An American Christian Chapter VII — Above Reproach Part 1
The following story is split into two chapters to ensure enough time for its author to share her story. This isn’t easy to read, but it may be the most important story you read in this series.
Often in the church, victims of abuse by leadership are overshadowed and lied about. Accounts are re-interpreted to keep the victim quiet and the leader safe. There isn’t any consideration for how the life of that victim will be affected.
The following is a true story written by the victim. Outside of proofing, it has not been altered. It is being posted with her support and encouragement. I’m merely here to provide the platform.
Trigger Warning: Manipulation, spiritual abuse, victim shaming
I kept my story hidden for a long time. I want to tell it now in its entirety because I’ll be damned if my silence contributes to anyone else feeling and experiencing the pain, heartache, manipulation, and absolute garbage I experienced at the hands of careless church leaders.
I was sixteen years old and living a relatively typical teenage life. I experimented with stupid adolescent stuff, for which I never thought I would get caught. I loved to play sports, particularly volleyball, which is essential to note for later. One day in the summer between my sophomore and junior year, my parents found an email sent by my brother to some friends who had hilariously told them about him and me smoking pot together. Not so funny when the parents find out. They promptly grounded me for the entire summer. I was only allowed to go to work and come home.
Toward the end of the summer, a friend invited me to a youth summer camp at their church. I was desperate to leave the house, so I begged my mom to let me go, and she reluctantly agreed. I made her buy me a Bible and a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet because I thought I needed to look like I belonged. When I pulled up in the church parking lot to leave for camp, I saw my friend talking with some guys, one of whom particularly caught my eye. I thought this might be a fun trip after all!
I wish I would have steered clear of this person.
I genuinely had a good time at the camp, but this was my first exposure to a church like this. Some of what I saw scared the crap out of me! People were jumping and pacing and screaming and speaking in tongues, but it all quickly became a regular part of my life. During camp, I had some flirtatious interactions with one of the youth leaders and the head pastor’s son, Devon. He was friendly and charismatic, and he and I frequently caught each other’s eye. He went out of his way to talk to me, and as a high school girl, it made me feel special. I quickly developed a crush on him. After summer camp, I regularly attended the youth group and church on Sundays, not entirely because of Devon, but I would be lying if I said he didn’t have a part in my decision.
When school started my junior year, Devon began his first year at the church’s Master’s Commission. For the next two years, the flirting would continue on and off, only going as far as intentionally brushing up against each other and finding different small ways to touch or be in a place to talk.
The relationship developed in phases. He would be heavily into it and then get “convicted” and ignore me because of the Master’s Commission strict rules on dating and relationships. It felt like a game of cat and mouse. It didn’t bother me much because my church attendance also went in phases for those two years. Devon and multiple other people in the church would make me feel guilty for missing any service, even if it was for a sporting event I was playing in. I should have seen the warning signs but this sneaky, hidden, and flirtatious relationship I had with Devon kept me coming back.
At the end of my senior year, I got the opportunity to play volleyball for Evergreen State College. I had played all my life, I loved it, and I was good at it. But I decided to join Master’s Commission instead. I knew this was not the right decision in my gut, but I defended my choice for a long time to family and friends. Now I recognize many of those church people, including Devon, subtly guilted me into making this decision.
Devon had a way of saying things without really saying them. He had a way of making me feel like I was someone special to him, and if I could show him that I could be the godly woman he wanted, then I would be worthy of a relationship with him. I thought sacrificing this considerable opportunity would prove to him how worthy and serious I was, but boy was I wrong. I would soon find out that I had years of manipulation, pain, and betrayal ahead of me.
My first day of Master’s Commission was September 11, 2001. It was a tragic and atypical day that we spent in prayer for our country. I decided that day to completely throw myself into this program because bigger things were going on globally, and I wanted to be a part of something that I thought would make a difference. For the first few months, I was devoted to the rules, but that would slowly begin to change. The cat and mouse game with Devon would soon resurface and continue off and on for the next five years, only getting more serious and involved.
Devon and I had the same flirtatious relationship for the rest of my first year, but it took a turn during the summer. Devon went to California to preach alongside an evangelist who frequented our church. We left things on a good note, so I sent him an initial ‘hello’ text. From there, we continued to text throughout the summer on (the now archaic) flip phones. By now, the relationship was growing, and Devon did nothing to deter it. He only fanned the flames, despite knowing the consequences. I decided to return for a second year, partly because I felt like Master’s Commission was something I wanted and because the idea of a relationship with Devon intrigued me.
The relationship quickly escalated by the middle of my second year. We talked on the phone as often as we could get away with, we continued texting each other, and the flirting led to more prolonged conversations and touching.
Devon often commented on how I looked. Some compliments sounded innocent, and some had more of a sexual undertone. It made me feel good because I’m human. He also would commend me on the job I was doing as an intern or compliment a class or message I had shared. While maybe he genuinely meant what he said, looking back, I can see it was a way to manipulate me. If he only complimented my appearance, I could call him out for only liking me for physical reasons, but he threw in those other compliments, which made me feel like it was much more than just a physical attraction. I was his under his leadership, and he took full advantage of it.
At some point during my second year, we both arrived at the church early. He was scheduled to preach at a camp and was getting ready to leave. The two of us were across the street from the church in the building where we held classes, and we were all alone, which was a big no-no. As we were saying goodbye, we moved closer and closer until he kissed me. I vividly remember Devon strutting out of the office, yelling, “Praise Jesus!” Knowing this was a significant violation of the program’s rules and the rules of his family, it made me think he must have genuinely cared about me. When he returned from camp, he said he had been “convicted by the Holy Spirit” and proceeded to ignore me. This was one of the first times I truly felt hurt because yes, we broke a rule, but did he not feel anything? I was crushed.
Soon the relationship took a turn. We began talking on the phone again, but this time we made a plan to meet up. I parked my car somewhere safe, and he picked me up and drove to a spot in the park. Our physical relationship grew from there. We kissed and touched each other, but this first time was short because we were so afraid of getting caught. We would meet up like this frequently for the next couple of years.
Eventually, Beth Jones, his mom, had checked the phone bill and saw a significant number of text messages and phone calls that had taken place between us. That was the first time she got involved, but it definitely wouldn’t be the last.
At this point, the relationship had become very serious to me. I genuinely believed I was going to be with him. I wanted that, and he definitely led me to believe he wanted the same thing. His family had different opinions. Beth often insinuated that she wanted her kids to marry people raised in Christian homes, which I most certainly was not. Those comments were incredibly hurtful and only fed my insecurity that I was not good enough to be with him. One evening his younger sister, Karen, spent the night at my house. We talked about why I would be “a great wife for Devon” and “how fun it would be to be sisters.” She would quickly change her opinion and treat me like I had ruined her brother and taken his purity, essentially relieving Devon of any responsibility.
The relationship’s ups and downs should have been red flags to me, but Devon is a master manipulator. He knows what to say to keep people hanging on while only keeping them around for his needs. I was no exception.
One Valentine’s Day, while he knew his parents would be busy with church activities, he told me to get dressed up, and he would pick me up at my house. He told me to look in his car’s glove box and found a single red rose when I opened it. I felt so special. I had recently told him the only man ever to give me flowers was my dad. It felt like he was genuinely listening and heard me. We drove to Olympia and walked around the lake, holding hands and stopping every once in a while to kiss. I felt cared for, and dare I say loved.
While we never actually exchanged the “L” word, he would consistently tell me that he “liked me a lot.” He said he only wanted to say the “L” word to his future wife, which left me feeling confused, frustrated, and determined to give him what he wanted. I thought if I gave him more of myself physically, he would like me more and more. This manipulation and mindset would be something that would follow me into future relationships for years to come.
The meetups and pushing of physical boundaries continued until we were in the back of his car with me completely naked and Devon almost naked. I was absolutely mortified when a police officer showed up and knocked on the window! But Devon, being the sweet talker he was, talked us out of getting into any trouble. Twice!
Along with the physical side escalating, so did the mind games and emotional manipulation. We exchanged email passwords so we both could keep tabs on each other. I remember emailing back and forth a few times with one of our mutual friends who went to Spain to work with some missionaries, and Devon read through it. He was enraged. He ignored me and turned up his charm with other girls, purposely trying to get back at me. This sort of behavior happened constantly.
Beth caught us on multiple occasions, which resulted in many conversations about why I should terminate this relationship. Then she would subtly remind me of the kind of partner she wished for Devon. Sometimes I would think to myself, “Why don’t you just tell me you don’t think I am good enough for your son?” I gave her examples of things Devon would say to me that led me to think that I was, in fact, “his girl.” She responded by saying she was talking to him, and he was also facing the consequences, despite never seeing them. Of course, I wasn’t as honest with her about our relationship’s details because I never wanted Devon to think that I was selling him out.
I happened to find an old email he sent me that proves the kinds of things he would say to me behind closed doors and then deny to others. Finding this was incredibly validating, even years later, because I used to torment myself with thoughts of being this damaged girl throwing herself at Devon.
Subject: Beautiful Girl
I didn’t get your e-mail yet, and I have to go but I’ll check it either tonight or in the morning, I’m really looking forward to seeing your beautiful face.
You are an amazing woman of God; at the Hannah Conference I was so proud I wanted to yell to everybody “hey that’s my girl!!!” You have grown and matured in so many ways it’s unbelievable, you are wonderful.
Thanks for sticking with me in thick and thin, when I’m sensitive, or emotional, or rude and the list goes on… You’re a true friend and I like you a lot, take it easy girl and I’ll see ya tomorrow,
I have journal entries that I wrote during that time that detail the turmoil I was facing in my mind and my heart. I was so hard on myself and blamed myself for so much of the pain I was feeling. I would write phrases like, “You should know better,” and “If only you were closer to God,” and “Why do I keep putting myself in these situations?” Devon has a knack for making people feel like something is their fault.
I wish I could say that here’s the part of the story where things take a turn for the good, but things get worse before they get better.
This is only the first part of this chapter. Part two will continue the story through the author’s words.