Jimmy Kimmel, in the age of Me Too, it’s time to retire the Halloween candy prank. Seriously.

Somebody reminded me this morning that the Jimmy Kimmel “Hey kids, we parents took away all of your Halloween candy” videos are still a thing.  If you’re unfamiliar with them, they’re an annual prank in which late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel urges his viewers to tell their young children that they have eaten all of their Halloween candy, video the kids’ emotional reactions, and upload the video on Youtube in hopes that it will be featured on Kimmel’s show.

A quick Google search pulled up articles that were universally lighthearted about the “hilarious” prank, urging people to participate.  It’s clear that many people consider the exercise to be all in good fun and entirely devoid of harm.  After all, the adults are just kidding.  It’s just a joke.

I cringe everytime I see one of the videos.  To me, it’s not just a harmless prank– it’s an age-tailored expression of emotional abuse.  All forms of abuse are fundamentally about power and control, whether we’re talking about domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, systemic racial injustice, bullying, harassment, or any number of other things.  The abuser has a power advantage over the victim which they leverage to produce suffering, and then they enjoy the effect on the victim.  The most sociopathically motivated abusers do it because it’s fun.

Children learn intimacy and basic trust from their primary caregivers.  It’s the role of the stable adults in their lives to make sure they are safe and cared for, physcially and emotionally.  That care and stability (or lack thereof) forms the basis of much of a kid’s sense of self worth later in life.  A child’s deep emotional investment in any given thing is not trivial or something to be mocked.  When a kid is in the grip of visceral emotional distress, the trusted adult should be helping them process and cope with that– they certainly shouldn’t be the one causing it for entertainment.

Most kids get incredibly excited about Halloween.  I remember planning and working on my costumes for weeks, and now I watch the kids in my family do the same.  I watch kids trick or treating with shining eyes, so excited to be seen in their costumes and get a huge load of candy after weeks of anticipation.  The crowning glory of the night is to go home and count out the loot, and probably execute some shares and trades with mom and dad and siblings.  The personal Halloween candy stash is generally understood under the rules of kid-dom to be inviolate.  It might get rationed, it might get shared with consent, but it belongs to the kid that collected it.  If somebody else gets into it without permission, that’s understood to be a violation.  It’s a visceral personal injustice when you’re six.

And that, right there, is the basis for the joke, right?  It’s universally relatable and hilarious (to those who find it funny) BECAUSE we all get at a gut level how deeply cruel and violating it would be for the adult caregiver, the one with ALL THE POWER, the one who is implicitly trusted, to smash a small child’s joy and anticipation and take away the special thing they worked for.  We know that this trivial act will cause existential anguish for the child.  It’s dark humor; it’s funny because it’s awful.

But we’re allowed to laugh at the child’s extreme reaction because it’s just candy and it’s not even really gone, right?  Well, NO.  Because for the child, they’re experiencing a genuine trauma that leaves them off balance as to whether or not some of the most fundamental things in their life (their bond with their primary caregivers, the security of their physical space, the honoring of understood agreements, being allowed to realize the promised benefits of working for something) are safe and stable or not.  The kid has irrevocably experienced that trauma and all the biochemical responses to trauma even after the parent says “just kidding.”

And that’s a kid who hasn’t yet had the chance to develop the coping skills of an adult.  If we were to think of an adult situation that would be emotionally similar, most reasonable people would be able to recognize cruelty beyond the pale.  If your spouse truly convinced you, briefly and just as a joke, that they had gotten rid of your dog, or emptied your life savings and lost it all gambling when you were just about to buy your dream house, or jeopardized your anticipated promotion at work, that might represent a turning point toward divorce.  It would certainly let you know you were married to an unsafe person.

And “just kidding,” but your visceral, painful reaction to your belief in my meanspirited betrayal is so hilarious that I’m filming it, putting it on the internet, and trying to get it on national TV so that millions of people can laugh at you.

These objections all assume that all the kids being pranked have an otherwise healthy, trusting relationship with the adults doing the prank.  I’m sure most of them do.  But let’s also think about the one in four children who experience sexual abuse and countless others who experience physical abuse, neglect, ongoing emotional abuse at home, or serious bullying at school.  I’m going to go out on a limb and posit that some portion of adults who abuse kids would think this was a fun exercise to try to get on the Jimmy Kimmel show.  I’m going to guess, statistically, that some portion of the kids being filmed are experiencing serious abuse in some other arena of their lives and that this kind of thing doesn’t help with their sense of self worth.  I might even just speculate that when a kid is made to feel that their feelings are laughable by the adults around them, it might be a factor that could make it harder for them to disclose other abuse that may be happening to them.

Anyway, Jimmy, I think you’re a good guy, and I’m a fan of both your comedy and your social commentary most of the time.  We’re living in a weird time for public discourse in which late night comedians are very often the ones speaking truth to power and being heard on issues of injustice.  I could say much more about the social dynamics that contribute to making light of all kinds of abuse, laughing at other people’s pain, and mocking victims.  We experienced those dynamics in the public discourse surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings.  We witness a version of those dynamics when people of color are blamed for being shot by police and mocked for protesting it.  The children who tried to disclose molestation by Larry Nassar, or by pedophile priests, are horribly familiar with the experience of trusted adults taking a posture toward them that “your feelings and experiences aren’t serious or real or a big deal; you’re just a kid.”  I’m a survivor of domestic violence who advocates for other survivors of abuse and this bit on your show is something that causes us pangs of empathy and recollections of the times our abusers hurt us and then made fun of us for hurting.  Visceral recollections of what it’s like to be powerless and mocked.  I understand that’s not the intention behind it at all, that it’s just a little joke, and that there’s no moral equivalency between playing a dumb prank and committing these other serious, criminal kinds of abusive acts.  It’s just one of the things in the ether, very broadly speaking, surrounding the widespread conversation taking place about abuse, injustice, corrupt power dynamics, and the experiences of victims.  I think you’re somebody who wants to be an advocate for those who have been harmed, so I want to bring it to your attention.  In the age of #MeToo, don’t you think it might be time to retire the Halloween candy prank?

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PCA Church Abuse & Domestic Violence: My Experience, Part 3

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:

“Jessica Fore went through an extremely painful series of events several years ago.  The Session’s response to her failed to take into account how badly she had been hurt at multiple levels.  In addition, the Session made wrong assumptions about the resources Jessica had both materially and emotionally to weather the storm she was left to face  The Session confesses its lack of shepherding care for Jessica, and we believe it was sin.  Our failure made her suffering worse.
We ask forgiveness of the Lord and of Jessica for this sin.
Jessica has brought the Session a list of resources to grow our understanding and readiness to respond better should others go through similar circumstances that she went through.  We thank her sincerely for that, and drawing on these and other resources, we are working to do better in the future than we did in the past.”

 

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.

PCA Church Abuse & Domestic Violence: My Experience, Part 2

Nine years ago, around 8:00 on the night of June 14th, 2009, I fled my home on my little Vespa scooter hoping that my husband would cool off from his rage, not knowing that it would be my last evening in my home, or that by the end of the night, I’d be the one in jail.

This is part two of a post about the details of the domestic violence and related church abuse I experienced while involved with Faith Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, Georgia.  It is adapted from a series of statuses I originally published on Facebook in June 2016.  This post contains graphic, potentially upsetting descriptions of domestic violence.

My husband J., observing and enjoying that I was hamstrung between him and Faith PCA– the church was treating his controlling behavior as my responsibility and a black mark on my job performance– had begun to set up a narrative in which I was abusing him.  He suggested it to our friends and his family.  I believe that for many months, he looked for an opportunity to set me up as a domestic violence victim-defendant, i.e. injure himself in a way that he could fraudulently attribute to me, or provoke me into fighting back in some way that he could play up, so that he could call the cops, have me thrown in jail, and paint me as the abuser.  (I have subsequently learned that this is surprisingly common in abusive relationships.)

For example:  on April 15th, 2009, I had had scooter trouble at my second job at a nature preserve, and had to call J. to come pick me up in my truck.  (My car had been totaled by a falling tree, and J. insisted I use the insurance money and additional money from both sets of parents to buy the pickup truck he wanted. He rarely let me drive it.)  It was tax day.  On the way home, I needed to print out our tax forms at the church, fill them out, and take them to the post office.  We swung by the church for the forms, but my insistence on needing the truck to get to the post office that evening would interfere with J.’s plans to go to a party.  For inconveniencing him in this way, I got yelled at for hours into the night.  When J. paused to go to the bathroom, I grabbed the keys and the tax forms, sprinted out to the truck, and started driving away.  J. ran outside, chased me down the driveway, made an unsuccessful attempt to jump onto the tailgate, and stood in the road shouting at me as I fled.  When I returned later that evening, he accused me of having “run him over and left him bleeding in the street” and said that he had had to talk our neighbors out of calling the police on me.  This incident was predictive of what would happen two months later, on June 14th.

I had recently purchased sturdy hasp locks for the guest room door for nights like this, but hadn’t installed them yet.  I had been shopping online for cheap camping equipment that I could hide somewhere and go crash in the woods and still make it to work the next day.  I couldn’t afford to get a hotel room every time J. went on one of his tirades.  I thought that he was closer than I was to our non-church friends, and that he’d turn them against me if I asked them for help.  I thought that if I reached out to church friends and they found out we were having “marital problems,” as I thought of the abuse at the time, I would lose my job at Faith Presbyterian.  This would mean bankruptcy and homelessness unless I left the state to live with extended family.  I was carrying five figures of mostly coerced debt in my name only.  I had good credit, I cared about being responsible, and I was trying desperately to be financially free to do the things that I felt called to in life, so this was all excellent leverage for J.

My nearest family was four hours away.  I strongly considered riding my scooter to stay with friends 45 minutes away, but was between two 70 hour work weeks, was exhausted, and already had to be up at 6:00.  And I loved my husband. At the time, I had come to believe he was a good man struggling with mental illnesses and substance abuse.  We were in counseling.  I was paying for it.  I was going to stand by J. and help him get the help he needed, and then he’d be the man I fell in love with– this is what I so wanted to believe.  If I ratted him out to others at that moment, our whole life together would fall apart.  I would have to ride it out.

I went to the drugstore and killed time for about an hour.  It was dark now. I hadn’t eaten, and had a long, early day the next morning.  I tentatively rode back to the house.  When I got inside, J.’s screed continued– I was a self absorbed bitch.  I was not having enough sex with him.  I was too dumb to understand how much all of our friends were really looking down on me.  I only cared about work and not about him.  I hadn’t planned anything for his dinner.

I took my purse and my scooter keys and locked myself in the bathroom.  I would fix my face and go out by myself to get something to eat until he cooled down.  While I was in the bathroom, J. hid my scooter helmet and the keys to my truck.  Then he picked the lock and broke into the bathroom, accusing me of getting ready to go out and cheat on him because I had put on some makeup to cover the fact that I’d been crying.  He wrestled my scooter keys and cell phone out of my hands, screaming.

I grabbed the spare house key off the rack in the hall and fled on foot, walking up our street in a bad part of town in the dark.  J. chased me in my pickup truck, window down, yelling at me.  I darted through neighbors’ yards and eventually managed to lose him.  I hid behind a hedge in a little park for about an hour.

I decided to try going home again.  Maybe he had had enough time to calm down now.  When I got home, J. was on the phone talking with someone excitedly about his latest grandiose idea, grinning and pacing.  He waved at me.  He had had some marijuana and brandy and had calmed down.  I put a frozen pizza in the oven.  J. finished his call and tenderly apologized to me for earlier.  I poured myself a drink, served dinner, and we watched a TV show together.  I absolutely had to get some sleep before my long day the next day, had only slept a couple hours the night before, but J. wanted to stay up.  I kissed him goodnight and told him I loved him.  I took the brandy bottle away so he wouldn’t drink any more.  I went to bed in the guest room so he could go to bed whenever he wanted without waking me up.  It was the last time I’d ever fall asleep in that house.

It was after 1 a.m. and I was dead asleep when J. threw the door open, screaming, and turned on all the lights.  I startled awake and lay there stunned.  I couldn’t pull myself out of bed or formulate a response.  He walked down the hall and then came back, still screaming at me.  He couldn’t sleep, and it was all my fault because I did not have sex with him and I took the brandy bottle away.  I’d damned well better get up right that second and pour him a drink.  I got up and brought the bottle.  I went into the kitchen and took a small shot glass out of the cabinet– one with a narrow, heavy base and a wide, flimsy rim, like a miniature stemless martini glass.  I turned around and stood in the doorway between the kitchen, partially lit by the low light over the stove, and the living room, where J. had been watching movies on the computer with the lights off.  He had gone to sit on the far end of the couch, which was perpendicular to the doorway, facing to my right.  I stood there exhausted and furious, holding the shot glass and the brandy bottle.  I said, “you know, I’m sorry that you can’t sleep.  But I am the one working two jobs to support us, and you can take a nap any time you want– this is my only chance to get any rest.”  Nope: I was horrible, crazy, bad, and wrong. He said, menacingly, “I’m calling the wrath of God down on you, bitch.”  At that moment, over five hours into this, I just lost it.  I screamed at him to stop, and threw the shot glass and the brandy bottle over his head at the wall.  (It wasn’t my finest moment, and I’m not defending it.)

What happened next was so fast, confusing, and traumatic that it took me several weeks and going back over the physical evidence to even figure out exactly what happened.  There are still some parts I’m not completely sure about, nine years later.  At that moment, there was peripheral light from the bedroom down the hall to my left, and from the dim night light in the kitchen behind me, but the corner of the living room where my husband was sitting was almost totally dark– the computer had gone to sleep while we were fighting.  There was an extended, sick moment of suspense when the bottle should have made a loud noise crashing into the wall, but didn’t.  It was silent.  J. shrieked and turned on the light.  The bottle was intact, sitting upright on its base on the floor next to the sofa.  I would find fragments of the shot glass embedded in the opposite wall several feet forward and higher from where J. was sitting when I was finally allowed to return to the house, weeks later.  There would be a knot on the back of J.’s head that he would claim was from the brandy bottle, and broken glass in the radial (thumb) side of his index finger on his dominant left hand that I could only surmise was from swinging as hard as he could for the glass, arm and hand fully extended, trying to make contact, and succeeding. J. jumped up from the couch with a bleeding finger and excitedly said he was calling his parents and the police and that I was going to jail.

J. ran back to the bedroom and called his father and hysterically cried, “Jessica attacked me and bludgeoned me in the head and I’m bleeding…” His dad dialed 911 and sent the police and an ambulance to the house with lights and sirens blazing. J. ran down to the street and hopped into the back of the ambulance. The cops came up to the house, questioned me, and questioned him. “Have you been using any substances? Has he been using any substances?” I could have turned him in for dealing pot but I didn’t. I was in shock– it didn’t even occur to me to talk about anything that had happened earlier in the evening before going to bed. It certainly didn’t occur to me to talk about any other abusive incidents– the threat I’d recorded on my cell phone of him screaming that I would disappear if I went to the police about him, the picture of a bruise he had put on my knee when he shoved me out of a room and slammed the door on my leg– I didn’t think of these things, and the police didn’t ask. An officer slowly shined a flashlight in my face and up and down my arms. I didn’t have any bruises. The police conferred. They seemed embarrassed, looking at me versus a 175 pound guy who had just springily put himself in an ambulance for a bleeding finger. They told me, “nobody thinks you should be in trouble, and you’ll get bonded out in the morning, but because he has an injury we’re required to make an arrest and take you in.” Lamely, I offered something about J. being verbally abusive. The officer wrote in the report that I said J. was “very verbal.”

It used to be that when police were called for a domestic violence situation, it was up to the victim to press charges or not, and that made it very difficult to prosecute DV. Victims are commonly reluctant to report and tend to cover for their abuser. (Often this is due to a realistic assessment on the victim’s part that they are safer, at least in the short term, if the cops don’t get involved, and if the abuser doesn’t think the victim is turning him in.) So a number of years ago, Georgia and many other states enacted “primary aggressor” statutes that say the cops have to arrest the most significant physical aggressor in a DV incident, which in real life can get dumbed down to “whoever’s bleeding less.” This is intended to make it easier to prosecute abusers whose victims won’t press charges, but a significant side effect has been the rise of DV “victim-defendants”– victims of domestic violence who are set up, retaliate, or defend themselves against their abuser, who then calls the cops and uses the legal system as leverage for further coercive control. He can get restraining orders against the victim to control where she can and can’t go. He can have her fired from jobs. He can seize control of her home and property. He can use it as leverage in a child custody battle. There are some men who are genuine victims of DV, but it’s an overwhelmingly male on female crime most of the time. I don’t have statistics for Georgia, but in Seattle, Washington, when they enacted similar laws, DV arrests of men went up 9%. DV arrests of women went up 81%.

Jail was kind of a relief after all of that, to be honest.  The other lady jailbirds were quite kind to me.  It could have been a church retreat or a tea party. I spent most of the night alone in a holding cell.  Early in the morning, I was finally transferred, crying, into a cell with four other women who immediately wrapped me in a group hug.  One of them was a sweet, 100 pound mom-type reading an Upper Room devotional.  Her live-in boyfriend had attacked her and she had fought back.  Her fingernails left scratches on him that were visible when the police came, but her bruises showed up later.  She had no local family, no other address she could be bonded out to, so she had been sitting in jail for two weeks.

I was taken to the basement of the county courthouse in shackles, handcuffs, and chains, and was brought up in the elevator at least three times over the course of the day, every time the court convened for a bond hearing.  My father in law had called my parents, and the judge was waiting for them to arrive from Tennessee.  (The jail only allowed local calls, so I had not been able to call them.)  When I was led into the courtroom, before the judge even entered the room, I was handed a standard slip of paper given to everyone that said I was not to tell the judge “what happened.”  The judge didn’t want to hear it.

The last time I stepped out of the elevator, my father was on the phone in the courthouse lobby. He stood up, caught my eye and smiled, with a twinkle in his eye.  He was getting me a lawyer.  My mother was there and the judge allowed us to go into a side room and talk.  God bless my incredible parents for standing by me through this whole mess.  They are amazing.

I was bonded out on my own recognizance.  As the “victim,” my husband got a no-contact order against me, which meant if he showed up anywhere I was (including Faith Presbyterian) I had to leave immediately or he could have me thrown in jail again.  He used this to stalk and threaten me with impunity for months.  The court let him decide which of us could stay in the house, and he had me removed from our home, seizing control of all of our belongings.  I had to be bonded out to a permanent address, so the only thing I could do from a practical and safety standpoint was move to Tennessee with my parents overnight.  I was not allowed to return home at all– my parents could go and collect some clothes and personal items, and I could have my scooter picked up later by a friend, but that was it.  J. got to our house ahead of my parents and hid anything he knew was particularly important to me– favorite dresses, jewelry, etc.  Over the next month, while I was banned from that address, he abandoned the house and defaulted on rent, removed my passport, financial records, years of personal journals, CD masters, CD inventory, our wedding gifts, my wedding dress, pictures, books, and mementos I had kept since childhood– anything that would be especially hurtful to me, or that I would need to be able to get back on my feet.  Then he filed a fraudulent burglary report implicating my family, accusing my mother and me of violating the bond order, and falsely naming church members as witnesses (the members repudiated his statements.)  I ended up getting some of the items back months later when his mother found them where he hid them, unbeknownst to her, buried in her attic insulation 75 miles away near Atlanta.

The night I was bonded out, J. came to the hotel where my parents had taken me and anonymously left a dozen roses for me at the front desk.  The hotel workers described him.  At my next court hearing, the courthouse employees were abuzz because J. had shown up asking to extend the no contact order against me with roses in hand to try to give me at the courthouse.  Court employees told him those things were contradictory.

As soon as I got out of jail, I emailed Bob McAndrew, the senior pastor at Faith Presbyterian, trying to get an appointment to see him before my parents and I left town.  He was out of state for PCA General Assembly and I couldn’t reach him.  I absolutely expected to get fired from my job; I had said so in court when the judge asked about my employment.  When Bob finally called me, I was already in Tennessee with my parents.  Bob had learned of my arrest from an elder from Faith, who had been contacted by J., who said that I had attacked him and knocked him unconscious.  They didn’t believe it. Bob wanted to know what had happened.  I spoke freely and told him everything I could think to tell him.  He said the church Session (the governing board of elders) would meet and decide how to respond, but that he had known these guys a long time, and that his sense was they would want to bring me back– to have me return to my job.  The Session met and decided to put me on a two month leave of absence at half pay to give them time to gather evidence and decide how to respond.

I either gave Bob the audio files I had of J. threatening me along with the picture of the bruise J. had put on my knee, or told him I had those files and he didn’t want them- I can’t quite remember which (I still have the files, as do various parties to my case– they’re backed up on multiple email accounts, but the secret account I first set up for those files hasn’t saved my sent messages from that long ago.)  I had a court ordered domestic violence evaluation with a licensed psychologist who reported that my responses were consistent with someone who was exceptionally truthful and was being abused, and gave a copy of that to the church.  The court put my charges on track to be dismissed and expunged, and they subsequently were.  Close friends from Faith reached out to me, visited me in Tennessee, invited me to stay with them in Georgia as needed, and helped me move and set up my own apartment.  I resumed work at the nature preserve.

The saga was only beginning.

 

PCA Church Abuse & Domestic Violence: My Experience, Part 1

I want to get into some of the details of what I experienced in my abusive marriage and how that played out in a complementarian church leadership setting at Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Watkinsville, Georgia.  I’ve struggled for some time to write this all down.  Some of the things I’m going to recount are still almost physically sickening for me to think about sometimes.  The last I heard, my ex was still contacting an elder at Faith whenever I said anything publicly surrounding abuse and domestic violence, threatening to take me to court or otherwise pressuring me to shut up.  I’ve been rejected by church leaders and close friends as a consequence of engaging these issues widely, and Faith PCA tried to excommunicate me.  The stated clerk of my presbytery at the time, Charles Garland, excoriated me at length when I reached out for help.  I recorded it.  He faced no consequences.  So, talking about these things is costly.  But I feel that my story needs to be told, because as outlandish and isolated as it still feels, even years later, and even with massive documentation that’s missing from a lot of cases, I’ve learned it’s shockingly representative of many women’s experiences in the PCA.  Many others have reached out to me and shared their stories.  I want to elucidate the abusive dynamics I encountered to help others, and to live my life freely with all of this out in the open.

There’s another reason:  PCA General Assembly meets next week.  I’ve been trying to get my case heard by Georgia Foothills Presbytery, or failing that, by General Assembly, for the last three years, with the powers that be using every administrative avenue they can muster to make it go away.  There is a document authored in January 2018 by a committee of four PCA elders from Georgia Foothills including Dr. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk of General Assembly, the highest officer in the Presbyterian Church in America, defending my presbytery’s repeated failure to hear my case on trivial administrative grounds.  I attended Presbytery for the eighth time in three years this past January and was once again made to wait outside in the hall while a sanctuary full of male elders debated about me at length in raised voices and refused to let me participate or even listen.  The document they passed has been accepted by this year’s Review of Presbytery Records Committee, and General Assembly will attempt to bundle it into an omnibus vote to have it passed without it being discussed or even mentioned on the floor, disposing of my case for good– that is unless one delegate who gives a meaningful rip about abused women in the PCA will move to take Georgia Foothills Presbytery out of the RPR omnibus and address it on the floor.  If you are a delegate reading this, will you bring my case to the floor and speak up for women who have experienced abuse and have no voice in your denomination?  Or will you look the other way and do nothing, participating in this egregious wrong?

I applied for a worship leading position at Faith PCA in the summer of 2008.  They said they were looking for a candidate to design most aspects of the worship service including leading the music, which they wanted to be modern and contemporary.  The church had created a long document entitled “Forward With Faith” detailing its future growth strategy, and stipulated that it wanted to hire a worship leader that would appeal to people in their twenties and thirties.  I had a background leading modern worship in United Methodist, Anglican, and nondenominational young adult ministry settings all over the southeast and midwest, and had released two independent records and gone on tour a few times.  The position seemed like an ideal fit.

I had been married a little over two years to J., who I had met in college several years prior.  We had been involved in the same campus ministry.  He was a preacher’s kid and had been a big man on campus, apparently respected and well liked.  He had played in the worship band and recruited me to sing.  He was divorced from his first wife, and the story he told was that she had had an affair with a recovering crack addict that he was mentoring, had refused his attempts at reconciliation, and was crazy.  Most of that narrative turned out to be false, but J.’s family believed and supported it.  Our mutual friends supported our relationship.  J. was intelligent, romantic, and handsome, with all kinds of success stories about how great and well connected he was.  He could play the charming, boyish, absent minded professor, and cry about Jesus and his mama.  He played music for children and worked with adults with disabilities.  He put me on a pedestal and said God had brought us together.  We were engaged after a wonderful four month courtship and married four months after that.

I experienced things early on in the marriage that I didn’t recognize as abuse until much later.  J. was still the wonderful guy I had dated; he certainly wasn’t punching me in the face or throwing me down flights of stairs.  But right away, I began to learn that my own perceptions couldn’t be trusted– J. had to interpret reality for me.  I was treated as socially inept:  I was too clueless to recognize how much I had inadvertently offended someone, or how poorly a speech or business interaction of mine that I felt good about had actually been received.  According to J., certain friends, family, and ministry associates were undermining me in various ways, but J. had my back.  According to him, others continually perceived that I was inconsiderate and too demanding of him, materialistic and self important.  He defended me whenever it came up, but didn’t they have a point?  I always needed to do better and comply more with what he wanted, and any tension or conflict that arose from my failure to do that was my responsibility.  I was selfish, naive, and unilateral, and didn’t understand how to be in a marriage.  But he said he knew he was a prickly pear, and we were just helping each other become better, building each other up.  This was a normal adjustment process that all newlyweds went through.

Sex was often coercive.  I was a virgin, and the honeymoon involved continual criticism and pressure.  At one point, he took me into a sex shop and had an intimate conversation about me with the salesman, who leered at me.  For the rest of the marriage, if J. ever did anything for me, I owed him sex.  If it was my day off work, I owed him sex.  If I was exhausted at night and had to be up early and didn’t say yes, he would keep me awake and lecture me into the wee hours so that I’d be miserable and sleep deprived either way.  This was also my problem and my fault.

J. said he had been financially ruined in his first divorce followed by losing everything else in a hurricane.  He didn’t want me to open mail from creditors– he said he wanted to protect me from all of that.  My credit was excellent, although I had several thousand dollars in debt that I was trying to pay down.  Financial obligations that he had purportedly been meeting were progressively shifted onto me in ways that supposedly couldn’t be helped.  I moved out of my less expensive apartment into his more expensive rental house, and he would lose a job or be out of money when rent was due, so I had to pay it.  The electricity would get cut off, and he would call and yell at me for letting it happen until I charged what was owed on my credit cards– any available credit I had was free money, and woe to me if I suggested otherwise.  I worked from home initially and he had an audio engineering job at first.  He would come home and check up on my internet history.  He would treat me like his full time assistant, then shame and blame me for my time management and say I “wasn’t working.”  His paycheck paid mostly for his truck, entertainment, booze, and marijuana which he claimed to use for a serious chronic illness that he was later medically confirmed not to have.  Unused prescription narcotics went missing from family members’ cabinets.

J’s illness and various manufactured crises were constant excuses for failing to meet responsibilities and sabotaging me.  When my grandmother, with whom I had been very close, passed away, we traveled to Florida for the funeral and subsequent graveside service.  As my family was walking out the door on the way to the cemetery, J. announced that he and I needed to stop on the way to the service and wire a payment for his truck.  I told him he was on his own and rode with my parents instead.  J. didn’t show up until after the service; if he had had his way, I would have been kept from my grandmother’s burial.

I had a car that I had paid off, and he had a new pickup truck with an exorbitant monthly cost.  We could barely afford to keep one of them insured with a current tag at any given time, and his needs dictated who got to use it.  I bought a Razor scooter so I could get to the bus stop a little faster.  I walked to the grocery store.  Or I spent my day shuttling him around.

One weekend, J. was out of town on a trip with his father, and I cleaned out his truck.  Under the back seat, I found a letter from the ex girlfriend he dated before me.  It said that he had taken or attempted to take significant money and property from her and her son with special needs, and contradicted many things that he had told me.  I was horrified– it was the first concrete indicator that I might be married to a pathological liar, someone who was living a double life.  It seemed unreal.  I confronted him.  He explained everything away and told his family it was all an attack from Satan.  I wanted to believe his explanations.  I burned the letter in his presence.  He said that meant a lot to him.  My trust meant a lot to him.

J. went through six jobs in two or three years, quitting because he thought people were doing him wrong, or getting fired for being chronically late, not meeting responsibilities, or inciting huge conflicts.  I took on more and more work while my music took a back seat.  I eventually convinced J. that we needed to move into a less expensive house and let the truck go– it was always months overdue for a payment.  I bought a motor scooter so that I could get to my jobs and around town when J. needed the car.  I rode in the rain, I rode in the cold.  I rode without adequate safety gear, 20 miles to one of my jobs.  We split household expenses like roommates for a while until he lost his last job, citing illness and an unjust employer.  Things were happier between us in the new house at first, but I was privately coming to terms with the reality that J. didn’t hold down jobs and was bad with money.  While he might get another job, we’d never have any stability unless I could cover everything and not count on anything at all from him.  I said this to no one. I was absolutely committed to my marriage.  Like many victims, I did not conceptualize what I was experiencing as “abuse” (although what I’ve described is textbook domestic violence– gaslighting, isolation, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, and coercive control.)  “Marriage isn’t 50-50; it’s 100-100,” I believed, and I would make it work.  I needed a half time worship leading job for $20 an hour along with my other job at a nature preserve to do it.  I prayed and looked for that specifically. It’s what Faith Presbyterian offered.

J. insisted on submitting his worship resume along with mine as a couple partnering in ministry.  He attended the job interview with me.  Faith PCA offered me the job and I started in the fall of 2008.  Bob McAndrew, the senior pastor, said he had a very strong sense that God had brought me there.  When I called my parents, excited to tell them I had gotten the job, J. stood over me and made me say “we” had gotten the job.  (He habitually stood over me and told me what to say to others on the phone or on the computer.  He would also answer my phone, then force me to take a call at a bad time, like handing me an important call from a major ministry supporter when I was asleep.)

Before I started leading worship, we attended Faith’s fall retreat and met a bunch of wonderful people our age who would go on to become my closest group of friends for the next six years.  It was great, and such a relief to me– we hadn’t had many people our age at our previous church, and J. largely controlled our wider social life.

I was aware that the PCA did not ordain women but had never had any aspirations toward ordination and saw it as a secondary issue.  Sincere Christians can disagree about aspects of their ecclesial structure and still worship together.  However, as I met with leaders about getting started, I began to realize that the limitations they were placing on me as a woman went quite a bit further than that.  The scope of my position went from designing and leading most of the worship service to basically just playing songs.  With J. present, I was told, “There’s kind of a ‘thing’ about women in this church. Obviously you’ve been vetted and approved for the job, but it’s important not to overstep into anything that would be seen as more of a man’s role or an ‘Elder’ function.”  I was not to pray out loud spontaneously while leading worship, or give teaching or direction on the subject of worship in between songs.  Even just reading a passage of Scripture felt edgy and controversial.

Things started going well overall though.  The church seemed happy with me other than a few curmudgeons.  J. and I would lead Sunday morning worship and then go play music for the kids during Sunday School.  I had great friends to hang out with and finally enough money to make ends meet and start getting out of debt.

The first month I was able to make a significant payment on my credit card balance, I discovered that J. had taken my Visa and run up an additional $1500 of purchases and cash advances.  Now unemployed, it was as though J. made it his business to sabotage me. Everything slowly escalated.  I think he had fun with it. He would go to a party while I tried to get some sleep before work, and then come home at 2:30, sneak around the back of the house, and yell and bang on the window next to my head to scare me awake.  I would do hard physical outdoor work at the nature preserve all day and then ride my scooter home in a storm, asking him to be out of our one bathroom when I got home so that I could shower.  I would come in and he would be taking a hot shower after being home all day while I had to wait, soaking wet, in the kitchen.  Anything I wanted or needed that conflicted with him doing whatever he wanted to do was an apocalyptic transgression, and he would corner me and loom over me and yell and monologue at me for hours.  He would wrestle my phone and my keys out of my hands and physically block or tackle and sit on me so that I could not get away from him or call anyone.  He would stand over me and raise his hand like he was about to hit me, almost do it, but then bite his knuckle and glare at the last second as though his capacity for physical violence was barely contained.  He would start a tirade when I was riding with him in the car and drive recklessly.

I tried to reason with him.  I tried to overwhelm him with kindness and care.  I pleaded with him to consider the impact of his behavior.  I argued back furiously.  I broke dishes and threw things at the wall in exasperation when he wouldn’t stop harassing me.  Sometimes that made him stop, with a big show of being appalled at how crazy I was.  Other times he would laugh and make fun of me and mockingly cheer me on– me being that upset was hilarious, gratifying, entertaining, and useful– just look how violent I was!  I was abusing him!  I insisted we get into marriage counseling and agreed to see J.’s former personal therapist.  I took responsibility for “my side” of things ad nauseam.  J. had abandonment issues and I needed to work on not doing things that made J. feel abandoned.  But nothing I did changed anything– I was always being placed in a carefully crafted, lose-lose scenario; damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

One winter morning when it was 19 degrees outside, I left J. sitting in his underwear, drinking a beer, and watching a DVD, and went out to ride my scooter 20 miles to work at the nature preserve, because J. insisted on having my car to go see friends later.  (It was my fault that he no longer had a pickup truck.)  It was so cold that the scooter wouldn’t start.  After several attempts, I went in and told him that I would either have to take the car to work, or he could put some clothes on and give me a ride.  He said he’d do the latter.  Fifteen minutes later, he hadn’t moved and I was late, so I approached him again.  This set off an hours-long tirade on the subject of my selfishness.  I did not make it to work that day.  I went out and sat in the car and called my parents, sobbing.  That was when they knew for sure something was seriously wrong, though not the extent of it– but they lived out of state, four hours away, and I was an adult.  They were trying to be supportive however they could. And my truthful assertion was that J. never hit me.

J. got into harder drugs– a synthetic hallucinogen called DOC and more narcotics– and decided that instead of looking for a job, he would just sell weed.  He got involved with a scary guy bringing stuff in from Latin America, not just casual hippies in the local scene.  Once, he pushed me out of the bathroom and slammed the door on my leg, leaving a bruise that I photographed.  Once, I recorded him on my phone during one of his tirades, during which he threatened me that if I ever went to the police about him, that I wouldn’t come home again and he wouldn’t know what had happened to me.

I thought about leaving.  I threatened to.  J. said that I didn’t have Biblical grounds for divorce and that the PCA church would never support me.  I would lose my job and be excommunicated and ruined forever.  He said that I was an unsubmissive wife and the church only hired me because it was a package deal along with him.  He claimed he was having conversations with elders who said people preferred his worship leading to mine and that they might start taking my paycheck and issuing it to him instead.  He said he would leverage all his family’s connections in the UMC and I’d never get a job there either.  He said I was a violent, abusive alcoholic, and his family and my family and our therapist and all of our friends thought so.  He had never hit me.  He had not yet had an arrest. It was his word against mine– who would believe me?

One Sunday morning in the Spring of 2009, Pastor Bob asked me into his office to talk during the Sunday School hour between services.  He said leaders had noticed a controlling dynamic in J.’s behavior toward me as well as toward other people on ministry teams in the church.  Bob’s tone was empathetic.  I had begun doing some reading about personality disorders and abuse, and was beginning to connect the dots.  I was still, at that point, trying very hard to help my husband and save my marriage.  Nobody had any idea what I was going through– I felt very isolated.  So for a moment, sitting with the pastor, I had this hope that somebody older and wiser had some insight and was reaching out to help me.  As Bob continued though, I realized this wasn’t a conversation about whether I might be in an unsafe situation or if there was anything church leaders could do to help– it was about my job performance and being critical of me for needing to do a better job of managing J.’s control.  I asked why, in a complementarian context where women are supposed to submit to men, I was the one being approached and held accountable for J.’s behavior– why weren’t they confronting him about his own behavior?  How was I supposed to simultaneously “submit to my husband” and control his control?  Bob said, “well, we hired YOU, not J.”  I was on my own to figure that out.

To be continued in Part 2.

“Serving the Status Quo”– part three of The Aquila Report series by Dr. Valerie Hobbs

http://theaquilareport.com/serving-status-quo/

“For many others, too, it seems, expediency and maintaining the status quo outweigh the suffering of any one individual and the need to challenge those responsible for abuse.  The previous post mentioned other ways in which this manifested itself in Jessica’s case. Casting Jessica in the role of deviant oppressor, for example, certainly allows the status quo to go unchallenged. And this often has the effect of forcing the vulnerable person out of that community, leaving the problematic culture intact.”

“Portrait of a Deviant Woman”– Part two of three from Dr. Valerie Hobbs on The Aquila Report

Please check out the link below for part two of Dr. Valerie Hobbs’ three part article about me on The Aquila Report.

http://theaquilareport.com/portrait-deviant-woman/

Rather than asking, what could have possibly happened to Jessica to lead to her actions, people instead asked, what kind of perverse person would do this? See the difference there? The portrait of a vulnerable person as deviant allows us to avoid examining our actions towards them. It means we can point the finger. That person is crazy! Nothing she says can be trusted! These portrayals serve the purpose of self-protection and, we hope, expulsion of the vulnerable and problematic person. We can then carry on as we were.

Beleaguered Presbytery Hopes Best Cronies can Save the Status Quo

(A follow up to this post.  The story is also being covered in a three part article on The Aquila Report.)

A woman was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when she was attacked by her abuser.  He stripped her of her clothes, beat her and went away, leaving her half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the woman, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw her, passed by on the other side.  But some PCA elders, as they traveled, came where the woman was; and when they saw her, they took pity on her.  They felt that it was really unfortunate that she had been left beaten and bleeding like that, and that ideally, her wounds would be bandaged and she could recuperate in an inn somewhere.  They committed to pray for her and consider what they could do to help.  However, they had taken vows to uphold certain rules and processes when they became elders, and simply didn’t see a judicial avenue in the Book of Church Order for dealing with this kind of situation.  They decided they would appoint a committee to respond at their next stated meeting in four months. Robert’s Rules of Order were followed, and their actions were properly recorded in the Presbytery minutes.  The woman bled out and died on the side of the road, but nothing could possibly be argued as out of order at next year’s Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) meeting.

I attended Tuesday’s meeting of Georgia Foothills Presbytery to hear what action they would take with regard to an RPR decision that had passed at General Assembly.  RPR had cited the Presbytery for throwing out two formal complaints I filed regarding my experience of abuse in the church.  Tuesday’s meeting was the sixth Presbytery meeting I’d attended since filing the first complaint over two years ago.  As is typical at these meetings, I was one of just two or three women in a sanctuary full of male elders– the only other women in attendance are often the wives of men who are there to be approved as candidates for ministry.  I was warmly welcomed by several elders who have been kind to me through the course of these events.  My own elders did not speak to me or acknowledge me at all.

When it was time for the RPR deliberation, the Presbytery called a closed door Executive Session and kicked all visitors and non-officers out of the room.  I stood up and asked to be allowed to stay.  After all, I had already sat quietly through five of these meetings.  The Presbytery is in trouble for “denying [me] the ‘watchful care, instruction and government of the church’ to which [I am] entitled,” and the elders were about to discuss my personal life and my direct communications with the Presbytery.  I’m aware of defamatory statements having been made about me in the past by some of the officers that were present.  Lee Lovett, the chair of the Shepherding Committee, who previously tried to obstruct both formal complaints, stood up and said that I had not been recognized and was not allowed to ask a question or speak at all.  The moderator then asked me to leave.

After the Executive Session, the moderator announced that a committee had been appointed to respond to the RPR citation.  The current Stated Clerk (not the guy in the recording I posted earlier this week) came over to me and said he and a couple of the other elders would talk with me during the lunch break about what that would entail.

During lunch, one of the elders appointed to the committee emphasized to me that RPR is purely administrative and has no authority to make the Presbytery reopen the case.  I learned that the four person committee includes Dr. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk of General Assembly, who was present in the Review of Presbytery records meeting and was one of the few dissenting voices against the nearly unanimous RPR decision.  Roy has taught adult Sunday School for years under Rev. Charles Garland, the former Stated Clerk of Georgia Foothills Presbytery, who is the subject of one of my formal complaints.  Another committee member is Jack Wilson, who served on the commission of two that dismissed my formal complaint against Charles Garland in a report riddled with factual inaccuracies, then ignored Dr. Valerie Hobbs’ email attempting to correct the report.  General Assembly minutes show Roy Taylor, Charles Garland, and Jack Wilson working together on Assembly business over multiple years.  One of the two remaining appointees is a ruling elder at Charles’ former and Roy’s current church.  I asked how the committee appointees were chosen, and was told they were suggested by the moderator.

I spoke very frankly with the three elders who met with me during lunch about the details of what I’ve experienced and the time sensitive, life altering high stakes for some of the other women dealing with similar situations in the PCA.  These three elders are some that I think well of, and at least one I know to be a strong advocate for social justice.  They listened to me, and I believe them to be sincere in wanting a healthy resolution to the case.  But the elder who had been appointed to the committee said we need evolutionary rather than revolutionary change in the PCA’s response to abuse.  I disagreed and asked what benefit there was to evolutionary change when so many women are suffering so horribly right now.  I couldn’t get an answer.  I said straight up that the committee appointments were political and that the Presbytery was going to try to make this go away administratively again.  The elder said he didn’t think it was political.  I said that if he didn’t think this was political, then nothing would ever convince him that anything in the PCA is political.

So now, once again, we wait.  The committee will propose a response at the next stated meeting in January.  Meanwhile– dead silence from Faith PCA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Beyond Symbolic Gestures”– A Reblog from Dr. Valerie Hobbs on the Aquila Report.

Below is a link to the first part of a three part article by Dr. Valerie Hobbs about the PCA abuse debacle I’ve been chronicling.

On the one hand, Jessica was encouraged. This was the first acknowledgement from a church court that her church leaders had wronged her. The RPR Committee had officially (for the second time in two years) cited her presbytery. Perhaps members of her church might begin to question the ways Jessica had been characterized and treated by her session and presbytery.

http://theaquilareport.com/beyond-symbolic-gestures-pca-underprivileged-women/

PCA General Assembly Cites Georgia Foothills Presbytery for Dismissing Abuse Complaints.

On June 15th, 2017, I attended PCA General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina to witness the passing of a measure that rebukes Georgia Foothills Presbytery for repeatedly throwing out and failing to investigate my formal complaint concerning Faith Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, Georgia.  The complaint pertains to multiple adverse actions by Faith’s Session against me over a six year period from 2009-2015.  During that time, the church predicated my continued employment as a worship leader on reconciling and cohabiting with an abusive spouse.  They fired me from my job when I remained separated from him.  They subsequently took additional unjust actions that included authorizing a shunning by former close friends, removing me from my small group, and secretly bringing a licensed professional counselor who never met with me into a Session meeting to advise on my mental state without my knowledge or consent.  While my complaint about these matters was still pending before the Presbytery, and as I continued to speak out in the face of obfuscation by two layers of church hierarchy, Faith’s Session indicted me for “contempt toward the church and its leaders” as part of a formal disciplinary process that, to me, appeared intended to either shut me up and bring me under their control or dispose of me via excommunication.  The Session told me that they were going to put me on trial behind closed doors without observers, appoint themselves as the judges, require me to submit my witness list to them for their approval in advance, and only allow members of Faith Presbyterian to testify.  When I leveraged Book of Church Order rules that would have compelled certain relevant testimonies and necessitated the appointment of outside judges, the Session tabled the indictment, telling me that I had “made it impossible” for them to prosecute it.

I attended five consecutive Presbytery meetings from September 2015 through January 2017, submitting and resubmitting my formal complaint, waiting months each time for a response, and having it dismissed each time for minute procedural reasons.  The reasons given for dismissal were as trivial as one of the resubmissions being done in an email copied to the Session and Presbytery simultaneously, rather than first to the Session and then to the Presbytery.  Another submission was thrown out because I submitted by email rather than by physical mail.  One submission received no response because the commission appointed to handle it failed to convene at all.

My first contact with the Presbytery occurred in late July, 2015.  I copied Rev. Charles Garland, at the time the Stated Clerk (highest officer) of Georgia Foothills Presbytery, on an open letter to Faith’s congregation detailing and providing documentation for the abuse I had experienced and the actions the Session had taken against me.  Charles called me a few days later and berated me so severely over the course of the nearly two hour phone call that I decided to start recording about 45 minutes in.  I hadn’t planned to record but I was aware that it was legal to do so, since my divorce attorney had previously advised me to record abusive communications from my ex.  Georgia is a one party consent state, meaning that one can record any conversation that one is a party to and is not required to notify the other parties.  Here’s a clip of the phone call.  (This may be upsetting or traumatic for those who have experienced abuse.)

During the hour and fifteen minutes I recorded, Charles interrupted and talked over me more than 60 times, compared me to my ex husband, called me “crazy,” implied a threat of suing me with his comment about calling a lawyer, described me as “childish” and deserving of condescension from pastoral leaders, said that my story was “crap,” and called me an assortment of other names including “pariah,” “crazy,” “tormentor,” “manipulative oppressor,” “odious,” “off-putting,” causing “revulsion” and “deep dislike,” “violent,” “frightening,” “aggressive,” “the abuser,” and, repeatedly, “a problem” that needed to “go away.”  He told me to “let it go or go yourself,” i.e. drop the complaint or leave the church.

I spent two months trying unsuccessfully to find out who Charles was accountable to within the Presbytery.  I called PCA headquarters but was unable to find out who I could speak to.  (The Presbyterian Church in America happens to be headquartered about 45 miles away in Lawrenceville, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb within the bounds of Georgia Foothills Presbytery.  The Stated Clerk of the entire denomination, Dr. Roy Taylor, is a member of our Presbytery and teaches Sunday School at the church Charles Garland pastored during these events.)   Finally, I heard from the Shepherding Committee that was appointed to adjudicate my original complaint.  I shared the recording and a transcript of the call with the committee and requested no contact with Charles.  Two days later, Charles emailed me with a non-apology apology that I had been offended, saying that his intent was “to offer a rebuke that would persuade [me] to change course.”  Over the next year and a half, there was no acknowledgement from any of the Presbytery officers dealing with my case nor any of the elders at Faith Presbyterian that Charles had sinned, been abusive, or done anything seriously wrong at all.  In one meeting I attended with two friends present, one of the Shepherding Committee officers compared Charles Garland’s tone to that of Jesus and the prophets in Scripture calling out those who were self righteous.  The chair of the committee said he couldn’t be sure the recording was even real; perhaps I had digitally altered it.  He joked, “Maybe Charles was having a bad day.  Maybe his wife threw a frying pan at him.”  I was repeatedly told to accept Charles’ apology and meet with him to reconcile with him; there would be no accountability.

Reviling, or verbal abuse, is one of the most serious sins in Scripture.  1 Corinthians 5:11 lists it as one of six egregious sins (alongside sexual immorality, greed, swindling, idolatry, and drunkenness) that result in someone being immediately put out of the church.  The PCA Book of Church Order delineates the commission of “base and flagitious” sins “such as drunkenness, uncleanness, or crimes of a greater nature” as matters which require a pastor to be suspended or permanently removed from the ministry, irrespective of repentance.  Certainly, speaking to a vulnerable church member in this manner is damaging and out of keeping with Biblical character requirements for church elders.  Common sense infers that this was no anomaly:  a man in a position of considerable church power who verbally eviscerates a woman in their first conversation under the circumstances I’ve described is a man presumably accustomed to dominating and controlling others through verbal abuse.  This time he just happened to get caught.

Prior to the next Presbytery meeting in January 2016, the chair of the Shepherding Committee, who was acting as my point of contact in lieu of Charles at the time, received a full transcript and academic analysis of the phone call from Dr. Valerie Hobbs.  Dr. Hobbs is a Senior Professor in Applied Linguistics at Sheffield University in the U.K. who studies and writes about issues affecting women in Reformed churches.  She is one of several respected, published authorities on abuse in the church whose feedback I’ve sought in dealing with this situation.  She has read much of the correspondence pertaining to my case and communicated directly with various involved parties, and her letter expressed her concerns as an outside observer.

Dr. Hobbs’ analysis was addressed to and intended for all officers of the Georgia Foothills Presbytery.  The Shepherding Committee chair confirmed its receipt prior to the meeting, but then did not pass it through to the other officers.  During the meeting, he made a motion calling for Charles Garland’s reelection as Stated Clerk.  It passed unanimously, and I sat and listened as various elders commended Charles for his service.

Prior to the next Presbytery meeting in April 2016, with Dr. Hobbs’ permission, I emailed her January letter and the recordings of Charles to every Presbytery officer whose email address I could find on a church website, and attended the meeting holding a 15″x20″ sign in my lap that reads “Justice, not Abuse.”  (It was the first occasion that I displayed the sign, which has gone on to become a primary bone of contention for leaders and members at Faith:  the very most important issue in all of this is that I am bad and wrong for holding a sign.)  During the meeting, an Executive Session was called and all non-officers were asked to leave the room.  The Executive Session lasted for 20-25 minutes.  Afterward, Charles remained at the front of the sanctuary, glibly cracking jokes when speaking to the gathering, with most of the elders laughing appreciatively.  No action was taken, and the Presbytery offered no response to me or to Dr. Hobbs.

Before the next meeting in September 2016, I filed a formal complaint about Charles Garland with the Presbytery.  I cited the relevant passage in the Book of Church Order pertaining to “base and flagitious” sin, making the argument that by doing nothing, the Presbytery was either making the statement that Charles hadn’t committed the sin of reviling or that reviling wasn’t a base and flagitious sin.  I pointed out the dangerous precedent this sets for anyone experiencing verbal or emotional abuse, since it demonstrates that the church considers these to be, at most, very trivial offenses, or even tacitly approves of them.

Then I painted a dress with Charles’ quotes from the phone call and wore it to the meeting.

With Charles presiding, the Presbytery appointed a commission of two to respond to the complaint.  The Presbytery also, for the fourth time, appointed a new commission to respond to my original complaint against Faith PCA.  I was never contacted by either commission.

When I arrived at the January 2017 Presbytery meeting, both commissions had, unbeknownst to me, already ruled to throw out both complaints.  All of the elders in the Presbytery had received copies of the rulings, but no one had contacted me.  The Presbytery voted unanimously, with no discussion, to pass the commissions’ rulings without saying what the rulings were.  I stood up and asked the moderator to summarize.  He did not.  While he requested that someone provide me with a paper copy, Charles Garland emailed me the rulings himself (despite my request for no contact.)  Here they are:

JessicaForeRulingComplete

Charles Garland Report

I’ll draw attention to a couple of quotes:

“The reason [the Faith PCA complaint cannot be put in order] is that the Session of FPC acted in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Church order (BCO) with regards to Jessica Fore and the other members of FPC who are mentioned in Jessica Fore’s charges.”

“We further find that the Clerk attempted to rebuke Ms. Fore for what he perceived to be her litigiousness and refusal to be reconciled with her church and its officers.  We find the Clerk’s conversation to constitute an attempt at rebuke, rather than “reviling.”  We find that the allegations do not raise a strong presumption of guilt.”

In other words, everything the church and the Stated Clerk did was fine.  Amazingly, the commissioners didn’t even bother disputing whether the things I alleged at Faith PCA really happened, or defining “reviling” versus “rebuking”; they just said that the Session’s and Charles Garland’s actions were OK.  Neither report bothers to offer any substantive biblical or factual support for its positions.  The Charles Garland report contains at least six factual errors (inaccuracies and critical omissions) that Dr. Hobbs attempted to correct in an email to its authors, since she was mentioned in the report.  Her email was ignored.  No Presbytery officer objected to any part of either ruling.  Charles Garland, an Elder in good standing, has just moved to Arizona to head up Grace Tucson, a brand new church plant with strong ties to RUF campus ministry.

Once the rulings were passed, only an officer of the Presbytery (i.e. only an ordained male PCA elder serving a church in Georgia Foothills) would have had the right to bring these matters before a higher church court.  None did so.  “The system” had successfully cut me off at the knees, as it has done to so many others.  The PCA offers zero judicial agency for a layperson seeking accountability for abuse or wrongdoing if her Presbytery decides to close ranks and shut her up.  Since I started blogging about my situation, I’ve been contacted by other women with similar experiences in other Presbyteries.  I’ve heard from women excommunicated for fleeing marital abuse, or simply struck from the rolls of their church through disciplinary erasure and denied a trial even as they begged their elders to look at evidence of domestic violence.  The few who press the issue with their Presbyteries instead of quietly disappearing find that justice is slow at best, but most often nonexistent.  Abused women are disposable.

Providentially, out of the blue, I was contacted in May 2017 by a PCA elder in another part of the country who knew about my situation.  I learned that the 2016 minutes for Georgia Foothills Presbytery had landed in front of someone on the Review of Presbytery Records committee who cares about abuse in the church, and this person had flagged the minutes for review.  RPR voted to cite Georgia Foothills Presbytery with an “exception of substance” on three consecutive sets of minutes covering every presbytery meeting in 2016.  It passed something like 50-2 in committee and was then bundled into an omnibus vote on the floor of General Assembly, where it passed without public discussion.  The exception states:

The court did not address the substance of the complaint thereby denying a member the ‘watchful care, instruction and government of the church’ to which the member is entitled.  Although the complaints were ruled administratively out of order, they constitute reports affecting the Christian character of those subject to the presbytery’s authority.  Therefore, the Presbytery ought to have instituted the procedures in BCO 31-2.

BCO 31-2 is a passage pertaining to church discipline:

It is the duty of all church Sessions and Presbyteries to exercise care over those subject to their authority. They shall with due diligence and great discretion demand from such persons satisfactory explanations concerning reports affecting their Christian character. This duty is more imperative when those who deem themselves aggrieved by injurious reports shall ask an investigation. If such investigation, however originating, should result in raising a strong presumption of the guilt of the party involved, the court shall institute process, and shall appoint a prosecutor to prepare the indictment and to conduct the case.

So, if I understand correctly, the Presbytery is being instructed by the denomination to investigate Faith and hand out indictments (which can lead to various consequences including excommunication and loss of leadership positions) wherever there is wrongdoing pertaining to my case.  If the Presbytery doesn’t answer the exception satisfactorily, then the case is supposed to go before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), the highest court in the denomination, in 2018.

There are some who see the RPR citation as a victory and an example of the system working, and in one sense that’s true.  There’s finally an official acknowledgement that my case has been mishandled.  It was a nearly unanimous decision by dozens of pastors from all over the country looking at a sparse outline of the facts.  The failsafe by which Presbyteries are held accountable kicked in.  And it was completely out of my hands that it happened, which I believe is from the Lord.  My hope is that it can lay a foundation for broader change so that churches stop revictimizing abuse survivors.

On the other hand, it’s taken eight years of egregious wrong to get to this point– five since I started raising longstanding issues with my session privately and two since I brought my situation before the Presbytery and the congregation.  In the process, I’ve been pushed out of Christian community for all practical purposes and defamed at multiple levels of the church.  When I have talked about abuse publicly, my ex husband has repeatedly contacted an elder at the church to threaten me.  The investment of time and mental energy necessary to document everything, attend meetings, and jump through hoops is like having an unpaid extra job.  General Assembly has lobbed my case back into the Presbytery’s court, where there has been no demonstration of repentance or internal accountability working thus far.  There will be no external oversight or accountability for another year.  The Presbytery is in no hurry to right wrongs:  they will pass out the RPR ruling at the September 2017 meeting and respond to it at the January 2018 meeting.  I have no direct right of appeal before the Standing Judicial Commission:  my case is at the mercy of the Presbytery and whoever reads the minutes at next year’s RPR.  Should I attempt to directly contact anyone with influence, I will be accused of “circularizing the court.”  With regard to the impact on my own life, it is far too little, far too late.

We need a national conversation about these issues– not just about abuse and domestic violence, but about the systemic cover up, silencing and disposing of victims in the church.  In the PCA, it must begin at the Presbytery level, with men who are willing to engage in meaningful advocacy for women who have no voice, even at the possible risk of their own standing with their peers.  If you’re a PCA elder and stories like mine bother you, do something real about it.  Learn about abuse.  Listen to survivors and their advocates.  Bring their stories to the floor of your Presbyteries and General Assembly.  Advance overtures and constitutional amendments that protect them.  Bring real accountability and real consequences to churches and church officers that oppress abuse survivors.

Georgia Foothills Presbytery convenes tomorrow, September 19th.  I will be in attendance and appreciate your prayers.