I was a PK (Preacher’s Kid). And as many other PK’s would attest, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that role. Some of it is self-imposed, but not all. Because the truth is, as a PK, all eyes are on you, watching to see if you’re behaving as a ‘good christian child’. Even when my father wasn’t officially working as a Pastor, the feeling had been so ingrained in me that I couldn’t shake it.
When we attended Church O, the feeling of ”being watched” intensified. Not at first…in the beginning it was a wonderful place. It reminded me of life on the Bible College campus in Tanzania. But within a couple of years that feeling of being under the spotlight was definitely back. Only this time it wasn’t just my imagination. I really was being watched…and my actions were being reported.
After 5 years there, it became apparent to my parents that the leaders of Church O had some deeply flawed teachings (they ticked many of the boxes of what constitutes a cult), and we had no option but to leave. I have never felt such relief leaving any place in my life as I did when we moved on from there.
So, how did we end up at Church O in the first place?
Sometime after our move to QLD my father had a theological difference of opinion with the Minister of the Anglican Church we were at. As a result he decided to leave the Anglican Church. Simply by chance (or rather, not chance but perhaps God’s leading), a man installing fly-screens in our home one day noticed all the Bibles in the house and asked my parents if they were Christians. One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were being invited to visit his Church.
I had already noticed a big difference between the Anglican services in Tanzania, and those in Australia. The African church scene was a lot less formal than the Australian (people actually danced and raised their hands in the air during the singing). So when we walked into this new Church I felt completely at home when I saw people with their arms raised and dancing. The other great thing about this new church was bumping into kids from my school. I was so excited when I saw one of my friends from my class. My parents seemed to like it, and so we stayed.
It wasn’t just the lively singing and dancing that reminded me of Tanzania, it was the communal set up of the Church. The original founders of the Church (a retired elderly couple who were referred to as “father” and “mother” by everyone) had purchased several properties all on the same street, and the combined land formed what was known as The Farm. Some of the houses had young families, and others housed single men and women (separately of course). When we joined, the actual Church building hadn’t been built yet and people still met in one of the houses for Sunday services. On the surface it was such a pleasant atmosphere. The people were welcoming and friendly, they would share lunch together each Sunday after the service, they worked together to help each other (when my father began his overseas travels, groups of men would come to our home to help do all the outdoor chores and ladies would cook meals for my mother). There was such a great sense of community about the place.
I loved the feeling of being part of a group of likeminded people (I finally had Christian friends who came from similar homes to mine with the same rules and regulations regarding TV, clothes, music etc) and I felt very much at home. That was during the first couple of years. By the time I was 12, things had started to change.
Actually, I don’t think that things changed…I believe the fundamental issues in that Church were always there, it’s just that that’s when I started to become aware of them.
The leaders were very controlling over every aspect of the congregants’ lives. There were extreme cases of meddling in the lives of people that I only became aware of later after we left (e.g. the elders dictating who should marry who, how many kids they should have, how they should handle their finances etc) and in light of those, my concerns might seem quite trivial. But for the young girl I was then, they weren’t.
Let me share with you 3 examples…
Incident 1: When I was 12 I got my ears pierced. I’d been asking to have my ears pieced for a very long time, and my mother kept refusing. My father had gone on a trip back to Tanzania for 3 months, and when he returned he brought me back a pair of earrings. I was so excited – now I had to have my ears pierced!! Mum finally agreed :)
When it was noticed that my ears were pierced, I was summoned before a couple of the church leaders (initially without my parents present) to explain why I’d had my ears pierced. Apparently at Church O, girls were not allowed to have their ears pierced until they were 16…a rule I was unaware of, and thought was ridiculous! When my parents were also questioned, their response was “our daughter getting her ears pierced is actually none of your business”. That did not go down well!!
Incident 2: One of the rules at the church was that girls were not allowed to wear pants. As I’d always worn skirts and dresses on Sunday’s for church, this rule didn’t initially bother me. Until it became apparent that my knee length dresses and skirts were also unacceptable. Everything had to be ankle length. Ok…well it was just for Sundays, I could handle that. Then I started high school. And on my first school free-dress day I wore jeans. Someone from the Church who also attended my high school obviously reported it to the elders because the following Sunday I was called before the elders. How dare I wear pants to school?! I should have set an example of modesty and godliness by wearing one of my church-approved skirts. And furthermore…why did I even own jeans? Again the initial blasting occurred without my parents present. And when I told them about it, they confronted the leaders and repeated the same sentiments as with the earrings situation…i.e. “what our daughter wears at school is none of your business!” I continued to wear jeans or shorts for any free dress day at school. I mean really, ankle length skirts at school? How impractical!!
By the time I was in my 2nd year of high school, there had been several of these types of incidents where I had gotten ‘in trouble’ for doing something the leaders didn’t approve of. And each time my parents backed me up (which I will forever be grateful for). I had also seen several members leave, including a teenager who essentially ran away from home (moving in with a friend from school). She happened to also attend my school, and one day I was pulled aside by an elder and told under no circumstance was I ever to talk to that girl again or be her friend because of what she had done. She had left the fold, and so was now to be ‘cut off’ from all fellowship with anyone in the Church. I was so upset. And so confused as to what to do! We weren’t exactly friends (she was 3 years older than me, so we didn’t move in the same friendship circles anyway), but she was painted out to be a terrible backslider for having left…and yet I could kind of understand why she left as I was also starting to feel suffocated in that Church.
I felt like I was living a false reality. What originally had once seemed such wonderful happy place had lost its shine. I started to wonder, had it always been this and I just hadn’t seen it? Or was this a change that had occurred while we were there. All those smiles…all the ‘goodness’…it now seemed just for show. People were too scared to say what they really felt about anything for fear they would be told they were “out of the spirit” (yes, that was an actual phrases used to describe any emotion that showed anything other than a smiling face).
I had so much angst churning up inside me. I lived in the fear that someone would find out the sins in my life (the lies I regularly told, the fact that I’d tried smoking and drinking with a school friend, that I’d watched sexually explicit films, read filthy novels and magazines, swore, and listened to secular music). I was not the ‘good christian girl’ I pretended to be each Sunday when I donned my ankle length skirts and danced around the Church. I was a mess. And I was scared I’d be outed – that one day someone would have a prophecy about me in Church and reveal all my sins to the whole congregation. I know it sounds silly, but it was a real fear given the authoritative way “father” and “mother” (the elderly Church leaders) spoke from the pulpit…and the way ‘words of knowledge’ would be spoken out aloud in Church. I thought it was only a matter of time before I would be exposed, and I was scared that if my secrets were exposed, my parents would side with the Church elders and shun me as the other girl who’d left had been shunned by her family.
Although my parents had stood up for me in several incidents already, I couldn’t quite work out where they actually stood with this Church. They clearly disapproved of some things, but at the same time they seemed very invested in the place. My father even used to preach there some Sundays.
I started thinking about what I could do if I were to leave. I decided that if it ever came to the point where I needed to leave, I would contact my aunt in Sydney and ask to live with her. It was the only place I felt I would be welcomed unconditionally.
It’s sad to think that when I thought of unconditional love and acceptance, it was my non-Christian family who first came to mind.
Incident 3: The final straw came at the end of my 3rd year of high school. Truth be told, it had been building up for a while…not just around the altercations I’d had, but also because of other altercations my parents had had with the elders that I only became aware of after our departure. This particular incident however had to do with me, and my future profession.
For reasons I still cannot understand, everyone at Church O was forced to study nursing when they finished school. There were of course other professions represented in the congregation, but they were all people who had joined the Church as adults. Anyone who graduated from high school during the years our family was at that Church went on to do a nursing degree.
As I was wrapping up year 10, it was time to start thinking and planning for the future and what subjects I’d choose in my final 2 years to help me with my studies after school. I already knew my future path. I’d known since I was 10 that I was going to be a teacher. I’d discussed this with the careers guidance officer at school, and was all set on what subjects I would take. When it came up in conversation at Church one day, and I heard each of my friends respond with ‘Nursing’ to the question of what they would do after year 12, I knew my answer would not go down well!
I was right. Teaching was not the correct answer. And once again I was called in before the leaders. I was questioned about my ‘rebellious spirit’ and why it was that I insisted on going against the will of God for my life. “Mother” told me God had told her I was to be a Nurse, not a Teacher. I was ordered to obey her (and God), and that was to be the end of the discussion.
It wasn’t the end of the discussion. Sometime later that week my parents were called in by the elders and questioned once more about their wayward daughter. That conversation sealed the deal…they walked out, and that was the end of our time at Church O. The truth of what this Church had become, the control the leaders tried to exert over ever single part of the lives of the congregants…it was so obviously unbiblical. Even my parents (with their somewhat rigid rules and views about christianity) could not accept the level of control this church was trying to impose on our family. It was time to move on.
We moved back to the Anglican Church for a while (there was a new Minister there by then), but we didn’t stay there long. We soon found ourselves in an AOG church (a story for another post).
Although I was happy to have left Church O, I was also miserable. Our exit put me in the same position as the other girl who had left 3 years prior. Anytime I bumped into former ‘friends’ from the church, I was given the cold shoulder. 5 years of friendships were dropped, just like that!
I spiralled downward in a spiritual slump. Yes I had had a few of moments during our time at Church O where I’d felt God’s presence in a tangible way (and interestingly enough, each time was not while any of the main church leaders were on the platform), so I knew God to be very real. I had ‘tasted’ the goodness of God…and the truth of who He was was planted somewhere deep in my heart. However, the hurt I felt covered my like a blanket and smothered any truth I had been taught about God.
Between the fear and control tactics I’d encountered at Church O, and the emotional rollercoaster going on in my own home, my heart felt very tender. I didn’t know how to surrender it all to God and trust Him to take the hurt away. All I kept thinking was that this christianity thing was not worth it. These “Jesus followers” (my parents, the Church members) were hypocrites!
I had 2 years left of school, then I planned to leave. I wanted out of my family…and I wanted out of this “Church girl life”.