Since the inception of this blog (January 2015), I have been faithfully writing on a daily basis, with blog posts written on my “good days” and scheduled in advance, to ensure seamless content being published. Unfortunately, around the beginning of Lent I started to struggle again, both emotionally and physically. It would be putting it lightly to say the last couple months, especially the month of April, have been extremely tough for me.
While I strive to be transparent in my writing, I don’t usually get too personal with my blog posts. Today’s post will break that trend. This month the Lord has put it on my heart to dig deep and share in a way that I am super uncomfortable. Even if there is only one of you out there that can identify, I know it’s worth making myself vulnerable. If you find yourself relating as you read along, this blog post was probably meant for you!
April marks the end of Lent and celebration of Easter. Here in New York, flowers begin to break ground and the Birds return, waking us with their beautiful song.
April is a month that points to new life and new beginnings. I was born in April. I’m an April Fool’s baby.
April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I am a survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse.
“Sometimes God redeems your story by surrounding you with people who need to hear about your past, so it doesn’t become their future.” ~Jon Acuff
I don’t remember much from my childhood, but I remember a man in my church who befriended kids. He was probably in his mid to late 30’s at the time and married to a woman named Sharyn. They both lived with Sharyn’s mom, Grace, in Honeoye Falls, NY. He was a tall, charismatic man who wore suits that looked like they were from the 60’s. Powdered pink. Baby blue. His hair was dark, parted to the right, and slicked back, like Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver. He had a smile that would rival Mr. Rogers’. Most of the adults in the church seemed to really like and respect him. Steve Erickson. The name of my first abuser. He had his favorites and I was one of them.
When I turned eleven the repeated sexual abuse I experienced at the hands of this man finally stopped. The pastor’s son caught him trying to grope me in the back hallway of our church and confronted him. He told Steve to leave me alone or he would tell everyone what he had been doing.
It wasn’t long after this confrontation that the pastor’s daughter befriended me. She invited me over for a sleepover. It was the first time I had ever spent the night away from home.
One night when I was sleeping over, her brother, the same boy who had saved me from my first abuser, snuck into her bedroom. We were both asleep. He woke me up with an ugly goblin looking puppet (Boglin) and motioned for me to be quiet so as not to wake up anyone else.
He proceeded to touch me as I lay in his sister’s bed.
He had saved me from my first abuser, so I trusted him.
He told me he liked me.
I was too young to realize he was abusing me too.
For the next five years this abuse continued on and off, only at the time I thought I was in love. I would do anything this boy asked me to and he would use our little secret to control me. Our “relationship” continued until he finally went away to bible college.
It was the month of April when I saw this boy again. Only he was no longer a boy. He was now married. More than five years had passed. He and his wife had moved back to New York after attending bible college in Missouri. His father, the pastor at the time, had recruited them to run a young adult group for the church.
His life seemed to be going so well, while my life was falling apart. I was twenty-one and a single mom at the time. I had just moved in with a my boyfriend who was a drug dealer and ex-convict. I had turned from the church and the things of God long before his return.
This man and his wife started to call me at home. I remember dodging their calls for months. I had heard through the grapevine they were trying to recruit young adults to attend their new church group and I had no interest in joining. When things between my live-in boyfriend and I started to get rocky (ex: he was physically and emotionally abusive), I finally gave in and revisited my childhood church.
Despite being married, the pastor’s son (my childhood “hero” and “first love”) took special interest in me. He convinced me to break things off with my boyfriend and even recruited a bunch of men from the church to move me back into my parent’s home.
It didn’t take long for him to find ways to spend time alone with me. He convinced his wife to get a part time job as a waitress and to take on ballroom dance lessons.
I am ashamed to admit that up to this point I had never read the bible on my own. I was ruled by my emotions and easily believed his lies. It didn’t take long for him to convince me to take part in an adulterous affair.
He made me believe he loved me and would have married me, but that his father forced him to get married to this woman because they were having premarital sex.
He would use bible verses to deceive me into believing that in God’s eyes WE were married first because of the sexual things he had done to me as a kid.
He would use manipulative tactics to make me feel sorry for him, stating his wife didn’t love him and that she had already cheated on him.
He told me she made him wife swap with another couple when they lived in Missouri and that’s why they had to move back to New York.
He used scripture to imply that in God’s eyes they were already divorced.
He bought me jewelry and told me that it was “our little secret.”
He made up stories for me to tell about where I got the jewelry, how I was spending my time, and instructed me to repeat the stories to anyone that asked.
Within six months of moving back home, he and his wife divorced.
It didn’t take long for members of the church to start hearing rumors about the pastor’s son and his ex-wife. His father, the pastor, approached me privately. He made me aware of a deacon meeting that was going to be held to vote as to whether or not his son should step down from leadership.
The pastor convinced me to rally the troops to protest this decision. He asked me to get all the young adults in our church group to write up a testimony about how his son had helped them grow in the Lord since his return to New york. I was naive and eager to earn his respect, so I agreed to take part in his.
The deacon board voted and it was agreed that his son could stay on staff as the young adult leader.
There was a huge split within our church and those that opposed his staying on staff ended up leaving the church.
Shortly after, the pastor’s son and I ended up dating publicly, but the relationship didn’t last. I started to study the bible for myself, and he quickly became physically abusive any time I challenged his manipulative and sinful ways. I resorted to coping behaviors I had learned while he was away at college.
One time he caught me out drinking alone. He was livid. He forced me to ride home with him to my parents house where I was still living. On the way we got into an argument and I tried to jump out of the vehicle as it approached a red light. He caught me by the hair and pulled me back into the vehicle and proceeded to choke me out (the rear naked choke hold he used is a blood choke hold he practiced in his Mixed Martial Arts).
I wish I could say I wised up and left him after this incident, but I didn’t. I broke things off for a while, but he was relentless with his apologies and in pursuing me. I was eventually lured back into the relationship. It took yet another altercation where he knocked me out cold in front of my two year old daughter before I attempted to seek help.
That April, I wrote a letter to the director of counseling of the church and explained everything that had transpired over the last year, including how the relationship began in adultery and details of the physical abuse I endured.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I was not the only women the pastor’s son had been grooming. While he went on to publicly date me for the first time, he was seeing another women behind the scenes. The neighbor of his divorce attorney. Three months after I broke things off with him, he went on to marry her.
That didn’t stop him from attempting to pursue me again several times after his second marriage, and even after I was married myself.
At my husbands suggestion, I reached out to the director of counseling, again, to make him aware. The counselor was (and still is) good friends with the pastor and his son. I realize now this individual was more concerned with the church image and protecting the pastor and his family because nothing was done to address anything that I reported to him.
My first abuser went on to adopt a little girl. She is currently sixteen. I can’t fathom the heinous things that poor girl has faced at the hands of her adoptive father. My childhood church could have engaged law enforcement when I finally came forward about him, but they chose to handle the claim internally within the church instead.
My second abuser, the pastor’s son, went on to allegedly abuse a sixteen year old girl, a German foreign exchange student who was living with him and his wife at the time. A young man and his wife’s sisters had previously come forward to say they had been sexually abused by him too. Despite media attention surrounding these “sexual abuse allegations” he was promoted to head pastor and continues to maintain his innocence.
It has taken years of counseling for me to realize how deeply the grooming of these two abusers affected me. To this day I have night terrors, panic attacks, severe social anxiety, and issues trusting people in authority.
Some days are tougher than others. On the days I find myself struggling, I use that energy to pray for my abusers and for others like me.
I am a survivor.
I am not perfect.
I am not without sin.
The same God who sent His son to die on the cross as payment for my sins died for my abuser’s sins too.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault or abuse and have remained silent, I want to encourage you to speak out.
I lived in fear and silence for years… No more!
Those who abused me no longer have power over me. Their lies no longer control me. I refuse to allow my past to master me.
God is faithful and promises to bring truth into the light.
“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open (Luke 8:17).”
Please, Lord, protect the hearts of those closest to this story and comfort those who may still be hurting. I know you allowed for even the darkest moments of my life to draw others and myself closer to you. Thank you for the heart of compassion you have given me, especially for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Thank you for being a shelter for the weak, and refuge for the oppressed. I pray those reading this who are still seeking will put their hope and trust in you. I pray this all for your glory, Lord, in Jesus name, Amen!
*updated July 3, 2017 to include a ping back to Brent Brookhouse with Vox Media’s investigative article on Victory Church and make timeline corrections regarding German foreign exchange student reporting timeline, as per her own account in the comment section below. Please also note, Paul Burress was fired from Victory Church in June 2017 after additional allegations were made. His father, Joe Burress Sr. was reinstated as head pastor in the interim.