Finding Circles of Trust

by Dee Ann Miller (a timeless message written in 2008)
from author's home page:

For the first forty years of my life, I believed I had the advantage of a gigantic circle of trust. Parker Palmer, author of The Hidden Wholeness, wasn’t available to me back then. If he had been, I might have recognized that lovely perception to be a delusion. People were trustworthy as long as I played by their rigid, fundamentalist rules. There was an unspoken code about what was acceptable to do and say. Those rules still exist in my old circles.

If I decide to be around some members of my family, for instance, I dare not speak freely about who I am. Sadly, we are many miles apart because I've moved on. I've been found guilty of changing! That's exactly what my mother-in-law said to me decades before she died. Changing wasn't acceptable in her world. It wasn't acceptable in the world I grew up in unless one became more rigid and "holy," according to the fundamentalist code. Truth is, I'd been changing for a long, long time. People just hadn't noticed. They hadn't expected change! Changing beliefs about anything, in essence, was considered "sinful."

Today, thanks to a host of new friends I’ve found, mostly through networking in the arenas of mental health, social activism, and the survivor movement, I have a much larger circle of trust than ever before. They are more willing and able to hear, more open to the truth about many things, than any group I ever encountered previously.

These friends know what real brokenness is about, and they do not necessarily consider it pathological! They inform through their stories, as I do likewise with them. We've all had excursions of painful education that have not come with formal degrees. While our stories are varied, we speak a common language.

Brokenness often feels like a “fall from grace” because of the condescension that may come from others who emanate an aura of being "more spiritually superior." Yet the condition has a way of opening the heart over time. Frequently, there's is a period when the heart feels greatly constricted before it can be opened. Generally, in this self-protection mode, it goes through many spasms as it searches for a resting place where it can beat in rhythm to the soul.

Right now I have a small circle of trust found in a local church that takes me in, with much acceptance. This very day they encouraged me from the pulpit and had congregational prayer for the retreat I'm leading in two weeks. It’s a circle full of people who seem to know they are broken. They find unique ways to do ministry in the community, boldly and courageously, especially for such a tiny congregation that seldom manages to come together except on Sunday morning. Why? Because they don’t have time for typical church programs! Nor do they seem very interested.

This morning, among the newcomers, I found Janet. Before she knew much about me at all, she let me know her journey had begun with Southern Baptists. In her youth, her father, who was a deacon in the SBC, did an about-face as the denomination turned more and more fundamentalist. I laughed at the synergy as puzzlement registered on her face. Soon she was smiling as I explained that we have something in common, yet rare to find in this particular place. There aren't many former Southern Baptists in this liberal congregation.

Janet represents many of the women who have strong roots in the SBC, but are no longer a part of the denomination. Yet, according to Susan Shaw, most women with SBC roots have found it very difficult if not impossible to leave. Susan, a Southern Baptist Seminary (Louisville) graduate, has experienced a lot of oppression, too. This hasn't kept her from succeeding, though. She is now Director of Women’s Studies at Oregon State University. She is also the author of book just released this month, entitled God Speaks to Us, Too. (see review) The book has drawn on her interviews with over 150 women with SBC roots, and I just happen to be one of them.

Throughout the book, Shaw continues to show how much the Woman’s Missionary Union, through it’s organizations for various age groups and strong emphasis on missions, especially to oppressed people throughout the world, has played a part in shaping all of our lives. Being a missionary, according to several of the women who “testify” to this fact, has historically been considered the highest calling that a woman could have in the Convention. Certainly the WMU has shaped my life immensely, giving me a world view, as I told leaders of this organization when I approached them six months ago, asking what they might be able to do to reach out to the oppressed women in their midst who had been abused by clergymen.

During a lengthy phone call with WMU leaders not long ago, I found much validation. The leaders knew I was speaking truth. They had all heard plenty of stories themselves. Yet I wasn't really surprised to hear the explanation for their reluctance to seek monetary assistance for retreats or even to help get the word out. “We have to walk a fine line here,” were the exact words courageously spoken with clarity. I understood fully--the women are walking a fine line, just as Shaw describes in God Speaks to Us, Too. Not just because the men keep them in check, but there are plenty of women who join the men in supporting patriarchal beliefs, some of which are clearly reflected in interviews that Shaw did with women who remind me very much of the slave women who learned to play the games of “satisfaction” with a “we’re living with God’s plan as slaves.” In other words, the organization is infiltrated with female colluders who are unable to see how much their belief system has blinded them to the oppression under which they are not fully aware because they are too close to the oppressors.

One question, during the phone conference, left me slightly puzzled. They knew that I was a former SBC foreign missionary who had lost my career because I refused to be silent in the case of a sexual predator, missionary colleague. Yet one asked: “What made you decide to come to us to ask for help?”

Of course, the choice was one that I’d been long in making. Yet this group was the first one that came to mind when I began to do advocacy writing in 1993. For this organization was like a collective mother to me. It seemed only natural for the organization that had richly nurtured me should be the one to whom I should be able to turn for monetary support in order to expand a ministry for survivors of abusive clergy. There was no logical reason they could give to deny my request except the one they gave: “we have to walk a fine line here.” Those words made perfect sense, even if they came from a group who seemed to not fully understand why they were the natural ones to whom I should be turning because of what they have stood for in my life and claim to continue to stand for. After all, how many of the WMU's leadership might be married to abusive ministers? How dare they rock the boats and stand losing valuable support!

2015 UPDATE: I received a promise at the end of that phone call. It wasn't something I'd asked for, yet I was thrilled and fully expected it to be fulfilled. The promise was that one of the editors of the WMU magazine, Royal Service, would be in touch to do an article that would include a testimony from a lady who was still active in SBC circles, a survivor who had attended one of my retreats the year before.

Though patriarchy is about gender, women within such circles as the WMU protect patriarchy just as much as their male counterparts. Despite several attempts to connect with women who were on that conference call, hoping to facilitate this promised outcome, I NEVER received a single response! Such is the nature of collusion. In this case, the precious lady who wanted to courageously reach out to others never got the opportunity. The WMU also lost two life-long admirers--that lady and me. Both of us are still in touch and a part of a wide, growing circle of women who have awakened and moved on.

Dee Ann Miller is the author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993) and The Truth about Malarkey (2000)