‘It’s ruined me.’ Former independent fundamental Baptists describe life in the church
Former members of independent fundamental Baptist churches describe a culture and teachings that affect the rest of their lives. The following quotes are taken from interviews.
Independent fundamental Baptist church members are either born into the movement and grow up knowing nothing else or are brought into the churches through evangelism. The tight-knit community of motivated people is appealing, especially to vulnerable people.
“I was an adult, I was in my early 20s. Our lives were a dysfunctional mess, and we needed support. We didn’t have family in town so we started attending a church because someone my husband worked with invited us. The strict boundaries helped for a while, but over time it seemed pointless: no matter how strict the rules got we couldn’t please anybody.”
— Lisa Bertolini, California
“I liked the sense of belonging I felt, the caring feeling of the community, because I didn’t have that before.”
— Karen Rice, Pennsylvania
“There was a lot of positive energy going on. We went to the church, there was a lot going on, a lot of activities, great music program — the people just seemed to be, quote-unquote, ‘on fire for the Lord.’”
— Sindye Banko Alexander, Colorado
Life in an independent fundamental Baptist church can quickly become insular. Members are held to “standards” both inside and outside the church: modest dress for women and a ban on movies and secular music in the stricter churches. The pastor becomes the ultimate authority, followed by the man of the house. Members are taught to look at the world with suspicion.
“My dad asked me if I were allowed to wear pants, if I would do it. I said, ‘I don’t know’ — as a kid you’re terrified — I don’t know. He said, ‘Because you can’t tell me right now, that means you are not a Christian. You are not going to heaven because a Christian would never hesitate at that question.’ ”
— Leah Elliott, Indiana
“I told her that I was raped and how violent it was and how I was terrified it would happen again. She gave me a five-minute counseling session and told me she would have to tell Pastor Schaap and the nurse, inform the doctor. And not to tell anyone. Anyway, we had our meeting, and they told me my rape was God’s will because it sent me there.”
— Amber McMorrow, Colorado. Former pastor Jack Schaap is serving a federal prison sentence for sexually abusing a 16-year-old congregant at First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. He did not respond to requests for comment via a letter sent to him in prison.
“It was a fire. I don’t remember anything about it. I just remember they told us to bring our pants, and we burned our pants. I remember thinking when I did it, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ My dad’s the pastor. Yeah, so we did it. I was probably 12.”
— Mindy Woosley, North Carolina
“We were told, ‘You can either forgive him like Jesus would or call the police, and they can take you away and put you in foster care like you were before.’ OK, I don’t want to go to hell, so I do what Jesus would do.’’
— Sara Means, Oklahoma, on her alleged abuser
“I was nursing, but the pastor outlawed nursing. No women were allowed to nurse because it kept them from church. I went to the bathroom to cry, and I’m getting engorged — you have to nurse, you get in a lot of pain if you don’t. I’m in the bathroom, and the nursery worker came into the stall with me. I think I was just grabbing toilet paper to blow my nose, she barged in and said, ‘The devil wants you to miss this sermon that’s happening right now. You get back in there.’ “
— Kara Blocker, Oregon
“You have a system of belief where what the pastor says is true, and you cannot disagree, the deacon boards don’t disagree, you don’t go against what the pastor says because the ingrained thinking is he’s God’s man, and you don’t lift a hand against God’s anointed.”
— Jo McGuire, Indiana
“I started dating a boy at 15. Pastor had a meeting with him and his mom, and told them I couldn’t marry him because he didn’t come from a broken home and didn’t know how to take care of me. And I wasn’t clean. Meaning I was violated.”
— Sarah Mullins, California, on how she was treated because she had divorced parents.
“I have so few memories of my cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles that it scares me. We were allowed to see them about once a year, until the church decided that the ‘good church members’ shouldn’t fellowship with their non-believing relatives. We were pretty much cut off after that. My grandparents still don’t understand why we were withheld from them.”
— Anonymous, Ohio
“They teach us there’s no such thing as mental illness. They say it’s all just not trusting in Jesus enough.”
— Barbra Lanzisera, California
“There’s a secret glee in thinking people you don’t like are burning in hell.”
— James McGrail, West Virginia
“One of my parents got upset and threw a paddle at my younger sister. It gave her a black eye, she was 6 or 7. The pastor saw it and asked what happened, and the pastor told my sister, ‘If you have anyone that is not a church member ask you what happened, you don’t tell them because if you do you’ll get taken away from your family.’”
— Anonymous, Oklahoma
“When I was 15, I tried to have the right attitude. It just never happened. I remember one time a teacher prayed with me that God would do whatever — God would do something drastic, even a car accident or a death or anything it took to get me right with God.”
— Anonymous, Wisconsin
“God has a killer surveillance system and is disappointed in you. There’s nothing you can do to please him.”
— Frederick Feeley Jr., Michigan
“There was a prevailing belief that it was always the girl’s fault, even a child. Because if a girl was being modest and obeying God nothing bad would happen. And boys and men were simply unable to control themselves, so it was up to the girls and women.”
— Denise Kodi, Alabama
“I remember just being so scared to think a negative thought against the man of God, a pastor. If a thought would go through my mind in the fleet of the moment, not meaning it to, about a pastor, I would start praying and be terrified something bad was gonna happen to me.”
— Bethany Leonard, Georgia
“My late mother, not long after we had started going to church, my stepfather had asked her to spend no more than $50 at the grocery store. Unfortunately, the bill totaled $52. Rather than put something back to get the bill under $50, she gave the cashier a weak smile and explained apologetically, ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to call my husband about this. You see, we’re a Christian family, and I believe in submitting to my husband.’ So off she went to the other end of the store to use the phone and call my stepfather at work while my brother and I waited at the counter. I could feel my face turning red, and my brother didn’t really understand what was going on, either. Our mother came back with a satisfied smile and informed the cashier, ‘I’m so sorry for holding up the line, but my husband said it was fine. I just had to ask him first because we’re a Christian family.’”
— Natasha Latham, Texas
“One of my classmates saw me riding one of my horses, and she reported me to the principal for wearing pants.”
— Susan Wisecarver, Indiana
When members leave the church, they may lose almost all of their friends and even their family. They realize their degrees from unaccredited Bible colleges don’t mean anything in the outside world. They suddenly have to learn to navigate a world they learned was evil. And for many, it takes years of therapy to overcome the fear-based teachings of the church.
“I’ve been in therapy for a couple years now trying to figure out who I am outside of fundamentalism.”
— Anonymous, North Carolina
“I’ve been away from there for 30-plus years, I still have those feelings. I still — if something bad happens to me, my immediate go-to in my brain is God’s punishing me, and I have to talk myself through it.”
— Linda Murphrey, who requested her location be withheld because she’s received death threats for speaking out in the past.
“It wasn’t even until I was 21, and I was telling my future fiancé. I was explaining to him about the situation, and he was the one that like brought it to my head that it’s like, ‘No stupid, it’s not your fault, that was a terrible man and you were raped.’ That word never even came to my mind. I didn’t hear of anyone else getting raped, I didn’t know it was a thing.”
— Brianna Kenyon, Michigan, who says she was abused by a church employee. He did not respond to requests for comment.
“I have had to go through years of therapy and numerous medications for my panic attacks and depression, and I have tried to commit suicide twice — once while still attending there and another time shortly after. I feel like I can never be normal or live a normal life — so many years were ruined and taken away from me. I was stripped of a normal childhood and having actual parents or any real friends. It has given me severe social anxiety. Until this day, it’s so hard to meet people and make new friends because I am such a basket case.”
— Melissa Winter, Tennessee, via Facebook messenger
“Do I wish he was in jail? Yes. But vengeance isn’t mine. It’s not mine to give to him. It’s not mine to keep pursuing. I’ve done what I could. But he’s got three kids. My abuser has three kids. What has it done to those children of his?”
— Amie Brown, South Carolina, on her alleged abuse by a church employee. He did not respond to requests for comment.
“I remember my first pair of pants, it was 11th grade. I started crying when I put them on, I was like, ‘I’m going to get in trouble.’ I wore them to public school, I couldn’t eat my lunch. I was shaking. I kept looking around thinking there’d be a spy. He always said, no matter how far you went, his reach went farther.”
— Michelle Myers, Arizona, on her fear of her former pastor
“I never went to see a movie till I was 35 years old. It was “Armageddon.” To be honest I was shaking and scared in the movie theater when I was 35 years old, because you’ve been pumped your whole life that movies are evil and wrong.”
— Mat Cannon, Texas
“If I can be candid, it’s ruined me.”
— Anonymous, California
“One thing I absolutely know is that God is true, and the word of God is perfect. So if people had been saying that they’re applying the word of God but turning into this fiasco, they missed something.”
— Stephen Meister, Illinois
“It’s made me very very sensitive to the fact that there’s evil, evil perpetrators and to the fact that people do not recover from this. This whole crime, this whole issue, it damages generations.”
— Susan Richardson, Tennessee, on sexual abuse
“You get ostracized. Your family won’t have anything to do with you, you won’t admit you’re part of the family. You lose your identity. You lose every single label you were given. It’s stripped away. It’s as painful as peeling the first layer of skin off your whole body.”
— Trisha LaCroix, Nevada, on leaving the church