'Religion would take my life': two women testify to enduring and surviving harm in evangelical Christian communities

Steph Lentz (left) and Rachel Louise Snyder (right). Brett Sayles/Pexels (cross), Nikko Tan/Pexels (background pews)
Steph Lentz (left) and Rachel Louise Snyder (right). Brett Sayles/Pexels (cross), Nikko Tan/Pexels (background pews)

I grew up in evangelical churches where “telling your story” or “sharing your testimony” was a method of converting others.

I understood a personal testimony to be a powerful thing. I was told no one could question your personal story, your testimony. Which in hindsight is odd, because it turns out when women share stories of harm – including religious harm – they will, in fact, often be questioned.

As Julia Baird notes, after she and Hayley Gleeson wrote about instances of intimate partner violence in Christian communities and shared the testimonies of Christian victim-survivors, “a volcano of comment erupted”.

Review: Women We Buried, Women we Burned – Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribe); In/Out – Steph Lentz (ABC Books)

I sit here with two memoirs full of women’s experiences. They’re each, in their own way, a testimony. Not testimonies of conversion to Christianity, but testimonies to surviving religious harm.

Rachel Louise Snyder, author of Women We Buried, Women We Burned, grew up in Pittsburgh and Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. Her childhood appears clouded by grief, upheaval, family violence and the overbearing religiosity of adults: a religiosity she never shared.

Steph Lentz, on the other hand, was a committed Sydney Anglican. She grew up in the 1990s, fully absorbed evangelical purity culture, and became an accidental “teenage fundamentalist” who, despite having crushes on girls from age nine, married her husband at 23.

In October 2020, Lentz – now 30, divorced, and out to “close family members and a few trusted friends” – told the Christian school where she was a teacher that she was gay. She was fired. She tells her story in In/Out: A Scandalous Story of Falling into Love and Out of the Church.

Steph Lentz was fired when she told the religious school she worked at that she was gay.
Steph Lentz was fired when she told the religious school she worked at that she was gay.

I still believe sharing a personal story can be a powerful, almost magical thing.

Marta Scrabacz says when we read of women’s experiences in works of narrative non-fiction and memoir, “it allows us to share our experiences with each other”. She suggests “women write such stories for two reasons – firstly, to stop feeling alone and find women like them and, secondly, to stop the past from defining them”.

These memoirs are, at first glance, worlds apart. But both appear to narrate their past in order to be free of it. Synder and Lentz bring us into their personal and intimate stories. Religion is a “character” in both their books. Though the role religion plays varies, religious harm seeps through.

A sense of searching or longing – perhaps for answers, or justice, or maybe freedom – carries these memoirs forward.

Read more: Holy Woman's fleshy, feminist spiritual pilgrimage is a warning against religious coercive control

Stories of death and new beginnings

Snyder’s memoir is framed by a story of new beginnings – and a story of cancer, loss and death.

She opens with a memory that would return to her “through the years and then the decades”. An uncle has helped fund a place on a floating, world-travelling educational program, Semester at Sea. On the ship, watching the night sky, Snyder sees day and night split across the horizon. She is in her early twenties. Looking back, she calls this moment a “reset”. It becomes her “origin story”.

The “reset” is a glimmer of future freedom, but we must wait for it. It will be 180 pages before Snyder takes us back to it. In the meantime, it’s overtaken by a second story.

Snyder swiftly moves us back in time. She is an eight-year-old child. Her mother has just died. Her mother’s death, though natural, appears as a violent interruption. It fractures her father’s life:

Her death was the one story that nothing in my dad’s life had prepared him for. And in that story, the loss of her, something of him – that gregarious, smiling, warm man beloved by strangers and family alike – disappeared too.

This death and disappearance double-act is the story at the centre of Snyder’s memoir, one that flows into the unravelling of Snyder’s family, her home, her life.

We make sense of ourselves and our worlds with stories. Stories can sustain us. But they can also be a source of unravelling. Sociologist Arthur Frank puts it this way: “stories have the capacity to deal with human troubles, but also the capacity to make trouble for humans”.

Read more: Friday essay: empathy or division? On the science and politics of storytelling

Making trouble: religious harm and family violence

When Snyder’s father finds a new beginning in a Christian community, the reader is forewarned: “Cancer took my mother. But religion would take my life.” Snyder’s story unravels into loss, grief, family violence, running away (again and again) and homelessness.

Through childhood and adolescence, religion would be used against Snyder. It’s a weapon in her father’s hands. He justifies his physical violence by retelling a story that will, unfortunately, be common to many: obedience to a parent is a sign of obedience to God, discipline is an act of love, violence is an act of love. Snyder recalls:

He’d hit us ten times, a dozen, however many it took until he felt he’d broken us down enough to be truly repentant. And then we three would pray together and repent for my sins. We’d hug. Cry, because at the end of the day it was necessary to see how all this was done out of love. God’s love and my parents’ love.

Discipline that does harm, whether in the home or in the church, can never be loving. Feminist theorist bell hooks writes: “Love and abuse cannot coexist.” Love, according to hooks, is “the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth”.

There is little love of that kind during Snyder’s adolescence.

Snyder is kicked out of high school. At 16, she and her older siblings are kicked out of their parent’s home. She takes a string of low-paid jobs and lives in insecure housing. Her grandmother sends her to a “finishing school”, which is followed by a stint as a band manager. A music industry lover prompts her to go back to school: she gets her GED, starts college at the age of 19, and becomes “consumed” by education.

Education, particularly reading and writing, becomes a pathway to possibility and growth. Snyder “began to understand that writing […] was an empathetic exercise in which to examine the complexities and seeming contradictions of people”.

We have arrived at the moment where Snyder’s story is “reset”: on board that ship, aged 23. Writing and travel come to “define” Snyder’s world. This is her fourth book, following two works of investigative journalism and a novel.

Later, as a journalist living in Cambodia, Snyder reflects she was on a “sacred pursuit: to learn as best I could how different lives could be lived, different belief systems understood”. Far away from the American evangelicalism she grew up with, there is peace.

Doing damage

On the other side of the world, in Sydney, the stories of evangelical Christianity also make trouble for Lentz.

While Snyder slowly walks her reader through her life, to places of pain and harm and to places of personal and spiritual growth, Lentz starts by recounting her picture-perfect Sydney Anglican life. Against this backdrop, she takes us to the point where the glue holding together her belief system, her marriage and her world come unstuck.

Synder begins with a world unravelling; Lentz is on her way there. A third of the way into In/Out, Lentz reflects:

With my husband of five years by my side, via an old school friend, on the day a new church was born, I met the woman at whose hands I would, over the next three years be taken apart. That day snagged the thread that unravelled my world, and hers. One year on from that day, my life would be unrecognisable. Two years on, I would be on my way to the bottom of the pit I had to walk through. Eventually, I would begin to rebuild. The process would be excruciating and ludicrously slow. It remains a work in progress. But first, I had to do some damage.

Lentz declares she will do damage – and yes, we could count an affair, a divorce and fractured friendships as damage done by her. But the church culture she grew up in, which taught her homosexuality was sinful and incompatible with Christian faith, had already done damage of its own.

Christianity, sexuality and religious harm

Religiously informed LGBTQ+ change and suppression practices cause harm. This is not only true of intentional activities – such as praying for a change in sexuality – but of communities, including the Sydney Anglican Diocese, that teach homosexuality is wrong, evil or sinful. Simply hearing that message is harmful.

Continually telling a story that places queer people outside faith communities causes harm and trauma for queer people. And it renders queer religious people invisible.

In/Out was written after Lentz lost her job. She boldly invites the reader into her experience of religious harm. She provides an intensely personal, intimate account of the way Christian culture – and religiously informed stories – can both inform and limit how we understand ourselves.

For Lentz – as for many people – Christianity’s place in her life is complex. Through her teenage years, church life was experienced as a welcoming refuge, providing a secure identity and place in the world.

Yet belonging to an evangelical community is often contingent on the “right” expression of gender and sexuality. For Lentz, it was a harmful space that prohibited her from understanding her own sexuality. Lentz’s writing excels when she begins to grapple with how the church, as an institution, stretches into her personal life:

My own marriage had a lot to do with churchmen’s fear about the collapse of patriarchy; my sense of self was shaped by a hierarchical institution ruled by a text covered in the fingerprints of the men looking to keep control.

The legacy of those fingerprints is sexism, exclusion and gendered harm.

For those who have been harmed, or who are still in a place of harm, Lentz’s book may remind them they are not alone. It may give permission to read the Bible differently and to seek welcoming, inclusive communities where they are free to do gender, sexuality and religion (if they want) in a way that honours the complexity of their identity. This is a good thing.

Read more: We're told Pentecostal churches like Hillsong are growing in Australia, but they're not anymore – is there a gender problem?

A scandalous story

In/Out is positioned by its subtitle as a “scandalous story”. In this regard, Lentz delivers. She recounts in detail what it was like to finally let herself fall in love with a woman. She shares the thrill and the mess of that relationship. We share in her emotional ride. We are with her as she discovers sexual intimacy, as she expects to feel guilt, but feels calm:

I was committing the sins of adultery and lying and homosexuality […] I waited for the sense of wrongness to kick in. I waited for God’s judgement to fall upon me in some manner or other. But nothing happened. If anything, I felt closer to God: finally, neither of us was pretending I was that good Christian woman anymore. Instead of condemnation, I experienced deep calm.

We are also with Lentz when she attends an affirming church and is welcomed – but no longer feels at home in Christian spaces.

We are with Lentz when she meets with her school principal and HR manager. Here she tells “the story about my dawning of awareness of my sexuality”. And in telling this story, she sets in motion a conversation with the school which would lead to her being fired: “As letters went back and forth betweeen the school and me, it became clear the Board did not see a future for a gay teacher among its staff.”

Given the school understood homosexuality to be a threat to salvation, the risk of keeping Lentz on staff was too high.

Sure, there is some sexy content in the pages of Lentz’s memoir, but perhaps the real scandal is the mess of state and federal discrimination laws across Australia, which continue to frame religious freedom and LGBTQ+ rights as in competition. Those laws risk failing those who most need protection.

‘The goal is simply to endure’

Lentz races through her book. She gives the reader few moments to pause. Perhaps she is still searching for a place to pause, to start again. I found myself hurriedly turning pages, wanting to know about the process of recovering from religious harm, or of what trauma theologian Karen O’Donnell calls post-traumatic remaking.

While some people may seek recovery from religious and spiritual trauma, others know they can never recover the person they were before. O’Donnell explains:

the experience of the trauma survivor is not a simple wiping clean of the self from the experience of trauma but rather a more complex and arduous work. […] what is the goal of the trauma survivor in this aftermath? It is not transcending trauma, nor finding solutions to the dilemmas of survival. The goal is simply to endure.

Snyder’s memoir is a masterful case study in endurance and survival. As a reader, there is time to sit with child Rachel in her sadness, and with teenage Rachel in her confusion, anger and despair. In the midst of pain, there are beautiful and tender moments.

After crying through her father’s second marriage, Snyder is embraced by her grandfather: “I felt my grandfather’s hand on my head. He didn’t say anything. He just held his hand there on me in stillness.”

This stillness embeds in my mind. I feel I am there in the basement of the church, feeling both the anguish and the comfort. I can pause, exhale. I can start again – and again – with Snyder, after every loss, every setback. Snyder’s writing is consistently measured, yet deeply moving.

Snyder also holds out glimmers of hope. On the cruise, at the moment of her “origin story”, she learns a lesson about death. It’s a lesson that resists shallow causality (your mum died so that you could …). Actually, it’s a lesson on how to live.

My mom’s early death had been a warning shot, a directive about life itself […] it wasn’t a betrayal to her memory to seek a life in which joy was deliberate.

Do we know how to deliberately seek joy? To allow ourselves to be joyful? Maybe we are always in the process of learning these sorts of lessons.

Lentz closes her book saying she’s “growing up all over again, learning who I am, learning to choose”.

Freedom from the past

Freedom from the past comes from being able to narrate our stories truthfully.

Lentz finds freedom “Closer to the chaos at the heart of living”. She reflects:

It was not a freedom like the one that had been sold to me, squashed into a small box of constrained choices and limited options. […] It was freedom to be patient with mystery.

For Snyder, freedom is knowing she doesn’t have to say her parents “did the best they could under the circumstances with the resources they had”. Freedom is knowing this isn’t true. And so, Snyder can say:

I gave myself the freedom to live with a different historical narrative. And in the strangest way this lifted my anger. […] I would no longer carry this burden. They could view our collective past through whatever lens they wanted, but I was going to free myself.

You can’t undo what was done. None of us can. But in holding and telling your story truthfully, you can recover your agency and sense of self. In this, there is hope. Your story may or may not be a method for converting others. But the opportunity to tell it can be freeing.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Rosie Clare Shorter, Deakin University.

Read more:

Rosie Clare is a feminist researcher interested in religion and gender. She grew up in the Sydney Anglican Diocese, and recently completed PhD research focused on the lived experiences of Sydney Anglicans.