What is it like to be a person of color in a predominantly white evangelical church? Does fitting in require someone to change their behavior, appearance, and speech? And if so, what does that say about the church?
In this latest podcast, Julie explores these issues with Jenai Auman. Jenai is a survivor of spiritual abuse in an Acts 29 church. She’s also a certified trauma support specialist and has a unique ministry, writing about healing, hope, and the way forward for survivors of religious trauma.
Jenai also is Filipina American—and spent more than a decade worshiping and serving in a white evangelical church in Texas. She says she has seen how persons of color face discrimination in overt and subtle ways.
Speaking vulnerably and lovingly, Jenai shares what it’s like to live as a person of color in a predominantly white church. And she offers insights into how white Christians can do a better job of loving and embracing persons of color in their midst.
Jenai Auman is a Filipina American writer, artist, and storyteller who writes on belonging and the goodness of God from a trauma-informed perspective. Drawing from her biracial upbringing in the American south, 17 years in church ministry, and education in behavioral health, she writes on healing, hope, and the way forward for those who have experienced abuse and trauma within the church. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and two sons. You can connect with Jenai across social media @jenaiauman.
JULIE ROYS, JENAI AUMAN
JULIE ROYS 00:04
What is it like to be a person of color in a predominantly white Evangelical Church? Does fitting in require someone to change their behavior, appearance, or speech? And if so, what does that say about the church?
Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And joining me today is Jenai Auman. Jenai is a survivor of spiritual abuse in an Acts 29 church. She’s also a certified trauma Support Specialist and has a really unique ministry writing about healing, hope, and the way forward for those who have experienced religious abuse and trauma. Jenai also hosts a private online community called Wilderness Forum. This is a safe place for other spiritual abuse survivors to process their stories and find healing. In this podcast, we’re going to talk about Jenai’s journey. We’ll discuss how she came to Christ and then got involved in the Reformed church movement, and then had one of the most painful experiences in her life when she became the target of spiritual abuse. But we’re also going to talk about her unique experience of growing up biracial in Texas, and serving in the white Evangelical Church, and how being an abuse survivor has opened her eyes to other problems in the church, like how we treat and marginalize persons of color. I know this is going to be a challenging and important discussion, and I’m so excited to have Jenai on this podcast.
But before we dive in, I’d like to thank the sponsors of this podcast, The Restore Conference and Marquardt of Barrington. I am so excited to announce the next Restore Conference, June 9th and 10th at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois. Joining us for this amazing two-day event to restore faith in God and the church will be many leading abuse survivor advocates. These include our beloved speakers who have joined us before, Wade Mullen, Scot McKnight, Mary Demuth, Lori Ann Thompson and Nagmeh Panahi. But we have new voices joining us as well, like trauma informed soul care provider Kyle James Howard, Sudanese Christian activist Meriam Ibrahim, and my guest on today’s podcast, Jenai Auman. Yours truly will be there as well. But by far, what makes this gathering so special is you – the survivors, allies, activists, and church leaders who truly get it or want to get it. For more information go to JULIEROYS.COM/RESTORE.
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Well, again, joining me today is Jenai Auman. Jenai is a Filipina American writer and artist living in Houston, Texas. And as I mentioned, she’s also a survivor of religious trauma, and hosts a private online community called the Wilderness Forum. So, Jenai, welcome, and I’m so glad you could join me.
JENAI AUMAN 03:13
Thank you so much for having me.
JULIE ROYS 03:15
Well Jenai, as I mentioned, we’re going to get into what your experience was growing up as someone who’s a person of color in white evangelical space, and I really want to explore that with you. But I also want to tell your story, because I know there’s a lot of people listening who have never probably heard of you or what you’re doing. I know your kind of new on the scene. And let me just start with how you got here, which really starts with your faith story, and growing up there in Texas, in a non-Christian family. Correct?
JENAI AUMAN 03:49
JULIE ROYS 03:50
So, you grew up, your mother was kind of nominally Catholic, is that right? And your dad?
JENAI AUMAN 03:55
My dad, he did actually grow up in the church. And then he left the church years before I was born. So, he, I would say, was functionally agnostic all throughout my upbringing.
JULIE ROYS 04:08
So, you didn’t go to church at all growing up? I mean, did you have any church experience?
JENAI AUMAN 04:13
I mean, I think I can count on two hands, the number of times I went with my grandmother, my dad’s mother, who was a part of a nondenominational church. It was actually kind of a charismatic, nondenominational church with a lot of Pentecostal roots. And then I remember going to youth group with a friend of mine at her church throughout like middle school. And so, until the time that I turned 17, that is largely my experience with any sort of organized church gathering or church service.
JULIE ROYS 04:46
Then when you turn 17, there was a major life event for you. Your grandmother passed away, right?
JENAI AUMAN 04:53
Yes. So, she was the one, my dad’s mother, she was the one who made sure that I knew at least pieces of who Jesus was. And of course, I was a kid. So, I got, you know, some of the smaller stories and heard kind of peripheral about him. But when I lost her, really I, I literally got in my car one day, I was a new driver, got in my car and just drove to the church that she was a part of, so that I could really so that I could feel connected to her. And over the course of just being a part of that community, I did eventually come to a believing faith.
JULIE ROYS 05:31
Isn’t that something? I mean, I’m thinking from your grandmother’s perspective, she probably prayed for you, she probably wanted so badly for you to come to faith. And it’s encouraging for me to hear stories like that, because we don’t know the legacy that we leave. And the older I get, I just think, even after we pass away, that legacy can make a difference. It’s so sweet that you’re tearing up.
JENAI AUMAN 05:55
I was not expecting to cry. I should have known.
JULIE ROYS 06:00
Oh, she must have meant a great deal to you.
JENAI AUMAN 06:03
Oh, so much. I actually I as you were speaking, I thought, I think it’s almost her birthday. She’s been gone for 20 years now. And just the impact that she had on my life. I mean, I almost forget that she sowed those seeds so long ago. Whenever you kind of walk through the hard waters, and just the trenches of like spiritual abuse, most recently, you almost forget the origin story of faith. And so, hearing it from you, like being reminded of it right today is just actually a really huge grace. So, this is a gift.
JULIE ROYS 06:36
Oh, that’s so sweet to hear. So, tell me about that church, because as I understand, like that church was very multicultural, which, in Texas, that’s, I mean, a wonder, in some ways, right?
JENAI AUMAN 06:49
So atypical. It was a multicultural, I would say, egalitarian church. But there were also some power dynamics and spiritually abusive dynamics there. But I tend to look back on that experience very fondly, because it was the first found family I’d ever had. And whenever you kind of come from a really hard family of origin, and all of that kind of that cocktail of hardship and trauma, you’re found family kind of means a lot to you. And to this day, that church still means a lot to me. My husband and I were married in that church. And I had a lot of, you know, we call them Auntie’s in the churches, Black sisters who were mentors to me, but also like other white leaders, and pastors. And so, it was a very unique experience, particularly in the Texas south.
JULIE ROYS 07:41
When you say found family, what do you mean? That’s not a term I’m used to.
JENAI AUMAN 07:45
It’s a term that’s pretty typical among those who have had or weathered like childhood trauma. But whenever you feel like your family of origin, that there’s a rupture there that you’ve never felt secure within, or that you’ve ever felt connected to, one of the things a lot of people look for is, you know, we find our found family later, or redeemed family. The family of God, that kind of grafts you in, and where you do experience that security and that stability, and that attachment. And I would say, apart from my grandmother, who I was securely attached to as a child, the first church I came to faith in was kind of that first found family that I felt a greater sense of belonging that I had not yet felt elsewhere.
JULIE ROYS 08:29
I liked that term, found family, and I’m learning you know, as I’m in this space, more and more, I learn, but this is not where my training was in, right? And I know you’re trained as a trauma specialist, and probably have a lot of language that I don’t. So, I mean, this is completely a learning journey for me. And I appreciate people like you that share your stories and help us learn. It almost seems like you went from a multicultural church, egalitarian church, that somehow you became part of, I’m trying to figure this out, because you go from that to part of a very white reformed, which is very complementarian. Right?
JENAI AUMAN 09:11
Totally the other end of the spectrum.
JULIE ROYS 09:14
Right. So, I’m complementarian for those who aren’t familiar with that term, kind of the other end of the spectrum where women are considered complementary to men and don’t serve in say pastoral positions or any teaching of men. So how did you end up from that church to getting caught up in the reformed movement?
JENAI AUMAN 09:35
So, my husband and I, we moved from our small town in Texas, which is about 80 miles, it’s really close to the Texas-Louisiana border, about 80 miles east of Houston. We moved from that area to a Houston suburb, and the church we landed in originally is a sister church to that multicultural church. And so, we were a part of that church for a few months, and we became very connected to the young adult ministry going on there. And whenever you would see the Sunday services, it was very typical of what I experienced in my hometown. And then you went to the youth group and the young adult services, and that was the reformed. Like they, for some reason, were housed under the same church. But that young adult youth pastor was the one who was sent out to go and plant a church. And so, he planted a church in the inner city. And he partnered with the Acts 29 network in order to make that happen. And so, it didn’t feel like it was a big transition at the time. Only later, whenever the church plant became like an actual church, and the governance was more shaped, I realized this is a very different church. And whenever visitors were coming, I realized this is not as diverse as what we had previously experienced.
JULIE ROYS 10:54
Before we started recording, you were saying, how your name, Jenai, is a Chinese name, even though your Filipina right? But you wanted to be Britney, as a kid.
JENAI AUMAN 11:05
I would have given anything to find my name on like a coffee mug at like a souvenir shop or keychain or something. I just wanted a normal name that I could find elsewhere.
JULIE ROYS 11:16
I mean, you have a beautiful name. I think Jenai is gorgeous. Yeah, I always wanted a different name. I had the name of Julie; everybody has Julie right? But yeah, I mean is that even part of it, of this idea of code switching, wanting to fit in, wanting to be instead of experiencing where, hey, we love that you’re Filipino? What is that like, to be on sort of that side of things?
JENAI AUMAN 11:45
I also want to say like I know, it’s a normal thing for so many people to feel like they don’t fit in. It’s just I have learned how hard and how difficult it is to fit in when you don’t look like you fit in and when you don’t even have a name that fits in. And so, I would say that like code switching, because I am biracial, and I have a Filipina mom who speaks English, but it’s very, it’s broken English. You can obviously tell she has an accent, and she’s had that accent all of my life. And I feel like I’ve always had to move between the spaces, and to adjust a little bit so that I could better communicate to whatever culture I was existing in. Whatever the predominant culture was is the way I kind of chameleoned myself to be a better communicator in that space. So, code switching in and of itself. And if anyone doesn’t know what Code switching is, it’s essentially moving between cultures and becoming a better communicator. But code switching becomes negative when it is required for belonging among a predominant culture. And so, in order to belong to the majority culture, you have to deny some of the truth, the culture that you’re inherently a part of. So, code switching isn’t inherently bad. It’s just awful whenever it becomes kind of the password to, you know, resources and belonging, and it’s really kind of nefarious in that way. So, code switching has inherently just been a part of my life growing up because I had a very multicultural household and a non-Christian multicultural household for one. And then I would go to schools, and in public school, it was predominantly white. And almost everything I would say almost every single one of my classmates were a part of a local church. It’s a Texas south. So, the question is normally what church do you go to? Not if you go to church at all. And so, I’m kind of not in the American Evangelical culture as a kid, but I’m kind of rubbing up against it for all of my life.
JULIE ROYS 13:59
By the way, I had friends who were from the south and they said, if you live in the south, people talk about you if you don’t go to church. If you live in the north, people talk about you if you go to church.
JENAI AUMAN 14:09
Yeah. Oh, absolutely.
JULIE ROYS 14:11
Yeah, I kind of understand that as a churchgoer, in the north. It’s reverse of that but go ahead.
JENAI AUMAN 14:16
It was not atypical for me to hear someone call me a heathen because I didn’t go to church. Like I’ve heard that. Sometimes it was a joke, but sometimes under the joke, it was like the truth, and they were taking a dig at you. As a kid, you just hear it as a joke. But as an adult, you’re reflecting back on and I’m like that was actually really ugly to hear.
JULIE ROYS 14:38
Really didn’t bring you any closer to Christ.
JENAI AUMAN 14:41
No, it didn’t. It didn’t. It took my grandmother dying for me to come to Christ. It didn’t at all happen because people took digs at me or dunked on me, by virtue of just my upbringing. But I think because that was the environment I grew up in, being in a predominantly white space even after having experience multicultural spaces and evangelical spaces, being in a predominantly white space did not feel like new territory. It just felt like I’ve done this before. And I’ve learned how to do this before really well, because that’s what it took for me to survive and for me to belong, for me to kind of prove myself that, hey, I belong in this space. I’m only half white, but I hope I’m white enough to exist in this space.
Julie, it’s so funny, even now I can tell that I am suppressing my southern accent. Because I grew up a Filipina kid with a southern accent. And that was one of the first things that had to go whenever I came to Houston because it was like, the effect of being a Filipina American with a southern twang was just so I was just so I felt so otherworldly. I remember that being a part of our early church planting conversations. But I felt like as a Filipina American existing in this space, it was kind of the same song, you know, 20th verse. I’ve done this before. This isn’t my first rodeo. And I think I was welcome. I think everyone truly believed that they welcomed me in that space. I don’t think anyone, and I don’t think I knew how to teach them how to make space for all of me, because I had never made space for all of me, if that makes any sense. I think a lot of people really do want to welcome ethnic minorities into their spaces. I don’t think they know how.
JULIE ROYS 16:39
I think that’s very true. I think there’s huge blind spots. And we don’t know what we don’t know sometimes. Can you give us specific where you felt like, I can’t reveal this about myself?
JENAI AUMAN 16:52
I remember, we were at our former church when the 2016 election was going on. And I feel like that was absolutely one area where I thought I don’t know if it’s safe for me to talk. I mean, I have a mother who immigrated to the United States in the 80s. And the rhetoric around immigrants, even within the American Evangelical Church, even within a church where I felt love and belonging, and that that same sense of found family, I realized, my mom can’t visit with us on Sundays when she comes to visit our home because I don’t think people would be welcoming to her. And so, I just don’t share that. And no one ever asked. I think everyone, sometimes they would know that my mom was coming to stay. And they would say, well, why doesn’t she come to, you know, our church gathering on Sunday? And I think I would normally just say she’s busy. And I didn’t have the emotional capacity to say, hey, you’re not really a welcoming people to ethnic minorities, and it’s not safe for her to be here.
JULIE ROYS 17:58
That’s heartbreaking. To hear that.
JENAI AUMAN 17:59
It’s awful, and especially when they also preach grace in belonging and being grafted in. It’s like, but do they really believe it?
JULIE ROYS 18:11
I have a daughter in law who’s Hispanic, which has been a wonderful experience for our family, and learning where things come across and hurt her. And I think my political stance has changed over time. And certainly, things that I probably would have been much more hardline conservative on, I’m much softer on now. I don’t think a lot of my beliefs have changed, but the way I hold them has changed a lot. And I think the rhetoric though, the rhetoric surrounding immigration, and I will say even back in the days when I was working at Moody Radio, super, super conservative. Even listening to conservative talk, I was appalled by what I heard. And that’s one okay, even if you go I don’t I think I’ve removed a lot of the stuff from a long, long time ago that I used to blog about just because it’s, you know, more political, not very relevant. But yeah, I always thought on immigration was the one thing that I was like, how does this square with like the Old Testament welcoming the stranger? The how does that jive? And I understand, you know, I know there’s people listening who, you know, we need borders, and we have to have some Yeah. Okay. But put yourself in the shoes of somebody who has immigrated. Do they feel loved? Do they feel welcome? Do they feel like we value them, and we want their contributions because what they bring to the table is so incredibly necessary? Do we want to be an all-white space? Do we think we’re better? Do we realize how superior this sounds? I mean, the whole thing. It’s appalling. And I’m so sorry.
JENAI AUMAN 19:50
No, it’s ok. I mean, I wish if I have a moment I would love to say this. My mother became a citizen. So, she did everything right. And to this day, like there are people who will mistreat her or be ugly toward her. Even though she followed the rules. Like how much is enough? Like what is enough to belong here, after you’ve checked all the boxes? But the thing I think what so many people don’t know is, you know, when Christ says to love the least of these, to like care for the widow and the orphan, and those who are going without, for the hungry, and for the thirsty, I don’t think people understand like, especially within the Philippines, how much need there is. So much need and the reason why she left and why she emigrated was to take care of her family. To this day, I mean, 30, almost 40 years later, she is sending money to her family in the Philippines, because they just don’t have the access to resources that people in the United States do. And of course, like I believe in legalities, and you know, being cautious and safe. I’m also for people being able to take care of the kids in their very own country. And I know that just by some stroke of luck, had she not emigrated, I might be one of those children as well. And so, that’s really what I hope a lot of people know, is that they’re not here to take any power. They’re just here to, so many immigrants are here just to take care of their families. That’s baseline.
JULIE ROYS 21:23
And that’s so common for an immigrant to be sending back money to support their family. And if I were in their shoes, if my kids were starving, or if I you know, if my family members weren’t able to have the basic necessities, would I want to do everything I possibly could to do it for them? Absolutely. And for us not to recognize the blessing that we’ve been given through no merit of our own. We just happen to be born in a country where yes, there’s been some wonderful things done and people did earn it and did build something beautiful here. But at the same time, we were born into blessing. And if we don’t understand that, and if we don’t have a heart to give that to others, I just, wow! I mean, that’s, that’s like a Christian ethic. So, if you’re missing that, you’re kind of missing the gospel.
JENAI AUMAN 22:13
Yeah, it’s just loving your neighbor.
JULIE ROYS 22:16
And that’s the second most important, second most important commandment. Okay, well, we’re going to come back to that. I just want to pause it for a minute and continue your story. So, you were 11 years at this church plant?
JENAI AUMAN 22:29
Yes. From 2009 to 2020.
JULIE ROYS 22:32
So, you go from, from this church with , what was your youth pastor, to plant this, this Church in Houston. Eventually, you go on staff for like the last, what, three years that you were there, and things kind of went sideways, it sounds like. And once you came on staff, I’m wondering too, how much of this was just, you know, you see, behind the curtain, right, you begin to see how the sausage is made? It can be disheartening but enlightening process. So, tell me about that.
JENAI AUMAN 23:09
Yeah, so we planted this church in 2010, in the ‘urban core of Houston’. Like we went to the inner city. But then in 2012, we become ordained deacons, and we serve as small group leaders within the church for six years. And this is prior to me going on staff. And so, I felt like I kind of knew, I had like the DNA of the church kind of like, I got the church, I understood what we were trying to do.
And by 2013, though, our founding pastor left. It was incredibly sad. We were told that he had health issues. And so, I thought, okay, great, well, at least he’s going to get help, the help that he needs in another state. So, we are without a pastor for a year and another pastor comes in. We interview several, and another pastor comes in from the Dallas area, from a very known A29 church in Dallas. And because our church was so tired and so worn out, we were just grateful to have another leader at the helm. That was, I believe, 2014. And then three years later, in 2017, I come on staff. I at this point, I know the people on staff very well. It’s a very small staff of six or seven people. Most of them I had been to their weddings or held their kids or they helped my kids. It was very, very tight knit. Even with the lead pastor, his wife and I were friends, our kids were the same age. Like, I would have said I’d known them for a very long time.
But everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. The first day started with yelling during a Bible study. It was right before like Christ’s likeness on the book of Luke and the Bible study was supposed to, the idea of the Bible study was. It was my first day, so what we’re going to do is build cohesion as a support staff. None of the pastors were there. It was a male Executive Director and many support staff, females. And we were going to do this Bible study. And I just thought, like, if it’s cohesion that we’re looking for, but it’s yelling before we even pray or read, there’s yelling.
JULIE ROYS 25:27
What was he yelling about?
JENAI AUMAN 25:28
So, this is a volunteer staff Bible study. It started an hour technically before work started. And so, I got to work 55 minutes early, but five minutes late. And another female coworker was a minute late after me. And that is kind of what triggered him. And I had known this man for a while. I helped him and his wife kind of decorate their house. We traded so many personal conversations. This was really it was shocking. I thought I must be reading the room incorrectly. Either that or is this normal? I don’t know.
JULIE ROYS 26:11
So, you’re yelled up for being five minutes late to work.
JENAI AUMAN 26:15
And the yelling went on for like 10 minutes. So, it wasn’t like a time saving maneuver. It went on for a while. And so it was, it was a mess. But after 10 minutes, we read Luke one. And we talked about Luke one together. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything else for the rest of ,at least for the rest of the Bible study, I didn’t say anything else. And so yeah, that was day one. And from there, it just kind of that was the foundation upon which everything else was built and started crumbling and falling apart.
JULIE ROYS 26:48
Wow. So, the spiritual views. I know, part of it was it sounded like you were given unrealistic expectations. And when you didn’t reach these unrealistic expectations, it sounds like they came down pretty hard.
JENAI AUMAN 27:05
JULIE ROYS 27:05
I mean, was that kind of mixed with some sort of spiritual rhetoric? You know, you’re just not committed enough or how did that abuse play itself out? Besides Oh, my gosh, you come five minutes late, and you get yelled at for 10 minutes?
JENAI AUMAN 27:20
Yeah, the essentially embarked on a very, it was a multimillion-dollar capital campaign that started just after I came on staff, and I was doing the accounting and the finances. I was doing communication, social media, internal and external communication, all communication with members. And I was doing facility maintenance and administration. Gosh, Benefits Administration for staff, HR, like all of those things, it’s multiple departments. And at some point, I start pushing back and saying, I can’t have my job description change again. You can’t add anything else to that, like I, this is a full pot. At some point, like, I’m going to boil over and this is just not going to work anymore. And whenever I would push back, typically, I would, oh, gosh, I remember putting so much emotional energy into any sort of not even a confrontation, but just a discussion about like, Hey, I understand that I came to the staff with a lot of preconceived notions that maybe were wrong on my part, but here is where I feel like I can’t trust myself with you and how you oversee my work. But here’s my hope in moving forward. And realizing that anything that I said or did was perceived as I hate this person’s leadership. And I thought, that’s not what I said, though. I don’t think anyone ever used scripture against me to me in a conversation. But then you would hear the Sunday sermon, and realize this is really, I mean, it’s all correct. But it also feels really pointed to what’s going on behind the scenes with the staff. And I am super confused. Or I would hear personal stories that I would share during our staff communication about we would ask each other how our family lives are going, and just realizing some of these personal communications that were just between us as a staff ended up in the sermons as well. As if like, my story was cannon fodder for what needed to be written that week, in addition to the conflict, and I just thought like, I feel like I am a part of the like, the sermon is for everyone, but I definitely felt like there were fingers pointed at me, also, and so I know that some people in their stories have scripture overtly used against them to their face. I don’t think mine; I think most of the instances where I experienced spiritual abuse was very covert.
JULIE ROYS 30:03
Yeah, the overt stuff is so much easier. The covert stuff is a little more insidious and crazy making. It is crazy making and I’ve heard that before from other people. Like, I know a former longtime elder at Harvest Bible Chapel when he left, and then he listened to James McDonald sermon. And he’d like describe something he said he didn’t even describe it accurately. You know, that’s what he said to me. But, but yeah, it was like, Oh, my word, that’s me! That’s how he’s painting me. Oh, my word! And really, as an evil person. And that was him. And yeah, that makes it unbelievably difficult. And I think too, I don’t know what it’s like to be a man. But I will say as being a woman, I think we naturally look to our male pastors, as you know, often we ascribe them maybe more authority in our life than we should. But it’s natural. Like I’ve been there. And I’ve been there where it takes a really long time for me to say, Wait, what he did was wrong. That was not okay. And the way he treated me was not okay. Yet. In the back of your mind, you always have, oh, I really want their affirmation. I really, and it’s so very damaging to the soul.
JENAI AUMAN 31:16
And the thing is, is I got that affirmation so often. A few months later, we had a different meeting. It was my pastor at the time, he was on a sabbatical when I came on staff. And when he came back from sabbatical, his first day back, before we, like really start working together, we had had a blow-up staff meeting where I realized, oh, the conflict is more than just one Executive Director. It includes the pastoral team, and everyone kind of jumped on this lead pastor and had so many thoughts to say, and this is just my first time in this dynamic, thinking, what’s going on? And later in the day, he would say, hey, he came up to me personally and said, hey, I am going to upset you. I’m just letting you know, there’s going to be times where I let you down. And I’m going to need you to give me grace. And I thought, well, of course, that’s what we do. And only later would I realize I don’t think he planned to mistreat me; I don’t know. But I think he knew that there were deficits in his life that he was unwilling to acknowledge. And instead of like correcting and like growing in those areas, the expectation was for me to just kind of grin and bear it. And that became the tenor of the entirety of my time there.
JULIE ROYS 32:34
And it’s hard to be a good boss. Especially if you start something or if it’s really, you’re passionate about it, you give tons and tons of hours to it. You work overtime, you sometimes work on weekends, you can’t expect your employees to do that. I mean, you really can’t. And yet, yeah, that’s common. That is common.
JENAI AUMAN 32:55
And the flattery, which was a part of it too, you’re really good at your job. I’ve never, I’ve never been told I was bad at my job. I was so good at my job. But when things kind of started crumbling and falling apart, and I was burning out, like burning out in glorious flames, I was crying. I remember telling them, like, you keep telling me, I’m good at my job. And I keep telling you, there’s too much of my job to do. Can’t you understand? Like, if I’m doing such a good job, can you see it’s killing me because there’s too much on my plate? And they just couldn’t see that. They thought if you could knuckle down and do it, then you must be able to do it. And it was the culture of just do more, be more, try more. It was never like you’re enough to begin with.
JULIE ROYS 33:47
So, you ended up leaving, and I’m sure that was a grueling process.
JENAI AUMAN 33:54
JULIE ROYS 33:55
And when you left, my guess is you lost a lot of that community.
JENAI AUMAN 33:59
Every single person. I think maybe one to two friendships exists still from that church, after 11 years.
JULIE ROYS 34:09
It’s brutal. Awful. I’ve been through it a couple of times. I was at Moody Radio for over 10 years. One or two that I’ll still maybe be friendly with. But you know, for the most part, I’m a pariah there because I blew the whistle on what was going on there. We’ve had stuff go on at our church where there was mishandling of sexual abuse. Now we’re in a house church. Fortunately, I will say I think maybe the maturity of the people you know more those relationships have stayed. But I think the more dysfunctional a system is, the less people are able to continue those relationships because that system sees you as disloyal. Wants to label you as a slanderer or gossip or you know, they have to somehow vilify you to minimize your voice because God forbid people believe that what you’re saying is true. And they actually have to repent of something. Yeah. And so, you become the problem instead of them acknowledging the problem. I listened to a podcast where you said, it’s a relational wilderness. Yeah. And it’s so painful to be in that wilderness. And yet, in that wilderness, is where you began writing, I think, for your own healing.
JENAI AUMAN 35:30
Yeah. Oh, yeah.
JULIE ROYS 35:31
And yet it became a balm for other people. So how did that happen? It sounds like it happened completely organically.
JENAI AUMAN 35:38
It did. So, we left our church in, actually the meeting that I had with my elders when I, they kept saying transitioning out, like we’re transitioning you out of your role. And it’s my husband who works in corporate America who said, where are they transitioning you? Nowhere. They’re firing you. They’re getting rid of you. They’re just making it look pretty. In that meeting that we had, it was the very first Monday of COVID lockdown.
JULIE ROYS 36:06
JENAI AUMAN 36:07
I know, it was. So, I think to some degree, everyone was entering a very relational wilderness. I don’t think I was alone in that. But with the distance, there was also an increased silence. So, I think people actually tried to connect and call one another. That did not happen with me. So, it was like lonely and quiet.
And this is the kicker. My transitioning out because I was the Administrative Manager, and my name was on all of the bank documents and passwords. And I had all of those things, I had a very long transition out. So, I was working for two more months after I was technically fired. And I remember thinking, I’m not, I’m not happy that the pandemic’s here, but I’m really happy that I don’t have to open the church building and smile, like pretend to be happy for all of these people, while inwardly I’m dying.
And so anyway, we left our church and I actually tried to apply for, I can’t tell you how many jobs I applied for in the middle of 2020, which was the worst year that anyone could have ever tried to transition or find work when everything had just shut down. And I was so despondent or disheartened. And I just felt like, my resume is loaded for ministry. I don’t think I want to do any sort of ministry work anymore. But any of these corporate jobs, like I just feel like I don’t fit either. Like I don’t, I never fit at my church. And I don’t fit in the corporate world because I don’t have a corporate resume. And so, I thought, like, I turned to my husband, I said, what would it look like if I just tried writing? And do you think we have the finances to give me some time to be able to do that? And my husband who is a saint, literally, he should be canonized the day that he dies. He said, Yeah, do it. Like I have no qualms, you should do it. That was August, or September of 2020. And then I was I thought, like, well, how does one become a writer? What do you do to do this? I’ve always been a fairly creative person. I liked doodling and drawing and loved art in school. And so, I thought like this is just another creative endeavor. Let me try to put pieces together that this time the pieces are words, to help really me make sense of what was happening.
And as I started putting those pieces together and just kind of sending them out on Instagram, I realized it resonated with other people that they may not have experienced spiritual abuse, or that might not be the word that they identify with, but they have also felt like a pariah, having been divorced and feeling like they don’t fit within the church culture, or dealing with a chronic illness and feeling so misunderstood within the churches or misunderstood particularly with the mask mandates and saying, like I can’t go to a church building, if people aren’t wearing masks, because if I contract it, I will be in peril. A lot of people started connecting with the work, I think, just in a variety of different ways. And despite my using spiritual abuse and religious trauma, it reached a lot of other people. It reached people who are deconstructing which that’s never been a term that I’ve heavily identified with, I think, because I didn’t grow up in the culture. I didn’t feel like there was very much to tear down. But I started reaching people and they started reaching out and sharing their stories with me and I thought there’s a lot of hurting people out here. And I get it, I get it. I really do. So, I just started connecting with them and just hearing their stories and realizing like in my being able to hear their story and that some of them hearing mine, there was actual healing happening. Like that was almost the hands and feet of Jesus at work even online.
JULIE ROYS 39:59
I think that’s very true. And I know I’ve heard that even about this podcast where people can hear stories that it just becomes so healing and so affirming, like to have somebody validate your story and validate your experience is huge. And I think there is so much healing in coming together. And you started an online, like a private online community, right? How did that come about?
JENAI AUMAN 40:22
I just realized, there’s a lot of people who want to connect with other people. And so, in the beginning, a lot of them were messaging me. And over the course of time, I realized this is I wish I could connect this person with this person, because I think they would really like each other, or this person with this person. And I realized I’m not going to give each other their information. But I thought if they would want to join a private space where they could naturally connect with one another, and I didn’t have to necessarily be a mediator, they could do that. And so, I opened it’s an on the Discord app, or the platform where you can kind of create like a server, which is essentially just chat rooms. And yeah, they’ve connected with each other online. We kind of have some ground rules where like, what is shared on Discord stays on Discord. But sometimes they’ll share their stories of how their churches have hurt them. But then other times, they’ll talk about like cooking recipes, or like other different things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be hard things all the time. Or they’ll talk about, you know, some beautiful photo that they saw, or they took or anything fun. So, it was just kind of like a private space where they could just meet others, where they didn’t have to explain over explain themselves, like they were meeting other people who just got it.
JULIE ROYS 41:37
Hmm, that’s interesting you say that, because that’s how we started in 2019. How the Restore conference got started was just, I mean, I’m a journalist, but I met all these people in reporting on what happened at Harvest Bible Chapel and then reporting what was happening at Willow Creek. And, you know, I’m in the Chicago area, and I just met person after person. Actually, we met in person, prior to Harvest, was like the big first investigation after the Moody one that I reported on. And we did get together and prayed together and prayed that there, you know, that there would be repentance for those who were living in sin and leading. So, we already had some community there, but I knew there was there was just so much hurt. And so many people who were disconnected from the church, and it was just kind of like, wow, we just need a space where like, people can gather, and so that first I remember that first one in 2019. So powerful. And it’s funny, because I was like, well, we have to have people there, you know, to pray for people because they’re so hurting. So, I recruited several people that I knew, just mature believers who loved and knew how to pray for people. And we had prayer ministers. And what I found out is now the prayer ministers were there, like they’re sitting next to you, you know, and people were just ministering to each other. It was just this glorious community. Because of COVID, we couldn’t meet again till 2022. And you came. I didn’t know you in May. But you came and were part of this. And interestingly, I will say the first one was almost I’d say 75-80% Chicago area people. The second one, there are people there from 44 states and two provinces of Canada. So, the way this has grown as a movement, I mean, despite the fact that we had to take three years off, because of COVID. It has been amazing. We have another one coming up June 9th and 10th. People can mark their calendars now. We’ll be announcing more about that soon. But yeah, there were some things you loved about it. But you also had a critique for it. So, let’s start with the good. Before we get to that, what did you see happening there that that you loved that you thought was beautiful?
JENAI AUMAN 43:55
Yeah, I will say personally, probably the most impactful thing that I experienced was the people that I had connected with online, I got to actually hug some of them that I had become friends with. Which is so funny. I laugh about this all the time. In middle school when the internet was kind of coming of age and your teachers and your parents are telling you don’t meet people, don’t give out personal information, don’t meet people on the internet. I feel like that’s all I do now is meet people on the internet. But getting to hug the necks of friends and just like laugh with them. There was one night we were at the restaurant at the hotel and the laugh, I was laughing so hard, I was crying, and I just realized I have not done this, I think, in years with people who my defenses could come down a little bit. We were just laughing and being silly. It was that was meeting the people there was inarguably the most beautiful thing. And then hearing the stories. I mean getting to hear from you know experts like Dr. Diane :Langberg, Dr. Scott McKnight. I mean, all of these titans whose books actually all their books came out in 2020. Almost as if God knew that I needed those books like the months after having left our church. And gleaning their words and getting to hear them articulate them, to me, in person was a gift. Getting to hear Lori Anne Thompson and her story in person. And both her ferocity and her gentleness and seeing it like in her person. I thought like, that’s what I want to embody. Like I want to I don’t want to lose my gentleness. But I also know that there’s a fire within me that it’s been kindled within me. Because I know what justice is now after experiencing so many injustices. And so, getting to experience and hear their wisdom and receive it in person was a gift, a huge gift, a really big gift. And I left feeling full after the Restore conference.
JULIE ROYS 46:05
Well, even though I couldn’t be there in person, which was painful, but I got to meet with people. The same sort of thing, people that I’ve sources for my stories, like, you know, they feel like sisters, by the time you’re done, yeah, I mean, you get close, and to be able to meet them in person and to be able to meet, like you said, there’s, there was a dinner we did on Thursday night before the conference with people that I’ve never met, that, you know, had become close through Twitter through that community. It’s amazing. I mean, this is the most beautiful redeeming thing, I think, on social media, if some of this stuff going on. I mean, for all of the horrible things that happen on social media, God is using it, you know, and it’s so beautiful to see.
And one thing I heard from a lot of people, too, that they love, is that the speakers, usually speakers come and go, and speakers stay, because they love you. They’re part of you, you know? This is their community, their people. I mean, it’s just, I love it. I absolutely love that.
You did have a critique, and it’s one that we’re going to address. And I think we’re going to do a lot better this time. But it’s a huge blind spot that we’ve had, which is regarding the fact that there wasn’t more diversity. We did have some persons of color. But you’re right, it was predominantly white. And I think, you know, it’s interesting, because I was just talking to Nagmeh Panahi yesterday, and we were talking about the overlap between abuse and spiritual abuse in the church, and then the persecuted church, you know? and how there’s a similar experience going on there. And I think the same thing with marginalized persons. I think there’s an overlap. And I think there’s a natural empathy for those who’ve been through abuse to be like, oh, oh, this is how you feel? Okay, I get it. Because, you know, I’ve kind of been there. But talk about that, and why how we failed, how we can do better, why it’s important.
JENAI AUMAN 48:01
I didn’t share this within the story of my former church because I wasn’t alive to it yet. But a few months after I had left that church, I connected with a coworker who was still a friend, who also had left that church, she resigned. And she told me, I know that your story and all that you experienced and what they’ve done to you, I know that you believe it was largely a gender issue, and nothing else. But she said, you were also the only minority on staff, and I don’t want to overlook that. And she’s a white woman. And she had to point this out to me. Like I had so erased myself, and that part of my identity, that I couldn’t see it anymore, but she saw it for me. And I realized, oh, yes, the only woman of color on staff was the one that was forced out while everyone else was kind of given other opportunities, and I was not.
And so, as I was kind of coming alive to that reality, and like registering for Restore, and really excited to be a part of that, I’ve got my ethnic heritage, kind of on undercurrent in the background, and back to thinking, you know, how would my mother feel in this environment? How would she receive any sort of, like speech or talk on power? And how would she respond to the pieces of advice that we are given or that we hear or and I would just think like that, this lands on people of color differently. It’s almost like it’s hard to hear about power dynamics and being taught about power dynamics from a white person or a white evangelical when, like generations of our family’s history have suffered under those power dynamics. And so, I think it’s just different. What was said was true, absolutely 100% true. But I think whenever especially when you’re talking to African Americans whose generational trauma exists because of marginalization and of slavery and racism, I just think discussions of power and power dynamics lands on these populations differently.
You are also like not telling them anything that they didn’t know. But it’s kind of like whenever we tell people, you know, after having experienced spiritual abuse, you need to use your voice and stand up. But you can’t kind of say that to a Black person or an Indigenous person or a person of color, when using their voice often gets them into further harm and abuse. And we’ve seen the news stories. So, it’s almost like you have to approach the conversation differently, or understand that we can have these conversations, but there’s also limits to our knowledge. And so like, I know that, you know, my lane only speaks to this and the limitations of my knowledge, exclude these things. And I don’t I believe everything that was said was said with wisdom during the conference. I could just see; I would be interested in hearing what African American and like sisters in the audience like what they would think and hearing from their voices as well.
As a biracial person, and I’m kind of toeing the line of like, I’m pretty sure it would be heard like this, or I’m pretty sure these lands differently, but hearing from my Black sisters and their thoughts on that, like, I know that they bring a different wisdom to the table on how especially how power dynamics and trauma just lands. I mean, when we’re talking about spiritual abuse, and how scripture is used to justify atrocities. I mean, that was the entire slave movement, and how churches were complicit in that and how the SBC was even created and branched off because they wanted to justify slavery. We have to acknowledge that spiritual abuse. It’s new to the modern-day conversation, but it’s not at all new as an ideology or method. It’s been in practice for a long time. It’s just remained unnamed and unhealed for a very, very long time.
JULIE ROYS 52:22
It’s sad to say, but I mean, I think it’s true that until you’ve been through something like that, you just don’t get it. And I’m not saying that it can’t be gotten because I think it has to, and I know we I know there were pastors there who have never been through it and just wanted to experience and hear how people who have been spiritually abused or sexually abused in a religious context, how that feels for them and understand their experience. And I’ve heard back from some of those pastors who were just like, wow, that was hard. Because they said, like, I kind of felt like, can I tell people I’m a pastor? Because they’ve been hurt by religious authorities, right? I mean. And I get that, and I really want pastors to be there. I know, we had like a number of seminarians there too, and that heartens me because I think it begins to end when we begin to understand how things happen. And like you said, even that A29 church you were in, they probably weren’t meaning to be abusive.
I’m so glad for people like you and Kyle Howard, and, you know, other voices really speaking into some of these issues, who also understand abuse. I think it’s super helpful. So, my commitment, I think you’ll see a very different lineup. Not different. There’s a lot of people coming back to the next Restore who were at the last one, but there’s going to be a lot more diversity at this year’s conference. And hoping you know, you can be a part of it, too. Yeah. I love what you’re doing. And know you have a book coming up, right?
JENAI AUMAN 53:56
Yes, it’s being it’s currently being pitched right now. So, we’ll see.
JULIE ROYS 53:59
That’s an exciting process.
JENAI AUMAN 54:01
It is. Really, the hope is that the book just makes it into the right hands. It doesn’t need to make it into all the hands, just the right hands of the people who need it. And as far as Restore, I want you to be encouraged that the work you’re doing matters. And I think probably the most encouraging thing is hearing that you are willing to learn and grow. I think that’s all we really want to hear from our pastors is that they are willing to learn and grow and we don’t hear those things. And it’s not that we expect anyone to be perfect. It’s just that they are willing to make incremental, small changes that point to goodness. And even with the next Restore, I’m not expecting it to be perfect. I’m expecting it to just be faithful.
JULIE ROYS 54:43
You know, before I let you go, I do want to give you just an opportunity. I think one way obviously that you’ve mentioned we can change is just by having those voices upfront in our churches, in our conferences, in everything we’re doing, to really intentionally do that. And I think it does have to be intentional because we have to understand that we’re in a cultural context. And it takes effort. Like we don’t mean to exclude diverse voices, but how many friends do we have of color? You know? And unless we like do that intentionally, it’s probably not going to happen.
So what are some things that we can do, if we want to really grow in this area and become a space, whether it’s in the church, or just our relational gatherings, whatever, to really welcome those voices and understand a little bit better, and allow someone like you, someone who’s biracial who comes in, to fully be who they are, without having to accommodate our cultural context?
JENAI AUMAN 55:50
Yeah, I think I mean, any change starts with the person. So, I was just talking to another friend of mine. And what she said was essentially, like, you need to start looking for voices in your personal life, who you’re willing to listen to. If not a friend that you can connect with, then like, what are you reading? What, what authors are you reading? What information are you allowing to impact you? There’s so many great books by biopic individuals that speak beautifully of theological truths and God’s goodness. And they are the ones they are the voices that I’ve been primarily learning from lately. And in doing that, you start to kind of gain empathy, and you gain language, because you’re understanding their language that they’re writing with.
And if you do have a friend, like connect with them, ask them like, how can I learn more? When you have to be brave, you have to bravely ask like, how do I make space for those who don’t look like me? How do I make space? How do I ask questions without being awkward? Is it okay to be awkward? How do I ask like about their ethnic experience? And how can I make it safe for them to share? Because so many of them do not know that it’s safe to share with people. And so really, learning what it is to become a safe person who’s willing to hear hard truths is kind of priority numero uno. Learning how, how can I not become defensive when another person who does not look like me communicates their story, and it kind of pings the guilt within me? I think that’s a lifelong work. So that’s a lifelong work for everyone. That’s a lifelong work for me. But I think it is a work worth doing. I think it’s learning to love your neighbor.
JULIE ROYS 57:46
Absolutely. It is. And if we don’t learn it, this side of eternity, you know, we’re gonna be spending the rest of eternity with every tribe, every nation, every tongue, right? I mean, so you better we better get used to it now. Because we’re gonna have an awful lot of diversity in heaven. I just appreciate you, Jenai. I appreciate your voice. I appreciate your theological grounding, which I’ve heard in a lot of what you’ve written, and a lot of what you’ve spoken. And I just appreciate your gracious heart and helping us grow. So, thank you.
JENAI AUMAN 58:16
Thank you so much, Julie. I really I really enjoyed this today. So, thank you.
JULIE ROYS 58:20
Yeah, me too. And thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And just a reminder that we’re able to do this podcast and all of our investigative work at The Roys Report because of the support of people like you. If you appreciate our work here at The Roys Report, would you please consider donating to help us continue? And this month we’re especially looking to increase our monthly supporters so we can expand our coverage. If you sign up to give $25 a month or more, we’ll send you our new clear glass Roy’s Report mug. And we hope that every time you use it, you’ll be reminded to pray for us and our work to promote truth and transparency in the church. To sign up and get your mug just go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE.
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