Dear Evangelicals, You Must Know What You’ve Done To be HealedTopic: Trauma, Abuse of Power, Ethnic Reconciliation, Ethnic Conciliation/Reconciliation, Abuse, Race Relations
The Thumbnail picture is a combination of two photos. The first one is a photo of me and my two children during our first week in Louisville Kentucky. My wife is behind the camera. The second photo is one of the only selfies I have ever taken. I took it several weeks ago when I was triggered by my church related trauma. I thought the juxtaposition between joy/excitement and brokenness went well with the content of the article.
There are so many thoughts I have been wrestling with over these past several days, & I have honestly been hesitant to share them for several reasons. First off, there is a message I want to get across to you that is delicate in nature. On the one hand, I don’t want to slow down the current momentum I see of many white evangelicals finally speaking up about racial injustice, nor due I want white people’s ongoing activity to be fueled by guilt rather than love. I don’t want what I have to say to lead to any of these things, but I do believe I need to speak, and I offer my words up to God in hopes that it brings truth to light and encourages you all rather than tears you all down.
The other reason I am hesitant to speak is that there are things I want to say that will likely be costly to my family. There are powerful and influential people who are going to be angry with what I share here, but it is time I speak up and share some things that I have been silent about for the sake of my own family’s healing, safety, and peace.
Several years ago, I was entirely devoted to the evangelical world. I was an elder qualified lay leader in an evangelical church discipling and caring for its members as well as providing crisis counseling care. On Sundays I would serve the Lord’s Supper and on occasion baptize new believers. Several marriages on the brink of divorce were restored under my care and the church (several hundred members) would celebrate the labors of my wife and I in our care for the body. I was also a seminarian who had graduated Magna Cum Laude in both my Associates & Bachelor Degree programs and beginning an Advanced Masters of Divinity in Historical Theology. However, my entire world was flipped upside down when Eric Garner was murdered, and I chose to speak up.
“I thought you were one of us, why are you talking about this!”
Was the statement that several of my peers wrote to me as I shared my lamentations regarding Eric Garner being choked to death as he cried out, “I can’t breathe!”
I was ostracized within the seminary community, and friends in ministry quickly became my enemies as they accused me of selling out and no longer representing the interests of the church. I was slandered across the entire seminary and Louisville Christian community as being a false teacher who had abandoned the gospel. My family lived across the street from our seminary; we didn’t go on campus for about two years because of the hostility that met us there. The trauma became so severe that I stopped taking classes and to this day, 3 years later, I remain only 5 classes shy of finishing my M. Div. Theological academia used to be one of my loves, now it is trauma triggering.
Regarding our church (Immanuel Baptist Church), I was given an ultimatum by the staff pastors to either stop talking about racial justice and criticizing Donald Trump on social media or continue and have ministry opportunities and pastoral relationships withheld. There were other minority men in the church who were either in pastoral leadership or who they were considering for pastoral leadership, and I was told I had to be more like them (silent on racial justice issues) if I wanted to be considered “faithful” and credible for greater leadership. Also, For years, despite being affirmed as elder qualified, the leaders repeatedly accused me of giving off a “pride vibe” and of being “unapproachable”. For years they held these charges against me, but refused to give me any biblical support for the accusations. Still, I was a lay leader and if my pastors thought I had “A pride issue” or was not “approachable” I needed to step away from leadership. The elders kept telling me that people found me unapproachable but they would never tell me who “these people” were which would give me an opportunity to repent. It was bizarre because I was a lay leader who served the Lord’s Supper regularly to all several hundred members and was baptizing new believers before the congregation. Why would they let me continue doing these things, and leading a community group of about 20 people, if I was unapproachable or had a serious issue of pride? However, if these accusations were true I shouldn’t be in leadership and so I tried several times to step away from leadership, but was told repeatedly that I needed to continue in ministry because of the fruitfulness of my work. In other words, they held these issues against me, but my actual ministry and character was so blameless that they insisted that I’d continue in ministry. This double-mindedness was exhausting and profoundly confusing.
For about a year, I cried every other night and would teach, counsel, and preach through tears as I felt unworthy but also pressured to not stop. I was just utterly confused, reality no longer made sense to me, but I had to produce. I would cry throughout the entire evening as I taught and discipled my community group. I would weep throughout my sermon every Wednesday as I preached at the local homeless shelter. Despite all of this, I felt I had to protect my elders and so when I was asked why I was crying I wouldn’t answer and this left those under my care also deeply confused. I ultimately turned down opportunities to travel abroad and train pastors/missionaries in other countries because the leaders accused me of self promotion whenever I would share articles I had written or podcasts I had recorded and I had no idea how I could raise funds without being accused of the same. Africa, Israel, & South America were all places I’ve longed to go and train missionaries but I felt I couldn’t without being under constant scrutiny. Ultimately, I insisted that if I was to continue in leadership, we would have to put this pride charge to rest. it made no sense for them to keep me in leadership, say I was elder qualified and fruitful, and yet continue to hold these charges against me without producing any biblical support so that I could repent. For my sake and for the sake of those under my care, I shouldn’t be in leadership if these charges were true. We had to get to the bottom of them. The elders set up a council of men whose job it was to oversee my life to determine where my “sin of pride” was. My life became an open book before them to be analyzed. One of these men was a minority who was under my leadership, a young man they said I needed to be more like because he didn’t talk about racial justice issues publicly. They made him a pastor and added him to this council so it had more minorities on it. They analyzed my life for several months and yet still they refused to give any biblical support for their accusations. We couldn’t take the weight and inconsistencies any longer, it left us in a state of utter confusion and exhaustion. We desired to leave the church and the result was me having to abandon my desire to plant and pastor.
[This next section regarding friendship has been edited and expounded upon for greater clarity, and to add nuance] We also lost most of our friends, and my children lost the only community they had ever known. Vy & I believe that IBC has a toxic/cultic culture and part of this culture is an “in or out” mentality. When you are a member at the church, you are “in”, when you are no longer a member you are “out”. This impacts how members build relationships with others outside the church as well as treat people who leave. It took several months after our departure from the church to have a final sit down with the elders and discuss all the issues going on. During this time (March 2017- end of November 2017), we chose to tell those under our care not to advocate for us or ask any questions about why we left, but to honor their leaders and submit to their elders. Yes, we contributed to this toxic culture but at the time we were seeking to not be divisive. We had to do everything possible to avoid the charge of “pride”, and we reasoned that if those under our care advocated for us to the elders and the church at large, that could be seen as us creating division because we disagreed with the elders. So, we left our advocacy to the Lord. After having a final meeting with the elders (November 26, 3017), which was horrific, we explained what happened to us to some of our closest friends. Some of these friends rallied beside us and sought to love us. Others wept for us, but they ultimately abandoned us and clung to the church. We don’t hold this against them, we believe the culture of the church contributed to this response. We offered to tell other friends what happened to us and they decided not to pursue that information. We know this was confusing for many under our care and we truly do not hold them accountable for not seeking more information about what transpired as that is what we requested of them for several months. We still love these people, and we are confident that they still love us, the dynamics of friendship are complicated and we want to speak clearly and say that these “friends” are beloved and are treasured deeply and should not be considered as contributors or enablers to our abuse. Nor do we think the congregation as a whole is abusive. We are fairly confident that the vast majority of souls at IBC do not know what goes on behind closed doors, and based on recent messages made on social media by family members of staff pastors, it seems fair to assume that a specific narrative already exists regarding our departure that is not accurate. Please do not attack or shame the congregation as a whole because of the actions and culture that has been fostered by the leadership. Absolutely do not speak negatively of these “friends” who we have loved and cared for. Our fondest years were with them, and they are forever beloved.
There were a few exceptions to this, a dear white sister and friend, who stood with us through it all. She was the only local friend that remained by the time we decided to leave Louisville. She too is in a healing process and for the sake of her own safety and security I won’t speak on her more. She knows who she is, we love you, thank you. There were a few others (a couple & a single brother) who had since moved away who also remained steadfast and loved and supported us. I, however, want to be cautious regarding how much information I share about these friends as I don’t want them to endure any blowback.
I endured spiritual abuse and racial trauma in your evangelical world for years, and ultimately my family became so consumed with darkness and depression because of it that in our worst moments, we contemplated abandoning Christianity altogether and in even darker moments, we considered suicide. My wife & I are both still recovering from Church-related PTS. We were used for our gifts and put before the church as representatives of “diversity”. Behind the scenes, for years, church was a nightmare. It was not a place we looked forward to going to, Sunday mornings were foreboding. The final Straw happened in mid-year of 2017. During lunch time at a large conference (T4G). As I was eating lunch on the side walk with a couple I had mentored and married recently, my now former senior pastor (Ryan Fullerton) approached me very aggressively. So aggressively that some of my Twitter followers who recognized me approached us to ensure I was okay and was not being attacked by one of my white supremacist enemies. He was upset that I had begun talking about spiritual trauma on social media and he insisted I get his permission before I ever tell my story of what they did to us. He then took the couple aside and told them I was a divisive man as well as some other things (I never heard from that couple again). My wife and I decided to move back to Atlanta for safety and to rebuild our mental and spiritual health. If Ryan was willing to approach me as he did in front of hundreds of people, we weren’t sure what he’d do if he ran into my wife in a grocery store. Louisville was no longer a safe place and Ryan was no longer the man I thought we had known for so many years. He was no longer a kind man or gentle pastor. Prior to moving, we learned that virtually every church in Louisville along with the seminary as a whole, was aware of IBC’s abusive behavior. He is such a “gifted” and influential preacher that they all chose not to confront him about the trauma his church had left in its wake. Once we left, I received numerous messages from former members who were deeply traumatized due to their time there as well and I am currently counseling former members who left due to spiritual abuse as we speak. We moved back to Atlanta where we had to start our entire lives over again. No friends, no church, just trauma. So much more could be said, but this summary is my offering for the moment. In order to understand what I have to say moving forward, you must understand what I have experienced. I do not come to you as a man anxious to condemn, I come to you as a brother who wants you to know what has and is happening in your churches.
[Thank you New Breed Church & Sojourn Midtown for loving us and caring for us as we tried to remain in Louisville and work through our trauma. you loved us despite our brokenness.]
I still desire to pastor one day, but I don’t know if that day will ever come. I am not who I once was. I used to be a mover and shaker who was able to spin 100 plates at one time. Evangelicalism killed me, that man no longer exists. However, God, in his kindness, raised me back up to life but not without scars such as now being hyper-introverted and distrusting of Christians despite loving them deeply. I’ve also developed various health issues which leave me in a constant state of exhaustion and often battling severe depression. God is a God of redemption, and he has allowed me to become a racial and spiritual trauma counselor and continue to serve his people. I thought that my ministry was over once I walked away from this church, but it was only the beginning of a new path where I would have the privilege to care for Christ’s broken people. Over the past several years, I have had the privilege of caring for people who have been abused or traumatized by the church. What Vy and I endured we dealt with alone with no help or aid, but I am now able to help others not have to go through what we did, and to advocate for them where we had no advocacy. God has redeemed our suffering.
With these things said, I would like you to understand that I am not speaking to you in a spirit of condemnation, but as someone who has been through a great deal of loss and pain over my advocacy for racial justice in your spaces. I am speaking as someone who truly wants you to abound in love (Philippians 1:7-11), and stop wounding your black brothers and sisters. After all, Christ says the world will know who we are based on our love for one another (John 13:34-35).
Right now, in this societal moment, our country is facing the ramifications of a history of racial violence against black Americans. This moment has happened before, and a degree of change has come each time. Still, eventually, as things die down, our society becomes indifferent again to the plights of black people in this racialized society. The moment we are in will be one of two things. This moment will either be a catalyst for a new era where black and brown people no longer have to fear the police, or it will just be another “moment of clarity” that will soon pass as white people get bored and move on to the next thing. Regardless of where the dust settles on this moment, when it does settle, this truth will remain the same:
The Evangelical Church has left a multitude of broken souls in the wake of their indifference and these souls have to deal with the reality that it took the torture and death of ANOTHER black person on camera in order for white people, and white Christians, to finally care. #BreonnaTaylor wasn’t enough. #PhilandoCastile wasn’t enough. #LaQuanMcDonald wasn’t enough.
#TamirRice wasn’t enough. #ahmedaubrey, #oscargrant, #EricGarner, #sandrabland, #atatianajefferson, #altonsterling, #samdubose, and #walterscott wasn’t enough. My personal experience matters because it is but one story of the many stories that have been told or experienced.
My soul cries as I ask the question. Why did ANOTHER black person have to be slaughtered on the altar of white supremacy in order for my beloved white brothers and sisters to finally wake up? This has cost your black and brown Christian “Family” so much. We have been vilified for years over this, why now? So many black people have died, and so many of you have remained silent. We have been publicly slanders, maligned, threatened, rebuked, and villainized by many leaders within your evangelical tradition and have been met with silence over the course of years. Why now? Will it last? I’m not trying to guilt or shame any of you, but it hurts. It hurts too much to act like it doesn’t, and holding in the hurt may grant you peace, but it destroys our health. This kind of pain can’t be contained without causing internal damage, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. I love you. I love you all so much. I wish you could know in the deepest part of your heart how much I am speaking for the sake of love. It would be so easy to remain silent.
I so desperately want ethnic conciliation/reconciliation in this world, and especially in the church. Still, we can’t get there if we don’t discuss how truly deep and raw the betrayal is in all this all. Years, decades, and even for centuries, the racial violence black people have endured by those with power have been met with apathy. For many of you, your silence has betrayed family members, friends, church members, and your entire community. Please, hear me out.
In order for the people of Israel to be healed from the judgment of their unfaithfulness, Moses held up a bronze serpent & they had to look upon the very instrument of their judgment to be healed (Numbers 21:9). In John 3, we are told that Jesus had to be lifted up on the cross like the serpent in Numbers. In Numbers, God’s covenant people had to look up to a serpent to be healed, and in John, all of humanity has to look up to a crucified man because it is humanity that is under the curse. Likewise, for true healing, white people have to look up and truly come to terms with what they’ve done. Healing cannot come without repentance, and White Evangelicals must come to true repentance if they are going to be healed. Also, true conciliation and healing will not happen without comprehensive repentance the includes owning the depths of sin along intentional action turning away from sinful patterns confessed.
Faithfulness is not a switch that can just be turned on; it has to be accompanied by the hard and sometimes agonizing process of repentance. Beloved evangelicals, there are layers of hurt & woundedness that’ll take time to heal between the black & white community. Still, the church must lead the way & there is genuine repentance necessary for this to be accomplished. This repentance needed is likely both on a personal & community level. I pray that all of you who need to will pursue repentance. I want to see you all abound and flourish in faithfulness. I’m committed to not heaping guilt or shame on you for the profound betrayal of love many of you are culpable for, but I want us to be honest about what has transpired. If these realities hurt you, I hope it is a surgical wound that leads to healing and not a mortal wound that leaves you only scarred. I’m committed to encouraging you all & spurring you on in good works.
Listen, I desire peace & conciliation so much that I want y’all to feel the weight of this, sit with it, & repent in a genuine way to radical change and transformation can take place. Beloved, if you truly understood what the black community has been enduring for centuries, & what it has been experiencing in this present time, you all would’ve been in the streets years ago. You all would’ve been having sleepless nights & have been in emotional agony years ago. But we’ve carried the burden, alone. Many of us have endured spiritual abuse and have lost our churches and friendships as we have tried to help you see. Why now? We’ve been crying out as voices in the wilderness for years.
There is good news! There is awesome news! There is forgiveness & grace for you all! No white person who turns to God in repentance for their apathy, despite its depth, will be cast away. God loves black people, he is grieved at the betrayal they’ve endured, but he is merciful! Repentance may require you to speak to black people you have a relationship with and ask them for forgiveness for your apathy. It may require personal, corporate, or collective repentance. It will be hard and may even be embarrassing, but I promise you that most people will receive you and forgiveness. There is restoration on the other side of genuine repentance. Also, You must leave room for the possibility that you may have wounded/traumatized individuals to such a degree that for their own well being, they may not respond to your outreach. Press on in repentance; there’s healing there. There is reconciliation and restoration beyond the hard work of coming to terms with the gravity of your sin.
Kyle J. Howard