I think my life up until now can be summed up with the premise that I have never been able to measure up, although my whole life has been a constant effort to do so.
I was born into this church with no name (Ha!) and went to my first gospel meeting when I was 6 days old. My family was one with deep roots in this, my great grandfather being one of the early workers in Atlantic Canada, some time in the early 19teens. He lived until I was about 25, and the entire family and the friends in our province treated him with total reverence. He was a great old man, but I was always a little afraid of him. Even though he must have known that this way had just begun a few years before, we were always taught that it had begun with Jesus and was His own, one, true way. Inherent in Gramp’s beliefs and rules was that you NEVER question or speak ill of the workers.
I had a really good upbringing and a happy childhood for the most part. My Dad and Mom took literally the scripture about wives obeying their husbands, and Dad ruled all of us, Mom included, with an iron fist. That being said, though, although there was strict discipline (and maybe some verbal and emotional abuse), things did not get physically abusive for the most part. We were spanked, whacked, boxed, etc., but you couldn’t say we were beaten. There were, and are, four of us children, and we were a close bunch, and very close to our mother. Dad distanced himself from us, and we were not allowed to give him hugs or kisses, even when we wanted to. (Still aren’t, I found out when I gave him a hug at my long-delayed university graduation.) I think that there was some sexual abuse in his past, but he never talked about it.
One thing about our family is that we really lived what we believed. There was no saying one thing in meeting and living another. I saw what was most important in my parents’ lives, and, mostly in an attempt to please them and gain approval (although I was also afraid to go to hell), I ‘professed’ just after I turned 7 years old. I never missed giving my testimony in meeting after professing, and I followed every rule, whether there was a reason for it or not. I had lots of questions, but I didn’t really care what the answers were, as long as someone knew the answers. So, I’d ask my parents, grandparents or great-grandfather, and, as long as they came up with something, I heard “blah, blah, blah” and I was happy again.
When I was 11 years old, my great aunt and uncle moved to the area, after spending 40 years in another province. I loved them so much, as I had always felt that I was special to them. They always made a fuss over me, and invited me to spend time with them. When they moved home, though, my uncle Charlie especially started taking an interest in me. At first I was flattered, but it quickly became ‘icky.’ Over a period of a couple of years, he became more and more inappropriate with me. He never got so far as rape, but he made my life miserable, always touching, kissing, saying disgusting things. I told my mom and dad, and, after talking with the workers, they decided not to do anything about it. They told me that since he really didn’t do anything ‘serious’ that it wouldn’t be worth hurting my Aunt Mary about. I was to just be more careful not to be alone with him. I was already being careful, but it didn’t matter. It continued.
At this point, I was about 13, and I was miserable. Finally, in desperation, I prayed that my uncle would die. The next day he dropped dead of a heart attack in his garden. My faith was ripped – if I believed that my prayer was heard, then I was responsible for someone’s death! Maybe it was just coincidence. God would not have killed someone just because I asked! I didn’t pray very much after that – it scared me to no end!
Life went on until I started university, against the advice of my Dad and the workers. Why would a girl need to be educated? You know, they teach all kinds of things there that will warp your mind! I was able to put the philosophical and psychological thoughts and theories aside, though. I learned it without paying much attention to it. But other things were happening, too!
I met a guy, an outsider who thought I was queen of the universe. This was a new experience, as the ratio of professing girls:boys at this time was about 3:1, and I wasn’t one of the ones who easily attracted boys. I knew that dating an outsider was frowned upon, so I told him I would talk to the workers, and if they said I had to stop dating him, I would have to. I talked to Bill Bryant, the overseer of the region, who was in our field that year. He gave me lots of rhetoric about how they found that those who dated outside often lost out, but that there were no rules against it. I was very surprised, but happy, and merrily went on dating Kevin.
When I went home for Christmas break, though, my grandfather who was the elder of the meeting told me I had to quit professing if I kept on with Kevin. I told him I had talked to Bill, and he hadn’t said I had to quit! So, Gramp wrote to Bill, and Bill replied that “Of course, she is not to be taking part in meetings! I don’t know why she thought I said otherwise!” So, I was out. I was angry at God. All those philosophical things I’d been keeping in the back of my head came to the front. I decided that God can’t be real if He could allow all this to happen in His ONE WAY!
About 4 years later, after getting married, having a baby, having to drop out of university, going through absolute poverty and my husband’s mental illness, I was at the end of my rope. I needed the community and support of ‘the friends.’ Plus, I really wanted to believe in God. I shoved all the questions and ‘stuff’ back in my head and started going to meetings again. I professed when my son was about 3 years old. I basked in the attention of the returned prodigal for a while before my little family was shoved onto the back burner again.
Life went on and we moved to Edmonton, Alberta for a few years, where I suffered a bout of depression and stopped going to meetings and then professed yet again! I was never good enough, though, and I really, really tried to be the virtuous woman. The only time I got some peace was when I totally denigrated myself in prayer, and asked forgiveness for everything I could think of, ending with many tears and face down in the dust. Was that what I was supposed to be doing every day?
We moved back home for the support of family, and life took on an easy rut. As long as I went to meeting, kept myself looking like a woman from the 1930s, and not making a fuss about anything, things went smoothly.
My son, now in his teens, started dating a girl from outside, then, when they broke up, another outsider, but no big fuss was made of it, and I answered the questions she asked according to the ‘party line’!
As our son got older, he had some questions of his own, which started sounding more and more valid to me, and I couldn’t answer them to his satisfaction or to mine. He was such a brilliant boy, and I had taught him to think for himself in other areas of his life. Why shouldn’t he think for himself in this most personal aspect of his life? He came to the conclusion, when he was about 20, that he did not want this ‘way’ to represent his beliefs anymore. He told me that he had formed his own beliefs based on what he had found out, and at first, he thought he could worship with the family as always, but did not want to give the impression that he shared its ideas, so decided not to continue.
Before my son had told me he was having concerns, I had started having dreams. The situations in the dreams were different (usually having to do with school, as I went back to university to finish my degree), but the messages I got were all the same. God’s voice was saying “you are going in the wrong direction!” Sometimes it was “My people are going in the wrong direction.” I was led to read Bible passages that contradicted what I’d always been taught. No matter how I read it, Paul’s message wasn’t that we shouldn’t wear jewelry, but that the outside things shouldn’t matter! Jesus’ message wasn’t that we should isolate ourselves from unbelievers, but that we should love them, and be their true neighbors. And, I kept being drawn to the scripture that makes it clear that JESUS is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Why were we thinking that the method in which we worshiped was “The Truth” and “The Way”?
I figured that I just had to straighten myself out and try to make the leading of God in my heart my own focus, while continuing to attend meetings. It happened that it just wasn’t that easy! First, I couldn’t find anything that seemed appropriate to say in meeting without making it seem like I was judging everyone. I couldn’t speak on the things that I’d always spoken on – God wasn’t behind them! Then, God spoke in my dreams again, only this time it was: “TELL the people that they are going in the wrong direction!!” I talked to a few people about it, and they seemed to agree with what I said, but none were willing to make a stand about it.
I talked to the workers in our field about it, and was made to feel horrible and small and soooooo wrong! I did not speak up confidently, and I cried a lot. These were the WORKERS! I owed them respect, and I wanted them to be pleased with me – once again, trying to measure up. I made a mess of it, but their response just did not make sense to me. I got the message that it didn’t matter where God was leading me, the main thing was the ‘unity’ of the ‘Way.’ God would not give me a conviction and give someone else a different one – and these convictions that I seemed to be getting were NOT the same as others in “The Way” had been given. Their solution was to pray for TRUE conviction.
I went to only a few more meetings after that. In one of them, the worker spoke that nothing mattered if God wasn’t in it. He said that we could all be sitting in this meeting, listening to him speaking, and if God wasn’t in it, there was no point to it. He said we could be sitting by ourselves, and if God was with us, then we were in the right place. This was so obviously right, and everyone was sitting there and nodding, but when it came right down to it, it seemed that to the workers I talked to, God could only be in it if everybody agreed on where to sit!
I decided I’d had enough, but went to one last meeting when my family from the West was visiting. After that meeting, in which I heard nothing to encourage me to keep attending, my sister and her husband, some local friends and the workers got together and we had lunch at a local restaurant owned by some of the friends. Our whole fellowship at that lunch consisted of no more than gossip. Did you hear the news about this one… isn’t that one related to so-and-so. I was disgusted and dismayed. I have not been to another meeting since.
I decided to really go where God leads me. This time, I realize that it is not GOD I have a problem with, it is the way of worship which falls short. God does not expect me to be perfect – He loves me, and thinks that I am precious. He sent His son to save me, and asks nothing in return. Wow, what a wonderful revelation. I still want more fruits of righteousness in my life, and I do try to work on them. I’ve found a church that I can worship in with joy and gladness, that lifts me up instead of pushing me down.
It has been difficult at times making the break with traditions and with things that have been comfortable and second nature to me for most of my life. I have lived with the discomfort of making my mother and my grandmother cry, and of hearing my father say he was disappointed in me, but they are slowly but surely coming around to a place of acceptance. My journey has not always been easy, but my son has been a huge help, and we’ve faced it together. I am truly thankful that he is not afraid to stand up for what he believes is right, and he has encouraged me to do the same. My husband, too, is relieved that I am “out of all that brainwashing” and has been coming to the Wesleyan church with us fairly regularly. We have huge hopes for his salvation!
I must say that at this point in my life, I have never been happier spiritually. God is good, and I have tasted his bounty!
Donna (Allen) Kennedy
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
Written September 28, 2010 (Revised May 20, 2011)