Trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse.
With two little words, I joined a campaign. Signed up and shouted, “No more silence! No more with the lack of accountability! No more with the victim shaming!” It’s a campaign that has been long overdue for many of us out there. Our experiences and our accounts fell on deaf ears for many years, regardless if the actual abuse had since ended, all because our stories were too uncomfortable for others to hear.
My story is typical of many other former Christian Fundamentalists: for at least seven years as a child, I was sexually and physically abused by two male family members. One perpetrator is serving twenty-seven years in prison for crimes he committed against me and other victims, the other has never spent one day locked away due to a “lack of convincing details” about that summer when I was twelve.
To my knowledge, the pastor of my Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church knew about my abuse and decided not to intervene. No law enforcement involvement was ever sought out. No professional counseling was offered. The victim shaming, however, thrived within that environment.
For many years, it was like a roller-coaster of events and emotions. A series of ups and downs regarding my story were whispered within my childhood church and by others closely connected with it. To this day, twelve years later, the memories of the shaming remain. Sometimes, I wanted to become invisible, to shrink into darkness, longing for the attention to be directed somewhere other than on me.
The first time happened within hours of my perpetrator’s arrest. A “concerned church member” activated something known as a Prayer Line, contacting other members via a series of phone calls, with details for them to pray for my perpetrator, suggesting he was wrongfully charged.
Even while this process was happening, I continued to attend church services. It was not my choice. I was a girl, I didn’t have a say. So, I showed my face. But, since the age of five, I was viewed as impure by many of the members of my church. The irony was that I had no clue what that meant, even at twelve. I did not feel impure. I had been a Christian since the age of seven—how could that apply to me?
Fast forward to two years later. My family wanted to get away and have a fun trip, so we went to a neighboring state and a church that was hosting a week of services known as Camp Meeting. I was excited and wanted the chance to get away from things for a bit. While there, in the middle of a fire and brimstone preacher’s words, the message took a dark and uneasy twist referring to “sexual sins.” First fornication (sex outside of marriage), then sodomy (the bigoted stance against homosexuality), then, there it was, sandwiched alongside these top sins: the sin of incest. “The Sin That Won’t Stop At The Stop Sign”—the title has never left me. With one message, from one bully behind a pulpit, my story was snatched up and held high for everyone to recall. The stares to where my family and I sat, the whispers, the embarrassment, the shame—it all returned. I don’t think it had ever really left.
At sixteen, I developed an interest in a “godly” young man around my own age. He was a member of another church in my home state and eventually news of my story reached him. But my past was too much for him to take on. He was a young preacher boy, he needed someone that was “fit” to be a part of God’s ministry. I was spared from that, at least.
By nineteen, I was stronger and ready to put all that behind me. I was a young woman and did not let my past determine many things anymore. But I hadn’t left the negativity that my IFB church continued to provide. One Sunday morning, the story returned in the words of my pastor. The sermon was about forgiveness, or, more to the point, the lack of it toward those that have done wrong.
My pastor, a man I had misguidedly looked up to my entire life, came to a stop along the pew I sat in, met my eyes, and said these words that made my stomach drop: “And do you know who God can forgive? He can forgive ___. After all that your brother did, God can forgive him.”
I cringed, held my breath, forcing myself to respond to his smile with a slight nod of agreement, all while mentally begging my pastor to search out someone else to give the message to. After a few minutes, maybe—I don’t truly know, it just felt like an eternity—the preacher finally returned to his pulpit and to the sermon.
Counting to thirty, I shook away my concerned sister’s hand, briskly made my way out of the auditorium, and ran to the ladies restroom where I broke down. Once again, it had hit me out of nowhere. The tears, the embarrassment, the shame, and then the anger. Strong and powerful, but also unwanted. After all, people who knew my past and my abuser had been watching. Those who sympathized with him, and others who sympathized with me, had all listened attentively to our pastor share God’s Word to His Saints.
By twenty-one, many things followed me regarding my past abuse, all of which I shook off and accepted as part of my life. I had become calloused and thick-skinned against the accusations and yet, I was also breaking free. Breaking free and eventually walking away entirely. I don’t consider myself “damaged goods,” just good. I’ve always been Good. Worthy. Guiltless. It was never on me, but on my abusers. The victim shaming is on those who continued to play a part in constantly forcing me to be reminded of those dark childhood years I had survived.
During my time as an IFB, I never told my story, except for once to a childhood friend. And yet, “my story” was constantly out there. But now, with the “Me Too” campaign, came my chance. My own words. My story. Not theirs. Mine. And telling it, revealing my truth, has been liberating. Freeing. Healing.
I have found that I have a voice. Using it in the smallest way has allowed me to connect with other survivors out there.
So, for the brave who are lending their voices, I hear you. I listen and, more importantly, I understand. “Me” just became “we.” You are not alone. Together, we believe.
For the supporters, we thank you. Your courage to stand strong, to support us through this journey—your belief has provided a sense of healing that has been long overdue.
Together, we are stronger. We are brave. We are part of this movement. We are the change.
Photo by Dan Wilkinson.
About Lydia Joy
Lydia Joy is a childhood sexual abuse survivor and former member of the Independent Fundamental Baptists (IFB) where she was born and raised, until leaving in her early twenties. She hopes to help others by sharing her story. There’s freedom in questions.