When We Were Young in Africa by Carol Claxon Polsgrove

“O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

― Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

Carol Polsgrove was born Carol Claxon in Kentucky, in the 1940s. When she was three years old her parents signed on with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board. They applied to go to Hawaii, but God had other plans and they were invited to Africa. Carol’s story begins as the only child aboard a Norwegian ship on the vast ocean, bound for the Gold Coast.

I should tell you right here that this is not a story about abuse, even though I am featuring the book on my blog about abuse. It is, however, a story about loss and grieving and sacrifice, things all of us MKs can relate to.

MKs often feel like fractured people, with many different lives somehow stitched roughly together. Very often the pieces can’t fit at all, the edges rub painfully, and one or more of them must be cast away completely. This way we lose a part of our life and a part of ourselves. This book shows a journey that begins to fit those parts back together to make a whole person.

Carol has a fantastic memory not just for events but for the underlying feelings and sensations she experienced as a child. This is supplemented by letters written by her parents to their families in Kentucky, and by her own letters written from boarding school. It wasn’t until after her mother’s death that Carol really began to explore these memories. Until then she had played the game so many of us missionary kids know, fitting into American society as best we can and not mentioning “that part” of our story.

The Claxon family started out living in the Gold Coast, a British colony that would become present day Ghana. From there they moved to Nigeria, and then frequently around that country, living in Iwo, Oyo, Ibadan and Lagos. Carol also went school in Oshogbo, and every three years they traveled back to spend time in the United States. It is the familiar story of a nomadic existence that doesn’t allow attachments or friendships to form.

You can feel the richness and beauty of Carol’s life as a young girl growing up in Africa. This was a country full of rocks to slide on, trees to hang from, fairy pools, bright flowers and foliage and tropical fruits ripe for the eating. Many of the hardships that bothered her parents, like dust, insects and snakes, were just considered a part of life, and the way things were. Many find this concept hard to grasp. I still get people today remarking on how strange and wonderful it must have been to grow up in Nigeria. Nope, not strange at all. It was normal life for me.

It took years of experience, an adult viewpoint, and a look at the correspondence of her parents for Carol to realize the veins of sadness and sometimes desperation underlying their lives. Each of her parents on separate occasions received letters from home telling them one of their own parents had died. The family suffered chronic pain with a lack of health and dental care. Superhuman demands were placed on them by a workload that seemed like enough to keep several families busy, and by their account was placing them at times under “terrible strain.” Trade offs had to be made in order to survive on a very limited amount of money in a world that kept getting more expensive. Her brother Billy fell ill at the early age of four months, and suffered with severe illnesses for the rest of his childhood.

I think many of our missionary parents suffered similar hardships of an overworked schedule, constant travel, lack of health care and the stress of adapting to a tropical lifestyle. It is a credit to them that many of us kids had no idea what they were going through. They managed to create a stable and worry free home life for their children, in spite of their own duress.

Carol spent two years at Newton, a Southern Baptist boarding school in Oshogbo. On the surface her time there seems full of activity and enrichment, packed with lessons, plays, music, boyfriends, sports, and an active social life. It took some digging into the memories to uncover the hidden feelings of confusion, over-stimulation and loss of control. I can relate so much to the whirlwind of going from a solitary life as the only child on a mission compound (my sisters were both older so I was left at home for two years) to a highly structured school with hundreds of classmates and lots and lots of rules.

If you are from a Southern Baptist mission, or are in any of the Nigerian MK groups on social media, you will recognize many of the names of Carol’s playmates and classmates.

One of the casualties of the lack of health care was that Carol was not properly treated for an eye condition called strabismus. Because her brain is unable to fuse two images coming in at different angles, she has no depth perception. As an adult she reflects that this is “an appropriate disability for a girl growing up on two continents.”

The majority of MKs will go on at length about how fortunate and blessed we all are, and how rich our experience as children. This is true, but it denies the other side of the story, which is that every missionary and every MK necessarily experienced great loss and sadness, and sometimes worse. It is a tough journey to fuse these parts together. I appreciate Carol so much for her truthfulness and transparency as she tells her story.

 

Releasing the Chains: Timeless Wisdom on How To Forgive Anyone for Anything by Lisa Gibson

Lisa Gibson knows a bit about tragedy and loss. Her brother Ken was one of the passengers on Pan Am flight 103 which was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. In her brand new book, Releasing the Chains, she talks about the courageous way that she dealt with this experience and her own perspective on forgiveness. She also includes the stories of fourteen others who have walked the path of abuse or heartache and wrestled with forgiveness. Lisa graciously offered me a chance to read this book early so that I could share it with you.

Ms. Gibson writes that the heart of forgiveness is relationship, and forgiveness is meant to be a catalyst for reconciliation. Our whole Christian walk is built around relationship. Forgiveness should not be treated as a unilateral action, where I can forgive a person in my heart and then expect to feel better. Viewing forgiveness in this way means it is important for a victim and offender to have interaction, even confrontation.

What is a victim to do when they can’t reconcile with their offender? Reconciliation is not the same thing as forgiveness. Ms. Gibson says we must transfer our hurts to God’s court, where He is the Judge, Jury and Advocate. This is the way to find release from bitterness, to move on in freedom and peace, and to conquer evil by doing good.

Ms. Gibson talks about the distinction between justice and vengeance. God says “Vengeance is Mine.” However justice is a different matter. We can leave vengeance up to God and still pursue justice here on earth.

The Stages of Forgiveness

Ms. Gibson outlines six steps along the path of forgiveness. First there must be identification of the true offense.  Sometimes it is not what appears to be wrong on the surface. Second there must be validation of the victim’s feelings. Often people are pushed to forgive too early, before they have had a chance to feel the fullness of their pain.

The grieving process comes next, with five well-known stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Then, it is time for a confrontation with the abuser. Luke 17:3 requires us to confront the abuser. This gives the abuser an opportunity to fully realize the damage they have caused, and to confess. Of course there are cases where it would not be safe or wise for a victim to confront his or her abuser, or where the abuser might have already died. The abuser also might not take responsibility for his or her actions.

The next step in the process is forgiveness, which is the most difficult step and requires the forgiver to die to a selfish desire to get even. Ms. Gibson writes that if the offender asks for forgiveness, you must forgive. To this I would add but not until you are ready. It would be wrong to rush along the process when you have not fully completed the first four steps. Finally, the last step is to transfer the case to God’s courtroom. This is the action that can free you up and allow you to move ahead, no longer litigating your own case over and over in your head, but leaving it for God to deal with in His own time.

Ms. Gibson talks about the cost of unforgiveness. It is a familiar list: denial, abuse of food, drugs, alcohol or sex, lashing out at yourself or others, mental disorders, detachment and anti-social behaviour. Yet I have to ask the question, are these things consequences of unforgiveness, or are they directly related to the abuse that happened in the first place? If a child suffers abuse that diminishes self esteem, distorts self image, takes away a sense of safety and trust in man and God, isn’t this enough to trigger any of those symptoms and more? By saying these are caused by an unforgiving spirit, it is essentially saying the victim is responsible for the hurt and must fix it himself, when truly the root cause of the hurt is the abuse.

The Stories of Forgiveness

A large portion of this book is made up of the stories that are shared by Ms. Gibson and fourteen others about how they were able to forgive. Ms. Gibson begins with her own story of her brother’s death on the Pan Am flight that was bombed by terrorists. She eventually wrote to the convicted bomber in prison to offer her forgiveness, worked to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Libya and even met with Muammar Gaddafi. Other stories include that of a grandmother who has to come to grips with animosity towards her daughter-in-law after her children’s divorce, a woman who must forgive herself for abusing her own children when they were young, and a man injured in an accident caused by a drunk driver. A woman is held at gunpoint and raped, another woman must decide whether to stand by her husband as he serves time in prison, a whole family is attacked by an unknown gunman who kills and injures several family members, a woman is abandoned by her father, and so on. The stories range from interpersonal and family strife to severe physical violence, and I believe everyone will be able to relate to the situation of at least one of these storytellers.

Encouraging Confrontation and Reconciliation

What if SIM heard an allegation of sexual abuse from the past, and instead of ignoring the victim and advising the accused person not to respond, they tried to facilitate confrontation and reconciliation for these two people? Instead they, and many other churches and missions, stifle interaction between victim and abuser, ignore the problem and hope it will go away, or encourage victims to forgive quietly in their hearts and then not mention it any more. I believe Ms. Gibson’s model of forgiveness with an emphasis on relationship, confrontation and reconciliation is healthier for both victim and offender, even though it might induce a confession by the abuser and bring things out into the open which the mission prefers to keep secret.

One thing I take away from this book is the difficulty of forgiving. Ms. Gibson does not diminish this or tell us we should forgive quickly. The very title of the book, Releasing the Chains, implies a task that is going to require a lot of effort. The strength required to truly forgive can only come from God. Matthew 19:26 says “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” I pray that He will send us both healing and justice.

Releasing the Chains will be available in bookstores and on Amazon in November. You can read more about the book or order online at the publishers web site. 

Forgiving the Unforgivable by David Stoop

Forgiveness is no sweet, platonic ideal to be dispensed to the world like perfume sprayed from a fragrance bottle. It is achingly difficult. ~ Philip Yancey

A good friend told me about this book and I thought I would share it with you. In Forgiving the Unforgivable Dr. Stoop acknowledges how difficult it is to forgive certain people. We may consider an offense to be unforgivable when it is so out of the ordinary that it shakes our moral foundations, or when it is committed by a person we trusted and loved. What if the person who committed the offense has died or refuses to acknowledge what they have done? Dr. Stoop’s premise is that forgiveness is possible in all these situations. There is nothing that is beyond forgiveness.

Defining Forgiveness

It’s always good to define what you are talking about right up front, especially when the topic is forgiveness, which seems to have a different meaning for everyone. Dr. Stoop defines forgiveness using some standard dictionary and Biblical definitions.  Then he fleshes out this definition through a list of ten statements that he identifies as myths or truths about forgiveness. Here are a few that stand out for me.

  • Instead of forgive and forget, we should forgive and remember.This is to protect ourselves and not get hurt by the same person over again.
  • Getting angry as you work through the process of forgiving is not only good but it is essential. This is because through being hurt we have experienced a loss, and we are grieving that loss.We must experience anger to process our grief.
  • When we forgive we must give up feelings of ill will toward the person.This doesn’t mean we need to trust them again or even like them, simply that we don’t wish them harm.
  • Forgiveness is a process that might take a very long time. Quick forgiveness isn’t really forgiveness, it is just excusing the behavior.
  • Forgiveness does not require the participation or repentance of the offending party. It is not the same thing as reconciliation. Dr. Stoop says “Forgiveness is required of us believers, but reconciliation is optional and depends on the attitude of the offender.”

I can already appreciate Dr. Stoop’s perspective, because it is so different from the advice and counseling I have heard for years from Christian organizations about how to forgive.

Should we wait for repentance before we forgive?

Chapter Four, A Radical Forgiveness, talks about the difference between Old Testament forgiveness and the radical teachings of the New Testament on this subject. Jewish law teaches that when an abuser repents, then we must forgive. Many Christians also believe in conditional forgiveness, forgiveness only when the sinner has repented. Yet Jesus’ example is of unconditional forgiveness, because he died for us while we were yet sinners. This concept is hotly debated. When you dole out forgiveness even to unrepentant people, is that not cheap grace which lets people off the hook for their crimes? Does unconditional forgiveness mean that there will not be any accountability?  Is unconditional forgiveness even possible for us in our imperfect human condition? What do you think?

Three Paths

Dr. Stoop outlines three paths we can take after we have been harmed by another person.  The Path of Denial eventually leads to emotional shutdown or depression. The Path of Bitterness begins not by denying the hurt but by telling and retelling the story. Some of the steps that follow are accusing the other person, obsessing over the event, and seeking payment or revenge.

The third path is the Path of Forgiveness. On this path we begin by placing the blame appropriately. Sometimes it is obvious where to place the blame, but sometimes not so much. For example when a child is abused they often grow up feeling they are responsible for what happened, sometimes even being told that by their abuser. Or, if your abuser was another child, which is a common occurrence in Kent Academy stories, do you assign the blame to that child, or to the boarding school staff, or do you look back through years and years of child-on-child abuse to find the adult perpetrator at the beginning of the chain?

The Path of Forgiveness leads through the process of grieving, to forgiveness, possibly to reconciliation, and eventually we learn to trust others again.

Binding and Loosening

Something that really struck me in this book is the concept of binding and loosening. Matthew 18:18 says “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” By refusing to forgive, we bind the sin of the offender onto that person. When we forgive and take it one step further by asking God to also forgive that person, we loosen the sin from that person and allow the Holy Spirit to begin working in their life. Jesus modeled this forgiveness from the cross when he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the prayer we can pray to begin the supernatural process where the Spirit can actually begin to change the offender.

This is the prayer that Stephen prayed as he was about to be stoned, and of course Saul was in the crowd acting as an observer. It wasn’t long before the Spirit was working on Saul to bring about the changed man we know as Paul. What an amazing and powerful thing if we hold the keys to releasing our offenders so that their lives can be changed.

Much More about Forgiveness

There is a chapter in this book devoted to forgiving ourselves. If you grew up in a legalistic boarding school environment and you suffer from guilt, you can appreciate the need for self forgiveness. Forgiving yourself entails going through the stages of grief, just as when you forgive someone else.

Nowadays forgiveness is becoming quite popular in secular settings. Researchers are even measuring attitudes and emotions and finding that they are linked to health issues such as cancer and heart disease. Dr. Stoop cautions not to remove forgiveness from its spiritual context. Forgiveness is best understood in relation to our being forgiven by God. I would go one step further and say sometimes that is the ONLY reason to forgive an offender.

I liked the message of this book that forgiveness does not mean wiping our memories of the offense, and does not require reconciliation with the offender. I would be putting myself right back into the path of danger if I did that. It does mean that you stop ill-wishing the offender, and that you pray for the offender. I find it is very difficult to be angry at a person when I pray for them on a regular basis.

If you are discouraged with the message that you should “forgive and forget,” if you feel guilty because you are not able to forgive an offense quickly (and are being told your attitude is sinful!), if you are feeling pressure to reconcile with your offender and keep quiet about the offense, I recommend this book for a fresh perspective on forgiveness.

Messy Spirituality by Michael Yaconelli

In Messy Spirituality, Michael Yaconelli starts out by saying “I am a mess.”  With that confession setting the tone, we soon find out that this is not a book for the “together” person who needs another pat on the back or validation that they are doing everything right.  This book is for the broken, depressed, discouraged person, who stumbles and fails and never quite measures up, at least in their own mind, to the norm.  The message of this book is that God’s grace covers everyone, especially the messy people.  And not only are we covered by God’s grace, but he made us, and can use us, just the way we are.

Consider some of the heroes of both the Old and New Testament.  These people were mentally unbalanced, made poor decisions and didn’t play nicely with others.  David had a man killed so he could steal his wife.  Samson was impulsive, reckless and routinely picked fights.  Rahab was a harlot, Jacob tricked his brother out of a birthright, Noah got drunk with disastrous consequences, Saul in the Old Testament was seriously depressed and Saul in the New Testament hunted down Christians, persecuted them and saw them stoned to death.  On and on goes the list of scandalous people who were taken and profoundly used by God.

Messy Spirituality is chock full of stories, and one of my favorites involves Charlie Brown and Lucy, the Peanuts characters.  Charlie Brown has stopped for advice at Lucy’s psychology booth.

“Life is like a deck chair, Charlie,” says  Lucy. “On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been.  Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they’re going.  Which way is your deck chair facing?”

Without hesitating, Charlie replies glumly, “I can’t even get my deck chair unfolded.”

Charlie Brown’s dilemma pretty well sums up the way many people feel – inadequate, unworthy, unable to measure up, not just unable to participate at the great meeting, but unable to even get there.

Sadly the very groups that could be helping desperate people are shutting them out.  To attend MOST churches, you need to get yourself together first.  Get yourself cleaned up, dressed up, and calmed down to the point where you can sit for an hour in silent listening.  What about the people who can’t clean up – don’t they need God even more?  If I sit through the service week after week with tears running down my cheeks, that just makes me and everyone else uncomfortable, and we will all try to find a way to stop it.

Even Facebook, the microcosm of society, rejects a really messy person crying out for help.  Telling stories about what a great parent you are, the sacrifices you are making for others, and what wonderful things you have done for God lately are strongly encouraged on Facebook.  Talking about your brokenness, and how you became broken, will send your “friends” scattering away, or at least turn them into silent spectators.

Thankfully this is not God’s way.  He does not require that we clean ourselves up and get our lives together before we come to him, and he can use us right in our imperfect and messy state.  His grace covers the thief on the cross just as readily as it does the man who spent 30 years on the mission field and told the gospel to hundreds of people.  They will both be paid the same amount at the end of the day.

In a chapter called Resisting the Resisters:  Overcoming the Saboteurs of Spirituality, Mr. Yaconelli talks about how it is the nature of human beings, and especially in Christian organizations, to try to silence those who interrupt the comfort of the status quo.  Those of us who are trying to make churches and missions aware of abuse know this only too well.  The people in these organizations act in different ways to shut people up.  They might ask you to leave the organization if you make people uncomfortable enough.  They might resort to name-calling.  You may find you are a poor example, uncommitted or  “unspiritual”, you may even be labeled as crazy, delusional or mentally unstable.   You might run up against the “Kingdom Monitors” whose self-appointed job is to keep the riffraff out of the Christian organization.

Mr. Yaconelli talks about how the idea of spiritual growth has become an industry, and an unforgiving measuring stick to live up to.  The reality is that spiritual growth is not a formulaic process which increases at a steady rate day by day.  Sure there are good days and high spots, but there are also days when the graph plunges down, moments of despair, times when we become stuck and can’t get anywhere.  I love the way Mr. Yaconelli puts a positive slant on these times in our life when we are not “growing” spiritually.  He calls these the times when we are resting, listening, returning, or waiting.  How many times does the Bible tell us to be still and wait?  We wait in hope for the Lord. (Psalm 33:20)  Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. (Psalm 37:7)  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:25)

Are you a moral misfit, burned-out believer, religious incompetent or spiritual perfectionist?  Messy Spirituality is a refreshing reminder of the truth that God loves you just as you are.

Hidden Joy in a Dark Corner by Wendy Blight

I just finished reading Hidden Joy in a Dark Corner, by Wendy Blight, and participating in an online Bible Study using this book.  The study was led by Melissa Taylor of Proverbs 31 Ministries, a lovely and inspiring group of ladies.  Even if you aren’t involved in such a study, I recommend this book for those who are working through the fear and pain of abuse.

As a young woman, Wendy was the victim of a violent rape which left her paralyzed with fear and anger for years afterwards.  She launches right into the book by telling this story in detail.  In the years after the rape, during which she also discovers that the police have lost all the evidence gathered during the investigation so that she has no chance of identifying her attacker, she wrestles with three possibilities: God did not have the power to protect her and stop the attack, God could have stopped the attack but did not know or care enough about her to do that, or God knew what was happening, could have stopped it, but purposely allowed it to happen anyway.  All three of these choices seem scary and unacceptable, and I think all of us who grew up in abusive religious settings have pondered them.

Wendy was truly in a dark corner, unable to function and live a normal life because of her fear.  She knew about God but did not have a personal relationship with Him, and the Bible was just a collection of stories instead of a message directly for her.  As she began searching for answers, God put people in her path who were able to guide her slowly onto His path.  This wasn’t an overnight process, in fact it took decades.  As she studied her Bible with a desire to know God better, and began to trust Him more and more, He revealed himself to her.

The toughest chapter for me in this book was Chapter Six, Learning Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a delicate subject among survivors, particularly those who receive no remorse or even acknowledgment from their abusers.  Forgiveness is used as a weapon by churches and missions in an attempt to quiet up the victims and make the whole problem go away.  The message of forgiveness is not one that many victims want to hear, it is much more popular to talk about justice and righteous judgement.  Wendy says her debate with God about forgiveness lasted for years, as she hung onto her anger and hatred for her attacker.

In a later chapter Wendy talks about surrendering your strongholds.  A stronghold is any deeply rooted sin that prevents you from growing in your relationship with God.  Some examples are anger, pride, bitterness, addictions (of all sorts) and fear.  These are the ways that Satan is able to take control of our lives.  Two of my own strongholds are fear and timidity, emotions that pretty much ruled my life during boarding school and for years afterwards. I imagine this is true of many who grew up attending Kent Academy and other boarding schools where abuse occurred.  That is why this verse from 2 Timothy is one of my favorites.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of  power, and of love, and of a sound mind.  2 Timothy 1:7

You may be wondering where the hidden joy comes into this story.  This blog is all about dark, ugly secrets that have been locked away for many years, eating away at people.  But Wendy shows us that God has his own hidden treasures he wants to give us.

 I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD,  the God of Israel, who summons you by name.  Isaiah 45:3

 We all know it takes years of perseverance to uncover secrets.  God also requires us to seek hard for the riches he has hidden away for us.  Whether our riches are healing and peace, or joy after years of experiencing grief, or a relief from chronic pain, we must ask for them and actively search before we receive them.

One lesson this book drives home to me is this process of desiring and seeking to know God.  The first step in the process is one that we ourselves must take.  How often are we told this in the Bible?  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find;  knock and the door will be opened to you.” This is God’s promise for us to claim, that we will find what we are truly seeking.

Paul Friesen’s book “Ultimate Sacrifice” and the Gospel Missionary Union

Ultimate Sacrifice by Paul Friesen is a difficult story of pain suffered through the generations of a family.   When I read this book I feel not so much that I am being told the story by Paul today, but that the child, and the teenager, and the young man of the past are telling me the story themselves from their own unique perspectives.  Paul Friesen’s parents were missionaries with the Gospel Missionary Union (now called Avant Ministries) and Paul attended the Mamou Alliance Academy and Ivory Coast Academy boarding schools.

The legacy of the grandfather who was tortured for his beliefs placed a huge burden upon Paul’s father, who chose the missionary life of self-denial and sacrifice.  At first the children stayed in Canada in a mission boarding home, and then when Paul was very young his mother died, sending the family into a tailspin.  Paul’s grieving father had little time or emotion to spare for his kids.  Soon there was another “Servant Bride” taking the place of mother, and this time the whole family traveled back to Africa and the children were enrolled in Mamou Alliance Academy.

This was just a descent of an already wounded child downwards into a world of pain and terror.  Life at Mamou was rigid rules and harsh punishments, isolation from family, and vivid nightmares.  A six year old was not able to live up to expectations and gain the attention he needed, either from adults or the other kids, who teased and tormented him.  We all had our ways of coping with boarding school life.  I tried to make myself as quiet and insignificant as possible.  We learned to behave much better than children normally need to behave.  There were always a few kids though, and usually boys, who couldn’t contain their anger or couldn’t conform, and tested the system.   These boys attracted the abusive attention of both staff and kids, and had serious and long-lasting damage.  Because of his anger, his unmet emotional and developmental needs, Paul was unable to stop his behaviour even when he knew the consequences it was bringing down on his head.  Who could help and guide a child in that situation?  Not his parents, who were absent and detached, not his sisters who were separated from him, and sadly not any of the adults who were taking care of him at boarding school.

Furloughs in Canada were just as bad, as the family lived in poverty, at one point with no heat or inside plumbing.  Paul was even more of an outsider in the Canadian school, and bullied by both the other kids and by some of the teachers.  There was no help or relief for this boy.  If he felt hopeful about a change in his life, you can bet his situation would only end up getting worse.

Eventually parents stopped sending kids to Mamou because of the political situation, and he transfered to Ivory Coast Academy.  This school (later renamed International Christian Academy) was owned by Conservative Baptist International (CBI), however GMU had their own dorm on campus run by GMU missionary staff.  The children in this school were devious and cruel on an advanced scale, and roved in gangs preying on the younger kids, who sometimes carried knives to defend themselves.  In 1976, before he returned home to Canada, Paul was invited to testify before the Field Board at the GMU Annual Field Conference, to describe what ICA had been like.  Apparently the mission was worried by the reports of nervous breakdowns and attempted suicides by children attending ICA.  Paul describes the missionaries on the Board as largely a group of ignorant people who did not really want to know or accept what was going on.

Paul survived this abusive childhood and returned to Canada to begin college and adult life.  Paul says “On the outside all was rosy.  Always smiles and happy.  On the inside an animal was trying to become unleashed.” There were social difficulties, pent up emotions and anger, theological differences with the Church, anger at people who refused to see and accept the truth of what has been happening on the mission field, depression, financial difficulties and finally the collapse of his marriage.

Around this time the Mamou investigations were in full swing and Paul was able to reconnect with other MKs and share experiences with them.  The Mamou MKs had fought long and hard to get Christian and Missionary Alliance to acknowledge abuse, and were finally getting an investigation, and apology, and some restorative measures.  But Gospel Missionary Union (now Avant Ministries) continued to turn a blind eye to their MKs, refusing to participate in the Mamou investigation, even though they sent children to that school.  They were invited to attend retreats for the victims after the investigation ended, but they declined, even though many of their MKs were victims at Mamou.  They did not offer any counseling services to their MKs who were abused.

We know that GMU received reports of abuse at Ivory Coast Academy as early as 1976 (Paul’s appearance before the board), and took no action.   In fact GMU ignored reports of abuse at their ICA dorm for years.   You can read more about this in a 2001 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  One of the staff named in the article as an abuser, Carl Schumacher, is also mentioned as one of Paul’s dorm parents in Ultimate Sacrifice.

 In 2001 the Conservative Baptist International mission took action on the abuse allegations – they felt a responsibility since they were running the Academy, even though the abuse occurred in a GMU dorm.  Professional mediators met separately with the victims and officials of the Gospel Missionary Union and Conservative Baptists.  To my knowledge the results of these meetings were never publicized.  Scott Harris, the current Vice President of Field Ministries for Avant (formerly GMU), says this: “Top leaders of the mission including the exiting President, new President, CFO, Chairman of the International Board of Directors and two members of the International Board, sat down with a group of abuse victims, listened to their stories and submitted to mediation.  The mission then offered to pay for counseling expenses for the victims, some of whom accepted the offer.  In at least one case, we extended our assistance for counseling beyond the agreed period.  There was also a formal statement issued at that time, which I have been unable to locate as I prepared to write you.”

Was that statement issued publicly?  Were perpetrators named, and what kind of consequences did they receive?  Are any of those perpetrators still employed by the mission?  This is another example of a mission being forced into action to confront abuse, and then coming up with an inadequate response.

Its always great when a story has an ending of hope and healing, but I sense this is not the case for Paul, and probably not for other GMU MKs who suffered abuse in boarding schools.  Yes, a victim needs to want to be healed, and it would be wonderful if all abused MKs could travel that path.  But when the mission who call themselves “family” and the abusers themselves deny and refuse to acknowledge the abuse, that only creates more and more anger, not healing.  MKs were a sacrifice on the mission field, and we continue to be sacrificed in order to protect the reputations and finances of our missions.


The Missionary Myth by Vivian Palmer Harvey

Vivian Palmer Harvey is a missionary kid and boarding school survivor who attended Mamou Alliance Academy from the time she was five and a half years old.  I just finished reading her book, The Missionary Myth, and found it to be powerful, troubling and yet hopeful.  If you went to a boarding school this book will bring back lots of memories, as it did for me.  Sewing on name tags and packing for school, the sirens and bells, the dining halls and food, the morning room inspections, the queasy feelings and the panicky feelings, the sound of a dorm parent’s footsteps coming down the hall at night.  I think we must have gone to the same school!  Be prepared for lots of unpleasant memories to come to the surface when you read this book.  Vivian talks of these memories as covered giants that will only grow larger, colliding with your needs, until you confront them.

Vivian tells the story from an adult viewpoint, and then she slips into a child’s point of view in boxes throughout the narrative titled “My Child Self Speaks.”  Each chapter of the book ends with “talking circle” questions.  The Talking Circle is a Native American tradition which she explains in the book, and the questions are meant to be discussed in a group setting or meditated on privately.

The Palmer family was stationed in Ivory Coast, serving under Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society (CBFMS), starting in the 1940’s.  Life was hard for the family and yet this book tells of the rich and vivid memories of Africa.  Then, it came time for Vivian to start attending school, she went off to Mamou, and everything changed.  The stories of abuse that happened to the MKs at this school are nothing short of horrifying. 

Interestingly, later in the book, Vivian describes the process her parents went through when they were selecting a mission.  They considered SIM, but learned that (at that time) SIM did not permit children to live on the mission field after the age of six, because it would hinder their parent’s work. 

All was not smooth sailing during vacations and furloughs either, when the Palmer family was together.  Her father’s strict belief was that he must do his missionary work at all costs, even of great pain to his wife and children.  This belief is encouraged by the mission system.  It creates feelings of resentment toward the family, the mission, and even towards God, that can last a lifetime. 

Vivian examines the origins of the evangelical mindset, that our way is the only way, and we must impose our beliefs and our way of life on people for their own good.  You can still see the impact of Pax Romana, feudalism, the Papal Bull and colonialism in the policies of some missions today.

The Native Americans provide an example of the harm that has been done in the name of converting and colonizing indigenous people.  Native American children were kidnapped from their parents and forced into boarding schools by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and this continued over half way through the twentieth century.  These religious schools inflicted severe punishments on the children and along with attemping to convert them to Christianity, they tried to erase their Native American identities by doing things such as punishing them for speaking any language except English.   Vivan has developed close relationships with many Native Americans and tells their stories in her book.

Vivian pictures the patterns of abuse as a “perverse tree.”  The roots of the tree are the foundational elements, such as deep-seated beliefs, that justify the abuse.  The branches represent the abusers, with their personality traits and methods to inflict wounds on the vulnerable.  The fruits of the tree are the consequences and damage that occur in the heart of the victims.  These fruits bear seeds that will repeat the pattern in the next generation.  Some fruits of the abuse tree are silence, anxiety, fear, anger and hate, apathy, depression, obsessiveness, paranoia, and more.

So what is hopeful about this book?  Is reconciliation possible between abuse victims and their abusers?  Yes, but it is a long and difficult road.  We are taught not to show anger, but it is necessary for anger to surface before true reconciliation and healing can happen.  Next, there must be acknowledgement by the abuser of what he or she has done.  It seems that most missions today will only acknowledge abuse when the admission is dragged out of them by public pressure.  Finally, there should be restoration by the abuser, an attempt to repair the damage to the person who has been broken.  There are many ways that abusers can act compassionately to provide restoration to victims, and this book gives some examples of success and also failure in this area. 

Is it possible to serve God and fulfill the Great Commission without damaging families and entire populations in your wake?  Yes, this book tells about missions, organizations and individuals who have achieved this.  Vivian shares her own faith journey, which requires her to challenge long-standing beliefs and come to know God and Jesus in a completely different way than she was taught as a child.  For victims of spiritual abuse, recognizing that your abuser does not represent God, and is not a “gatekeeper” to God, is a crucial part of healing.  An abused MK will always be afraid to trust others, yet Vivian has given us an incredibly honest and open story of her life and her beliefs.  That, to me, is hope.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen

You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. ~ 1 Corinthians 7:23

A friend recommended that I read The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen.  This book is written primarily for churches, but is just as applicable to missions or any other institution or relationship where someone is wielding spiritual manipulation or false authority over another.

A broad definition of spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.  Here are some situations where spiritual abuse can occur:

  • A leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.
  • Spirituality is used to make others live up to a spiritual standard.  (And the others are spiritually degraded or shamed if they fail to do so) 

Part One of this book is about identifying spiritually abusive systems.  It talks about the fact that spiritual abuse has occurred since Bible times.  Jesus himself confronted abusive systems of the Pharisees and the Temple many times.  Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.”  Abusive spiritual systems and relationships have the opposite effect.  They place a heavier burden upon their victims, who work harder and harder to meet the standards, becoming more and more tired as they work to the point of exhaustion.

One of the weights placed on people by an abusive system is legalism.  This is a form of religious perfectionism where spiritual acceptance is based on performance, rather than on the gift of Christ. 

The book talks about some of the characteristics of abused Christians, how they get into abusive relationships in the first place and why they stay in them.  It tells how to identify spiritually abusive religious systems.  One of the “rules” of a spiritually abusive system is the “can’t talk” rule.  A person who speaks out loud about a problem becomes the problem. An abusive system is closed and paranoid toward the outside, and secretive about what goes on inside.

The heavy burden of a spiritually abused person, and the fact that they are not allowed to talk about it, makes it very difficult for them to leave the system.  When the system suppresses the truth, and often enforces that suppression by misusing scripture and questioning the victims spirituality, they are revictimizing the victim.

Part Two of the book focuses on the central power figures in the abusive system, the leaders.  Without strong, authoritative leaders a system will not attract followers who are hungry for a relationship with God.  Both the followers and the leaders can be trapped within this system.

Part Three talks about how to escape from a spiritual trap, and recovery.  In a spiritual trap, you have moved so far away from normal that you stop remembering what normal really is.  You invest so much into the relationship that you don’t want to leave it, you keep feeling you can somehow “make it right” or get back what you put in. Spiritual victims need to refocus on the heart of God, the truth about God and his good news.  The book leads you through a list of “reminders” about God’s character and his promises. 

A person who wants to get out of a spiritually abusive system has two options – fight or flight.  Sometimes the right decision is to try to work within the system to change it, and sometimes it is better to leave the system altogether.  The last two chapters of the book are devoted to talking about how to make this decision, and if you decide to fight the system, how to prepare yourself for this. 

A quote from the book that really speaks to me:  “Fighting the fight of faith does not mean getting aggressive.  It does not take money, status, an education, or the ability to speak.  It takes dependence upon God.  Just hang on to God and tell the truth.  This is God’s fight.”

This book talks about the story in Matthew 21 where Jesus violently drove the money lenders out of the temple.  After he was finished turning over tables, no doubt yelling angrily at the people, an amazing thing happened.  The blind and lame who were in the temple came to him to be healed.  While others in the temple were afraid of Jesus and scattered away from him, the people who were wounded knew that he was a safe person who would help them.  The book says “We believe the word to the church today is this.  When the Jesus of the Bible is clearly heard in the church, trivialities will be revealed, “tables” will be turned over, and religious pretenders will run for cover.  But in the end, the “blind” and the “lame” will be strangely drawn and wonderfully healed by the grace of Jesus, who fights for them.”

I highly recommend this book to those of you who have grown up in spiritually abusive systems, are in one right now, or just want to know more about the topic.