When it came to sex, I was completely ignorant. The only education I received was gifted to me by a woman who sat on the front row of my church. Midway through every Sunday morning service, she would unbutton her blouse, pull out her milk filled breast and commence feeding her fussy baby while remaining uncovered.
From my vantage point in the tenor section of the church choir, I had a front row seat for the “Great Reveal.” Granted, this had nothing to do with sex, absolutely nothing! But like I said, I was ignorant. The topic of sex was taboo for my Midwestern, conservative family.
Tragically, my naivety would be gravely assaulted when I was 12-years old.
Thirty-six years ago, while my friends scarfed up homemade pancakes and farm sausages inside the hot, summer, church-camp cafeteria, I stood outside. My concerned parents towered over me, as I cowered in a blind spot beyond everyone’s view. With puffy, red eyes, a sick stomach and pointing fingers, I revealed how a camp counselor had sexually assaulted me a few hours earlier under the cover of darkness. He was a prominent deacon in the church my father pastored.
As you can imagine, the details I revealed had nothing to do with a naked breast and a fussy baby. It’s an understatement when I say, I was woefully ill-equipped in that moment. I still remember the extreme embarrassment I felt that early morning. I also remember being deathly afraid of my father’s reaction.
As a 12-year old, I knew how powerful he could be. Two or three times a week, he faithfully honored God with his leather belt. He was determined to not “spare the rod” with me and my younger sister. I trembled with fear as to what he might do in response to the grave offense I struggled to convey behind the cafeteria. My chief concern was for him. I was afraid if he did what I knew he was capable of, he might go to jail, rather than my abuser.
To my utter shock, there would be no outbursts of anger, or welts and bruises administered. Apparently, such beatings were reserved solely for me and my sister.
In that moment, my parents briefly consoled me. They cautioned me to hush for now and invited me inside for leftovers. I remember eating privately in the kitchen, while my friends stood outside wondering what terrible thing I had done to warrant such isolation.
My imposed isolation didn’t end there. Hours turned into days, then weeks and months with little to nothing more being said.
Ultimately, my father’s inaction served to embolden an already very brazen pedophile. For the next few years, every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday evening Deacon Scott would religiously follow me into the church restroom and crowd me at the urinal. As I peed, he’d quietly whisper in my ear, informing me what more he could have done and assuring me I would have enjoyed it. This was very traumatic for a pubescent teen.
He also told me the same had been done to him when he was my age, assuring me my future was inevitable; I would one day be just like him.
It goes without saying, those years were tremendously painful, mentally and emotionally. In many ways, his verbal accosting was worse than the physical, sexual assault. I was isolated with no protectors, no counselors and no safe place to retreat to, not even my own bedroom.
Terrorized by frequent nightmares, I’d would often awake in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat with his haunting whispers looping endlessly in my mind. Adding to my silent torture was the fact that I frequently wet the bed, well into my teen years. I couldn’t control my thoughts. I couldn’t control my body. On every front, I felt hopelessly helpless.
Complicating matters, was the gag rule faithfully enforced by my parents. No one could ever know anything, not even my innocent, naive sister. And if my abuser spoke to me, I was instructed to ignore him, saying nothing in return. My parents poured all their energy into controlling me, and only me. Apparently, they had determined, dealing with Deacon Scott was futile.
Eventually, during my high school years, I found an outlet for my grief through music. I taught myself how to play the guitar and write songs. For the first time in my life, I was in control of something. Music enabled me to take charge of my thoughts and emotions. It was a medium through which I could channel my repressed pain and create beauty. There was an unexpected bonus also. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t being told to be quiet.
By the time I was 17, a handful of my original songs garnered attention from some small-time music insiders. I was elated when I got the phone call from a producer offering me a chance to record in a real studio. One week later, when the contract arrived in the mail, I trembled with excitement. However, my parent’s reaction was less than enthusiastic.
Unknown to me, they had already determined my future, and it involved preaching, not singing. In the days which followed, they built a very strong case as to why I should tear up the contract and “surrender to the high call” of ministry. In a few short weeks, after being worn down mentally and emotionally, I humbly submitted. As God required of me, I honored my parents by tearing up my recording contract and leaving for the “preacher boy school” they had chosen for me.
A Thousand Tears
Despite their choice college being extremely conservative and controlling, the experience was very liberating. For the first time in my life, I had some distance between me and my parent’s stern rule. It was wonderful, but also terribly confusing. During my critical developmental years, I had never been allowed to express myself, explore and discover who I am. Every hour of every day, my parents had dictated who I was, who my friends were, what I could or could not do, who I dated and what I was supposed to do with my life… then and forever.
The only momentary sense of discovery or freedom I had ever experienced was with music. So, to cope with my confusing emotions, by day I attended my “preacher boy” classes. This made my parents happy. But at night, I’d quietly slip out with my guitar and perform my original music at coffee houses and small venues. This made me happy.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. I wrote a song about my abuse, using an fictional female character as the lead voice. I entitled it, “A Thousand Tears.” It felt safe to tell my story as her story. Years later, looking back at that song, I can admit it wasn’t a great song. But, because I was so emotionally vested in the lyrics, my live performances were very moving.
The response it evoked from listeners was not something I was prepared for. I remember the first time I performed it live, there was a line of college students waiting for me just off the stage after the show. They weren’t there for pictures or autographs. They were there to share with me their own stories of terrible abuse, betrayal and cover-ups. Apparently, my song had given them permission to break their silence. I was wrecked by their stories. I had never been allowed to have a voice, let alone be someone else’s voice.
In between my freshman and sophomore year, I returned home for the summer as a very different person. The courage and openness of my peers had empowered me. My parents sensed my new confidence and clarity, and it frightened them. Little did either of us know how serious of a threat I posed to the fragile reality they had carefully guarded for so long.
Shortly after returning home, I was asked to sing and speak at our local church on a Sunday morning. Without question, I said yes and stepped on the stage with guitar in hand. I sang “A Thousand Tears” and then delivered a sermon which called out abuse of every kind. This was a “checkmate” moment for me.
The church was packed and sitting near the back surrounded by kids was Deacon Scott. On his face was the familiar part-glare and part-grin, which seemed to say, “Your body and your mind… are mine.”
My father, the pastor of the church, had unwittingly made a big mistake that Sunday by surrendering his pulpit to me. My maturing songwriting skills had made me a very good wordsmith. I knew how to build a thought up to a critical point, and then make it pay with a heart stirring hook. Before my sermon was complete, I had successfully pulled on everyone’s heart strings until no eye remained dry.
That morning from the platform, seeing a literal “thousand tears” gave me some closure. But what happened after the service turned my checkmate moment into a watershed event. Just as my college performances had empowered abuse victims to share their stories, a handful of young men in the church, my age and younger, began talking. All of them had similar stories to mine, and what tied our stories together was Deacon Scott sitting in his usual spot with his tearless half glare, half grin still on his face.
I wish I could tell you he was rushed out of the church and into a jail cell, and everyone lived happily ever after. Sadly, I cannot. Just as my parents had silenced me years earlier, the young men speaking out for the first time were each shut down by their parents. Even though I had not specifically told my story, only fictionally referencing abuse through music and a sermon, it was clear to everyone. I was the instigator.
With my father’s church in turmoil, my mother a nervous wreck, and board members unwilling to dismiss Deacon Scott, I was barred from the pulpit and promptly disowned by my parents.
Making a Difference
I returned to college and tried to finish, but I had lost my motivation. I was beginning to doubt whether I really had to be a minister. Long story short, because I was a very good speaker, I eventually fell into a successful career as a full-time minister. My career took me coast to coast and around the world. I even got to record with some amazing musicians and eventually become a published writer.
As a pastor, whenever I encountered abusive situations, I never hesitated to alert the authorities. Right now, one pedophile is serving a 30-year sentence because I refused to stay silent. Also, by advising church staff around the nation to do background checks on all volunteers and staff, countless sex offenders were removed from Sunday School positions, youth groups and various small groups. This was my small contribution in trying to combat an institutionalized epidemic.
It wasn’t until my mid-40’s, when I finally realized, I didn’t have to be a pastor. I could be and do anything I wanted. After burying one child and raising four amazing, inspirational kids, my wife and I have successfully transitioned into very satisfying, profitable careers.
Currently, what has me troubled and up late at night is: misogyny, gender discrimination and pay inequality in the business world. Concerning these things, I’m beginning to find my voice.