Sins of the church: Is the church a safe place for women?

Sarah was 18 years old when she was forced into an arranged marriage. Her hope that with time she and her husband would grow to love and respect each other quickly dissipated.

“When I tell people I had to marry, they don’t understand. I didn’t want to but what was I supposed to do? Tell my parents no? I couldn’t do that… the way we grew up we just…we did what they told us to do and what they expected us to do, whether we wanted to or not. I didn’t want to marry him, he was closer to my father’s age than mine. He wasn’t nice looking either…but they told me I was going to so I just went along with it…”

Realising that her fate was sealed, Sarah was determined to make the best of the situation.

The licks started from the first night. I’ll spare you the details but just know that he beat me

“It was going to happen one way or another so it didn’t make sense fighting it. The weeks leading up to the wedding was the best they [her parents] ever treat me.

“My mother said I was doing the right thing, by agreeing to marry him. My younger sister would be able to go to school and my brother would get land to do some farming. She said I was lucky that he chose me because he would help our family….”

Sarah told Loop News that while she was terrified by the prospect of marrying a man she barely knew and who was so much older than her, part of her also felt proud that she was in a position to better her family’s situation.

“We didn’t have much at all. The house was made out of board and galvanise. There was no floor, well the floor was dirt… we didn’t have electricity or running water. At the time my husband had a few rental properties and he had vehicles on the road people used to drive for him, running taxi. He told my father he had plenty land too so I guess all that made…”

According to Sarah, the pride that came with being able to help her family didn’t last long.

“The licks started from the first night. I’ll spare you the details but just know that he beat me. He beat me so bad… I waited until he left the next day and I went back home, that was the worse thing. My father beat me again and took me right back.”

Sarah said the abuse continued and got worse over time.

“Bruised ribs, broken bones in my arms and legs, fractures… he didn’t care about scars showing and all that. I belonged to him and even if I left there was nowhere for me to go, my father made sure of that… My husband had money, but it was his money. I didn’t have access. He went grocery shopping, his mother and sisters went to the market and stuff like that most times. He held on to the purse strings real tight. I wasn’t educated so I didn’t have options.”

The first taste of any freedom was when he started to get comfortable with me going to church

Ten years and 11 months into the marriage, Sarah was introduced to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

She said for a long time, the church offered some reprieve from the horrors of her daily life.

“It was something to do, the people were nice and they welcomed me. I was 29 years old by this time but I hadn’t really lived, you know what I mean? I went from a shack in Penal with my parents and my siblings to my husband’s house.

“The main thing was when I was home by mammy and them we were always hungry and well I already told you we didn’t have lights and thing… by my husband, we always had food. We had electricity, running water and all those things. The first time I saw a washing machine outside of a store was when I went to his house. He didn’t really let me go anywhere. He used to make the groceries and bring it home. My job was to cook and clean and take care of him and the children. The first taste of any freedom was when he started to get comfortable with me going to church.”

Sarah said the church encouraged modesty and the women she met at church were all married and appeared to be committed to their husbands and their respective roles within the congregation.

Pastor was like a lifeline…he would call me at least four times a week, just to check in and make sure I was ok.

This, she explained didn’t leave a lot of time for any social activities that weren’t directly linked to the church.

“He didn’t go to church and he didn’t really like me taking the children, especially the boys, but the women wore long skirts and spoke a lot about being dutiful wives and things like that so he thought I could learn from them. He never give me any trouble to go to church. I was just glad to be able to do something outside of the house, without him. I got baptised after some time and I was really active in church. I spent as much time there as I could. I volunteered for everything.”

The mother of three said she enjoyed the services and the sense of community that being a church member provided.

“I felt safe there,” she said. “I got baptised about three months after I started going to church.”

Six months after she publicly committed her life to Christ, things changed.

“I told you when I started going to church I went in deep, right? I was just so happy to be there… I helped the deaconesses, I helped the superintendents and cooked for church potlucks. I did any and everything. I helped whenever I could.”

It was during these church activities, Sarah claimed she met and interacted with the district pastor.

“When I first started going, he gave Bible studies. After I got baptised and started to participate in church we kept meeting, he would explain things to me and he encouraged me to open up about my past. It wasn’t a secret really that my husband beat me.

“Plenty of times people could see the scars or if I was walking with a limp or had bandages or something. People knew… Pastor was like a lifeline…he would call me at least four times a week, just to check in and make sure I was ok.”

He said he wasn’t as good as me and that a kiss would make him feel better

Sarah said she grew to depend on those calls.

“I am not going to front for you at all. I am telling you the truth, those calls made me feel good. He was so gentle and kind and I needed that.

“He always checked in, asked about the children and he told me good things about myself. I never had plenty of that, but he used to just say the right things.”

Sarah said for a long time the church was the only place she felt truly safe, but that was shattered after what she described as an unexpected encounter with someone she had grown to trust.

“It was a Wednesday evening. I went to the church early to air out the building and just make sure everything was ready for service that night. Pastor got there not long after I did. He went to the back of the church while I did my stuff-wipe down, sweep, that kind of thing. So anyway, when I was finished I sat down on one of the benches just to relax a little bit before church.

“Pastor called out to me so I walked to the back. He was in the children’s area so I went there. He asked me how I was feeling, I said I was ok. He said he wasn’t as good as me and that a kiss would make him feel better. At first, I didn’t believe what I heard so I didn’t say anything but then he came closer to me and asked me if I wanted him to feel better…”

When he stopped he was breathing heavily and smiling.

Sarah said what came next, is a series of events that she did not anticipate.

“I told him yes, I want him to feel better and suggested that he relax before the service. I tried to walk out but he put his body in my way and he was, like crowding me. I remember my heart was just beating so fast. I didn’t know what was happening. I mean, I know what was happening but I couldn’t believe it was happening.

“I was so confused. He came so close to me, his body was touching mine, it didn’t have no space for the Holy Spirit, he was that close… he grabbed me from behind. Put his hands on my bottom and squeezed and he put his mouth on mine, then kiss me all over my face.

“I tried to push him away but he kept squeezing and kissing. I remember his mouth was smelling like smoke herring or something… It probably wasn’t a long time for real but it felt long. When he stopped he was breathing heavily and smiling. He say ‘thanks sister, I’m feeling so much better,’ and then he walked out. I didn’t know what to do, I just stay standing there…”

Sarah told Loop News she can’t recall how much time elapsed before she was able to move.

According to them, if I wasn’t there, pastor wouldn’t have been tempted

“I felt so sick and so sad. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to me but I didn’t expect it to happen here. I really thought you know this is a good place, this is a man of God who really care about people, care about me. I feel like a real fool because he was just like everybody else.”

She said she often wonders if her desperation for kindness unwittingly encouraged the pastor.

“I enjoyed my time at church and talking to him. It’s almost like he gave me hope that things could be better for my daughter because you know, not all men are like my father and my husband. Well, you see how that turned out.

“The more time pass the more I started to wonder if he accustom doing things like that. I sure I wasn’t the first. I told a woman in church. She was the head deaconess and they called a big meeting. Well girl, if I only tell you that meeting really put me in my place.”

According to Sarah, blame for the entire ordeal was placed squarely at her feet.

“They asked me why I was by the church so early. I was doing the same thing every day for months, going early to make sure everything was organised and ready for the Wednesday service, but that didn’t matter. According to them, if I wasn’t there, pastor wouldn’t have been tempted. They surrounded me and prayed for my forgiveness. The same lady I told about it said I was Delilah but they wouldn’t allow me to break the pastor.”

I still feel hurt by the betrayal but I just hope other women don’t have to go through anything like that

Sarah said what followed, was a period of inexplicable grief.

“Church was my comfort, my peace and my happy place. Those talks with pastor made me feel life could be better eventually, it gave me hope. God as my witness, I wasn’t trying to tempt the man or look for anything beyond the Bible study and words of encouragement.

“Every time I think about this thing I pray and ask God for forgiveness just in case I did something to encourage him or tempt him and didn’t know it.”

When asked what prompted her to share her experience, Sarah told Loop News she hopes that other women would speak up and support each other so things could change.

“I didn’t expect the pastor to behave like that. Maybe it’s my own fault for trusting him the way I did but people need to understand that these pastors are men first and well not all men good.”

Sarah said she still goes to church and now dedicates a lot of time to helping women through the Women’s Ministry group.

“I still feel hurt by the betrayal but I just hope other women don’t have to go through anything like that. I feel like if women are more confident and support each other more when things like this happen, things could change for real. It could get better.”

As with most things, Sarah said there was a silver lining to her troubling ordeal.

“If it’s one thing, church people does really talk and gossip. So it wasn’t long before rumours were all over the place about all kinds of things that did and didn’t happen. That made it really difficult for me but a couple weeks later a young lady came to me sharing a similar experience with that same pastor. Not too long after another came sharing about her ordeal with an elder…”

Sarah said while many choose not to make reports for fear of censure, she feels like she’s found her purpose in being a safe space for women with similar experiences to work through the mental anguish.

“I can’t force them to report it, but I could listen to them and give advice the best I could. I know it’s not easy to deal with the hurt and the betrayal so I’m just happy I could listen to them and offer a few words of comfort and advice.”

Editor’s Note

Sarah’s name was changed to protect her identity and the others involved.