The Path Taken: Why I Left Organized Religion

As a child, I was often confused and hurt. Our home was difficult and often unhappy. My stepfather adopted me before I started first grade. He and my mother told me he was my biological father – they had become pregnant after meeting in a restaurant in Pennsylvania where my mom worked. My mom left him and went to her parents’ home in West Virginia where I was born.

I did not believe the story. I remembered the adoption and the chaos around their wedding. I felt I did not know who I was and that there was no one in the world who would tell me the truth. The truth stayed hidden until just a few years ago. I have 3 siblings and a small herd of cousins. I have met two of my siblings and several of my cousins – especially two who came to meet with me in person. I was invited to a family reunion last year! Amazing and glorious.

My stepfather was born and raised Catholic, but as an adult left Catholicism for the Methodist Church. My mother belonged to an Evangelical United Brethren Church, a fundamental Protestant denomination that no longer exists. As a young girl, I visited both churches and did not enjoy either of them. I often attended mass with relatives. I loved, and still love the atmosphere inside a Catholic Church. My great-grandmother belonged to the 7th Day Adventist Congregation. My grandfather taught me Native American spirituality. My DNA connects me to Jewish ancestors. I have attended Messianic Jewish congregations and loved the message there. I call myself a religious melting pot. I am also a DNA melting pot, having ancestral connections to most of the world. Literally. 

A Church that Welcomed and Befriended Me

My home between ages 6 and 12 was next door to a Baptist parsonage. My backyard was connected to the back lawn of the church. All I had to do was walk across my yard and go up the back steps, and I was in the hall where the paster’s office was located. From there I had easy access to the sanctuary and my Sunday School class. The minister and his family knew my circumstances were challenging and they took me under their wing. I lived with them for a summer after I reported upsetting occurrences of abuse. I will forever be grateful for their friendship and their love and care. I am grateful for the church that welcomed and befriended me.

I did not think of my Baptist Church as fundamentalist. We often joined student groups from other denominations. I soon learned that our Baptist beliefs were somewhat different if not a lot different from those of other churches. I was a dedicated member and had developed a deep belief. I was having spiritual experiences on a regular basis, even though I did not know what I was experiencing. I thought I might want to be a nun. I thought I might want to be a Christian educator. I thought I wanted to be a social worker. I volunteered at a center for handicapped children and adolescents. I saw their needs and became a highly regarded volunteer. 

My First Resignation from Organized Religion

One summer when I was in high school, a group of students visited our church from Alderson Broaddus College, a school that was then affiliated with the Baptist church. The visitors were Christian Education majors. One of the young women did her internship with us. I loved her, respected her, and she understood me. I could talk honestly with her. At the end of the summer a whole group of students rained down on our church. I was instantly made part of the group. I loved my friend, but I was shocked by the giggly, silly, inappropriate behavior of most of these young adults. I saw them as immature with a very narrow vision of life. They did not know life outside the church. I wanted something different. Because of my friend, I ended up at Alderson Broaddus College as a Christian Ed major. The program wanted the Christian Ed students to live together, pal around together, and live separately from the larger student community.  I refused to room with the Christen Ed women, and I refused to limit my friendships. I became aware of my own immaturity as I interacted with new friends. I wanted to grow mentally, emotionally, and socially. 

I changed my major to sociology, with a minor in psychology. It was a much better fit. I began to distance myself from my home church. I still attended when I was home and maintained some of my friends. I was married at my home church. My husband grew up Presbyterian, and I thought that church was too liberal for me. We compromised and became Methodists. I was very active in the church until I was not. 

My girlfriend and I were teaching a high school Sunday school class. The teens had many questions about various religions and were bored with what we had been doing in class. We had a talk and together decided to have a series of classes on comparative religion. The question was: Do all of the major religions in the world have similar teachings, and if so, what are they? Some of the parents were greatly disturbed, and we were asked not to teach this particular subject. We were not asked to stop teaching the class, but we were made to feel like the bad kids on the block. Eventually, we resigned.

My Last Attempt at Organized Religion

In 1996 I was involved in a huge event at the church and was head of the planning committee. My husband was the basketball coach for the US Jones Cup basketball team that year. I decided that I could travel with him to Taiwan and leave the group early so that I would be home for the event. It did not work out that way. I did not understand Taiwanese culture. Our host did not respond well to my request to leave early. He and others were deeply affronted, and I ended up staying. There was a 13-hour difference in time between Taiwan and the East Coast of the US. I called my church office and left a message to explain what had happened and why I decided to stay. When I returned home everyone was furious with me. They basically avoided me and felt that I’d let them down. I did let them down, and yet I thought I’d made the only decision that I could make at the time. They cancelled the church event, which was not necessary. I was persona non grata. And I left that church.

For a short time, we were members of an enthusiastic Presbyterian church. In some ways we loved it. But our daughters hated it because the focus every Sunday was on giving money to fund church projects. My daughters refused to attend their Sunday School class because they were asking, nearly demanding, that young students give to the church. My husband and I were also disturbed by the emphasis on money. This ended up being my last attempt at organized religion.

Meeting Others with Religious Injury and Trauma

While my story is far less dramatic than many others, I lost a lot of friends. I lost a sense of community within the church and within my community at large. But I did not lose my direction. I started a serious spiritual journey when I found Walking Meditation and journaling. And I’have lived a spiritual journey since I began a daily meditation practice in the 1990s.

In 1999 I began working as a mental health counselor. By 2004 I was working with several men and women from different faiths who were suffering from religious issues and traumas. That included one active minister home on missionary leave. The minister was questioning whether she wanted to continue in her church as a missionary. It also included a man from a fundamental cult-like group. Because he expressed his opinions about his religious community, he was excommunicated. He was not allowed to talk to or interact with his wife, his children, his parents, or his siblings. He lost almost all of his friends. He attempted suicide and lived. When he healed enough to come back to therapy, he was shattered physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He was on medication, seeing his doctor and following his doctor’s orders, and coming one or two times a week to therapy. He was trying so hard to put his life back together. His wife continued to live in the same house while shunning him. He was separated from the life he had previously known. He’d lost everything that had meaning to him.

One night he felt hopeless and alone and he killed himself. I was in contact with several people, family, and friends, who were worried about him. I followed up with them. The church community showed no remorse and took no responsibility for what had happened. In the church’s opinion, he had the choice to change his ways and rejoin the congregation. 

A Way Forward: Support Group for Religious Injury and Trauma

I have never forgotten that suicide. And I have never stopped working with individuals who come into therapy with religious trauma issues. Thus, the idea for A Way Forward was born. A Way Forward is not a therapy group. It is a support group based loosely on 12-step recovery, books I have read, my knowledge of spirituality in counseling, and my personal life experiences. 

If you identify with those who have suffered religious confusion and emotional-spiritual pain, you are invited to join The Way Forward. The group is on Zoom and is available to adults around the world. The group is open to anyone with religious pain and trauma, from various belief systems, races, cultures, and those from the LBGTIA+ community.