when he touched me, it was his guilt to bear, not my fault and not my sin (#notmysin). 

This is a mandate to address the #metoo phenomenon in the #churchtoo.  A house of worship is a place where we expect to be the safest (#safechurch), but it is not automatically so. Churches are populated by sinners, not saints. Safe spaces begin by spreading awareness and talking about the existence of sexual abuse, yes, even in the church, and safety grows when victims dare to speak up, when perpetrators are confronted, and when everyone is watching out for everyone else. Men included.

If we believe in the beautiful concept of man and woman having been created equal, we must harness that beauty well before it even develops into full consciousness. Sexuality needs to be addressed in factual ways that allow young, developing bodies and souls to comprehend what is happening inside of them, before it happens to them. They need to know that nothing is wrong with them at any point in their lives and they can be open about what is happening with some trustworthy adult, who is nonjudgmental. They must know that they will be believed regardless of who violates their boundaries or causes confusing feelings and sensations. Just because potential violators happen to carry the label “Christian” doesn’t mean that they have integrity or that they are harmless.

I know I was told not to get in the cars of strangers. My mom didn’t warn me about my pastor!

Most importantly, sexual harassment and abuse in the church could happen to any of us at any age, if we are vulnerable enough, under someone’s power trip, being groomed or in their grip already. There are evil-doers behind the pulpit or sitting in the pews with us who, when given the opportunity, will exploit us through their particular style of sexual and spiritual violence. And almost worse than that, there are those fellow Christians who choose to remain blind, deaf and mute to guard the pure image of their church rather than face the ugly truth with courage and fierceness for justice.

So, there is nothing wrong – really – with either me or you.

There is something very, very wrong with the abusers … and the system that protects them.

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