This spring I began working with a new therapist as I waded through the deepest depression I’ve experienced to date. When my therapist, Joan, asked about the possible sources of some harmful beliefs I held, I talked to her about my former relationship with Angela, my high school youth minister. This was nothing new. Years ago, I accepted that Angela spiritually and emotionally abused me for years in high school. I’ve spent LOTS of time in therapy over the past decade talking about my relationship with Angela and how her behavior affected me, and still affects me to this day.
Angela’s abusive behavior began soon after I joined the church youth group that she led. I was 15 years young, an impressionable, outgoing over-achiever. I’d never touched drugs or alcohol, I was an honor-roll student, and I was very much a virgin. Angela quickly took me under her wing; I knew she liked me because she believed in my leadership abilities. Within a year, she made me a student leader in the youth group, and she put me on the church’s payroll so that I could serve the Lord as a paid intern under her. From the beginning, I had Angela on a very high pedestal. She was a spiritual leader, and she purported that her word was the best possible representation of the word of the Lord, which I believed whole-heartedly. Today, as I type those words, I feel sick. Angela’s abuse was so subtle that it took me years to understand it even happened. This understanding came through speaking with mental health professionals, reflecting on my experience, studying abuse, and having conversations with other women who had similar experiences under Angela’s leadership.
Angela built trust and made me feel special by giving me access to secret knowledge and privileges, such as who in our church family was having extramarital affairs, which students in the youth group were having sex out of wedlock, and her thoughts and feelings about it all. In the beginning I felt special because she treated me like I was one of the good ones- someone who knew better than to engage in such sinful behavior. She treated me like an equal- a friend. We went to breakfast together before school, and met up for lunch, just the two of us. We spent hours alone together in her office and at her home. But as I started spending more time with Angela, and took on more responsibility as a leader in the youth group, she soon began tearing me down by reprimanding me for my shortcomings. My alleged indiscretions varied, depending on the day:
I was not being a good mentor, and that’s why Candace was having premarital sex with her boyfriend. I was not being a good enough leader to the other students, and I needed to sacrifice more of myself to the Lord. Playing tennis was becoming an idol to me, and I needed to check my priorities by spending more time with her at church. I was setting a bad example by driving too fast in the parking lot. I wore a tank top that was too revealing, drawing attention away from the Lord and to myself, which is sinful. I was talking to Chris too much, and he was distracting me from the Lord, so I needed to fast from him…he was just going to get me pregnant and ruin my life, anyway. I needed to sacrifice my thoughts of him to God. I was spending too much time with Shane, and he was a bad influence because he smoked weed. “Eagles don’t hang around with pigeons” she said, armed with roughly-translated biblical verses to back up this claim. I didn’t make the screws tight enough on the grill she told me to put together, meaning I must have been distracted by ungodly thoughts of Greg. I needed to sacrifice more of myself; I needed to do better.
Angela’s criticisms of me always came harshly and, in the beginning, caught me by surprise. I tried to explain that I had a lot on my plate- AP classes, an undefeated tennis season, and family responsibilities. But she wasn’t interested in hearing the excuses I had for not serving the Lord to the best of my abilities. No matter how much I gave, she let me know that it was never enough. I wondered why Angela didn’t see me as a good kid, like the other adults in my life did, and like my parents did. I desperately wanted her to see my worth and my goodness as a leader and a person. So I doubled down and tried harder: more time, more energy, more effort. Unsurprisingly, I came down with mononucleosis during my junior year of high school. My body was exhausted from doing too much for too long.
Angela used my desire for her approval to shape my life into what she wanted it to be. She urged me to make certain decisions about my life, like what to wear and where to go to college, and I made them. She didn’t want me to date anyone, so I stayed single. She demanded a significant portion of my time and energy, so I gave it to her. She told me that all of this was for the glory of God, and I believed her.
Now I can look at Angela’s behavior and see that it was wildly inappropriate and manipulative. Our relationship created a black hole in my stomach as I constantly waited for the other shoe to drop, time and time again. When she praised me, I soared. But any praise was inevitably followed by a lecture about exactly how I was messing up and needed to do better. This cycle of build and destroy continued for two years, until the summer after I graduated from high school when I finally ended my relationship with Angela, left the church, and turned away from Christianity.
If this is what it means to be a Christian, I thought, I don’t want anything to do with it.
At the time, I thought my experience of religious trauma was an isolated incident with one messed up lady. But now I see that abuse is all too common within religious institutions, especially those that “serve” Indigenous communities. As you may have heard, officials have recently found now over 1,000 Indigenous children’s bodies on the grounds of multiple church-run boarding schools in Canada. America is no different; it is not uncommon for Indigenous children to be buried outside of church-run, government funded boarding schools.
In Salem, Oregon hundreds of Indigenous children’s bodies are suspected to be buried outside of Chemawa Boarding School.
My grandfather is a survivor of Chemawa Boarding School. He recently told me that boarding school officials put him on a train in Flagstaff, and when he arrived in Salem “the Earth turned upside down”.
For those of you who are not from an Indigenous community, let me explain something to you: most schools have “alumni”. Our schools have “survivors”.
We call them boarding school survivors because they survived the harsh, abusive, deadly conditions common in “Indian boarding schools” (this is what they were called by those who created them) in the late 19th to mid-20th century (and sometimes beyond). Survivors have told stories of unwanted displacement, rape and other sexual abuse, verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, murder, starvation, over-crowding, unsanitary conditions, disease and so much loneliness and heartbreak. The goal of these boarding schools was “Kill the Indian to Save the Man”, meaning their stated mission was to assimilate Indigenous children away from their “savage” ways into Christian, White culture in the name of the Lord. I understand “assimilate” to mean “shame”, as shame seems to be the tool that most toxic religious leaders use to manipulate people into changing.
Their message is as follows: You are not good enough as you are. You are dirty. You are sinful. You have to change in order to be good. I will teach you how to be good in the eyes of God. You must do as I say, or you will remain dirty and sinful and you will burn in hell for eternity. Thank God you have me to save you from such a tragic fate.
Religious leaders violently imposed this message on our parents and grandparents at the boarding schools, fueled by the idea that Whiteness is superior to Indigeneity. Angela subtly fed me this message throughout high school, fueled by her own trauma, insecurities and false beliefs. It’s the same harmful message imposed by leaders of the same religion, and it must end.
Author’s note on tolerance and understanding:
The history I share here is not indicative of every Indigenous person’s boarding school experience. I’ve met many Indigenous people (often from younger generations) who say they had a good boarding school experience, prepared for college, and made many friends. These stories are valid, too. It is important to understand the many different experiences of Indigenous people in boarding school so that we can cultivate good educational experiences for our children, and perpetuate none of the harm.
It took me a long time to separate my experience with Christianity from my experience with Christians. After I walked away from the church, I held so much anger. Over the years, Christians who love me have listened to me rant about the harms of the church, and they have met my anger with patience and understanding. In fact, many of my Diné family members are Christians, which I try my best to be respectful of because I know it is their own way of connecting with people, hope, and a higher power. The purpose of this blog is not to spread hate, intolerance, and especially not lateral violence. The purpose is to hold people and institutions accountable for their actions, promote healing, and prevent future harm. Much of this responsibility falls on those who belong to the Christian organizations that have perpetuated so much violence. We can never undo the harm that toxic religious leaders have caused. But now is the time for all of us to have hard conversations about what it looks like to heal the wounds that the government worked with the church to inflict.
*While all events described are true as I remember them, names and personal details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.