Letter from Liz: July 26, 2021
My dear friends and family
This letter is overdue for some, and will surprise others. But here goes.
I want to tell you some of my story. The reason for doing this now is because in a world where #metoo voices have for too long been silenced, I have realised there are many reasons to speak and not be silent. So I'll start with those.
So that if others have similar stories they may be encouraged to speak out and seek help
Because I believe the church has the potential to reflect Christ, and does reflect Christ, even if too many times it has failed to do so.
I have hope for a better future.
I was born in 1962 and raised in South Africa. My mother was a school teacher, my father at that time was a professor of Theology at UNISA. He was also on the Board of Governors of my brother’s school, a Baptist and subsequently a Presbyterian minister, and he often spoke at the school I attended. He was charismatic, oratorial, smart and an active opponent of racism and the apartheid system. He was much loved. But unfortunately, he was also broken. He groomed and then sexually and emotionally abused me regularly from the age of 4.
In 1976, we immigrated to the UK where my father got a job at The City Temple, a United Reformed Church (URC) church in London. I was now 14 and when he first approached me on British soil, I somehow managed to say no. And he never tried to sexually assault me again. I attended his church.
As is (I now know) all too common, I took on the guilt of this story. I was silent. I told no-one. I assumed I was at fault.
Fast forward: I met Simon and we married when I was 21. We attended the church where my father was the pastor. We had two sons, and still I was silent. And then we moved to a new church, but we still had regular contact with my parents.
One day – in late 1990 – in a prayer meeting a woman named Merry said she’d seen a picture, and asked me a question. It was the start of a long, long journey. That day I realised I must be pregnant (I hadn’t yet had a test), that it was a girl, and that it was time to come to terms with my story.
I asked Merry if we could talk and she was the first person in all the world who heard my story. And she believed me. And she held me. And my journey to healing began. Eventually I told Simon. He did not, as I’d feared, reject me. He was and is amazingly kind, loving, thoughtful and willing to learn and listen and pray and hope. I confronted my father and made him tell my mother. I then discovered that they were also on a journey as my father confessed to multiple, multiple, multiple affairs from the earliest days of their marriage. I heard names that shocked me. Friends of the family. People who had been close to us all. I discovered he’d also abused my sister – though, because she struggled with schizophrenia, it was never clear to what extent. I read Dan Allender’s book The Wounded Heart. I asked people to pray for me.
It took a while for me to realise I also needed therapy. But eventually I did that too. We established protocols for how my father could engage with our children.
Within a couple of years of all this my mother died of brain cancer. We were still in contact with my father who appeared at least somewhat repentant. I told my siblings. I began to tell a few trusted friends. When my father re-married, I told him he had to tell his new wife. He said he did. Some key people insisted I didn’t tell others (though the majority of those few I did tell were hugely supportive and kind). And then one day there came a moment when I realised I could no longer be in contact with him. We broke off our relationship and shortly thereafter he and his wife moved to Australia.
A few years later, in 2003, when my father’s cancer was rampant, Simon and I took our kids on holiday to Australia and we re-connected with my dad shortly before he died. I said I forgave him (as much as I could) and he was, I think, about as repentant as he could be. Though, somehow, he never seemed to really understand.
At that point I thought his part in my story was finished. But it turns out it’s not that simple. He was still a respected person in many places. I would meet people who told me what a wonderful person he was, expecting of course that I would agree. So what was I to do with my story? How could I both find healing and … what was I to do with his story? I didn’t know.
So I compartmentalised. And I worked on me, and tried not to talk about him.
Eventually we moved to the USA and I became a priest in the ACNA (those 14 words = multiple years of studying + a whole lot of talking, praying, and learning + various roles and responsibilities).
Becoming a priest meant I was being asked to walk with other people in their stories, and so I began to need to understand mine more deeply and be willing to share it as was helpful. And I wanted to share my story. I wanted to show that Jesus is way bigger than the sins of the world. I wanted to show that healing is possible. I wanted to show that I am not being defined by the terrible things that were done to me as a child. I wanted to forgive – and I have done, over and over and over again.
So why have I written this today? Well, it’s been a week when I've listened to stories of too many people who have been abused (in and out of the church). It’s been a week when I’ve seen abuse happening around me and I’ve been appalled. But it’s also been a week where I’ve seen strong and courageous women (and of course men too) tell their story and I've wanted to be someone who could be free of the lies and secrets of the past.
And then I suddenly saw something so clearly I'd not seen before. What if it hadn’t been just me? What if he had harmed other children? I had learnt of his infidelities with adult women, but had he assaulted any of my friends? Had he harmed any of my peer group in our church? Were there women who felt unable to tell their stories, who felt they had to keep a “guilty secret”, who might be empowered if I spoke out?
And so I am writing to you, my friends, my family, my cousins, my nephews and nieces. I want to say I’m sorry I haven’t told all of you before. I want to say, I hope your contacts with my father were positive ones. He did much that was good even while so much that was harmful.
If my speaking out can help just one more person to take one more step to healing from their deep wounds of the past, I will be grateful. Life is meant to be lived fully, joyfully and with delight. God has made a glorious world and there is an invitation to healing for us all.
As I often pray it - this is a fitting closing prayer from Francis McNutt:
We realize that the sickness and evil we encounter is more than our humanity can bear, so cleanse us of any sadness, negativity or despair that we may have picked up. If our ministry has tempted us to anger, impatience or lust, cleanse us of those temptations and replace them with love, joy and peace. Amen
I am ready to talk, explain, cry with any of you,
Your pastor (and friend, mother, aunt, grandmother, wife, sister, cousin or casual acquaintance: take your pick!)
P.S. If this story has prompted you to want to talk or learn or process more of your story, I'd love to help you on that journey BUT there are also so many good resources, books, therapists, friends and prayer warriors who could walk with you as well. I am planning to publish a list of helpful material next week - if you have a book or resource that I can add to the list please send it to me.