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Religious Wounding: What Can Our Meetings’ Elders Do?

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I loved the church of my childhood. I am a mystic, and its Christian metaphors fit my experience quite adequately. I became a Quaker as a young adult and have now been a part of my meeting for 50 years. For 35 of those years, I have been recovering from mental illness. The meeting loved me back to health. Friends have always managed to see the real me inside—something not every mental patient gets. They loved and cared for me during a difficult time, and now I love and care for them. Some mistakes were made, but I always knew they were mistakes of love.

I am the sort of Christian Quaker who welcomes the moments when other Friends find and share their own metaphors, and draw whatever nourishment they can from diverse sources. My religious wounding came from a woman in our meeting whom I will call Kelly. In the 20 years following my psychotic break, I sometimes spoke in worship about my journey to heal. It was a long and arduous journey, done with much soul searching in the presence of God. Often my ministries had to do with forgiveness. I had much to forgive, both in others and in myself. With great pain, I identified faulty thought patterns and changed my ways. Phrases in the Bible and old hymns took on new meaning as I came to understand them in the context of my healing process. I shared from my tradition, and Friends often told me my words in worship were nourishing to their spirits.

But not Kelly: after any message that used Christian metaphors, she would stand up almost immediately and reduce our words to their least common denominator. If more than one Christian happened to speak, she would speak more than once—she was an equal opportunity denigrator of Christian language. I think she liked me and wished the best for my recovery, but she was allergic to God—the “G-word”—along with the sonorous phrases of the King James Version and those old familiar hymns. For her, there was truth in every religious tradition except Christianity. No matter how relevant or helpful the messages might have been, she would dump her feelings about God onto Friends who loved God. She wounded me emotionally. She chose to banish the God of her childhood, and wished to orphan me as well.

If One Is Unsafe, We All Are

My mother, a needy person, held me and told me if my father really loved us, he’d bring his paycheck home. I remember my shame: not only because my daddy was a gambler, but also because I loved him. When my mother dumped her feelings about my father into my little ears, she shamed not only him, but me as well. I was half-orphaned by my mother. When someone casts shame and blame on someone else, it doesn’t matter that we ourselves are liked or even loved, because we start wondering if we’re next. The trust is eroded. Our urge in that moment is to keep our heads down, rather than come into an abuser’s gun sights.

Elders Respond

Kelly’s behavior did not go unnoticed among our meeting’s elders. They were open with me about their concern. Friends labored with me one-on-one, challenging me to choose language less immediately offensive to Kelly. I was told to consider my audience more. They reminded me that she had been wounded by her religious upbringing and urged me to be more sympathetic. They challenged me to try to find truths in every ministry, reminding me that Spirit resides in every message given in worship, even in those which discount someone I loved.

It’s my understanding that the Pendle Hill study center suggests it’s the responsibility of the listener, not the speaker, to translate a metaphor. This approach is less inhibiting for ministers. But in my situation, Kelly translated out loud. By the time she had finished stripping the meaning from my metaphors, I hurt.

I don’t know for a fact whether Friends spoke one-on-one with our God-allergic Friend. I do know that they called a special meeting to encourage people not to comment on the ministries of other Friends. Kelly declared how much she enjoyed “our discussions during worship.” My impression, looking back, is that our elders may have chosen to speak in generalities in a group setting, rather than talk to her one-on-one or set clear boundaries for her. It would have been a great relief to everyone, for instance, if she had been given definite guidelines not to speak until seven minutes after any Christian message, and to speak only once in any meeting for worship. I wonder if in fact our elders may have sensed at some level that her behavior was wounding. Did they not feel safe to speak to her directly and privately?

Cartoon by Lillian Heldreth

Cartoon by Lillian Heldreth

Permission to Wound

I also wonder whether our elders, some of whom also were recovering from the faith of their childhood, may have felt protective of her right to disagree with Christian metaphors. It was as if the meeting’s elders tacitly gave her permission to wound others in worship because she had been wounded. Certainly I was left with the impression that some Friends thought the problem belonged to the Christians, not to the meeting: as if my sense of constant shaming by Kelly was my perception, and not something important to the fabric of the meeting. I cannot speak with any confidence about their motivations since most of those Friends have died, become disaffected, or moved away in retirement. I do know, however, that her behavior didn’t change. Since the elders did interact with me one-on-one, I came to wonder if it might help if I were to ask the Ministry and Oversight Committee to facilitate a conversation between Kelly and me. However, I was too inarticulate—thanks to the medications—to function well in the active give-and-take of such a sensitive discussion.

A Pattern of Conflict Avoidance

As someone who was both mentally ill and also a Friend active in the spoken ministry, I would sometimes become a praying elder for other Friends in need of active guidance. Kelly was not the only person who took advantage of our inability to mediate disagreements. Due to heavy medication, I never at the time articulated what I witnessed in some of those sessions. I now recognize a pattern of conflict avoidance in several earnest discussions involving abuse in meeting. Elders held the victim more accountable than the abuser. Their advice was the victim needed to avoid setting off the abuser (in my case, the counsel to avoid Christian metaphors). I do not remember any session during those years in which an abusive individual was given clear guidelines for disagreeing in a way that was less shaming and disrespectful.

Complicity with Abuse

Why did so many of these eldering encounters show a pattern of conflict avoidance? Some of the elders talked privately with me about their own abusive childhoods. Those elders, I realize now, uniformly displayed a pattern of holding the victim accountable. Other elders, about whose pasts I know less, seemed equally unaware they were asking for behavioral changes from victims, but not abusers. They seemed unconscious of the potential for delayed responses to the abuses of their childhoods. They were wonderful, kind souls, capable of deep sharing, but perhaps not aware of the shift in their own anxiety levels that probably preceded their being extra-empathetic with perpetrators.

Given this unsafe atmosphere, why did I stay in meeting? Two of our Christians did leave for safer worship communities. I wonder how many visitors never returned because they felt unsafe. I wonder if they were attracted to the Quaker peace testimony, but decided maybe those who called pacifists cowards were right. I never wavered in attendance for two reasons: I never doubted the affection in which I was held, and I loved silent worship. I loved the spiritual guidance that came to me during worship, even though it was regularly sold short by our God-allergic Friend.

The Journey to Forgiveness and Empathy

I began to feel empathy for Kelly’s fear of God-language, and I wished she had more empathy for my struggle to find meaning in my illness. She continued just as she was for another decade, before entering a nursing home. Few were left who actually knew her in her prime. Another Friend and I faithfully took her from the nursing home for a little drive. We worked together. I depended on my friend to pick out a nice restaurant, and she depended on me to think up the conversation. Talking about cute kids was neutral ground among the women in the meeting, so I made notes beforehand of little stories I could share about things the children did in meeting. Our elderly Friend giggled delightedly, and the three of us had a good time. I could feel compassion about her diminishments. Behaving as if I’d forgiven her allowed me to actually come to some forgiveness.

Silenced by an Atmosphere of Disrespect

Until that reprieve from constant rebuttal, however, not only those using Christian metaphors were silenced. For about a decade, no one spoke in worship. Our State of Society reports lamented the lack of spoken ministry, but no one seemed to ask why: don’t ask, don’t tell. I wasn’t choosing not to speak in ministry. Those were interiorly rich years, but I didn’t feel the material inside was to be shared in worship. There had been five Friends who used Christian metaphors in worship; nowadays there remain two. Several other good Friends, not Christians, also left meeting. There seemed to be a general atmosphere of disrespect that infected discussions about other matters, and thus Friends left the meeting. The three Christian ministers who stayed loved the meeting and loved silent worship too much to walk away. One of us died. About eight years ago, I began to speak again, but others—whatever their preferred spiritual language—seem never to have recovered their voices. The meeting remains damaged, not just by Kelly’s behavior, but also by the conflict avoidance. I have since observed our meeting’s current elders working wisely with abusive Friends to instruct them in better ways to disagree. Change in eldering style in the presence of abusive behaviors is in the air.

A Step toward Compassionate Dialogue

I felt compassion for Kelly when she was most active in rebuttal. I heard her pain. I still hear her pain in my heart. Some Friends stand in silence when someone negates others during worship, as a way of showing solidarity with the victim. I have not seen this practice in our meeting. I don’t know whether that’s because the meaning might not be clear to everyone present in worship, or because no one wants to raise his or her head above the line of trenches. Or maybe both. Perhaps education on this practice might make Friends more willing to stand in silence—education and also prayer support.

Also, instead of asking someone who is hurting from religious abuses to perform a cognitive function while he or she is hurting, our meetings might be better served by having such discussions take place outside of worship. In this more neutral space, we can ask the metaphor user, “When you say [metaphor], what do you mean?” followed by, “What I heard you say was [paraphrase of the explanation]. Is that what you meant?” Thus an empathetic dialogue—maybe even revealing some shared synonyms—could begin to emerge in our communities.

Religious Hospitality or Conflict Avoidance?

Religious groups, no matter their flavor, exist to provide spiritual hospitality, and every religious group is afflicted with those who abuse this hospitality. Most Liberal Quakers in our meeting welcomed spiritual diversity, but some appeared to neglect a concomitant responsibility to prevent those who suffer from religious wounds from wounding others. I feel some of these Friends used the concept of hospitality as diversity acceptance to excuse their unspoken fear of intervening. I describe not only the religious wounding I received, but also some of our elders’ reactions to Kelly, because I hope to help future elders avoid exacerbating religious wounding through unconscious responses based on their own pasts. I suggest the following query for meeting elders to reflect on when similar situations arise: How can we find ways to prevent wounded Friends from wounding other Friends, and thus damaging the meetings in which we come together for worship and fellowship?

Mariellen Gilpin is coordinating editor of What Canst Thou Say?, a publication for Quakers and others who have mystical experiences, and a member of Urbana-Champaign (Ill.) Meeting. She wrote the Pendle Hill pamphlet God’s Healing Grace: Reflections on a Journey with Mental and Spiritual Illness.

Posted in: Features, May 2014

2 Responses to Religious Wounding: What Can Our Meetings’ Elders Do?

  1. Chester Kirchman May 23, 2014 at 7:00 am #

    City & State
    Orangeville, PA
    Thank you, Friend Mariellen Gilpin, for a call to accept the various views in Quaker Meetings. To relinquish to just one’s views, especially courtesy of an abusive childhood, loses the true meaning of a Society of Religious Friends Meeting to reach a Global Consciousness, my God, together. For many Quakers, especially in Quaker Universalist Fellowship, your Kelly’s view, as well as many others’ even avowed atheists’, is welcomed to reach across the many ways to unite manhood. With our expanding cyber-space, we are in a position to reach this Global Consciousness through people like the three gentleman on ‘TEDxDU Interfaith Amigos’ online. We each have our own belief and faith in it. The more we can compare similarity in those beliefs, the closer mankind comes to unification. Looking at the cross-over between your own background and Kelly’s history helped in bringing you together, even though reason for a difference in beliefs existed. Admittedly, elders do need to comprehend a separation in beliefs to bring us closer together in meetings. May God (the Force) be with you.

  2. Jill Hurst-Wahl August 4, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    City & State
    Syracuse, NY
    Isn’t it interesting that the speaker in Meeting for Worship (or another Quaker gathering) is often asked to modify his/her words in order to appease the listener? That leaves us tiptoeing around thoughts and ideas. Rather than having rich conversations, we have conversations were much of the meaning may be left to the side.

    By the way, even the parables of Jesus put a burden on the hearer, knowing that each person might hear and take away something slightly different from parables that were laced with meaning.

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