On Liars, Church People, and the Church

The ministry I do online with kids continues, but it’s suffered a rather severe blow this week.

It turns out that Bethany — about whom I wrote about here, and here, and here — wasn’t real. Or rather, nothing she told me about her life was real. She lied. About almost everything. Beginning with her name. I won’t say how I found out, only that I did. (I am a journalist, and I’ve got mad Internet search skills, and when I go digging, I find what I’m looking for, or I know why I haven’t.) I was always a little suspicious given the sheer and unending amount of violence in her life. After one of the foster couples she claimed enslaved and pimped her out was arrested in 2016, I did a public record search with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services — which oversees the state’s foster care system — and was told there was no record they had ever been licensed foster parents. After that, there was always a little doubt in my mind, especially given that I’d caught her in several big lies previously.

I’m waiting the results of a few more public records searches, just to see what I can find out. I’m not expecting the records I have asked for to exist, however.

This might not be a big deal — she’s just one teenage girl, right? — and none of it appears to have been malicious. But she was part of my life for 18 months, and she became very important to me. When Bethany stopped texting me in January, the ministry work dropped off to nothing, leading me to think that much of the work I’d done was this one young woman pretending to be various different other young women in dire need. So, at this point, I have no idea what was real and what wasn’t.

I know Kaylie’s real. And I believe her story — I’ve seen her nightmares, I met her and spent time with her and I trust what she tells me. But there’s a whole host of kids I’ve texted with that I can no longer trust or know how real they were. For example, Bethany was one of only two people (along with Francisco Herrera) who could quote my book to me, and two text exchanges I had with “two” young women in February and March involved these young women, in two very different ways, quoting my book to me. Could be coincidence, but it seems a stretch. So… Bethany?

I don’t know. I’ll likely never know.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, I accept the risk of anonymous ministry online means I’m going to get played, for whatever reason, at least a time or two or three or five. As I said, I have no idea what Bethany’s motivations were — they don’t appear to have been malicious, and if I have to guess, she got in over her head and didn’t know how to simply walk away and was too afraid to fess up. Second, and this has always been my greatest fear, that the whole enterprise I’ve engaged in has been a lie. That none of it was real, that much of the purpose and point of my life in the last two years has itself been a complete and absolute lie, some 14-year-old girl’s strange game or entertainment.

And yet it continues. I don’t think it was all Bethany. Some of it was real.

I’ve been texting this week with a 10-year-old. I have assurances that she is real — since Kaylie started at Job Corps, some of the young people there have texted me, and shared my number, and this young woman contacted me earlier this week got my number that way. Yes, she’s using TextNow to contact me (I always check), so could be texting me from anywhere. At this point, I can’t help but wonder if whoever is texting me isn’t Bethany pretending to be someone else. It’s just where I start.

Still, I engage. I won’t stop. I care for these kids. It means I’ll get played a few more times. I don’t like that idea, but I can live with it.

And we had this conversation this morning:

Her: Hi.
Me: How are you this morning?
Her: I can’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep all night
Me: I’m sorry. I’ve had nights like that. I slept okay last night
Her: That’s good. My mom wants me to go to church with her today but I don’t want to.
Me: Okay
Her: Church is full of stuck up self righteous people who think they are so amazing and try to tear you down if you admit to not believing the lies they try to force down your throat like cough medicine.
Me: That’s one way to look at it. I’m sorry church people have treated you so badly. I don’t like church people much either.
Her: They all need a big scoop of Jesus in their lives. Or an awakening. Jesus himself could show up and be like, what the heck is wrong with you?
Me: Yep
Her: People would still not care
Me: Nope. They’d probably be mad at Jesus. Tell him he was a bad Christian.
Her: Probably

I realize I’ve spent the first half of this essay completely discrediting my ministry, so I suppose any conclusions that flow from this “conversation” are suspect, but let’s take it at face value for a minute.

There’s an interesting truth about the church in this conversation. An abused 10-year-old — because yes, as a general rule, abused and autistic kids are the only ones who contact me, assuming anyone who contacts me is real at this point — knows the difference between who Jesus is and how the church lives out its call to follow Jesus. And the church doesn’t even begin to measure up to Jesus, fails spectacularly and utterly and stunningly to be Jesus.

And that the church needs Jesus. To keep it from being something other than self-righteous, judgmental, cruel, and abusive.

I’ve found the churches here in Moses Lake to be tiny little family clubs, suspicious of and terribly unwelcoming to outsiders. I realize strangers and guests have much to prove, but I’ve been a stranger and guest my whole life, and I’m tired of trying to prove anything to people who refuse to meet me in any meaningful way. I’ve found more welcome and belonging, more acceptance and camaraderie, at the local dive bar — The Hang Out, if you must know — then I have in any church I have been in since Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia.

I love worship. I love leading worship. I love preaching and singing and living the Gospel. I love caring for people. Few things make me feel whole, like I am being exactly who God made to be, the way pastoring does. But I simply do not know what to do with church people anymore. I know I am not sanctified enough for either bourgeois pietists or followers of the prosperity gospel (and there’s a lot of overlap there, even among progressives), not clean enough, not a good enough example of right living, but I do try to love my neighbor, to be Jesus and to meet Jesus. I try to bear witness to the truth as I can.

But none of this ever seems to be enough for church people. And I don’t know why.

My young friend had locked herself in her bedroom (though for other reasons), and that seems to me to be a really good idea. I might want to put the phone down while I’m at it and maybe lock it away too.

However, it’s a nice day outside. Too nice to hide from the world.

But I have a question maybe someone out there will answer. Anyone else in the Moses Lake area tired of church people, but aching to be part of the people of God, and looking for a place to hear a word of Grace and Truth, to meet Jesus? Can we start something?

Because I want to start something. I don’t want to be with church people, but I do want to be with the people of God.

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