I apologize in advance for any formatting issues as I’m at PCA General Assembly working from my phone!
“Nobody thinks you should move back in with him, but if you don’t, you’ll probably lose your job.” That’s how Bob McAndrew boiled the church’s position down for me.
Faith Pres had proposed a two month leave of absence for me from my worship leading position at half pay while they determined a long term response to my marriage to an abusive husband. From the beginning, Pastor Bob implied that the leaders believed me. “But whatever our impressions might be, whatever we might feel about whose story is more plausible, we don’t have enough evidence to know, for sure, who’s telling the truth. Your story and his story are so completely different that one of you is either completely mentally out of touch with reality or lying to my face.” Early on, Bob also reiterated what he had said when I was hired: that he’d had, and still had, a strong sense that God had brought me to the church. He said they had been very close to hiring someone else when I came along. “And if we had done that,” he quipped, “then somebody else would have to be the one dealing with this mess.” I laughed along with him apologetically. Poor Bob, having to deal with me.
In this post, I’ll detail some of the evidence that was available and/or provided to Faith PCA before they fired me for “personal reasons,” meaning my marital separation from my abusive spouse, after explicitly predicating me keeping my job on reconciling and cohabiting with him.
As I’ve already mentioned, I had (and still have) cell phone recordings of my husband, J., screaming at me and threatening me– saying that if I went to the police about him, I wouldn’t come home and he wouldn’t know what had happened to me. He said he had “people” who would not allow him to have his life on the line with the police. “DON’T EVER DO IT, JESSICA,” he yelled menacingly. (When I reported this and similar threats, the police said there was nothing they could do because he phrased it as a warning instead of saying something more direct like “Maybe I will have you killed.”) I had a picture of a bruise he had put on my knee by slamming a door on it. He had engaged in stalking behavior witnessed by others, both at my hotel and at court (asking to extend a no-contact order against me with roses for me in hand.) J. had taken pickup truck loads of my belongings to Atlanta secretly, hid them in his parents’ attic insulation without them knowing, then filed a fraudulent burglary report reporting them stolen and making false statements about church members named as witnesses in the report. When the no contact order was amended to allow me to be present at Faith Church, an elder witnessed and interrupted J. getting up and lunging at me as though to physically harm me when I said something J. didn’t like. I had also had a court ordered domestic violence evaluation by a licensed psychologist who reported to the court that in his opinion, I was telling the truth about the abuse I was experiencing.
However, there was some “he said, she said” going on for a limited time. J. had not yet been arrested for domestic violence or drug dealing (though he would later be arrested for both) and he was taking church members and elders aside individually, saying that I was a violent, abusive alcoholic, and that I was making everything up.
On August 5th, I got a call late at night from a mutual friend of J.’s and mine. J. had been hanging out with friends at a local farm. He had been driving home drunk and stoned in my pickup truck when he lost control of the vehicle and flipped it several times. Another friend of ours happened to come across the wreckage just as J. crawled out through the back window, carving his leg up badly on broken glass. J. had been rushed to the hospital, where he lay awaiting surgery for two broken vertebrae. He had been placed under arrest for possession of drugs with intent to distribute, as there were five kinds of marijuana, baggies, scales, and dozens of open containers in the truck.
When J. was released from the hospital, he overdosed on narcotics washed down with a magnum bottle of wine at his parents’ home near Atlanta. His mother found him unconscious along with the remaining pills. His tolerance was high enough that he didn’t die– he came to, and his parents insisted on driving him to the emergency room. He jumped out of their car on the way and evaded them through the streets of downtown Atlanta.
My in laws called me and asked for my help with a family intervention. I rode my scooter 75 miles to their home, where the three of us confronted J. In response, J. became violent and physically aggressive toward his mother and caused property damage in his parents’ yard, then took off barefoot down the street while they called the police.
The police came. They did not arrest J., but stayed with us while J.’s parents removed him from their home. My in laws retrieved J.’s belongings from inside and called a cab to send him back to Athens, homeless.
That incident led to two weeks of outpatient rehab, culminating in a formal intervention by a team of mental health and substance abuse counselors. The intervention was attended by J.’s parents, a deacon from Faith who subsequently became an elder and housed J. while some of these events were taking place, and me. The rehab facility issued a seven page evaluation describing all of this, saying that J. was “constitutionally incapable of being honest and incapable of seeing this about himself,” and recommending at least six weeks of inpatient rehab. The director of the facility verbally recommended that J. see a specialist in Atlanta who focused on personality disorders and substance abuse. The written evaluation was provided to Faith Church.
Six weeks of inpatient rehab at the Penfield facility in Greene County, Georgia, were court ordered a day or two later at J.’s bond hearing for his arrest. A ministry leader at Faith who is now an elder drove J. to the facility.
J. got himself out of Penfield after just a few days, sticking his finger down his throat to induce vomiting so that he could be admitted to the hospital instead. (That didn’t last long either.)
Prior to that point, for the entire summer that I was on a “leave of absence” to give the Session a chance to gather evidence and respond, the Session never met with me to hear my side of the story nor communicated with me definitively about the status of my job. The elder who saw J. lunge at me requested a meeting on my behalf right after all of these events had taken place.
I walked into that Session meeting and got fired. “It would be the same for any of us [elders] if we were having marital problems, and we’ll tell anybody who asks that it’s for personal reasons,” is as close to a verbatim quote from the stated clerk at the time as I can provide from memory.
J. was taken in to live with multiple different families from the church over a period of months, and various leaders made efforts to get us together and encourage us to date and reconcile. I got fired from my second job when my boss there said he was contacted by “the police” referencing my arrest and saying that I was a violent, abusive alcoholic who wasn’t safe to be around children. After presumably posing as the police and contacting my boss, J. set up a fraudulent email account posing as that boss and sent a similar email to other places I applied for jobs. One of the HR people at one of the places I applied contacted me, worried about my safety, and forwarded me the email. Only then did I file for divorce.
Georgia has one of highest rates of domestic violence homicide in the country. My local police department has a 21-factor risk assessment– just a few factors clustered together indicate a substantially elevated risk for being murdered by your abuser. Retrospectively, at the time, I would have been positive for thirteen of them.
A leader at Faith took us through a Peacemakers conflict resolution process in which I was expected to share blame and take responsibility for “my side” some more.
J. started a rumor in town that the pastor and I had a list of everyone who was smoking weed (in a college town with a music scene, which was absurd, and which I didn’t care about in the least) and that we were going to disclose everyone’s names and turn them all in to the police. My understanding is that at some point, with multiple church leaders present, J. threatened to have me and the pastor and the pastor’s family killed.
J. eventually got arrested a second time for possession with intent to distribute. He was obliged to leave the state after he acted as a confidential informant for the police– he wore a wire, sold some hash to someone further up the food chain, and got that person thrown in jail. He moved far away, remarried for the third time after a brief courtship with a woman also involved in ministry and church music, and got arrested at least once for assault and unlawful imprisonment of his third wife before moving out of the country with her.
My close friends at Faith rallied around me and kept me there. They invited me to join the choir and their small group. They anonymously raised funds to pay a tax bill for me so that I could qualify for a federal job. They bought me meals. They loaned me vehicles. I lived with one of them inexpensively at her invitation for a year and a half working to get back on my feet. We shared regular meals and family events.
I rode my scooter to a different worship leading job an hour away (J. had not paid the insurance on my truck and I was without a car for three years.) I lost an unhealthy amount of weight from stress. Church leaders saw it all: “Don’t faint in the Sanctuary; it’s embarrassing” was a rueful joke. The deacons called me once to offer help, knowing that I had been plunged into grinding poverty: “We know that lot of times, it’s the husband who’s earning income and managing money– we were thinking that maybe some of the men from the church could sit down with you and teach you how to follow a budget.”
I was often treated like a leper or a second class citizen or an honorary peer or a very special charity project, depending on the person and the situation. I definitely wasn’t supposed to be substantially affected by any of it, just quickly pull myself up by my bootstraps and cheerily get over it.
On the other hand, everybody utterly disparaged my ex, and regarded me as an absolutely honest and trustworthy member. Church members routinely asked me to house sit, dog sit, babysit their infants and children with special needs, drive a church shuttle van for special events. I donated a benefit concert for a church mission trip. I soloed in the Easter Cantata.
And so I kept my head down for three years and worked multiple jobs just trying to resolve the immediate, practical crisis issues, and the whole time I shared my life with the folks at Faith Pres, as a known, trusted member.
When I finally came up for air, around 2012 or 2013, I began to very privately and respectfully broach some issues about how my case had been mishandled and how that affected and was still affecting my life and relationships in the church. I ascribed good motives to everyone involved over and over again. Under duress, after many conversations, emails, and meetings, when even some of the influential men in the church started to speak up on my behalf, Bob said he thought the Session could get behind the word I used about their actions in one of my emails- “inadvertently.” They issued the following apology in worship:
I was thankful and thought things were resolved! (Although to this day, no leader has ever been able to articulate to me a single specific thing that the church did wrong, what they should have done instead, or what they would do differently in the future– except “if we knew your marriage was like that we wouldn’t have hired you, but YOU said you were a team because YOU wanted the job.” All my fault.) But the church still wasn’t finished taking adverse actions against me and using my abuse history to discount me as a person. There was still more to come.