Spiritual Abuse, The White Evangelical Church, Campus Ministry, & Their Toxic Version of the Gospel

August 20, 2020  •  Leave a Comment


                                           
                                      Photo above: IVCF Fall Conference 2015

This is my experience with the white Evangelical church and its relationship to racism, homophobia, sexism, and predominantly White Evangelical ministries. The retelling of my experience was inspired by the many stories I’ve recently seen shared on social media. My high school English teacher (thanks Ms. Tierney) told me to never stop writing my truth, so here I am. Thank you to my friends who helped me write this, recalled memories I blocked out of my mind, and for being all-around good people that made my college experience so much better, despite the many troubles of campus ministry.

I grew up in a very white Oregon city where I attended a very white church. Oregon as a whole is a predominantly white state and was the only Whites Only state in the US. For a little more background, Eugene was a hub for the local KKK chapter in the 60s and Portland has their fair share of White Supremacist groups.  The high school I went to had around 1200 students and had very few Asian students and other students of color. I was one of 17 Asian students in my senior class of about 400. The Asian American community in Eugene is less than 5% of a population of about 166,000. I wanted so desperately to fit in -  and the way to fitting in was assimilating with whiteness.

My experience with the Evangelical Church is different from the common story. I was raised in a protestant and mostly progressive church most of my life. I was not raised in a fire and brimstone church; I was never taught that being gay was a sin until high school life groups, and the version of the gospel I knew taught of a kind and loving God. Through the Evangelical church, I learned of a God full of wrath and fury who would send you to Hell because you divorced an abusive partner.  It wasn’t until high school that I got sucked into Evangelical youth groups. 

I rarely went to the youth group at my church, but when I did, I was harassed and touched by boys for several years throughout my time there. This issue has been dealt with but I’m leaving it here because it’s part of this story of how Evangelicalism came into my life. I absolutely hated my church youth group so my parents gave me an offer: I didn’t have to go to my church youth group if I went to the weekly Young Life/Evangelical church youth groups. So I  went with my friends to their church youth groups  and did that for 3 years. I remember the altar calls, the loud worship music, and praise hands. I mastered the art of fake crying during worship gatherings so it would appear that I “really felt the Holy Spirit.”

To master the art of fitting in and assimilating with white students, I played girls lacrosse for a couple years and I found that I could have a sense of community if I stripped down my identity.  If I whitewashed myself, attended mega church life groups, acted like a white person, closeted myself, wore makeup to make my eyes appear less almond shaped - basically erased all of my Chinese heritage, I had a shot at fitting in - and it worked. I will say that my time in high school wasn’t completely dominated by the Evangelical church.  I had friends outside the church and I was involved with several extracurriculars, but the Evangelical teachings seeped into all corners of my life.

 

I did all of that to survive.

 

Fast forward two years out of high school, I had just transferred to Portland State University for my second year of college. I tried to find a community in Pacific Islanders group and other Chinese/Asian campus groups. However, as an adopted Chinese person, I was not Asian enough for those groups and not white enough for many other groups (think Panhellenic Greek life). When I first moved to Portland I thought deeply about cutting off my membership with my home church. Within the first year, I visited 12 different churches to find a new church home. In the end I settled with First UMC in Goose Hollow because the layout of the service, scriptures, and preaching style was familiar to me and I liked their organ music.  That didn’t mean I was happy.

*Side note: here is some background information on Portland State University (PSU) for important context on incidents mentioned below and throughout this article: PSU is right in the middle of downtown Portland, MAX and Streetcars run through campus and campus buildings are woven into the city blocks. PSU is also a commuter school, a lot of students are transfers from other universities, and the average age of a student is 26. Lastly, many students at PSU are nonreligious and there are a good percentage of queer students.

Two weeks into the school year, I found my sense of community in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF).

 IVCF is a nonprofit 501(c3) Evangelical organization. I wouldn’t say they’re specifically a white Evangelical organization as they do have Black and Asian campus ministry chapters and I don’t want to discredit the work that happens there, but it is a predominantly white organization. Honestly, most of the chapters in Oregon are pretty white although some did have specific groups for Black students and Asian students;  but that did not exist on my campus and Portland is pretty white in general.

I wasn’t even seeking out a Christian group. Someone in my dorm saw me crying during my first weeks of school because I was stressed out and had no friends and invited me to her small group (a small Bible study group). I immediately made lasting friendships that  night. We all have our share of IVCF moments that made us question being a part of the chapter.  I have a lot of good memories, don’t get me wrong, but when you’re so caught up in a group like this, you have blinders on and you don’t realize what’s really happening. IVCF was where I became more deeply involved in the Evangelical movement. I made several posts on social media where I said how IVCF was so life changing, how it felt like I found God and was reborn (all of that good Christianese lingo.) Sometimes I wonder if God watched what I did and thought like “wtf are you doing, you don’t need to put on a showy display to gain acceptance from these false idols.”

 

I have many sour memories from IVCF, below are just a handful of them.

 

I reached out to several other friends in the community, and learned that many of my experiences were not uncommon with the internal workings that went on in other  chapters.

At the end of my first year in 2016, I was told that I couldn’t celebrate my birthday because I needed to be at leadership training instead. Staff saw “potential in me to be a great servant leader,” which is why I was there. As an enneagram 3 (for those that don’t know, Enneagram is a personality typing tool and explains why we do the things we do. Find out more here), I identify through the work that I do, and thought this was something on par with what I thought my identity was. I was somewhere between the average and slightly unhealthy levels for a 3, and my staff ministers preyed on those weaknesses and exploited it.  I experienced Spiritual abuse when staff made me feel like somehow all this work would get me a better seat in heaven. But the thing is, there are no better seats in heaven - there is only equity. They preyed on my own toxic traits of overworking and over committing myself. It’s ironic that they’re the ones who prompted me to go to therapy because they thought I seemed stressed out and unhappy, yet encouraged the spiritual drowning of myself.

Another memory I have was when a student leader was forced to step down from their role because their partner (who had recently escaped domestic violence) moved in with them. There should be zero problems with that, but campus staff saw it as an issue because they were unmarried. This happened more than once.  IVCF valued purity over the basic safety of a human and not only did it make me skeptical, it was a big red flag that highlighted the toxicity of the organization.

Two other moments I blocked from memory were when we had to volunteer at our evangelizing booth - basically a tent in the center of campus (also where multiple public transit lines went through so it was a highly trafficked area) where we tried to connect the legacy of MLK Jr. with the creation story, and each student leader had to hit a quota for number of emails and names collected. It was incredibly awkward and stressful too - students were rushing from the MAX to get to class or work, many didn’t have time to stop or didn’t want to stop and I don’t blame them. If you didn’t hit that number, nothing happened to you, campus staff were just disappointed in you and a layer of unspoken guilt was put upon you.

I acknowledge that IVCF  is one of the places that helped fuel my learning in being an anti-racist. I’ll give them credit for being a little more active than most ministry groups in calling out racism, but they also were perpetrators of white colonizer and racist actions. There was a common theme of tokenism throughout the group and the organization as a whole. You can be anti-racist,  you can be pro BLM, but you can still be perpetuating racism. “We sang a song in Spanish, we solved racism!” I also know that my experience with white Evangelicalism is nowhere near as close as people who have grown up in the white Evangelical churches but I will say that it doesn't take much time being in one of these groups to ruin your relationship with Christianity, to make you feel like you don’t belong, and to ultimately mold yourself against who God created you to be.

The year before I left InterVarsity was the year both of our campus leaders - the hired campus staff - left. A note about campus staff: IV staff have to fundraise 100% of their salaries. According to Glassdoor, average salaries range between $37,000-40,000 (of course, because salaries are fundraised, those numbers will fluctuate based on the resources you have and where you're located), and that’s for someone with post-secondary education. Not only does this seem like an unhealthy way for employees to get paid, the fundraising model is an incredibly privileged pay structure. Staff that identify as BIPOC tend to have fewer resources for accessing ministry/funding partners. Depending on where you’re based, that can affect the ministry partners you find for funding as well. For the 2018 fiscal year, IVCF had $107 million in revenue - why aren’t they paying staff more? Another question my friends and I had was why were staff so close to our age? They easily blended in with other students on campus. Was it to make us feel more comfortable with whatever brand of Christianity they were trying to sell?

 

Let’s talk about IVCF regional conferences

 

There were quarterly conferences we were all encouraged guilted into attending. Fall Conference was my first in-depth taste of white Evangelicalism at work. Sure, I’d been involved with YoungLife and other Evangelical youth groups during high school, but something about IVCF just hit differently. It was like I had a great spiritual awakening (IVCF preys on young college students, many who are on their own for the first time, and I fed into their narrative 100%. Writing this and coming to terms with what I experienced is like a second spiritual awakening). I remember there being an altar call (no conference of theirs was complete without an altar call), and walking up there, picking up a little wooden cross that they gave each person, and proclaiming my desire to follow Jesus - not that I wasn’t following Jesus - but their specific version of Jesus.  The last night of Fall Conference included confession time which was relatively new to me. Students went up to staff members gathered around the outside edge of the room, confessed something, and then they would be prayed over. I couldn’t think of anything - for the most part I like to think I was a good kid, so I told a staff minister that I was feeling convicted for cheating on a math test in middle school and I added some fake tears so they would buy it.

That winter I was pressured into attending Urbana 2015;  a student missions conference in St. Louis with 16,000 other students. Because it was so late to the conference date, registration fees and airfare costs were significantly increased/higher, but I made it work because I desperately wanted this false sense of community. It was toxic to say the least. David Platt (conservative, homophobic mega-church pastor) was one of the speakers if that says anything. Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble remembering what happened at this conference. I didn’t have the best time there and I have to look at old pictures to remember core memories. I just know the food was terrible, I was constantly cold, there were so many homophobic speakers and ministry booths,  and I wasted a lot of money on bullshit conservative Evangelical books. I also remember signing up for a short term mission because according to IVCF, that would make God happy. Yuck. I do, however, remember a main conference session where Black Lives Matter was addressed - so I guess congrats on meeting the bare minimum? My favorite moments were with my friends (who all ended up leaving the chapter or helped to dissolve it) outside of meeting sessions, just taking in the city.

Onto Mark Camp - 7 days of reading and studying the first half of Mark. Credits to this conference for teaching me to to read and think critically about the Bible and how it was written. Minus points for making daily sessions incredibly long, not listening to students feedback, and admonishing the quiet, anxious, and introverted students. Bonus point for having good food. I remember one of my best friends and her then boyfriend wanting to leave halfway through...a lot of people in my chapter wanted to leave. It wasn’t fun, sessions were mentally draining, I cried almost every night in my sleeping bag, and in the end it was hurting our mental and spiritual health.

The last conference I went to was Spring Conference. We were separated into our racial groups, including a group for interracial students. I ended up in the interracial study group (this was before I got a DNA test - I used to think I was half white, I’m not. I’m full East Asian). We had to share our cultural experiences with one another but the moment after I shared mine, I walked out. People’s reactions to my story and discombobulated feelings surrounding my culture made me feel alone once again. No one understood the trauma of adoption and how my sense of culture was ripped from me. Obviously this isn’t the fault of students, but it was another layer of icing to this trauma cake.

 

Lasting effects

 

One lasting effect from IVCF was how they used prayer as a form of punishment. Student leaders were required to be good or intentional about prayer as well as closing out meetings with prayer. During small groups if you didn’t speak up or were the person to speak up the least you were forced to do the closing prayer - and yes, they kept a running tally to see who spoke up. As someone who is naturally quiet, I preferred to listen and sit on what was said before I spoke. I was often forced into closing or opening prayer. To this day, 4 years later, I have a terrible relationship with prayer, praying out loud, using prayer as a way to speak with God, and I get incredibly anxious whenever I have to close in prayer for staff meetings (I work for a Christian org). I’ve felt a call into ministry or work in the Church since I was 12  - but I’ve ignored that for 12 years since prayer seems like an essential thing one needs to be able to do? (Also I swear a lot).

The more I reflect on this moment, the more saddened I am. Prayer is supposed to be an intimate and holy interaction between you and God, but because of IVCF, that’s ruined for me. I want to be able to like prayer, I really do, and I try almost every day, but prayer feels like a painful punishment for me - and it should never be that way.

A final moment that ruined my relationship with prayer was being guilted into going to a weekend prayer retreat in the middle of nowhere. Three whole days of quiet (which was actually nice), and group prayer. This also involved sharing some of our darkest secrets or traumatic memories with each other. I don’t know if this was supposed to bring us closer together, but I was incredibly uncomfortable. Also I’d brought a bag of Kona coffee for the trip and my staff person used most of it (if you don’t know, 100% Kona coffee isn’t cheap) so I was just a tad bit aggravated.

 

Grief

 

Not only was my relationship with prayer ruined, the way I grieved and coped with hard things was damaged as well. In early 2016 a close friend passed away - I got the call while I was eating lunch with some other student leaders. Most people would have time to process and grieve - but not me! I was given very little time to grieve - the day I found out I didn’t even have time to cry in the shower because IVCF prioritized students/student leaders showing up to events over all else happening in our lives. I managed to cope the next several weeks by ignoring my feelings so I could meet the demands of the group. Also the cliche sayings about death that were thrown at me were pretty gross: “she’s in a better place now,”  “everything happens for a reason,” - I hated this one.

What that experience taught me was that my feelings or health - or anyone’s health for that matter, was not a priority. I’ve always been a little bit afraid of death - I chalk that one up to my parents taking me to an open casket funeral when I was 7 and not knowing I was going to see a body. However, what I experienced from IVCF has not made the grieving process any easier, in fact the harm they caused is just now becoming undone thanks to my current therapist.

For those of you that will ask if I had good memories - yes, I have a good handful of them, but they will never outweigh what I consider the deep spiritual abuse from an organization I was supposed to trust.

 

When campus staff quit and student leaders ended up in charge

 

After our two campus ministers left, we were not assigned a new staff person and all of their tasks were put onto the student leaders which included myself and I think three other students. The time commitment for all of us greatly increased, and on top of that I felt the unspoken pressure to figure out how to spiritually care for others when I could barely spiritually care for myself. One student leader withdrew right after campus staff left, as staff had pressured her to stay instead of taking care of herself following family emergencies during summer trainings. We were also all seniors or juniors and working, so to have that kind of position that usually is paid thrown onto students pushed us so close to burnout. We kept the group going by ourselves for the next year and a quarter before ultimately dissolving it. I want to be clear that there was barely any outside help, yet the pressure was put onto us to recruit and bring in more students. Our area director barely helped - her contribution was a Google Docs folder of Bible studies and scriptures. That was it. One of the staff members that left was placed at a university and they were able to help answer questions for a little bit, but for the most part it was sink or swim. I still cannot wrap my mind around the way everything was handled. There was 100% a lack of leadership on the district level. Students are in college to learn and earn a degree. We aren’t paying thousands of dollars to invest our own money into a ministry group that doesn’t give two shits about their students or chapters.

In late 2016, the National organization of IVCF came out with a statement solidifying their stance against homosexuality. They encouraged staff that either supported or were LGBTQIA+ to resign from their positions. Of course, if a campus staff minister remained celibate and didn’t act upon their thoughts they could stay. But what kind of message did this say to queer students? Did we actually belong there? Or was our existence an abomination to God?

A year after this statement came out, we were struggling to keep the group going because we just didn't have enough time, resources, or energy and some of us were in our senior years. There was also a lot of pent up anger and frustration from the way area management was helping us (or lack thereof) and dealing with things in our personal lives. It seemed that it was time for the chapter to finally go - so we dissolved the group. The dissolution/end was the most freeing moment of my life. I finally had more time to myself, the spiritual manipulation ended, I had a choice in what I participated in, and my stress and sadness greatly decreased.

I know that IVCF  has done some good things for their specific campus communities but I also know that it really hurt and ruined people’s lives. I think the most toxic thing for me was having the role of 2 paid staff ministers thrown on me and my friends as well as knowing that I couldn't truly be welcomed as a queer person. It was also really tough being one of the few students of color in the chapter and all the conferences I went to went against a lot that I learned in a progressive Protestant church. I felt like I was being told all the time that what I learned growing up was wrong. There's nothing wrong with having your beliefs challenged, there is something wrong with being told that your existence that was created by God was wrong. I believe in liberation theology,  not a twisted, homophobic, cherry-picked, and racist theology that’s used to hurt marginalized people and communities.

 

The trauma of it all

 

I believe in the Holy Trinity and the gospels, but there is spiritual abuse happening deep within that organization and it’s slowly crawling into all areas of it, like ivy killing a tree.

The spiritual abuse happened when student leaders were asked to leave because they let their significant other who was fleeing domestic violence move in and they’re unmarried. It happened when the organization valued purity over basic human safety. It happened when campus staff told students it was sinful to behave that way and shamed people for having sex or dating a non Christians. Why did they care more about our sex lives than the damage they did to our health?

 

Abuse happened when I was re-baptized in a public fountain because my Methodist “sprinkling” wasn’t enough.

 

Spiritual abuse happened when I was forced to give up everyday things to make my  schedule work for them. It happened when I had to schedule my classes and work schedule around small group meeting times. It was when they pressured one of my best friends to stay on leadership even though their parent was having recurring mental health crises, was working full time, and was taking summer classes.  It was when my campus ministry staff pressured me and my friends so hard to show up to this expensive conference (Urbana) but we were college sophomores, and none of us could really swing that. It was when I joined an Evangelical church because I wanted a community so damn bad because I was so lonely and craving social interaction, and that church gives me a scholarship to Urbana and I had to continue showing up because I was somehow indebted to them even though they preached homophobia and racism every Sunday. It was when I still couldn’t afford the conference so I asked my home church to help fund it and they did, and it turned out to be a really toxic and harmful experience, but when I reported back to my home church, I spun it in a positive light because I felt so guilty. It was when staff leaders told me to just use my parents airline miles to go because they’re free, except it’s not actually free, my parents - who were public school teachers,  had to spend money to earn those and it’s not even my money. It was when people in the group assumed because my parents can afford to fly, their wallet was my wallet (yes my parents helped me afford college, yes I have student loans that I’m paying off myself, yes I recognize the privilege I have in being able to pursue a college degree. The question is how are you going to use that privilege to lift up others). It was when I was guilted into showing up for summer bible studies even though I lived 2 hours away and worked 30 hours a week doing graveyard shifts at my local newspaper. It was when other students left the group for their own health and the unspoken rule is to cut them off and remove contact. It was when every waking moment was seemingly spent planning events or attending events or leading Bible studies and having no time for myself. It was when my friend died and I didn’t have time to cry because I had to be at some bullshit group that evening and other events for the rest of the week. It was when I wasn’t allowed to grieve because showing up to events had been made the priority by campus staff. It was when the student leaders seemed to do more of the work than the actual assigned staff - who were only on campus 2 to 3 days a week. It was when me, my health, and the health of others in the chapter were always an afterthought. It was when the whole organization tried to purge all of their queer staff, making the campus groups an unsafe space for queer people. It was the homophobia that reeked from the National Organization and local levels that was (and still is)  killing students because they think God won’t love them. Everything that I mentioned was done because supposedly it was to bring us closer to God, and to bring God onto the PSU campus. But who are they to say God wasn’t already there? IVCF preys on and manipulates young college students who’ve just moved away from home and are exploring their own beliefs. They make the gatherings look fun and trendy. If showing up and doing all of those things is supposed to get you brownie points with God and get you into heaven, I don’t want any of it.

 

Walking away?

 

To my friends that are either still in this organization or employed by them, I see you. I see you working to dismantle the oppressive systems and I see the work you’re doing to make it an inclusive space for ALL. I respect the work you are doing and I understand why you stay.

I’m not going to say you should leave that ministry behind because the same thing could be said about me remaining in the United Methodist Church. Close friends know about the work I’ve been doing inside the church. We have the power to change things from the inside, we also have power to change from the outside, but we all need to take care of ourselves before we burn out. We should not be striving for this fake better seat at the table and burning ourselves out for an organization. We do, however, get the opportunity to be part of the Kin-dom by being decent human beings and giving a damn about folks in the margins.

If my former staff ministers are reading this, I believe you’re inherently good people and that you were just following the toxic rhetoric from the overhead organization. Chances are you may not agree with anything I said and that’s fine, but you don’t get a say in if the actions you made were spiritually abusive. Sometimes I wish I could send my therapy bills to you. I hope one day you realize the negative impact all of this had on my spiritual life and on my health. You may have had good intentions, but the impact had tragic effects - not just on me, but for others as well.

 

Just for fun: here are some of the commitments student leaders had to make. This should’ve been my sign to run. (My current comments are in bold)

 

  • Consider IV your primary spiritual community (Say goodbye to your church community if you have one)
  • Pursue integrity & purity: be a person of your word, sobriety in alcohol and drug consumption, seek to submit all aspects of your life to the Lordship of Jesus, seek transformation when sin is revealed. (Fucking YIKES. I know pastors and people who drink, I also know those who abstain but would never pass judgment on those who do - both are ok).
  • Live as an example of godly character and be consistent between what you say and what you do (Who gets to determine what a godly character is?)
  • Trustworthy with responsibilities such as school, work, leadership tasks, family obligations, etc. (Except how do you do this when you’re expected to be a group leader for 10-15 hours a week).

Relevant Scriptures:

  • Philippians 2:1-18, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, Titus 1:5-9, Titus 3:1, Romans 13:1-2, 1 Cor 8, 2 Timothy 2:2, Matthew 5:37 (These are all cherry picked scriptures).
  • Be available to people outside of structured events (This means asking whether you are over-involved in other activities and being willing to potentially drop them for the sake of people) (Remember, this was a volunteer position. I had to reschedule therapy sessions to “be available to people”).
  • Regularly attend and lead community events for personal growth & to shepherd others (ie. Small Groups, Prayer Meetings, NSO, etc.)
  • Regularly attend 1.5-hour Leaders Meetings every week throughout the year. (This is how where they groomed us to feed into their beliefs)
  • Attend Leadership Retreats (training, planning, bonding, and prayer)
  • Spring Chapter Camp, June 10-11
  • Attend ALL Conferences (Another big time commitment and expensive).
  • Fall Conference, Oct. 21-23, 2016
  • Mark Camp, Spring Break, 2017
  • Spring Conference, Friday - Sunday, early Third Semester, exact date TBD
  • Reach new students and fully participate in New Student Outreach
  • Becoming a world changer and person of justice – prayerfully consider participating in an InterVarsity Summer missions project (i.e., Global Urban Trek or InterVarsity Global Project)
  • 2017-2018: Pay all conference fees at the beginning of the academic year or set up an automatic recurring payment (This is an incredibly privileged requirement. Many of us didn’t have extra money just laying around to pay $500-700 upfront).
  • Weekly Time Commitment: Structural - 6 hours, Relational - Recommended 3-5 hours, more during NSO (This was one big lie).
  • We make exceptions for those who RA for the purpose of Dorm ministry (People choose to be RAs because it brings down the cost of college, many aren’t there to minister as well).

 


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