The Cost of Being a Brother: A Review of “The Voices of Redlands”

redland_cover

 

By Marie Notcheva

Reading The Voices of Redlands, an account of spiritual abuse at a California house church, was an emotional experience.  It affected me on a deep level, and even kicked my maternal instinct into high gear. Primarily narrated through the testimony of former church member, John Baldwin, the story follows the systematic intimidation and subsequent excommunication of several people, most notably John’s friend, Ryan Ashton.

The fellowship in question is known as “Monday Nights,” which meets in the Southern California town of Redlands. Comprised by mainly young adults and led by two brothers, Jared and Seth Gustafson, when the group’s teaching became influenced by “Hyper-Grace” theology, Ryan expressed concern. Hyper Grace, as Ryan found out, is a modern incarnation of the ancient heresy antinomianism and soon led his church family into multiple instances of drunkenness, sexual immorality, naked exhibitionism, and other behaviors as explained in multiple testimonies. Ryan’s voice was dismissed and he was accused of “slander” by the Gustafson brothers, as a transcript of one of the secret meetings shows. (Slander, by definition, must be both untrue and malicious in intent. Ryan’s statements were neither.)

The close-knit community was practically a family to Ryan – the individuals he most loved and trusted. Rather than engaging his concern or encouraging him to continue being a Berean, the group’s leadership convened secret meetings and unilaterally decided there would be no discussion of theology; Ryan was to be ‘disciplined’ for his insubordination; and he was even pressured to receive psychiatric counseling—presuming mental illness where none existed was one way the Gustafsons tried to discredit Ryan.

“Matthew 18” being referenced to excommunicate him, Ryan was told “Don’t quote us unless it is uplifting or encouraging” and was censored from publicly sharing anything the group taught.  Given  a contract to sign outlining his three options: 1) obey (apologize for questioning the leadership and keep silent); 2) be excommunicated; or 3) obey and subsequently leave the community. What followed were months of emails and social media messages between the membership; culminating in a ‘trial’ and  Ryan’s subsequent excommunication.  Monday Night’s members were ordered by the Gustafson brothers to “shun” Ryan or face the same consequences if they had any fellowship or communication with him.

All this because Ryan dared to question Jared’s aberrant doctrine.

Turning on a Brother

It is difficult to convey to outsiders the psychological impact a high-control religious group has on its members, and the tremendous emotional harm that can be done when the group turns on another member. Without support from anyone but the few who gave their testimonies in The Voices of Redlands, Ryan naturally spiraled into depression. The cruelty of this ‘shunning’, coupled with defamation of his character and false accusations took a toll on Ryan’s health in other ways—his weight dropped, clumps of his hair fell out, and he suffered tremendous anguish at losing the only family he had known. As a reader I wanted to intervene and protect this young brother somehow; and call off those who would destroy another’s life in the Name of Christ. Watching God work as John Baldwin’s testimony unfolded was instructive and insightful.

Perhaps because Monday Nights was a house-church and not a mega-church under the leadership of a well-known celebrity, this story and the alarm bells rung by Ryan and John Baldwin have been largely unheeded by Southern Californians. Jared Gustafson is fairly well known among many churches there, but what Ryan discovered and how he was treated has been kept a secret. Until now.  What John’s testimony exposes, far more than the teaching of Hyper Grace, is a form of spiritual abuse that is all-too common to authoritarian churches in this country.

When “Discipline” Becomes Abuse

“Church discipline” are biblical buzzwords that become   weapons in the hands of  some religious groups. Many people might be aware of church discipline cases going awry—as was the case in The Village Church case (a Calvinistic/Reformed congregation), which resulted in its pastor, Matt Chandler, apologizing for their misguided attempt to ‘discipline’ Karen Hinckley for divorcing her pedophile husband.  The Voices of Redlands demonstrates that coercive group-think is not limited to conservative churches. Monday Nights is at the other end of the spectrum, influenced by Bethel Church’s charismatic leanings and two brothers at its center. The Gustafsons have such a magnetic hold over their friends that no one in Monday Nights has an issue with their Instagram posts of nude pool party photos. How the brothers manipulated their friends and other local churches to treat Ryan is only the tip of the iceberg.

In the middle of John’s testimony, Ryan himself provides commentary on “the bystander effect” which is common in abusive situations. The bystander effect is a diffusion of responsibility which leads to collective apathy when an individual is being harmed. Most of the people in this fellowship and their families were swayed not only by Jared’s erroneous teaching, but also forced to disassociate themselves from Ryan. All dissent was censored, and threats of being disfellowshipped were imposed from the Gustafsons. This, perhaps, is the part that bothered me the most: even those who knew him turned the other way when Ryan was thrown under the bus by Jared and Seth.  Their charges against Ryan were not true, as John’s testimony makes clear.

In his interlude “The Anatomy of Spiritual Abuse” on page 66, Ryan writes:

“One of the hallmarks of abusive situations is the many layers of protection and enablement that exist for the abuser…..Circling the wagons in self-protection and stifling dissent are what toxic communities do, not the Body of Christ. Underscoring its insidious nature, whereas physical and emotional abuse is intentional because it is only manipulative, spiritual abuse can be unintentional through distorted biblical beliefs.”

It was these beliefs, and not the individuals, that Ryan confronted. He stood his ground personally, and then publicly, firmly rejecting the antinomian teaching the Gustafsons embraced, expressed concern for young believers being led astray – but was never truly heard by anyone. Instead, Ryan’s character was attacked and all of his relationships were terminated by the Gustafsons. The emotional effect of this was extremely traumatic, as John saw his friend deteriorate. Ryan wrote how even those parents and adults he reached out to marginalized him – “deeming emotions to be unChristian, anger at injustice to be sinful, and even the act of speaking out as gossip” (p. 68). Having been on the receiving end of such treatment in a high-control authoritarian church, I can understand in a small part his sense of betrayal and frustration. I was relentlessly pressured, and threatened with excommunication, for leaving an abusive marriage, thus this observation really resonated with me:

“Victims are often demonized and labeled the aggressor when resisting abuse, while cavalier justifications for inaction allow many Christians to walk past the wounded guilt-free and without offering help, besides maybe flinging a Scripture verse from afar with an air of sanctified indifference…. Jesus bore the Roman whip, yet today the Body of Christ bears lacerations from abusers who revel in the impunity from passive bystanders (p. 68-69).”

One couple involved in Ryan’s life even encouraged him to listen to Bill Gothard’s “Basic Life Principles” to address his “bitterness”. Another couple pressured him to go through The Landmark Forum, a cultic victim-shaming conference that brainwashes people into believing they are responsible for their own relationships falling apart. In these and many ways, the adult Christians in Redlands have dropped the ball in protecting their own children and tried to silence Ryan and John multiple times when all they wanted to do was warn people about what the Gustafsons are influencing Monday Nights to become.

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Rather than give up, Ryan has relentlessly sought to reconcile with Monday Nights. For three years, he has tried to explain why he was so concerned, and also why Monday Nights’ reactionary defense of the heresy (and shunning of Jared’s detractors) was wrong. Ryan’s was naturally angry and upset with the injustice, but standing his ground, what is astonishing (and speaks well of Ryan’s character) is that his genuine love for these people remains and is the catalyst for this book. He truly does want reconciliation, and has not “written off” Monday Nights at all, despite the unimaginable pain the ‘shunning’ and slander caused him. John Baldwin’s love seeps through the pages, as he and the others testifying through  “The Voices of Redlands” demonstrate in page after page of how many times they tried to get through to their friends, but were disbelieved, dismissed, lied about, and ultimately shunned also. John and Ryan even delayed the book launch for several months when it appeared the leaders of Monday Nights would engage them in conversation. After months of stonewalling, and prayer on the part of the editorial team, the book and website was finally released to warn Redlands and the Church world about how Hyper Grace and spiritual abuse can change even the most sincere and loving of groups into what Monday Nights has become today.

Still, Ryan burns with a love and desire to forgive and reconcile with his abusers. There is not even a hint of bitterness, as many would label those who expose abuse and falsehood. As Ryan himself states:

“My hands are open to whatever is ahead. I have nothing to protect since it was already taken from me. I have no aim in this endeavor besides seeing this situation resolved and healed. I have been at the brink of despair and much worse, yet the fact I remain alive and writing to you all means Jesus already won that battle. All other trials are nothing in comparison. We love Monday Nights and pray for them. I am sincerely grateful to be a brother to them, and to all of you. I am still learning how to be a better brother; how to be tender, speak graciously, and respond with hope. I am here—hands open, heart open, ears open—not to be abused again but to demonstrate my love and the true grace of God.”

The Voices of Redlands  by the end is less an expose of a particular church or errant doctrine than it is a call to action for us all. When standing up for truth is seen as unloving; when victims are coerced into apologizing to their abusers; when sincere believers blindly follow their leaders spinning their version of a story at the expense of an individual, there is a serious problem in the Body. It is to our collective detriment the Christians in Redlands haven’t done more to intervene in Monday Nights, since injustice there is an injustice everywhere. As John, Ryan, and the others make clear, we are all connected, and our indifference to spiritual abuse as a church culture needs to be confronted.

Spiritual abuse takes many forms and is hard to define. John and Ryan take pains to describe it, so even those not directly involved in similar situations can discern it. “The bystander effect” has unknowingly lulled too many Christians into paralysis. It is never the wrong time to stand up and defend one of our own. Telling this painful story took enormous courage for these Voices of Redlands.  I am grateful to John Baldwin and the eight other witnesses for telling the truth about what is happening in Redlands. Ryan Ashton is just one of the many Christians who has been blacklisted and blackmailed into silence, yet he chose to not only speak up, but pursue reconciliation with his abusers. His quest deserves to be read, and this wake-up call needs to be heeded.

“The Voices of Redlands” is available as a free download here.

A Letter from My Father

dad_letterToday is December 18th. So much has happened in the past week, regarding my former church situation and the legal (not to mention ecclesiastical) implications of their actions and communications with me.

I have refrained from sharing anything on my personal blog about the debacle thus far, although those close to me are well aware of the situation and the relentless bullying of the past 10 months from the lead pastor, Tim Cochrell, which turned to criminal harassment after I legally resigned my membership on September 28, 2016. The Wartburg Watch has done a fine job of re-capping the situation here and here, and the Boston Globe will be picking up the story later this week. (Interestingly, many former members who have been bullied out of HBC – as well as current members who know about my situation and disagree with leadership’s position – have contacted me in writing to express their support.)

On Thanksgiving, my Dad slipped me a letter which was the best articulation of reality that I have seen to date. I feel compelled to share it.

Marie:

Mom showed me a text message [he meant e-mail] yesterday from Pastor Tim to you. On the surface, at least, it read like a tender, compassionate and empathetic “we feel your pain” communication. Reading between the lines, however, PT and his co-pastor and the chapel’s membership, are operating as a self-appointed “kangaroo court”, trying to bind you with golden cords. They are insistently telling you, as pointedly as they dare, how you should conduct yourself; especially PT’s clear implication that you are not willing to bend…he’s trying to lovingly urge “reasonableness” on your part, which in fact means submission to these self-appointed “well-wishers” and caving in to their “loving” demands that you submit to your (ex) husband as a dutiful Slavic wife. BULLFEATHERS!

When Martin Luther was threatened with heresy for criticizing the pope, the sale of indulgences, and other practices enumerated in his 95 theses of protest in 1519; his determination, as expressed in his defiant words: HERE I STAND!…GOD HELPING ME, I CAN DO NO OTHER!!

Stand your ground, Marie.

And that pretty much says it all. Well, not ALL. What’s hilariously ironic is that my father is a practicing Irish Catholic.

Quoting Martin Luther.

To one of those pesky sola-Scriptura types (namely, me).

Ok, that’s funny…..in a vindicating sort of way.

They say “When you’re right; you’re right.”

True, but it’s ever so much more meaningful to have the informed support of family….the ones who were there, and saw, and heard, and observed, and discerned….from the very beginning.

#EndAbuseNow #FightingBack

Takim me Zotin në bregun e Jonit

titlepicKy artikull është publikuar në “Ilira”, dhjetor 2016. Mund të lexoni në anglisht ketu.

“A do të shqetësohesh për opinionin e njerëzve këtu, apo për opinionin e Zotit? Opinioni i njerëzve nuk do të ngrejë shumë peshë kur të jesh para fronit të gjykimit”.

Charles Studd, Misionar i shekullit të 19të

A është e mundur që ndërsa je e rrethuar nga njerëz të ndihesh krejtësisht e vetmuar? Ne duam që njerëzit rrotull nesh ta vlerësojnë praninë tonë, ta çmojnë miqësinë tonë, të shuajnë dyshimet tona, të na mbështetin në sfida, të shërojnë lëndimet tona më të thella. E thënë shkurt, ka mundësi që ne kërkojmë nga njerëzit atë që vetëm Zoti mund të na e japë: përmbushje, paqe dhe dashuri pa kushte. Padyshim, Zoti i përdor fëmijët e vet për të inkurajuar dhe për të mësuar njëri-tjetrin, por është shumë e lehtë që opinionet e të tjerëve t’i kthejmë në idhull.

Skenari i parë është i shëndetshëm dhe na afron më shumë me Zotin. Galatasve 6:2 na thotë të “mbajmë barrët e njëri-tjetrit” dhe të kërkojmë këshillën e urtë të vëllezërve e motrave të krishterë si një aspekt i rëndësishëm i rritjes shpirtërore. Gjithsesi, skenari i dytë, mbivlerësimi i këndvështrimit, opinionit apo sjelljes së të tjerëve ndaj nesh, ndonjëherë edhe deri në dëshpërim, është një kurth. “Frika e njeriut” mund të na largojë nga Zoti kur ne lejojmë që opinionet e të tjerëve të bëhen më të rëndësishme sesa mënyra si na sheh Zoti. Kjo mund të ndodhë kur ne besojmë që të krishterët flasin në emër të Zotit kur na lëndojnë, ose thjesht duke hequr dorë nga lutja për njëfarë kohe. Kur ne e harrojmë ‘zërin’ e Zotit, zërat e të tjerëve do ta mbytin zërin e Tij.

“Frika nga njeriu” (edhe njeriut të kishës) na thotë që nuk jemi mjaft të mirë kur të tjerët vënë në dyshim motivet e veprimeve tona, na akuzojnë padrejtësisht, bëjnë thashetheme ose gjykojnë vendimet tona, pa i ditur rrethanat ku ndodhemi apo parimet shpirtërore që na udhëheqin. Kjo është e dhimbshme, turbulluese dhe disa nga ne që janë natyra të shoqërueshme, instinktivisht do të kërkojnë njerëz të besueshëm për të qenë në shoqërinë e tyre. Në njëfarë mënyre ne do të ndihemi më mirë në praninë e miqve tanë; do të ndihemi përsëri të vlerësuar, ose të paktën do të kemi mjaft shpërqendrim, sa për të mos menduar për ndjenjat tona.

Unë e di që kjo është e vërtetë, sepse pas 25 vitesh si e krishterë, Zotit iu desh të më sillte në anën tjetër të botës (relativisht e izoluar) për të më tërhequr vëmendjen.

Kur Zoti shfaqet papritur

Gjatë vitit të kaluar unë mora vendimin e dhimbshëm për t’i dhënë fund martesës sime. Divorci është një ngjarje tmerrësisht e dhimbshme, dhe aq më tepër kur ndodh midis dy të krishterëve, për shkak të ‘njollës’ që e shoqëron këtë vendim. Megjithëse kisha mjaft mbështetje biblike për divorcin, për hir të qetësisë së fëmijëve të mi nuk i tregova detajet (përveç disa njerëzve të cilët duhej t’i dinin). Shumica e personave që e njihnin situatën tonë, treguan dhembshuri të pamasëdhe mbështetja më erdhi nga nuk e prisja. Megjithatë, ata të krishterë të cilët nuk e njihnin situatën tonë apo rrethanat që më shtynë drejt divorcit, filluan të më gjykonin. Kjo e lëkundi besimin tim te kisha dhe si pasojë edhe te Zoti.

Megjithëse miqtë e mi nga kisha të tjera më çuan në vende të qeta, më përfshinë në studime Bible dhe kaluan shumë orë duke më folur dhe duke u lutur për mua, përsëri lëndimi i shkaktuar nga personat, opinionin e të cilëve e quaja të ‘rëndësishëm’, më bëri të ndihesha konfuze në lidhje me Zotin, ndërkohë që isha duke i shërbyer Atij. Mezi po prisja të vinte gushti, gjatë të cilit kisha planifikuar të shërbeja në Kampet e të Rinjve {në Nju Hempshire (New Hampshire) dhe në Shqipëri}, të kaloja kohë me fëmijët e mi dhe të shërohesha. Një nga gjërat që më jepte gëzim dhe mezi po e prisja ishte ritakimi me motrat dhe vëllezërit e dashur në Krishtin në Shqipëri, me të cilët isha miqësuar gjatë kampit të vitit të kaluar. Unë kisha ‘nevojë’ për ta, për praninë e tyre, kisha nevojë për miqësinë e tyre, kisha nevojë të qeshja.

Pas tri ditësh në Tiranë, unë mora autobusin për në Sarandë, ku do të takohesha me ata që do të më çonin në kamp. E lënduar nga sjellja e miqve të mi dhe e shqetësuar nga ideja që duhej të flisja me drejtuesit e kampit për situatën time, qava në heshtje pothuajse gjatë gjithë udhëtimit 7 orësh. Si për ta rënduar edhe më keq situatën, shumica e personelit me të cilët isha miqësuar më shumë nuk erdhi në kamp këtë vit për arsye nga më të ndryshmet. E rrethuar nga kampistë të rinj dhe të panjohur, personel i ri dhe nga gjuha shqipe, u ndjeva edhe më e vetmuar se më parë. Kujtimet e bukura të së kaluarës më bënë të ndihesha akoma më e trishtuar për ditë me radhë dhe fillova të pyesja veten se çfarë bëja unë në atë vend. E rrethuar nga 70 persona dhe një skuadër të krishterësh shqiptarë, u ndjeva plotësisht në ajër dhe e panevojshme.

Kështu që kaloja kohë vetëm me Zotin. Ai ishte i vetmi që shihte lotët e mi. Ecja mbi skelë, shikoja perëndimin e diellit mbi Jon dhe ulesha e rrija aty për orë me radhë. Disa herë lexoja Biblën; disa herë vetëm mendohesha, por gjithmonë e kuptoja që isha në praninë e Atit tim, i cili ishte Mbrojtësi dhe Mbështetësi im. Unë e dija që Ai e kishte orkestruar gjithçka në mënyrë të përsosur, por më duhej ta përjetoja këtë në nivel emocional dhe kjo është shumë e vështirë të ndodhë kur ti je duke u arratisur nga emocionet e tua.

Një nga mësimet në anglisht që po u mësonim fëmijëve tregonte si ta vendosje opinionin e Zotit mbi atë të njerëzve. Kjo ishte tepër specifike për të qenë një rastësi. Zoti po më fliste mua drejtpërsëdrejti. Kishte mëngjese kur doja të largohesha nga grupi i diskutimit, të cilin e drejtoja bashkë me një anëtare skuadre nga Britania; të vërtetat themelore për dashurinë e Zotit që po u mësonim fëmijëve ishin premtime të harruara prej kohësh, për shkak se nuk e besoja më që mund të zbatoheshin në rastin tim.

Na tërheq në anën tjetër të botës… për të na detyruar ta dëgjojmë?

Këtu filloi edhe shërimi im. Si për të më siguruar mua që Ai ishte pranë, mora një mesazh nga një anëtare e re britanike e skuadrës, (e cila nuk më njihte aspak) një ditë pasi u largua nga kampi, duke më pyetur nëse isha mirë. Pasi i tregova një version të përmbledhur të ngjarjeve, ajo u përgjigj:

“Unë të jam mirënjohëse që ke folur me personat në kamp dhe lutem që ata të kenë qenë mbështetje dhe inkurajim për ty. Unë e vlerësoj shumë ndershmërinë dhe sinqeritetin tënd me mua, duke më treguar atë që po ndodh realisht. Zoti ka një plan për ty, që të solli në Shqipëri këtë vit dhe unë lutem që ti me të vërtetë do të gjesh shërim nga gjithë vështirësitë që ke kaluar. Unë e di që Zoti ka plane të mira për ty, ashtu siç ka premtuar për popullin e tij.

“Në fund të fundit ne duhet të shqetësohemi, mbi të gjitha, për atë që mendon Zoti dhe të lutem mos harro, Ai na do pa kushte. Afrohu pranë Tij dhe lëri krahët e Tij të të mbrojnë. Mos e lëndo veten duke mos lejuar të përjetosh ato ndjenja që të vijnë. Zoti e di çfarë ndien ti. Unë nuk dua të mendosh që duhet t’i fshehësh ndjenjat e tua, apo që nuk po përfshihesh aq shumë sa duhet në kamp. Ndoshta Zoti do që kjo kohë që po kalon në Shqipëri të shërbejë për shërimin tënd nga lëndimi dhe ndjenjat e tua. Sa e mahnitshme është mënyra si na përdor Zoti në jetët e njëri-tjetrit. Unë e ndjeva fuqishëm Frymën e Shenjtë teksa më shtynte të bisedoja me ty dhe jam e sigurt që Zoti të ka rrethuar me kujdesin e Tij. Është e mahnitshme sesi Zoti na tërheq në anën tjetër të botës, për të na detyruar të dëgjojmë dhe për të na afruar te Vetja”.

Të jesh transparent ndërsa i beson Zotit

Drejtuesit e shërbesës, nën autoritetin e të cilëve shërbeja, janë miq të mirë, por unë kisha shumë frikë se mos më refuzonin apo më gjykonin pasi ta merrnin vesh për divorcin tim, pavarësisht arsyeve që kisha; por ndodhi krejt e kundërta. E mbushur me ankth, u ula dhe i shpjegova situatën time pastorit shqiptar dhe më pas drejtorit të kampit. Ata jo vetëm që e mbështetën vendimin tim, por më përkrahën si motrën e tyre, ashtu si përherë. Megjithatë, mësimi që më mësoi Zoti atë javë ishte që kjo nuk duhej të kishte rëndësi.

Ai më pranon, më do dhe gëzohet për mua. Opininoni i njerëzve (edhe i njerëzve të Tij) zbehet për nga rëndësia përpara Tij. Gjithsesi ishte çliruese të mbështetesha nga miq që shqetësoheshin për mua dhe më kuptonin. Pastor “Erioni” (ky nuk është emri i tij i vërtetë) kishte parë vetë një nga motrat e tij të përjetonte një eksperiencë të ngjashme me timen dhe ishte i vetëdijshëm për faktin që jeta jo gjithmonë ndjek besnikërisht udhëzimet biblike të pendimit dhe pajtimit. Vëllai im ballkanas, më shumë se çdokush tjetër, ndihej i çliruar për faktin që unë tashmë isha e sigurt, e shëruar, dhe po rifitoja vetëbesimin tim.

Ne si besimtarë nuk mund të jetojmë në boshllëk. Është e pamundur të hiqemi sikur opinionet, pranimi, dashuria apo aprovimi i të tjerëve, veçanërisht i vëllezërve dhe motrave të krishterë, nuk kanë rëndësi. Ne jemi krijuar për të jetuar në bashkësi dhe Zoti trishtohet kur bijtë e Tij krijojnë mëri me njëritjetrin. E megjithatë, për të shembur muret e turpit që nga largojnë prej Tij, Ai detyrohet të na izolojë në një vend nga i cili nuk mund të arratisemi më; dhe kur më në fund fillojmë të dëgjojmë zërin e Tij të së Vërtetës, Ai e pohon dashurinë e Tij ndaj nesh edhe përmes njerëzve të tjerë. Megjithatë, derisa të zbulojmë që Ai është i vetmi zë që ka rëndësi, ne do të ngecemi midis zërave të vetë konfuzionit dhe dyshimeve tona.

Unë duhej të ndihmoja të tjerët të kuptonin Fjalën e Zotit verën e kalredemption_picuar, por Zoti e përdori atë kohë për të sjellë hirin dhe shërimin e Tij mbi mua, në një kamp të largët bregdetar, pa miq të cilëve t’u besoja, gjysmë bote larg nga shtëpia ime. Shqipëria gjithmonë ka qenë shumë e veçantë për mua, por tani unë do ta kujtoj edhe si një vend ku Zoti më takoi në një mënyrë unike dhe thellësisht personale.

“Give Her Wings” Giving Hope to Marginalized Mamas

by Marie Notcheva

ghw“Give Her Wings” is a Christian organization very dear to my heart, which began in 2013 by two women wanting to reach out to another woman in need. Run by Dr. David B Cox (DMin, MDiv), his wife Megan (MAR in Pastoral Counseling), Carrie Miller, Tammy Thomas and Laura Dee, “Give Her Wings” exists solely to help women who have had to leave abusive situations. While they offer prayer support for the single mothers they help, and are compiling a directory of trained, Christian counselors willing to minister to them, (hence my involvement with the ministry), their primary focus is on practical help (food; rent; basic necessities) for these women and their children.

This is a hugely needed ministry, as many single mothers are financially vulnerable and may not be able to receive state assistance. The team writes,

Oftentimes, when a woman leaves an abusive marriage, she narrowly escapes with little more than her children and the clothes on her back. Give Her Wings desires to do all they can to help specific mothers who are living in very poor conditions presently.  We want to give these brave ladies a chance to get on their feet . . . to breathe . .. to heal their broken wings and fly free again. The families we support are hurting financially, emotionally, and psychologically. We want to be able to come alongside these precious families and show them that they are not forgotten — not by us and (most importantly) not by God!

This non-profit does not just dole out cash, but rather follows a strict vetting process. Some of the volunteers are called upon to meet personally with women seeking help (referred to as “mamas”) and their children for an interview. They are required to present financial information, and also have to meet the following criteria:

  • Mother and children have little to no child support.
  • Mother and children have little to no parental/family support.
  • Mother and children have little to no church support.

WHOA.

Although I (as a newly-single mother myself) know what it is to worry about money, and wanting to do more for my children, it is extremely hard to imagine this level of hardship.Even without either alimony or child support, I still feel blessed. With the benefit of higher education; a good career; and a joint custody situation where I never have to worry about my children’s material needs (at either residence), I am far more fortunate than these women. (My kids are also older – many of the mamas “Give Her Wings” assists have much younger children, which makes full-time employment difficult if not impossible). I also happen to live in Massachusetts, which has a strong social benefits program (should I ever need it); and supportive family who live locally (should I ever need help). Many, many women are not so fortunate. They face a choice: stay in an abusive (and sometimes dangerous) situation; or poverty. On the approximately $1500/month “Give Her Wings” has coming in from donors, 15-20 single mothers and approximately 40 children are being helped.

Standing in the Gap: Forgotten by the Church

Many of these single-mom families have written testimonies, grateful that a para-church organization exists to reach out to them in their need. In August, one woman cried tears of joy when she was given a microwave – and “Give Her Wings” enabled her to take her children to see their very first movie in a theatre. However, the deep needs are not only material: they are also spiritual wounds. In many cases, the Church has turned its collective back on these women – not only denying the practical help they need when they don’t have money to buy groceries or clothes for their children; but even chastising them for fleeing their ex-husbands. “Divorce” is a taboo word in the Church, and no matter how legitimate the reason, single moms are all too often branded with an invisible “scarlet D”. Like the Samaritan left half-dead by the roadside, single mothers in poverty are frequently ignored, stigmatized, and sometimes even blamed in their plight. They have literally been abandoned by everyone they depended on – and often may feel abandoned by God Himself.

A huge part of “Give Her Wings” is the blog Megan runs, which ministers hope and healing to these hurting women. Megan, herself an abuse survivor, writes extensively about her experiences (such as her first Christmas as a single mom); the prevalence of spiritual abuse; gives updates on the “mamas’” situations; and other topics geared towards helping struggling single moms find hope and encouragement in their circumstances. As a trained Christian counselor, she is able to pour words of life into the hearts of others who are suffering in exactly the same way she has. “They do not speak for God,” she reassures women further hurt by their churches, and pulls no punches:

It is easier to forgive someone because they are wicked and everyone knows it…But, what about the people with “Christians” platforms who have hurt you in the name of Jesus? What about the people who use their platforms to hurt you? What about the men who claim to be special-called-by-God-ministers who have hurt you . . . in the name of Jesus?

A very helpful resource listed on the “Give Her Wings” website is Megan’s own book, “Give Her Wings: Hope and Healing After Abuse”. This is given to each of the “mamas” that the organization assists, and I personally have found it very helpful. Speaking Gospel truth into the lives of the down-trodden, especially those humiliated by abuse (or told that they are ‘in sin’ for fleeing their abusers) is a critical part of helping them get back on their feet. Speaking from experience, I can say that staying close to God is just as important as paying the rent in the months following a separation or divorce, and a strong, compassionate Christian support system is vital to healing.

Specifically at Christmas, “Give Her Wings” ramps up its fundraising efforts in order to provide Christmas gifts for the approximately 40 or so children they serve. Much like “Angel Tree”, these children are provided with gifts through the organization, which is completely funded by donations. Rather than the children of prisoners, these grateful recipients are the children of divorced mothers.

It is heartbreaking reading some of the comments from the women – “It’s hard to think of ‘wants’ when [the children] are cold,” said one. This should not be happening in 21st century America, but it is.

If you wish to make a donation to this life-changing ministry, please visit their site and read their Mission, Blog and testimonies from “mamas”. Especially at Christmas, remember the widows and orphans…..and single moms, struggling desperately to make ends meet.

The Journey of Sonila Potter

This article first appeared in Albanian, in the magazine “Ilira Revista” under the title “Rrugëtimi i Sonila Potter”. 

sonila2

By Marie Notcheva

Twelve-year-old Sonila wanted ice cream.

Quietly, she slipped her hands into the pockets of her daddy’s old coat, looking for a bit of money to buy some. What she found instead intrigued her: a metal necklace, with a man attached to a cross. Perplexed, she went to her mother, who was cooking dinner. “What is this, mama? Who is this man?”

Her mother turned from the stove, a look of fear in her eyes. “Where did you find this?” she asked. Sonila’s mother Liliana had good reason to be fearful in 1989: the family had hidden Sonila’s father’s Greek Orthodox background, for fear of punishment under the Hoxha-Alia regime. “Put that back, Sonila! It’s a contraband item,” Liliana warned. “Later, my mother explained to me in secret that the cross portrays Jesus Christ, and that He died for our sins. She told me, ‘If you pray to Him, Jesus will hear you,’” Sonila recalls. “She strictly forbade me to tell anyone about him, because we could all get arrested.”

A Mother’s Quiet Example

Although Sonila had a child’s faith and wanted to know more about this God Who loved her, it wasn’t until she was 15 in 1991 that she was able to hear the Gospel and understand the Person and work of Jesus Christ. “I would pray as a child, when my parents told me about God, but I didn’t have a knowledge of sin,” she says. “In 1991, after the changes started, missionaries were handing out the translated Gospel of Luke at a church in Tirana, and I took one. I was so hungry to read it! There was a prayer in back, and it was as if my eyes were finally opened,” she says. “As I prayed, those words were coming straight out of my heart. Finally, I had understanding and I cried as I confessed my sin to this God I could finally know. I literally felt God’s love wrapped around me.”

Now free to attend church, with her parents’ encouragement, Sonila attended one of the first evangelical churches planted in Tirana. Despite the difficulties of life in the early 1990’s, both Sonila and her brother Genti became followers of Christ in part thanks to their parents’ courage and faith. “My mother was the best counselor for me,” Sonila says. “At the end of her life, when she was suffering from cancer, she told me ‘Don’t cry for me, Sonila. I’m going to see my Shepherd.” It was an example the young woman never forgot, and her mother’s legacy inspired a deep love for God and others in Sonila.

By age 20, she had a passion for missionary work and longed to see the Gospel brought to unreached people groups in Asia and around the world. “By age 20, I barely spoke any English, and I didn’t have much money. I thought, ‘How can God use me, an Albanian girl without English?’ So I prayed that He would simply send someone else,” she recalls. “But God had other plans. That same year (1998) He opened a door for me to serve him in a Christian Youth Hostel in Amsterdam, Holland. I was able to reach out to guests with the Gospel, and misonila1nister to their emotional needs.” At a Christian conference she attended with an American friend, the two decided to be missionaries and served for two months in the Philippines with YWAM (Youth With A Mission). Soon after, Sonila had short-term missionary opportunities in ten different Asian countries, where she served children, teens and young mothers living in extreme poverty.

Study to Show Yourself Approved…

As Sonila’s passion for serving God grew, so did her desire for learning. “The Lord sent me to Bible school in Germany for more training, and a deeper knowledge of His Word,” she says with amazement. With increased proficiency in English by this time, she was able to volunteer as a Wycliffe Bible translator and at Capernwray Bible School in England. “While I was serving in Asia, I developed a concern and compassion for people, but I lacked a broad [doctrinal] knowledge,” she says. “I thought of studying psychology to become a therapist, thinking this was a good way to help people. Fortunately, however, the Bible school offered biblical counseling courses. I read online about the difference between counsel that is biblical, and what psychology is based on…and I really felt tsonila4hat God protected me from going down that road.” Sonila completed a Bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling, and later went on to earn a second degree under Wayne Johnston, the President of the Biblical Counseling and Discipleship Association by doing online courses and studying independently.

Coming to America – the Challenges and Opportunities

In 2006, the man who would become Sonila’s husband was serving in the United States army in Afganistan. Sonila, living in England, “met” Emmett Potter in an online Christian community. Two weeks after their first conversation, Emmett and Sonila met in London. A friendship already in the making, Emmett gave her creationist Kent Hovind DVDs to watch just before she returned home to Albania.

“We stayed in touch for a few months, then Emmett traveled to Tirana for three days and met my family,” Sonila says. “Each time he had vacation time he came to Albania, and we married in November 2007. It took eight months for me to get a visa, but once I arrived in Michigan (USA), we had a second wedding ceremony.” The couple lived for six months in Michigan before moving to Massachusetts, where they have lived for the last seven years. Living out one’s Christian faith in the United States is not easy, and the couple, who now has three small children, has faced challenges.

“In Albania, there is a much greater sense of community; when you have friends as guests in your home, they are almost family,” Sonila explains. “Here, that is missing. There is a coldness, a feeling of detachment – especially here in Massachusetts. The church says it is a family, but people come and go….you rarely see them a second time. There is nothing like that true sense of friendship; of being invested in each other’s lives, like we have in the Balkans. We have been here for so many years, but cannot really feel like part of a church ‘family,’” she says.

Raising children in the knowledge of the Lord is another matter. Christian school is expensive in the United States, and Sonila acknowledges there is peer pressure all around to compromise her family’s convictions. “We do not celebrate Halloween, nor do we teach our children to believe in Santa Claus,” Sonila explains. “The holidays are to glorify Jesus and Him only. Others do not always understand or respect our decision in this regard.” Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in religious education, Sonila has even taught in a Christian school where her convictions have been challenged.

No Compromise Christianity

“I love reading the Puritans,” says the Albanian woman who has a library filled with English-language commentaries. “The writing of Thomas Watson and Thomas Brook are my favorites, and Richard Baxter’s “The Cure for Melancholy” is one we use often in biblical counseling. Today, they preach a ‘soft gospel’. In the past, these great men talked about sin,” she says. “Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, was not afraid to warn people about evil.” Sonila cites the aversion many American pastors have towards preaching about sin as one of the reasons compromise and moral laxity is such a problem in some American churches.

Nevertheless, it was through coming first to England and later to the United States that God opened many more doors of opportunity for Sonila Potter to serve Him. Nowhere do greater opportunities for theological study exist, which Sonila now uses in her ministry as a biblical counselor. She is able now to minister to other women in two languages, which is a valuable asset (there are 16,000 Albanians living in her state of Massachusetts, and few, if any, Albanian evangelical churches). And by the grace of God, this mother of three is freely able to raise her children in the love and knowledge of God – without having to hide symbols of their faith in coat pockets.ilira_christmas_16