by Gareth Brandt
There I was, a veteran youth pastor sitting at a youth workers’ retreat, listening to the speaker talk about how to understand and counsel youth who had been victims of sexual abuse. Then something began to awaken inside me. I awoke to the nightmarish reality that I was the abused kid he was talking about.
That retreat is now more than two decades in the past, but it was the beginning of a long and difficult journey of healing from childhood sexual abuse that has become a significant part of my personal spiritual formation and my ministry to youth and young adults.
When I was a boy, there was a young man in our community who taught me all I ever knew about sports and how to play them. Unfortunately, this relationship was blemished by sleepovers at his house, where I was raped and sexually abused. Because I idolized him, I did not question him on anything. There was no language of sexual abuse in my world at the time it happened to me. There was no way for me to cry out to someone for help or to say, “This hurts, this is wrong, don’t do this to me.” Therefore, the pain went down deep inside for many years and got lost in the cobwebs of my memory until adulthood.
Kids who are abused sexually or otherwise have lost their childhood innocence. They have been robbed of it and are left with a bag of scars and memories they are unable to deal with. There are numerous self-protective defense mechanisms that victims use in order to survive the trauma of abuse. An abused child is not able to fully experience the emotions of pain, fear, or rage that are associated with abuse. If they were to do so, they would go crazy. As a consequence, the terrible memories and accompanying emotions are often blocked or repressed involuntarily until adulthood. Denial or rationalization of the experiences will often accompany this repression: “It happened so long ago,” “Worse things have happened to others,” “Maybe it was all just a bad dream,” “He really didn’t mean anything by it.” These were phrases that I used for years.
Survivors of childhood abuse sometimes become excellent people-helpers themselves. In a strange sort of way, helping other people to deal with their pain becomes a way to avoid facing one’s own. That was who I was: I became a caring and outgoing youth pastor. However, at that retreat I began to realize that I was, in fact, the abused kid with low self-esteem who needed the ministry of healing.
A few years after the retreat, I went to a spiritual director to get help for the spiritual stream that had run dry within me. I was expecting some accountability for my spiritual disciplines or some advice on how to pray better. Instead, I was led to the mirror of my soul to look at myself and the wounds of my past.
My spiritual director was a retired woman who had gone through her own pain as a child, a wife, and as a single mother. Now, she was in a place of deep strength and could offer grace and healing to me. The Spirit was the surgeon and she became the midwife to the new man who was being born. Her calm words and strong hands steadied me in my faltering journey toward healing. She was literally there for me as a counselor and guide.
Through this counseling, the emotions that I was unable to experience as a child and as a teenager came roaring to life. It started with terrifying nightmares and irrational fears and moved to feelings of deep pain, loss, and betrayal. I was a powerful and successful man in the exterior world: I had a successful youth pastorate with a growing ministry and good relations with colleagues and congregation; a loving and supportive wife; three healthy children; a house; and a minivan. What more could a man want? But pain does not discriminate. On the inside, I became a little lost boy, feeling for the first time the full terror and hurt of my childhood wounds.
Death and numbness seemed almost pleasant realities in the midst of this terror and pain. I felt the loss of my childhood innocence and the betrayal of my boyhood hero. If life were to be described in climatic seasons, autumn and winter became the perpetual seasons of my spirituality. Sometimes I would have liked to “fly south” to escape the difficult aspects of my healing.
The road to healing is often different than one might expect. For victims of abuse, it often comes through anger and empowerment. I found it very difficult to be angry with my abuser, but for real healing to happen I had to leave the role of the victim. Jesus is angry when the human temple of the Spirit is desecrated, and he called me to place the responsibility where it belonged: with the abuser. The silence and the darkness of the evil tomb of abuse had to be broken!
My spiritual director had me imagine Jesus catching my abuser in the act of raping me, saying, “What was Jesus’ reaction at the desecration of the temple? Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit!” I imagined Jesus grabbing him by the genitals and throwing him out of the bedroom window. Through this and other rituals I was beginning to get in touch with my emotions in a constructive and healing way.
I ended up regaining my childhood innocence; the lost boy was found. I felt like a calf released from the stall in spring after waiting a long, dark winter. I reclaimed my given name, Gareth, which I had shortened and changed in my teenage years, affirmed by the young man who was both my hero and my abuser. I still hear the voice of my spiritual director calling me “Gareth” for the first time since I was a child. I was born again—a grown man, free and empowered to be who I was created and named to be. Mysteriously, God used the most terrible thing in my life to bring new insight, joy, and meaning to my life and ministry.
Gareth Brandt is the author of Under Construction: Reframing Men’s Spirituality (Herald Press, 2010) and professor of practical theology at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Cynthia. They have one daughter, three sons, and one daughter-in-law. He enjoys cycling, gardening, folk music, and reading poetry out loud.
This article was excerpted from Fifty Shades of Grace: Stories of Inspiration and Promise, © 2013 Herald Press. Used by permission.