There’s Power In Naming the Truth


A_HeatherRecently, I blithely told one of my friends from high school that my experience in our church youth group had been largely positive.

Here’s why I felt that way: the group was my first time in Christian fellowship. I served in leadership for three years, was there for almost every event, made a tight group of friends, and formed the foundation of my faith.

Youth group was my life in high school.

I was writing to my friend because I knew that time had not been positive for her, at all. No, in high school, she’d been abused and broken. But I was going to be writing about the youth group and I wanted some of her insight. I wanted to write honestly about the positive and the negative. I wanted to be authentic.

Then I started typing. And I realized that I’d been in denial about high school. Because calling youth group “positive” was laughable.

I mean, I knew that my friend had been sexually abused—raped—for years by our youth leader. I knew that. But somehow the fact that the leader had been emotionally manipulating all of us in leadership, isolating us from healthy adults, that he’d groomed us all for abuse and—very easily—I could have been the one he chose instead—all that had not really sunk down into my bones.

What’s funny is I’d thought I’d confronted the past already. I thought I was already honest with myself about it.

I wasn’t.

Clearly, if I hadn’t faced the truth, despite concerted effort, I hadn’t been ready for it.

There are different levels of knowing, of accepting, of owning the truth. When truth is painful, I’ve found, it’s something you have to grapple with over and over. It is never swallowed whole. There is a faithful bravery that’s necessary as we slowly take in the entirety of what hurts us.

There is no “enough.”

So I ask myself: why wasn’t I ready to face this painful history?

The answer? Because I’d have to admit I was a victim too.

I’d have to admit that I wasn’t okay.

Here’s what happens when I face the history: I fly backwards, on dark wings, towards a time when I had just become a Christian. I needed Christ so desperately then (as now), and I thought, my first day in youth group, that I was finally going to understand how to love him.

I thought youth group was going to help. Was going to equip me with tools to live Christ every day. Was going to surround me with people that would help me find Jesus. Was going to keep me safe.

It’s hard to kneel on the industrial grey carpet next to that wisp of a girl and tell her she was wrong.

She was not safe. The person charged with caring for her was lying. While everyone was laughing, dancing to Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys, there was deep darkness right inside that building. Everywhere.

I had already known grief at that age. I should not have known it again, so soon.

I can’t blame myself for not wanting to tell that tender, innocent me that grief and betrayal is laced through this life, even in church.

No, church didn’t keep me safe, but Jesus did. Jesus kept my friend safe—or, at least, alive. It was not the safety or life we wanted, but it was blessed anyway.

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship towards Christian music. I’ve sung on worship teams for years, but at home, I rarely listened to praise music. Much of that attitude is from high school, where our youth leader thought praise music was lame. We didn’t do worship time in youth group; we were too cool for that.

There were Bible studies and messages about Jesus, but all the music was secular, unless you count U2.

I love secular music, but I’ve long known that worship songs are a direct road into my heart. I’ve wondered why I didn’t like listening to them at home.

The week after I uncovered that rotten layer of truth about our youth leader, I idly turned on a praise music station on iTunes. I’d listened before, but lost interest after a few minutes.

This time, I kept listening.

Some of the lyrics were cheesy, not to my taste, but this time, I didn’t care. I wanted to learn the songs I didn’t know For the first time, I just didn’t care if they were lame.

It wasn’t until after a few days of listening that I connected the dots.

My youth leader had told me worship music was lame, and it wasn’t until now that I’d really stopped believing him.

I am grateful to have that power at work in my life.

Yet let’s not wrap this story up in too tidy of a bow. Youth group sucked. It’s still hard to talk about. I’m still angry that it was possible, and I am still cynical about church. I am tremendously angry that what happened to me—to my friend—is not uncommon.

Most of all, I’m angry that our old youth director is still in youth ministry, twenty years later.

Let’s pause to ponder that. Twenty. Years. Even though several of the churches he’s gone to have been told this history.

Singing praise songs does not make everything automatically okay.

Singing is lovely, but justice is what we really want. Also: a do-over.

But I’ll start with singing, with reclaiming the road to my heart. I’ll start with naming what happened to us, because becoming authentically, powerfully me is the first step to always-and-forever justice.


Image credit: Mayselgrove

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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Heather Caliri


  1. Wow! These words speak truth, life, and freedom! I needed this!

  2. I’ve been following this story on social media for a couple of weeks now. It breaks my heart that your friend had to carry such a weighty secret for so long. I can’t imagine what the burning sear of injustice must feel like for her.

    Thank you for continuing to tell her story. Here and on social media. For being an advocate. Better late than never, right?

    I love hearing about how you’re wrestling with old lies that you believed long ago. For example, your thoughts on worship music. It inspires me to take a closer look at my life and seek out the lies I may be overlooking.

    I love the tension in this post. You’ve articulated being in the *messy middle* of the journey so beautifully.

  3. Donna-Jean Brown says:

    Sorry to get to this so late but I hope that you, at least, will see it, Heather. Thankyou for describing this pernicious evil within the church and doing your part to eradicate it. I know that your own brave healing will continue, because God is so tender, wise and faithful to each of us if we will just take the silent time to listen. With love to all of my sisters who have suffered within the church where we are supposed to find safety and encouragement.

  4. Heather, I read this yesterday, but was unable to comment due to a massive internet fail. So I just HAD to come back today because of the vulnerability in your words. You, my dear, are a woman in process. And while this is true in every area of our lives for our entire journey on this round ball called Earth, I think we feel it especially in certain times and places. I sense you are being led in this season to what is behind you to begin to reframe it through truth’s lens. This is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. Especially when the truth is hard. And especially when we have survived such traumas as the ones you have described through our fabrications of denial. Please remember, as you work through this pain, that the fantasies you made up about your “happy youth group experience” served a purpose for you at the time. No, they are not the whole picture. Yes, it’s good for you to acknowledge that now (because you’re stronger perhaps … and ready). But who knows if facing that truth would have been too much for you in your younger days. Who knows but that your survival skills in creating a reality that didn’t exist were just what you needed to … well, to survive. Be kind to that young woman on that grey carpet who was doing the best she could with what she had. She needs your compassion as much as your correction, dear friend.

    • Oh, Kelli, I’m glad to have you standing beside me, and I am sorry this piece sounds so familiar to you. You are so right–I can have abundant grace for that girl I was. The first draft of my piece was hard on her, and I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working until I saw I was not being kind and graceful with myself. I felt so much better when I wrote past that and found more empowerment and love. So many of these things are journeys, no? To grow in my sense of truth, and also my sense of self-care and kindness. Father, lead us!
      As for being in process, I am all process right now. I am sort of distracted and vague all the time 🙂

      • Thank you, dear one, for taking that comment the way I meant it: kindly. I rethought it later and wondered if I came on too strong. Pushy-like. Even if I did, I appreciate you hearing my heart behind the words. Every blessing, Heather.

  5. pastordt says:

    Are you kidding me, Heather?? He’s STILL in youth ministry? I just do not understand this and I never will. It happened in our youth group, too – I guess I should say, my kids’ youth group. And I argued loudly in the pastor’s office that believing in grace and forgiveness did not necessarily entail re-establishing that person in the very place where such failure had happened. It’s a bit like asking a recovering alcoholic to serve as bar-tender at the social – crazy-making. So, so sorry to read this – again.

    • Yes, Diana, it’s shocking, isn’t it? I am realizing that there are a lot of forces conspiring to allow the NOT NORMAL to become acceptable. It feels crazy to question it, right up until everything starts seeming freeing and empowering 🙂
      You asked me a few months ago what the church would need to do for me to stop feeling so alienated from and cynical about it. At the time, I couldn’t answer very well, but THIS. THIS is what the church needs to take care of, be real about, and confront with all the fury of Jesus in the temple.

  6. Jule B says:

    Excellent, timely, vital, valuable article!!

    YES, this behavior is far too common in the church and para-church ministry organizations … for me personally, been there, experienced that! The tendency is ‘cover it up’, bury it, hide it, pretend it never happened and doesn’t / didn’t exist. SHAME drives us under-ground! It YELLS at us accusingly; YOU are defective and inferior; YOU caused this, there is something wrong with YOU!! When, in truth, there is NOTHING wrong with YOU but definitely something wrong with the abuser.

    Scripture admonishes us to ‘expose the fruitless deeds of darkness’ … we all become as “sick as our secrets” meaning, what you hide, deny, cover-up, keep hidden … will poison YOU and keep you very toxic and sick….

    I became courageous and brave and spoke out about the abuse I experienced in a para-church organization … and I will continue to speak out. It is not my job to protect predators .. this enables them to continue their abuse. God tells me to EXPOSE fruitless deeds of darkness …

    IF you have had abuse happen especially if you were under the age of 18, please consider reporting it to a sexual assault center where sharing is SAFE … abusers need to be held accountable for their abuse. Social and human service workers are MANDATED REPORTERS as are sunday school teachers, youth pastors, pastors, and anyone in any position dealing with vulnerable children, youth, young adults and the elderly….

    SPEAK OUT …. it takes courage and boldness but I can assure you, the freedom you will experience and the sickness you will avoid within yourself is priceless….

    • Thanks, Julie. I feel like it’s a little easy for me, who didn’t experience the abuse directly, to urge people to come forward. So I’m glad you did it 🙂
      I’m so thankful that you’ve been freed and empowered to help others.

      • Jule B says:

        I am grateful to be free and empowered, but it took a LOT of years to get here because women were shut down.

        I learned the FEAR ( False Evidence Appearing Real) is a LIE … push through it and come forth with your story to people who are safe and can do something about what happened. Consider that stats are: 1 in 3 women will have been sexually assaulted/molested by the time they are 18 …. 1-6 boys – THIS is unacceptable !!!

        Abuse thrives on DONT see, DONT speak, DONT, think, DONT feel and definitely DONT tell…. then we become as sick as the secrets we keep…

        Anyone reading this PLEASE consider speaking out … God WILL provide you strength and courage! And this will enable others to be brave and come forward as well 🙂 You DIDNT cause it …. regardless of what they told you …

        • false evidence appearing real. Love this. The funhouse aspect of abuse is the one that sticks around the longest, I think–at least for me–that weird sense that you can’t tell what’s up and what’s down.

          • Jule B says:

            I understand all too well …. hocus pocus change the focus is how the tune is played …. predators are master manipulators and work their spell casting upon the victim like a cobra eyes their prey before striking … I pray God exposes ALL fruitless deeds of darkness for all involved! Light has a way of cleansing ….

  7. Bev Murrill says:

    Heather, I love this –

    There are different levels of knowing, of accepting, of owning the
    truth. When truth is painful, I’ve found, it’s something you have to
    grapple with over and over. It is never swallowed whole. There is a
    faithful bravery that’s necessary as we slowly take in the entirety of
    what hurts us.

    I’m speaking to a group of church pastors on Saturday and I’m going to quote what you’ve said here. So powerful and so necessary to be heard.

    When I was in the terrible/wonderful first church we got saved into as adults, our pastor was scathing of ‘quiet time’, saying it was something only ‘Baptists’ did… I didn’t know anything about Baptists, but his very way of saying it made me think I didnt’ want to know either. And so… with a stroke of evil genius… he kept all of us new Christians from developing the habitual daily relationship with God which is so empowering… and it’s a hard habit to get hold of later in your Christian life…

    HOw awful that it just takes some evil person to represent Christ and damn things like worship and time with God, to keep us from the strength and encouragement those things bring. {Praise God you finally broke free… and me too.

    • Oh, Bev, I’m honored. Thanks for telling me. Yes, it’s awful that these wolves in shepherd’s clothing are given authority over us. I am going to rebuke that authority, though, and stand on my own two feet.

  8. Anne-Marie says:

    There is a faithful bravery that’s necessary as we slowly take in the entirety of what hurts us. – heather so lovely! Tho so awful too. Hoping writing this out was a step. And glad that the route to yr heart is being bathed in song. Thanks for this!

    • Thanks, Anne-Marie. I love that we can take this awful stuff and make art out of it. It’s such an amazing force of God’s creative power, no?
      Writing about this is so amazingly powerful and hard. I am so thankful to have this venue to share in.

  9. Nicole A. Joshua says:

    I am horrified that that youth leader is still in ministry, and with you I pray that justice be done. Good on you for speaking your truth! Your courage inspires me Heather, and your words encased in the quotes are just what I need as I work through hard stuff now. Thank you so much.

  10. Claire De Boer cjdeboer says:

    Heather this post is so insightful. I love how you speak about truth being something we need to peel back gradually – like the laters of an onion. I’m so glad you named this truth – it is the beginning to disarming its power.

    • Thanks, Claire. My first draft of this post was a lot less graceful with myself–I was so angry that I had not been brutally honest with myself from the get-go. But I’m seeing that it’s simply too much to take in, and we have to give ourselves to grow in response to hard truth-telling. I can approach truth as a journey instead of a single aha! moment. It’s so much more kind to myself and others.

  11. I was swept up in your story. My heart aches for what happened to you and your friend, Heather.

    Also: I am angry that the youth leader is still leading. This story is now becoming all too familiar.

    I appreciate how you’ve grappled with your story and are finding your own truth within Truth.

    • Thanks, Idelette. Yeah, it’s stunning that this isn’t an unusual story, isn’t it? So brutally stunning. When we stand up and proclaim that this is not OKAY, this is not NORMAL maybe it will stop being so everyday.

  12. jim hancock says:

    You remind me of an old preacher who said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you flinch before it sets you free.” Thank you, Heather, for bending the arc of this particular history toward justice.

    • Thank you Jim. That means a lot to me!
      I have never loved that verse “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” but sometimes we need to stop being peaceful about stuff. Sometimes, we need to flinch.

  13. I love you, Heather.

  14. Phew, this is a powerful post Heather. “Becoming authentically, powerfully me is the first step to always and forever justice.” You nailed it.

  15. Carolynne Melnyk says:

    A moving story Heather! When we find our authentic voice and speak the truths we have been hiding things begin to change. It is not always easy but so important. Keep being authentic and speaking the truth that is the only way to reveal injustices. It is only too bad this person is still out there in a position to injury others.

  16. Saskia Wishart says:

    “When truth is painful, I’ve found, it’s something you have to grapple with over and over. It is never swallowed whole.” That line, so much depth there.

  17. I never cared for the idea behind the phrase “name it and claim it” but you’ve gave that new perspective to me, Heather. You are naming and claiming truth, freedom, justice. Tragically beautiful. (I have to add I agree with Libby’s comments that I hope this person has been removed from any place in youth ministry.)

    • Yes, thank you, Debby. The truth does indeed set us free.
      I pray he can be removed. I am so glad to wake up and realize I have power to influence this. It’s amazing how when we’ve been wounded as a kid, we stay in that position of vulnerability and helplessness so easily.

  18. Libby Parker says:

    I am sure I am missing the whole point of this but it disturbs me, deeply, that he is still in Youth Ministry and that fact was just so quickly brushed over. God in heaven, please tell me, by now, someone has said something to someone in power over this man!

    • No, you’re not missing the point. People in power (at the various churches he’s been at after ours) have been notified, and they have done _nothing_ (this grieves me so terribly). I’m going to be involved the next go-around when we notify his current church. Let’s pray for a better result.
      It’s funny, I really felt helpless about this for a long time; now I’m realizing I’m not. It’s scary to engage with this, but it’s a heck of a lot better than being passive.

  19. Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk says:

    Thank you, Heather. This resonates on so many levels that I can’t quite take it in. Thank you, though for affirming the long, slow, layered process of healing. I will remember your phrase, “faithful bravery.”

  20. Heather, this post is so full of truth. I really connected when you talked about your struggle with worship music. I went through stages of it in my life. When I was little my mom listened to old praise music/ccm like Sandi Patti, Carmen, Twila Paris, Steve Green, Stephen Curtis Chapman, and more. Then around the age of 10 our community shifted to being that of extremely conservative homeschooling families. So for the next six years or so I would come to believe that all CCM that had any sort of drum beat in it was evil. Worship music compared to hymns were shallow and too emotional. But then around the age of 16, my family moved into different church circles that largely embraced contemporary and modern worship music, and once I was convinced it wasn’t music of the devil anymore, I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the freedom I felt to let the emotions and deep connection I have always felt with music show. So for the next five years I dove in and worship became my favorite part of church — from arms raised high, to dancing, to jumping, to kneeling, to standing there with tears streaming down my face — music took me to a place with God I could not get enough of. Until it didn’t anymore. Until burnout, questions, hurt from other christians both in college and from my childhood caught up with me, until I couldn’t ignore the truth anymore. Suddenly what once was so inviting, became a haunting reminder. Anytime I would turn music on it would bring waves of emotion that were too scary and too painful — so I began to avoid it like the plague. Since then I have had a love/hate relationship with it. I swear music has a secret door straight to my soul. Sometimes I can turn it on and I feel comforted, or nostalgic, or even refreshed and inspired. Other times it is still too painful. Sometimes like you said, now it sounds cheesy and repetitive, while other times it takes my breath away with its simple truths. I wonder if I will ever not have such a tumultuous relationship with it?

    Perhaps though it is just a smaller picture of my faith at large. I used to think my faith always had to be good, always had to be perfect, always had to have an answer for everything, always had to be full of heartfelt emotion — except I can now look back and see where that mindset pushed me to a never ending performance and exhausting life of comparing my faith’s expression to other’s around me and never measuring up. It also meant often denying the truth and being honest about when I was hurting or had questions. In fact, it was really only in leaving my active church life that I finally found the courage to face the pain of that truth. I don’t know what my experiences with church and with worship music will continue to look like from now, but I hope if nothing else I continue to learn how to be more genuine about both my faith and my worship — no matter how messy and uncertain it seems.


  1. […] And then, three years ago, writing about my high school experience for the first time, I realized I hadn’t been fully honest with myself. […]

  2. […] why. Back when I was in high school, some really bad crap happened at my church involving a) sexual abuse in my youth group (which was not prosecuted because […]

  3. […] of habit, I was a creature of anxiety. Growing up, ugly surprises happened over and over and over. I had little control over the forces that tore apart my family, pecked at my faith, hurt those I […]

  4. […] was another thing eating away at my tether to the beanstalk: I’d experienced spiritual abuse at this church in high school because of a toxic youth leader. He and the other leaders responsible were gone, so […]

  5. […] was another thing eating away at my tether to the beanstalk: I’d experienced spiritual abuse at this church in high school because of a toxic youth leader. He and the other leaders responsible were gone, so […]

  6. […] But it was also more public. I made appointments with safe leaders at my church to talk about their handling of the past, and their experience of it. I started addressing the subject on my blog and elsewhere. […]

  7. […] Easier to stay positive if I hadn’t figured out exactly how sexual assault happened in my high school youth group. […]

  8. […] Easier to stay positive if I hadn’t figured out exactly how sexual assault happened in my high school youth group. […]

  9. […] been thinking about scars lately. I shared a few weeks ago that I’ve been dealing with the abuse my friend and I suffered in youth group. I was surprised […]

  10. […] now I realize, of course, that Christian Things just had a lot of baggage for me for good reason, and that it wasn’t either Jerusha’s or my […]

  11. […] last conversation I had with my old youth pastor. I was in college. I did not yet know that he had raped my best friend, but I did know that as he exited our church, he tried to do as much damage as he could. Not just […]

  12. […] after we returned to California, Jesus showed me the roots of my bitterness. I fully understood the spiritual abuse I’d suffered two decades ago. Reckoning with that darkness wasn’t pretty. It did not ‘plug me […]

  13. […] through worship, sometimes the lyrics don’t sit well with me. Too easy, too trite. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to slough off enough cynicism to […]

  14. […] am a feminist because my best friend in high school was sexually abused by our youth pastor. I am a feminist because other people I love have been victimized too. I am a feminist because the […]

  15. […] But it was also more public. I made appointments with safe leaders at my church to talk about their handling of the past, and their experience of it. I started addressing the subject on my blog and elsewhere. […]

  16. […] That first encounter with God’s Word made me think the Bible was unambiguous. That it was something I’d read like an Agatha Christie mystery. That nothing in it could ever be used against me. […]

  17. […] I talked to my pastor about high school and felt like he—and one of our associate pastors—treated me with respect and empathy, I […]

  18. […] been thinking about scars lately. I shared a few weeks ago that I’ve been dealing with the abuse my friend and I suffered in youth group. I was […]

  19. […] And it’s also the place where my best friend got raped in high school, repeatedly, over the course of two years. While a high-level leader (who is no longer there) helped cover it up. It’s where I–and my closest friends–experienced three years of spiritual abuse at the hands of my f…. […]

  20. […] a spiritual abuse survivor. I have realized I’m crazy in love with Jesus, but the church in all its churchiness makes me […]

  21. […] as I thought about what “abuse” means, I bent down and looked harder at my past. I saw that I had been abused, witnessed abuse, been part of abusive systems. I survived the abuse […]

  22. […] a spiritual abuse survivor. I have realized I’m crazy in love with Jesus, but the church in all its churchiness makes me […]

  23. […] hard. Oh, this topic is still raw, but I can’t NOT write about it right now. Won’t you join me over at SheLoves to read the […]

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