An American expat talks about faith, Stockholm syndrome, and how a country can become your church.
I once saw a photograph my sister took of a family who attended her new church in suburban Maryland. It was a beautiful portrait: four kids, smiling wife with porcelain skin, and serious, strong-jawed husband.
This was years ago.
More recently, when I heard what had happened to them, I remembered that photograph, and wondered all the usual things. They were so beautiful, had so much integrity, and the autumnal light pouring down the contours of their faces and soft clothing looked like a material portent of God’s blessing on their future.
But, in remembering, I recalled what I’d thought about the husband’s eyes. That they were hiding, facing the lens unwillingly.
“He doesn’t like cameras,” I’d thought at the time. “He’s shy.”
“I’m already blushing…” he says to me. “It’s kind of weird that you think my story would be interesting.”
Within moments of remembering the traces of Kerrin’s story, all of which I heard third-hand from people who weren’t there and didn’t know him personally, I’ve found him on Facebook and asked if I could interview him for this project. Fully expecting a brusque denial, I’m surprised to find myself on the phone with him a few days later.
In only a couple of days more, I’ll have people telling me I shouldn’t talk to Kerrin, that I shouldn’t write this story at all, or at least shouldn’t publish it. When I ask why, they won’t say he’s crazy, but they won’t say he’s lying, either. They revert back to saying that they love him, that they tried to stop him, that they still are in contact with him. It’s just not good to give him an audience, they say. It will only encourage his frame of mind about everything that happened.
I ask if anybody listened to him in the first place. I don’t want to ask this outright, but I wonder if things might not have gone to their present extreme, if people hadn’t been so afraid to encourage Kerrin.
I ask whether there might be some good in at least having his experience heard and documented by someone outside the situation. If it isn’t true, and everyone knows it, what possible harm can it do?
The conversation usually ends there. Maybe because they think I’m right. Or maybe because they’ve given up on me, too.
When Kerrin was very young–no older than 8–his Sunday school teacher told a story, complete with feltboard, about the ways Jesus displayed love during his life. (The part about his death was saved for a future lesson.)
“I know there’s different theological ways of describing this, as an experience; I personally describe it as a spiritual awakening. However you want to characterize [it,] I personally just knew that the story of his love attracted me at a young age.”
His introduction to heavier theological issues came from a different church, which his family joined when he was about 14. Following a series of lessons on heaven and hell, and who went where, Kerrin recalls having more of a “salvation experience,” complete with a sense of his soul’s security.
Around the same time, he began to notice the censure that fell on those who didn’t submit to the wisdom of church leaders. He describes an incident from that same high school youth group―a girl got pregnant, she and her boyfriend were counseled to split up, they chose instead to get married.
“What transpired after that was pretty strange. All their friends were told not to support them, not to go to their wedding. Except one of the youth pastors disagreed with that; he didn’t vocalize this to everybody, but I got word of it, somehow. Not long after, that pastor was removed from office.”
That much in life is empty and worthless, people certainly do know, but how frequently the single individual makes an exception, and even the highest mission in the spiritual world is only an errand…
As an adult, Kerrin was promoted by the church leaders into positions of increasing trust. He was put in charge of a small group. He was selected for training as a pastor. He married the daughter of one of the church’s principal leaders.
At that time, the church Kerrin attended was to its sister churches like Hyannis Port was to 1960s America. Even from the small church I attended on the other side of the country, I knew who he was. I could even pick him out in the worship band lineup, the time I visited his church during my sophomore year in college.
I remember thinking that he looked as though he was somehow protecting himself, bent with a rueful smile over his guitar, his face half-averted from the congregation.
I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me. But I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself.
Sometime between 2003 and 2005 is when Kerrin reckons he began to disagree with certain practices and beliefs followed by his church. He kept these disagreements mostly to himself; when he did express them, it was exclusively in the company of close friends, and in a tone that left doubt as to how serious he was.
“I think it may have been, without thinking about it, sort of a coping mechanism: to say things that would surprise people, things that I think everyone else is thinking but no one wants to say.
“I think the people that I was closest to, they understood that it was just fun. But I think in some ways it did isolate me, it being a different thing from the norm.”
Kerrin perceived a pattern in the church’s culture that a lack of cheerful submission to church authority or advice was viewed as spiritual failure, and that such people were treated as problems to be fixed.
“So I kept a lot to myself, because who really wants to be with [someone who is] being different all the time?”
We do not judge you for doubting, because doubt is a crafty passion, and it can certainly be difficult to tear oneself out of its snares. What we require of the doubter is that he be silent. That doubt did not make him happy–why then confide to others what will make them just as unhappy.
Apparently, Kerrin didn’t have a knack for self-concealment. Over time, his dissatisfaction with the church began to show through. To make matters worse, the discussions that he had thought were confidential among his friends were broached by church leaders, who seemed to have a lot at stake in resolving his doubts.
His resentment at the breach of confidence, and his unwillingness to read the books and meet with the theologians they recommended to help him, was viewed as pride and stubbornness.
“I think what was being asked of me was to explicitly trust the leaders and everything they do. Theologically, I thought they were out of line. They’re just men; I’m not going to give them my explicit trust. I’m a free-thinking person.
“I think that’s more where some of these fundamentalist or hyper-authoritarian groups go wrong. You can see it all the way into how they parent. You were expected to obey right away, with a cheerful heart. The natural process of learning from your own mistakes is taken away.”
Rather than simply dismiss Kerrin along with his contrarian views, the church continued to press their point. Private conversations with his wife were referenced by his in-laws; words he had spoken with friends were recalled in meetings with pastors. A coworker who also attended his church was the first to tell him that he was being targeted for church discipline.
If all of this seems extremely odd, it seemed less odd to me than the fact that Kerrin continued to attend the church.
“That’s certainly a good question. I think for me, my personality, I value friendships and I value people.”
“I can be an ass, I can be sarcastic, and rude, and a passionate debater. But obviously, there were people I associated with for a long time, and had personal affection for. I think I valued the relationships enough to stick it out.”
There was also the familiar nature of the church culture–nurturing and caring, maybe to excess.
“It’s a mentality that gets engrained in your thinking, that they provided everything you need for a life, and everything that they’ve provided is good, and everything outside of that is bad. Maybe they saved you from somebody you don’t want to be.
“I think it’s scary to be who you are, especially if it’s different than a big support structure. I think because you’re taking ownership of your life, right? Then you have to support yourself.”
“Be that self which one truly is” was the injunction of famed pietistic anarchist Søren Kierkegaard. I keep going back to his story, the more I hear of Kerrin’s. I don’t know enough of Kerrin’s former church to say how much it parallels the Danish church of the mid-1800s. To be sure, Kierkegaard’s methods of protest weren’t impeccable, to say nothing of his crippling self-analysis. He wasn’t completely right, but neither was the church he was standing against.
I’m not trying to paint Kerrin as a romantic intellectual or a poet-philosopher. I think we sometimes get painted into that corner, when we insist on being loved on the terms of who we are, instead of who we become. Depending on the context, this insistence gets called stubborness, or stiff-neckedness, or dramatism or narcissism or emotionalism, or lack of submission, or insubordination, or heresy. It might, in fact, be all of those things. But I don’t think those qualities are any worse than compliance for fear of being labeled with them.
“While thinking about how to leave, one of the things I concluded might be an easy out would be to go on a ‘church plant.’ That would at least get me away…and provide a different environment for my children to grow up in; perhaps I’d have more autonomy…”
One of Kerrin’s friends was earmarked as the pastor of this church plant; Kerrin was slated to be an elder. But as they began to seriously plan for the move, more of Kerrin’s disagreements with the guiding doctrines surfaced.
“I don’t think they knew what hit them, because I kept so much quiet for so long.”
The doctrinal disagreements became relational disputes, making him more desperate for escape, even as another escape route was walled off.
A man who for a long time has gone around hiding a secret becomes mentally deranged. At this point one would imagine that his secret would have to come out, but despite his derangement his soul still sticks to its hideout, and those around him become even more convinced that the false story he told to deceive them is the truth.
“Depending on who you…”
“Talking about stress is perhaps not politically acceptable. But to me [it’s] a very real thing. They’re very real life pressures that were debilitating. It’s similar to PTSD in somebody who’d been to battle–it’s just psychologically the things that happen to somebody when there’s so much fighting…”
During a business trip, Kerrin recalls, he was walking down the hallway to his hotel room when he had a sudden panic attack that all his church friends and family would be waiting for him behind the door.
“There came a point where the thought of death was the only one that was comforting, in any way.”
Kerrin hastens to add that he wasn’t actually suicidal.
However, the stress he felt was taking a significant toll on his work performance. He was given an ultimatum—he could either bring his performance up to prescribed standards within 45 days (or be fired), or he could leave right away with severance. Petrified by the idea of being under more scrutiny, he chose to take the severance and leave his job.
He also stopped paying his mortgage, in an attempt to save as much cash as he could against his lost income.
He began to visit other churches, including those outside what would be considered orthodox or biblical Christianity.
But real relief didn’t present itself until Kerrin came up with the idea of leaving the country. His dual citizenship in the UK, with its more promising job market and an ocean’s distance from his church environment, made emigration a very appealing plan of escape, even if it was extreme.
“For me personally, it was something I had to do to get away. There was something symbolic and tangible about distancing myself from that environment and all the pressures that went with it.”
All I know is the more people from your social group come at me, the more they pull at me and tell me what I’m doing wrong or they patronize me, the more distrusting I become and the greater sense of isolation and dismay I have. I’ve asked you, and others, repeatedly to let me have space to figure things out in my own way. But you, and others, continue to dishonor my wishes, increasing my isolation, distrust, and sense that I am being discounted.
(email from Kerrin to a church leader)
Kerrin is unwilling to say much about the breakdown of his relationship with his wife. He admits to feeling as if she was more married to her family and the church than she was to him. Their views on biblical doctrine, parenting, and most other important co-relational issues widely diverged. Eventually, they stopped communicating at all. Many church friends came to him with their concerns on this issue–“I would say meddling;” it only drove him further away.
“Trust was broken there, so I was very stunted in what I would communicate [about] what I was planning, and what I told her. I wanted to just remove all of it, you know, and try and salvage, or start again.”
Nonetheless, as he constructed his plans to emigrate, he also consulted with a lawyer about how his plan of leaving the country might be used against him in a divorce case. He had seen other couples encouraged toward divorce when one chose to break with the church and the other didn’t.
“The thing is, I knew she was listening to whatever her parents told her. I knew her parents enough to know that in this case, they would probably tell her to leave the marriage. My thought was ‘Okay, this will be another case I could use to…'”
He doesn’t elaborate.
In March of 2010, Kerrin told his wife about his plan to seek employment in the UK, and that he hoped to bring their family to join him there within a year of securing a job.
“It didn’t go over well, as you would imagine.”
A month later, he told her that he was moving forward with his plan, and she and the kids should move in with her parents.
The day after she did so, Kerrin was visited by a private investigator and served with a court summons for divorce. The grounds were constructive desertion and mental cruelty.
“In some ways, I kind of anticipated it. I didn’t expect it to transpire like that. I didn’t expect it to happen that quickly. It’s one thing to kind of anticipate something, but when it’s actually happening, it hurts you more.”
The court summons gave him thirty days to respond. Instead, he left the country.
I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.
Kerrin stayed with old family friends in Scotland. To old friends who asked if he was attending church, he answered that Scotland was his church.
“And they would say, ‘Oh, you’re going to the Church of Scotland? Well, they believe this, this and this.’ And I’d say, ‘No, Scotland is my church.’ In terms of a place of solace and refuge.”
While there, Kerrin spent $4000 on an attorney to advise him, and found that a custody battle was likely to cost him $20,000, plus whatever injunction the court had against him for failing to appear. If he lost the case, he would also be liable for back payments of child support.
Shall I then publish my grief to the world, contribute one more proof for the wretchedness and misery of existence, perhaps discover a new flaw in human life, hitherto unnoticed? I might then reap the rare reward of becoming famous, like the man who discovered the spots on Jupiter.
Kerrin suggested a mediation lawyer as a less expensive and intense way to deal with the separation and custody, but he says the suggestion wasn’t received. Additionally, he was told that his kids didn’t want to talk to him.
In response, he wrote an angry and eloquent screed detailing his experience, and published it on a blog popular with those who also had left his former church with similar grievances. He also began to send weekly emails to his wife and in-laws, persisting in being allowed to talk to his kids.
“At this point, they had used emails I had sent against me. If I could show that they were trying to keep me from the kids, I could use that in court against them.”
The family allowed him a weekly Skype session, but over the holidays it petered out into first and third weeks.
“That sucks.But that’s where it is right now.”
Never cease loving a person, and never give up hope for him, for even the prodigal son who had fallen most low, could still be saved; the bitterest enemy and also he who was your friend could again be your friend; love that has grown cold can kindle.
The strange thing about Greek tragedies is that if someone had said something, they could have all ended with a relieved laugh, instead of catastrophe. The real inevitability intrinsic to tragedy is really just the principle of human nature, that waits for someone else to make the first move.
In the wake of all that’s been suffered by Kerrin, his family and his friends, I wonder if they all are content with having it end this way. If it were possible for them to reconcile without $20,000, for his relationship with his wife to be repaired, to find a church somewhere that had no affiliation with his former church, I wonder if he would he want to return to the life he enjoyed before it all fell apart?
“Based on the things that have transpired, at this point, no. I’ve made the conditions known, that they haven’t responded to. Throughout the process of, it felt like there was no acknowledgment of wrongdoing. So it’s hard for me to say yeah, I want to be with, with… It’s not really an appealing thing to go back to.
“My kids, and survival, are more important than any thing or relationship in the world.”
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.
Kerrin continues to look for a finance job, in London as well as in Edinburgh. (He would prefer London, which he finds more lively and friendly.) Prone to depression, he tries to spend as much time as possible socializing with people he meets, mainly through online meetups. He says that he suspends his thoughts of grief against the time when, with an income and a home of his own, he can actually do something constructive about them.
He still talks occasionally to one or two friends from the former church. Several more breakdowns in its leadership have taken place since he left. At first, this gave him hope that others would finally understand his point of view. Which, it must be admitted, has been tempered somewhat by distance. He is less inclined to label the whole operation a cult.
“I would say it has cultic tendencies. My understanding of these things is there’s a spectrum. You put Jim Jones and David Koresh on the one end, and something that’s completely the opposite of a cult…I can’t think what that would be.
“Freedom, I guess.”
He laughs, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve heard him do that.
You wanted God’s ideas about what was best for you to coincide with your ideas, but you also wanted him to be the almighty Creator of heaven and earth so that he could properly fulfill your wish. And yet, if he were to share your ideas, he would cease to be the almighty Father.
Despite having his faith and salvation questioned by his formative spiritual leaders, Kerrin never doubted that for himself.
“It never crossed my mind to question that part of me. I think I was always sincere in my personal faith. There were times when I questioned my sanity. I had to strip away a lot of the Christian junk that I had evolved with, and kind of went back to that first day, what attracted me to the faith in the first place.”
Kerrin says his experience of that love, which he recognized as a child, was most effectively communicated through others.
“I don’t know–I think the most tangible expression of it is with other people displaying similar love as Jesus did. An unconditional love, a love that goes after the outcast, acceptance, a lack of…not a lack of judgment, but acceptance. I think I experience that most with other people. Gospel people.”
Without many people in his life right now to communicate God’s love to him, at any rate intentionally, Kerrin’s interaction with God contained, as he says, “elements of good and bad.”
“I was as honest as I could be at that time. There was part of me that was angry…a big part of me that was angry. [I] kind of had to intellectually work my way around that.”
His current views on biblical authority are influenced somewhat by his anger at how the church leaders used the Bible to justify practices he believed wrong. As a spiritual relationship, one word stands out in his description of where he’s at now.
“[In] a real relationship, there’s give and take. I think there’s only one way to have a conversation with God, which is honest, and evolving to be more and more honest. I think honesty is the best way to live your life. “
If you had loved people then the earnestness of life might have taught you not to be strident but to become silent, and when you were in distress at sea and did not see land, then at least not to involve others in it; it might have taught you to smile at least as long as long as you believed anyone sought in your face an explanation, a witness.
All quotes from works by Søren Kierkegaard