Before I began investigating Harvest Bible Chapel, I had no idea the depth of pain and devastation inflicted on people by abusive pastors. But as Lina AbuJamra so aptly described at the RESTORE Chicago conference on Saturday, church hurt isn’t a wound that heals and leaves a scar. It’s more like a “latent infection . . . Once you get it, it’s always there. It will go dormant for a long time, and then just like that, any kind of stress will cause a flare-up.”
It’s been six years since she left Harvest Bible Chapel, Lina said. “And it still hurts.”
Lina, who founded the ministry Living With Power, served for years at Harvest as women’s ministry director. Her very raw and vulnerable talk on Saturday profoundly impacted those who attended RESTORE. It validated the pain so many feel. Yet it also led them to a place of forgiveness—a place that many may need to visit again and again as they experience the “flare-ups” Lina described.
After listening to this video, I hope the larger Christian community begins to understand why pastors like James MacDonald need to be publicly disqualified as Harvest did on Sunday. These abusive men should not be allowed to “hit” and then “run,” as Lina put it, to a new location where they can abuse again.
I also hope the Christian community understands why publicly listing sins is so important to victims. Many have been shamed, falsely accused, and maligned simply for telling the truth. And one of the most healing acts for victims can be when the church publicly affirms what these victims know is true, but repeatedly were told was false.
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Many have asked about the videos from the conference, and whether they would be available for sale afterwards. On Sunday, I met with my ministry board and we decided it would be wrong to charge for the conference messages, which people so desperately need to hear. So, I’m going to be posting RESTORE messages to my blog for free.
Here’s the first of many videos from the conference. If you’d like to donate to help cover the cost for this ministry, we’d certainly appreciate it. It’s our prayer that God would use these videos to continue the healing and restorative work He began on Saturday.
Here’s Lina’s powerful “Letter of Forgiveness Over Church Hurt” for which I am deeply grateful:
I didn’t want to be here today. I wanted to hide. I wanted to extricate myself from this mess, to escape to another town, another continent, to hide and start fresh.
But that’s not the story I’ve been given.
My story is here. Now. My story is messy. And it still hurts.
I used to think that church hurt was a wound that would heal and leave a scar. That eventually everyone got better. That eventually, people with scars helped people with wounds and everything would turn out ok. And live happily ever after or something like that.
But lately I’ve come to find out that church hurt is lot more like a latent infection, like herpes or shingles or mono. Once you get it it’s always there. It will go dormant for a long time, and then just like that, any kind of stress will cause a flare-up. And with each flare comes the pain—the flares can be sporadic or recurrent, and each is accompanied with agonizing pain known only to those who suffer from that same pain.
It’s been six years. Six years since I first walked out of a church I loved. Six years since I was finally able to admit that something was terribly wrong at that church. Six years since the pastor, my hero at the time, stopped being my hero and my world turned upside down. Six years since I last trusted a church leader. Six years since I’ve been able to shake that feeling of guardedness that now surfaces every time I step into a church. Six years since I’ve been able to tithe without wondering exactly how my hard-earned money would be spent, Six years since I felt safe among God’s people. Six years since I’ve wondered whether God loves “them” more than he loves me.[pullquote]”(C)hurch hurt is lot more like a latent infection, like herpes or shingles or mono. Once you get it it’s always there. It will go dormant for a long time, and then just like that, any kind of stress will cause a flare-up. And with each flare comes the pain . . .[/pullquote]When It comes to our culture, if there’s one crime that seems more horrifying than any other, It’s the hit and run. Most people would agree that there are few more horrifying things than the driver who hits an innocent pedestrian then just takes off. The idea that any man or woman could run over someone then just drive away without an ounce of regret or shame or responsibility seems reprehensible even to the most godless in our society.
Yet that is exactly what we are here to mourn today. It’s the shepherd who knowingly drove over a sheep leaving that sheep wounded by the side of the road, trying to make sense of what just happened, trying to pick up the pieces, while that shepherd drove away to the comfort of the rest of his life. Even more horrifying is the notion that that driver might be blaming the victim for not paying attention while crossing the road, or of getting in the way of the moving vehicle, or of even over inflating the amount of pain he or she is in, while all the while the driver complaining that he might be the one suffering in that laughable scenario.
It seems ridiculous. It seems soul less. Yet it’s part of this messy story that brought us here today.
I had an epiphany last week while I walked the beach trying to figure out a way of getting out of being here today.
I realized that I’m still angry.
I’m angry at a system that seems to continue to allow someone to get away with running over someone else. I’m angry at the driver who seems to have gotten away with it. I’m angry at the passengers in the driver’s car who have quietly moved on in their lives putting the past behind them without a shred of shame. I’m even angry at God for allowing it all to happen. And I’m angry at myself for feeling so angry, for not being able to just move on once and for all.[pullquote]”I’m angry at a system that seems to continue to allow someone to get away with running over someone else. I’m angry at the driver who seems to have gotten away with it. I’m angry at the passengers in the driver’s car . . .”[/pullquote]I’ve heard a lot said about unforgiveness, that it’s like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die—but mostly that the only way to freedom is through forgiveness. Until recently I thought I had forgiven, but like any person who has suffered a latent infection, the moment a flare up happens, the remedy must be taken again. And again.
So today the reason I’m here is for the remedy. Today I am here to forgive. Again.
They say in order for restitution to occur, there must be both repentance and forgiveness. While I can’t control the repentance part, I know that I want to forgive more fully and more completely.
I want to be free.
So today I am here to forgive – again.
To my former pastor, I want you to know wherever you are, that I forgive you. I forgive you for taking off after running over the sheep without a thought to our wounds. I forgive you for caring more about your future comfort than our future health. I forgive you for still seeing yourself as a victim in this story. I forgive you for stealing our money and living a lifestyle you taught us would never satisfy us. I forgive you for caring more about the size of your church than the hearts of your people. I forgive you for creating a culture that made us feel ashamed for speaking the truth. I forgive you for using God’s word to defend your positions instead of using it to speak the truth. I forgive you for creating a world where I no longer want to go to church. I forgive you for making me resent anyone in Christian leadership because of your example.
I am also here today to forgive those leaders who supported you and are now hiding God knows where. I forgive those who saw you hit and run and chose to transplant themselves to other sunny locations without missing a beat. I forgive you for making us feel ashamed of speaking the truth. I forgive you for creating a culture of distrust and hate among God’s people. A culture that divides us vs them instead of seeing the whole as one family ultimately living together under Christ’s rule in eternity.[pullquote]”While I can’t control the repentance part, I know that I want to forgive more fully and more completely. I want to be free.”[/pullquote]I am also here today to forgive those who still question why we speak up. I am here to forgive those who still want to shame us into moving on when our hearts are still too wounded to go on. I am here to forgive those of you who have remained in systems of abuse and refuse to see where change is needed. You still feel like this is about “bashing” a system we willfully left, yet you still make us feel uncomfortable every time we run into you at a restaurant or God forbid a gathering of believers.
I forgive those of you who still think we have a hidden agenda. We do not. We just hurt, like amputated limbs, we are still adjusting to life outside of your little body of believers. And I forgive you, our friends, who still go to our old churches and somehow see yourselves as victims in your own stories in this tragedy and have continued to inadvertently cut us out of your day to day lives, as if to remind us that, well, we made our beds, so we must now lie in them.
And as I forgive and experience the freedom that comes with forgiveness, it is not lost on me that I too must repent. So before I go on to the reading of our scripture, I pause for a moment to repent.
I repent of my anger against you, pastor, and my desire to see you hurt.
I repent for questioning God’s goodness in bringing justice in his time and in his way.
I repent for wallowing in my pain and my self-pity.
I repent for lumping the whole with the part, for doubting all leaders when in fact only a few have done the hurting.
I repent for holding brothers and sisters at arms-length because of my past experiences.
I repent for sometimes hating the church and sometimes hating believers.
I repent for hiding.
I repent of doubting God’s love.
I repent for my shame. I have done nothing to be ashamed of. So I repent.
I repent that we have spent so much time fighting with other Christians while the whole world around us is burning
I repent for allowing evil to steal my joy.
I repent for making much of man.
For loving material goods too much.
For longing for the same so-called material riches and fame that I resented and despised in the broken leaders of our churches.
I repent of my desire to find peace in escape instead of standing up for the truth and fighting to see wrong righted.
I repent for much today but I also rejoice.
I rejoice that I am heard.
I rejoice that I am loved.
Yes, I am loved, not because a man has said it to us as a mantra at the end of a church service, but because by God’s grace, and despite all of this pain, the king of kings, Jesus, has spoken these words over us forever. We are loved. And He has forgiven us.
Indeed, in this we rejoice.