By Bill Mefford
As it is often said, if I had a dollar for....I would be a rich man. While it is meant to over-exaggerate, I can honestly say that if I had a dollar for every person who has told me their story of mistreatment at the hands of "leaders," churches, or organizations supposedly committed to the cause of justice I would personally benefit from trump's horrific tax bill. I am finding more and more that mistreating people, inveterate lying, placing the reputations of individuals and organizations far above the welfare of employees, and committing actions of blatant hypocrisy, misogyny, white privilege, and even sexual harassment is becoming the norm among those who love to publicly proclaim their commitment to the ideals of justice.
And it sickens me and breaks my heart. I am tired of hearing the stories of people broken by those who seem to be so well known for standing for justice, but the stories keep coming. You see, when people hear you have been mistreated they will flock to you to share their story because they need healing. This is how it works. When people have been hurt by organizations, churches or "leaders" there is a deep hunger to share, especially with those who can identify with your pain. It gives us at the very least a confirmation that what we have experienced is unfair; that the pain we feel overwhelmed by at times is real. Because, on top of the pain and the shame and even, at times, the humiliation of having the life sucked out of you by a toxic work or worship environment, and/or being fired, let go, or, my personal favorite, "mutually separated," is the reality that the person's passion and even calling has been invalidated by those who have been given great power and status. It is crushing.
Hearing these stories is brutal. And I have heard so, so many that it sickens me. It sickens me that people and organizations and churches profess their commitment to the highest of ideals and yet, engage in the worst of practices. I don't want to get lost in those worst practices, but without giving away any details, here is just a little taste of what I have heard over the last twenty years or so:
- Six months into working for an organization, every new employee gets a visit from the Director who tells them, over the course of a 1-2 hour "conversation," specifically how they are not living up to his understanding of being a Christian and what they need to do to change
- The Human Resources Director at one "Christian" organization routinely ignores complaints filed against employees, including sexual harassment complaints, and instead, organizes a small group of employees to file complaints (which she does submit) against an employee who is ultimately fired
- In front of the entire church in the middle of worship, and while the current youth pastor was present, the senior pastor told the visiting former youth pastor he wished that youth pastor would come back and take his job back
- To one of the community organizers of a large "Christian" organization, the Director tells her that she spends too much time focusing on local churches and that she should spend more time thinking about the needs of the organization instead
- One organization supposedly committed to women's rights, refused to respect the full length of their employees' maternity leave and in one instance, demanded a report within days after one employee gave birth
And yes, there are so many more! I have heard so many stories of how people have been mistreated and ignored; of how their gifts and talents have been squandered or repressed; of how people have been shamed and humiliated, that I probably have more organizations on my list of who I will never give to or support than I do of groups or organizations to which I wish I could give more. Like I said, it is sickening.
Actually, I wish I didn't have a dollar for everyone mistreated by those people, organizations, and/or churches supposedly committed to justice. I wish I could be a part of a church made up of only those who have been hurt in this way - we would be huge!
So, here are a few things I want to tell those I have heard from as well as the many people who might be reading this and who I have yet to listen to; things I want you to know if you have been hurt at any time by individuals, organizations, or churches who proclaim a commitment to justice but who deny it by the way they have treated you or your colleagues.
Justice is real. Yes, God is still just and still longs for a world where all are given room at the table, where the gifts and talents of all people, no matter how large or small, are valued and acknowledged (which is huge for those who have been hurt), where those who have been hurt receive healing and those who have committed hurt receive the opportunity for repentance. Yes, justice is real. And love is not just some talking point or a hazy, rhetorical word lofting in the rafters of our churches. Justice is where love is lived out. You can be just and loving. In fact you can't have one without the other. Just because your former church, or former mentor, or former workplace talked endlessly about justice but denied justice from you by what they did, it does not deny the reality of God's justice. It just means they are full of shit. You may have been hurt by those feigning commitment to justice, but justice - God's justice - is real, my friend.
Your calling is valid; YOU are valid. In short, God's people may have treated you like shit, but God is grieved by that and God still believes in you and wants to work through and with you for Kingdom purposes. The worst thing about mistreatment by individuals, organizations, and churches is that it can easily define you. You start seeing yourself in the way they treated you. What might be the most important thing you can do once you leave (or are escorted out the back door) is to surround yourself with a group of friends or colleagues - people who know you, and who will remind you of who you are and what you are called to. And feel free to call that group of people the church because that is what the church is supposed to be anyway, isn't it? God has called you. You matter.
It might never be put right. The hardest thing for me personally is when people get away scot free after they have treated people wrongly. It burns me up. But this happens. All. The. Damn. Time. This is why some people occupy positions of great importance and power within our institutional churches and organizations: they have made a life of surviving the institutional rat race and they are not about to allow your need for honesty or your call for repentance or your willingness to live authentically or your commitment to reconciliation to get in the way of their (ab)use of power. We can take a lesson from Jesus who did not forgive those who crucified him as he hung dying on the cross. He asked God to forgive them. He could not forgive people who had not asked for forgiveness. We do not want to live in anger and rage, but neither do we want to live in the false reality of having forgiven people who have never asked for it and haven't repented of anything. It sucks to say, but the crap you have gone through - are probably still going through - might never be made right. Just know that the shit you have gone through burns me up. It does a lot of people. Let us help you carry your burden of hurt and anger.
All of this could be ok, because there is one last thing.
There is more to do. Injustice continues and so does God's call on God's people to stop it. The place you worshiped at or worked at might be full of shit, but thank God, there are other places and other stuff to do. There are new dreams to dream, new leaders to train and raise up, and new work that needs to be planted and nurtured. The truth is that the individuals, churches or organizations who mistreated you probably do not have the capacity to fully support you or to create a space that would allow you to live into the fullness of your creative potential. The truth is you probably scared the hell out of them when you wanted to do innovative stuff, when you were honest and vulnerable, when you lived a life of holiness. They just weren't ready for you.
But some of us sure as hell are.
The future of God's Kingdom belongs to courageous and brave and innovative and honest people; people that won't settle for any kind of agenda of institutional maintenance. I doubt any of those descriptors I named above characterizes the people who mistreated you. So, let's you and I and the millions of others who who have been tossed aside by the idiots who run organizations and institutions and who are threatened by even an ounce of creativity and competence, let us walk together into God's Kingdom justice.
We are on a journey with the destination largely unknown and we desperately need Jesus and one another. We are hungry for authenticity and for vulnerability and we want to change the world without having to step through tons of bullshit. We don't have to wait for the afterlife for this. It's happening all around. You could even say it is a kind of Fig Tree Revolution.