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He stole my voice and protected my abuser

Hi, I’m writing from anonymity as I’ve made every effort to put my history with WRC far behind me. I’ve lived by the ethos that I gave the first 20 years of my life (or rather had them taken from me) and that They (Steve and Kathy Gray) don’t deserve more of my time. However, the creation of this page showed me we are all in different stages of recovery. Our dark traumas surface and as each person comes forward, more of us gain the strength to speak. Some of us can pinpoint an exact moment this cult hurt us, but this isn’t the story I want to tell, not wholly. I want to speak to the insidious nature of how the WRC cult eats and destroys lives over time. Of how it takes and takes until you have nothing left to give. Of how people are discarded as though they were bottles, useless once empty.

“I don’t just want your money; I want all of you!”

I heard this line countless times and will sheepishly admit as a teen, I was mesmerized by Steve’s words. How could anything be more right? We’re more than the money we have to offer. When you’re a broke, unremarkable child, those words create hope that you can be a part of something bigger than yourself. Looking back, I feel silly. All I hear is unabashed hunger. I suppose he gets points for honesty. Steve blatantly told us our money wasn’t enough and he wouldn’t be satisfied until he wrought every ounce of talent, work, and hope from our souls.

It’s said you can judge a tree by its fruit. When I look around my peer group, those that grew up in this movement, all I see is shattered husks dealing with trauma in our own ways. Have some of us found conventional success? Perhaps, but its been an uphill slog the whole way. For every one of us that carved out a happy life, far more have fallen by the wayside and aren’t here to speak for themselves. Friends dead by suicide, crushed by the unattainable goal of being good enough. Dozens more saddled with mental health issues and addiction after being forced to hide them or told to “seek god” for help. Perhaps most telling, is the number of my friends who have little to no contact with their families. I value my relationship with my spouse and children above all else. The juxtaposition of my values and the values our parents showed when they placed their faith in a man over our wellbeing astounds me.

And you know what? I’m so angry. It’s laughable we are written off as bitter. Bitter? That’s the least of it. How can we be anything but? We didn’t choose this life. We were children held hostage by a devotion not our own. I began this entry with the goal of being levelheaded and logical but I’m not sure it’s completely possible. Rage flows through my veins and has for as long as I can remember. My childhood was stolen. My friends’ happiness was stolen. My sibling still lives in pain, unable to voice their crushing depression. The worst part is this damage continues damaging a new generation. Children are suffering what I suffered. In the future, kids will come forward with stories eerily similar to ours.

In writing this, I worry what will happen. Will I be discredited as the Potts and Cantwell’s were? Or the Spencer’s? Or the untold others who were not only dismissed but discredited, besmirched. When people left the church, a message would go out on Thursday evenings. “Such and such are no longer a part of this ministry, please cut all contact off with this individual.” No questions were asked. Questions aren’t allowed. Those that left chose the world and we should no longer contact them lest we fall ourselves. I ask, after so many people gave a significant part of their lives, why their contributions couldn’t be simply appreciated. Why did Steve always consider their departure a personal attack? How can hundreds of people have our same stories?  One would think at some point, Steve would be compelled to ask, “is it me?”

But when you’ve convinced yourself that your every preference is God’s will incarnate, it is hard to see your own faults.

How does this happen? How are we only now able to find strength to voice our hurt? For me, it goes back to the beginning. I began attending WRC as a young child. My home life was a disaster with a parent who teetered between incoherent religious fervor and uncontrollable rage. The first lessons I took to heart was my complete inadequacy and that I was to never contradict leadership. Period. Mistakes were met with lamentations about how I was going to hell. 

When disagreement arose, I learned silence or risked physical/mental punishment. I learned to shut down, to push my emotions and feelings so far down they couldn’t illicit more pain. I hid my rage behind the blank stone mask of dispassion. This was still not good enough. I would be spanked, beat, and belittled. My complete obedience was found lacking. Obedience in and of itself was inadequate. Absolute submission to any command was the only acceptable response. I was to do as I was told and to enjoy it. If I failed to perform this submissive meekness to my parent’s unobtainable standard, then the little I had was confiscated. I distinctly remember wailing as an eight-year-old as I was being spanked one Sunday afternoon. “I thought you said I was good at church!” to which I was told “That may be true, but you weren’t great.”

It’s here that I can point to some of the major issues that I’m still working on as an adult. Despite the lip service WRC spouts of their desire to create leaders/warriors, it goes counter to what is taught in practice. I was robbed of my voice so often and so early, that I still struggle to verbally stand up to anyone. I struggle to ask for anything. The words are trapped within me, stuck in my throat. The crushing sensation that who I am and what I have to offer is inadequate is something I still experience.

These feelings of inadequacy are a common theme of people who leave WRC. While most of us suffer this inadequacy, our coping mechanisms run the gamut. For some, depression and despair take them. Others push harder into their cultish religion. For me, I had to prove to the world that I was good enough. That despite my flaws I could build myself into something deserving. I developed severe body image issues that plague me to this day. I couldn’t look at a mirror without raging at my reflection. I locked myself in my room to do pushups as if every single one could make me worthy of love. I was told that it was vanity, that this pursuit of perfection distracted me from God. But it was a compulsion I couldn’t ignore. I weighed myself constantly. I pinched at every bit of skin on my body; its existence the proof of my inadequacy. I choose a career path I thought would force me to work on my flaws, that would force people to acknowledge I was worthy of love. The thing about ignoring mental health issues is eventually they’ll crush you if you don’t get professional help.

This is what we see with the slow and steady exodus of people who leave WRC. These people were dealing with serious issues, whether mentally or on the home front. They were told to come to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They repeatedly chanted, “I will never be the same.” When you spend 4-6 days in church, you’re so busy your own problems fade to the background. This is just a temporary façade. You’re ignoring your own wellbeing. The trauma builds up and your problems haven’t disappeared. You haven’t changed. Eventually you’re swept away. And when you can’t do it anymore, Steve and his followers discard you. You were weak. You were led astray. You’ll leave with nothing but soul crushing, conditioned guilt. You weren’t good enough; you are going to hell.

Perhaps my most vivid childhood memory is the sheer number of times I was told I was destined for hell. I developed a fear of unexpected death, rendering car rides, plane rides, and any situation that I can’t control an unsettling experience. I constantly feared I wouldn’t have time to repent for whatever wrong I surely committed. When living in this mindset, your very existence is a sin and is the mechanism destining you for hell.

Despite my obvious mental health issues, I was also taught only God can save me. That I just needed to be better to get rid of these problems. That if strengthened my walk with God, my problems would magically disappear. My issues were evident from an early age and I could have been saved from years of the anxiety and the OCD of body dysmorphia with proper treatment. Yet, in my parent’s views, my “relationship with god” was the only thing that mattered. The benchmark by which I would be judged; how well I performed “revival” directly impacted my quality of life. Perform well, be rewarded. Fail, and be cut off from everything.

Defenders of this movement will point to the last several paragraphs and the problems I experienced as proof that I still need their revival. I’ve watched as people left the church and their old addictions, relationship issues, etc… resurfaced. Their failures were held as examples of why WRC was vital. But I ask, how is this any different from troubled kids who find solace in sports. The church hasn’t kept you on the straight and narrow, the structure has. You’re not changed forever; you’re hiding your problems with manic devotion. Perhaps that’s the best some people can expect to find. They’d be dead or in prison without this forced structure or so they say. But I’m here to tell you there are much healthier ways to address the problems in your life.

Steve and Kathy Gray have created what is essentially a Christian adult summer camp. A place where visitors vacation and find “life altering” experiences. Except its not life altering. Those people go back to their lives and nothing is different minus the money they left in the church’s coffers. To make the revival performance work, they rely on the immense efforts of a core base willing to completely sacrifice their lives (and the lives of their children) to attract people. When this all started, that core base ran some 15-20 rows deep. But time went on and as the years stretched by, those “core” rows of members shrank. People I had known for years vanished and every time one of these families disappeared, it was a mark against them. They were discarded and no one said anything. These were the people we stood by for years. Our friends. Our “brothers and sisters in the Lord.”

Forgotten faster than a footnote.

How then? How were the bonds of our family and friendships broken so easily? The answer is simple. We were robbed of our voices. We were told stories of Moses, of how he commanded millions in the desert at the will of God. The implications were always clear. Steve was held in as high regard as biblical titans. If Steve said it, it must be so. Your voice didn’t matter and why should it? Steve Gray was all we needed. He preached forgiveness. But for some reason, forgiveness always seemed to go to the abuser, the one offered more to Steve’s vision.

Steve wielded this notion of forgiveness as a weapon against those who must be silenced. Christians are conditioned to see forgiveness as something one is given. A transactional item that demands your time and offers supposed eternal salvation. But that isn’t what forgiveness is. Forgiveness isn’t for the abuser. Forgiveness is for the victim. So that the wrongs inflicted on you cease to destroy you. To not be haunted nightly by the trauma experienced. It cannot be demanded from external sources. It cannot be coerced. And it sure as hell isn’t a gift for the people who are actively ruining lives.

Before I go further, please note a content warning for abuse.

When your voice is systematically stripped from you from an early age and you are led to believe that you are not good enough, you become an easy mark for predators. Strong, confident children with strong parental ties trust one another and as such, predators often avoid them as they are more likely to speak up. But at WRC, many child/parent relationships revolve around the church and your inadequacy. This is what makes WRC such an insidious cult. They’re not drinking Kool-Aid[CW1]  and committing mass suicide. That’s too obvious. On the surface, WRC has many of the same hallmarks as your normal run of the mill charismatic church. The dangers of the WRC cult are that it’s a social cult within a church. A cult of personality ruthlessly ran by Steve Gray. He demands your silence by explicit and inexplicit means.

When I was ten, a close friend sexually abused me. He was four years older than I was. I was sleeping when I woke up to him groping my genitals. Instead of confronting him, I rolled over and waited for him to stop touching me. I had no voice to speak. No words to shout. When he finally went to sleep, I crept to my grandfather’s porch and unsheathed his hunting knife. I shook shaking with rage for hours, standing over my abuser as he slept in his bed. I wanted to sink the knife in his back as he slept. To inflict the hurt back tenfold. In the end, I sheathed my grandfather’s knife as I couldn’t bare the thought of telling anyone what happened to me. Surely it was my fault. There was something wrong with me after all.

While this incident isn’t connected directly to WRC, my response to this attack was conditioned in me early as a member of the church. I hold them accountable. They stole my voice. My ability to say, “No, this isn’t right.” The next day I pretended it never happened and would continue to “remain friends” without ever confronting my abuser. I never told my parents. I feared questions about my failure to stand up to injustice.

I continued to be a WRC member into my teenage years and this time period would bring a whole new level of shame. I was removed from public schools for fear that I would be negatively influenced by peer pressure. Healthy consensual relationships were never discussed but rather an emphasis was placed on ensuring I never had one. I felt so isolated from the world so entirely that only a small group of friends kept me sane.

There was a time when the youth group were separated by gender and taken to two separate hotels to discuss relationships and sex. Instead of teaching us about consensual equal relationships, the girls were made to feel guilty for everything possible, while the youth leaders told a room of teenage boys that masturbation led to the rape and murder of girls. They claimed to have never done it and condemned those of us that had. They asked for us to voluntary tell them our sins. This added to my guilt and I increasingly sought to master my will and body, to refrain from what I feared would lead to me killing someone. A large part of my teenage years would be spent in shame over this and my friends and I would often “confess” to one another about how we messed up.

I know this is getting long, and I promise I am going somewhere with it. Bear with me please.

When I was 14, a few days before my 15th birthday, I would be abused a second time. This time, it would come from a close friend of mine. A fellow member of WRC. He was older than me by 3 years. I spent the night in what I thought was to be a fun sleepover and while I was at his house, he confessed he thought he might be gay. I wasn’t equipped to respond. As a sheltered 14-year-old, I wasn’t even sure I knew what he meant. So, I ignored him. But that night I woke up to him fondling me. I immediately froze and pretended to be asleep. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to shift as naturally as I could to get away but then felt his hands creeping up my shorts a second time. I did the best thing I could think of in that moment, I banged my head on the wall as If I had just been startled and woke up.

Again, my lack of voice left me unable to respond. I pretended I didn’t know what had happened. He asked me about it the next day and I simply said I don’t know what you are talking about. He was a friend. To speak up would be to reveal my shame. My inaction caused this. It had to be my fault. There was something wrong with me. Something about me invited the abuse.

Another man would go on to continually grope me and a few other boys “all in good fun” at church services. If you tried to say anything, he’d reply that he was just playing, a joke. For some reason, parents at the church would send their teenage children to spend the night with this single adult man. A friend of mine once told me this man had touched him on more than one occasion. I asked the man about it in a faulty attempt to confront him. He instantly brought in two adults who scolded this boy for lying. I had to sit there as my friend’s dad called him a liar with his abuser sitting across the table from us. I was 15 and didn’t speak up. I still feel guilt for staying silent because it wasn’t a secret that this man touched every boy he could get his hands on. Another friend told me the same thing had happened to him and that when he confided in his sibling, she had called him gay. He was miserable and confused and didn’t know what to do so he did nothing.

As I got older, I made plans to escape. My home life continued to be chaos. Our family performed church as best we could and then would return to constant fighting and screaming. I kept a backpack packed and thought about running away nearly every night. I hated life. A severe introvert, I was stuck in constant performance mode trying to be the outgoing, fun guy for my friends. I slipped through masks as I needed them. My prayer floor mask, my perfect son obedience mask, my fun, clown persona mask. All the while, my every inadequacy ate at me.

I didn’t just need to be the best. I needed to be the best at everything. For the world to see that I was worthy. When I failed to achieve my lofty goals, my failure tore at me. As you may surmise, I’m not really the best at anything. The inadequacy beat into me from a young age drove me mad but was also driving me to be productive.  I’ve found this productivity a lie, poison coated in sugar. A byproduct of a stolen childhood. I’ve been told my upbringing can’t have been too bad to have achieved so much success as adult. As if oppression is the only path to success. A false dichotomy fallacy; happiness does not require the astronomical price of chronic, crushing inadequacy.

I eventually moved in with several friends including my former abuser. I found myself living two lives. I attended church because of my conditioned guilt, the need to appease my parents, and because it was the only place where I knew people. After services I would drink as much as I could because it made the mask easier to slip on. I hoped to hide the crushing depression through sheer will.

One night I drank too much and my friend, my abuser came into my room shortly after I went to bed. This time we were both adults, but I had a history of not being able to speak up, of not being able to say no. of being paralyzed by fear. This friend insinuated the abuse he previously committed meant that I was gay. He told me he wanted me to stop hiding it. I said nothing and didn’t push him away as I drifted off to unconsciousness. As he touched me, I stayed silent once again; all the while, dying inside. This was my fault. I wasn’t standing up to abuse. I wanted to smash his head in, I wanted to run. But I was intoxicated and had no voice. Guilt wrecked me for months and years after. This “friend” would hold this night over me as if my silence where was proof that he was right about me, that his actions were justified, that he wasn’t a sexual predator. Years later multiple friends would confess to me that this same person had abused them as they slept. 

My abuser also happened to be a WRC employee, but I remained silent. How could I speak? It was my fault again. My fault that I wasn’t strong enough to tell him no. Doubt crippled me. Plus, he was my friend. I constantly worried he would tell people if I spoke up. Did this mean I was homosexual? I didn’t know. His advances came often and increasingly brazen. I’d ignore the remarks but remained silent as I screamed on the inside. My abuser would constantly tell me to stop hiding my real self. Would continue to imply I invited this abuse onto myself. I hated myself because I had been conditioned to believe there was something inherently wrong about homosexuality. Guilt ate at me despite knowing myself and my orientation.

Eventually, I managed to escape WRC and made my way out into the world. I carried a crushing pain yet strived to present an air of indestructible invulnerability. I married and made new goals for myself. I threw myself into them with newfound enthusiasm. I ran as hard I could from my past. But like all emotional scars, old wounds fester.

I thought this would be it for WRC and me. I thought I was out. And then one night I went to a friend’s house in a sort of reunion for a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in a while. I left early as I was busy with school, but I left my sibling behind, despite two of the men who abused me as a teenager being in the house. One of whom was still a church employee. I guess it was easier for me to pretend that nothing ever happened than voicing my concern. As a result, I left my sibling in a building with two people I knew to be untrustworthy. Predatory. 

Hours later, I received a call from my distraught sibling. His voice slurred from intoxication but the panic in his voice was palpable. I will never forget it. He told me that if I didn’t come get him, I would see him as a murderer on the morning news. The leashed, hidden rage boiling beneath my calm exterior burst and I rushed to save my brother. I thought about how I was going to finally destroy my abuser. I lacked a voice to stand up for myself, but I would destroy those that hurt my own. Even fueled by rage, I was terrified about what my old abuser would say about me. About how he would spin it. I had carried this shame with me so long that I worried people would believe him. His position as a church employee and friend of the Pastoral staff put me at a disadvantage. He would have the first word.

My sibling wanted to forget it and not do anything (that lack of voice raising its head once again), but somehow word of the ordeal reached the pastoral staff and we were invited to a meeting. A meeting with the Pastor, My abuser, and his biggest advocate. I dreaded this meeting. I knew what was going to happen going into it. Steve was going to steamroll us. Sure enough, my spouse and I arrived, and it was decided by Steve that my abuser warranted forgiveness. My sibling made the ‘mistake’ of being drunk and therefore couldn’t be believed. He encouraged my spouse and I to become active participants in the church. I wanted to shout. I wanted to scream. To stand up to this injustice. But I meekly left this meeting defeated. This wasn’t right I told myself. How can you demand forgiveness? But this employee came cheap and had an expensive skill.

As an aside, you don’t force the abused in a room with their abuser. Its abuse 101, and the licensed social worker present at that meeting knows that. Steve used to his position of authority and my lack of a voice to protect this individual. I have no doubt that now that this individual no longer serves Steve’s purpose that he will throw them to the wolves with this account is published. He’ll act indignant and demand an investigation. But I’m not interested in going after my old abuser. I’m seeking to highlight that Steve and his ministry is not a safe place. They will discard you and hide abusers if those that abuse have something to offer them.

So that was it. We were done. We wouldn’t raise our children in a place that protects those who hurt in the name of “the greater good”. I reached out to my parent and told them about the situation. They became enraged and told me a similar situation, involving this same sibling, occurred with a different member of the church when he was a child. My parent didn’t mention names was enraged that it could have happened to my sibling again. That my sibling could have been written off as an afterthought; an acceptable casualty for the greater good of the ministry. This was it I thought. The moment when I would get my family back. This would be the tipping point for a fresh beginning. But to my dismay, their anger was short. They spoke of radical forgiveness when I saw them next. It was now that I knew I had lost any opportunity of a real relationship with my parent. The future would hold only platitudes and shallow holidays. Of, how are you? and hope you are well conversations.

To my parent, if you’re reading this, this isn’t a condemnation of you. This isn’t me trying to expose you. We’re all fallible. We all make mistakes. Past grievances are easily forgotten. But I am angry. I’m so angry that you let another man tell you we weren’t important.  That you continue to follow him despite knowing he dismissed us as easily as he dismissed you and your valid grievances. How can I ever feel safe letting my kids be with you when I know you will place Steve and his ministry over their wellbeing. How can we ever have a relationship when I know you value Steve’s word over our safety? My heart goes out to you as you were used as a prop for their ministry for years. My heart goes out to all the WRC parents who don’t have relationships with their children anymore because of the hurt experienced at what was supposed to be a safe place. I sympathize with you as I am a parent but can’t begrudge any of my peers for how they’ve cut you off. We’ve all been damaged, and time doesn’t heal all wounds.

To conclude, I’m going to reference an event that isn’t wholly my own but has shaped my adult life more than anything else. I’ve referenced the crushing sensation of inadequacy that so many of us experience. A friend of mine grew up attending the same church and experienced this same inadequacy. Yet, his response wasn’t the same as mine. He was crushed by the expectations placed on him. He was crushed by how his every mistake reinforced his inadequacy. Depression ate at him. He succumbed to addiction to mask the pain. His need to prove himself adequate lead him to an unnecessary war where he incurred further mental wounds. And when his suicide came, it came in the most devastating way possible. While saying this, I recognize that this doesn’t absolve my friend of the mistakes he made. These mistakes would indirectly lead to the suicide of another one our friends who grew up in WRC.

To make matters worse, his life was whitewashed. Old pictures of his involvement in WRC were displayed. People told partial truths and stories that distorted his memory to absolve WRC of this casualty. I knew better. I vowed to remember him for the pain he carried, for the abuses he never spoke of. I place blame where blame is due. And it’s at the feet of a ministry that uses up their people. The damage those of us who survive cults can’t be denied.

I know my story will be met with derision by the delusional few that still attend WRC, prisoners of a sunk cost fallacy. However, I’m willing to bet my peers will find my words echo their own experiences. Can you possibly believe all the people who’ve left the church over the years were all wrong? Why do you believe the allegations of abuse in other religions such as the Catholic Church, but continue to side with a man you’ve likely never had a real conversation with? How can you possibly believe that agreeing with 100% of the words Steve Gray says places you in the right?

The deceptive lie that the church must be protected over the people the make the church must be exposed. Any movement who believe the ends justify the means is wrong. Hiding abuse because of the spotlight it brings is evil. It is the relationships between people and their well being that must be upheld at all costs. Wrong is not righted when your intentions are ‘righteous’ because you’ll find yourself manipulated by men who are motivated only by personal gainr.

I’ve been free from the bondage of religion for seven years now. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m everything I was told I couldn’t be if I left the church. I have a strong relationship with my spouse and children. I’m successful in my chosen profession. I’m more educated than any isolated, homeschooled dropout had any hope to be. And I’ve made more strides in the last year towards resolving my past traumas than I ever imagined I would.

Victims should be believed. Your trauma is real and I’m sorry that so many of you have had to endure this on your own. I hope my story helps you to speak up and be heard.

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