This week, we are diving into a much-requested topic: talking about our conservative evangelical upbringing. I’m up first, and Emma will share her story next month. This is a tough subject to share so lots of tears are shed, but I hope you enjoy this episode!
You can stream the episode here on the blog or on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, TuneIn, Pocket Casts, and Stitcher. You can find the podcast posts archive here.
-The statement from the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and the link to his documentary.
-Hillary Clinton Podcast episode, Faith.
-Check out this post to hear Emma’s evangelical upbringing story!
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Miss an episode? Get caught up!
- Episode #74: (BONUS) Change Your Career with Ramit Sethi
- Episode #73: Home Project To-Do List
- Episode #72: What To Expect When EMMA’S EXPECTING!
Episode 75 Transcript
Elsie: You’re listening to the A Beautiful Mess podcast. This week, we’re starting a two part series about our evangelical Christian upbringing. This is the first episode where I, Elsie, share my story, which is traumatic and hurtful, but also just bonkers at certain parts. It’s vulnerable and we truly hope that it helps someone or is just interesting and a new perspective that maybe you haven’t heard of before. So in many ways, these stories shaped our lives and who we are today. And we’re excited to jump in and share this with you.
Emma: We’ve kind of mentioned that we were going to do these episodes and we, you know, decided to break them up into like Elsie’s story in my story. And really, you’ll see that some of them are kind of similar because we did go to the same church and we’re a similar age and all that. But I think we both have a lot of anxiety around sharing around it, one, because it’s vulnerable. But two, I just feel nervous, to…I would never want to take away from somebody else’s experience when I’m sharing my own. You know, I just want to share my story. And I think you feel similar, but there’s a lot of anxiety there because I think people can take things the wrong way or, I don’t know, take your story and then somehow apply it to their life, which is really not always the best thing. So I don’t know.
Elsie: Yes. On that note, I’ll start my disclaimer now. So, you know, we love a disclaimer. It’s one of our signature moves. So my thing I ask, this is a very vulnerable episode. It’s horrible to talk about this stuff, but I do think it’s important. I do think it’s interesting. And at this point in our lives, I think we’re far enough removed where, like, it makes sense for us to talk about it. What I would ask is like, please just let this be my story. And in Emma’s episode, let it be Emma’s story. And it doesn’t have to be your story. So a lot of times throughout the years I’ve briefly touched on this stuff, either in a blog post or on Instagram or whatever. And I get comments back that are like, well, maybe your church was bad, but my church isn’t. My church is great and you should try my church. And that kind of response isn’t helpful. It’s actually like, makes me feel like you’re trying to diminish my story and like you weren’t listening. So it really, really means a lot to me. I think that, you know, in Christian culture and in every religion, there are misguided people who have made big mistakes and there are people who have been really hurt by it. And those situations deserve to be truly listened to. I’m actually not searching for faith and peace. I have faith and I have peace in my heart. It’s found it’s there. And yeah, that’s what puts me in a position where I’m even able to talk about this stuff because it was traumatic. And I’ve now been almost in two years of therapy every two weeks (laughs) with my wonderful therapist to talk about it.
Emma: Which is awesome. I feel like, you know, we’re laughing because it’s fun to laugh, but it is actually awesome to work out your shit in therapy or wherever you get to. You know, not everyone gets the chance to go to therapy. But I always just really want to emphasize that I think it’s one of the most courageous and powerful things you can do in your life to change and to grow and to ask for help when you need it.
Elsie: Yeah, one hundred percent. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made. And I will say I felt empowered to do it because my friends were just like, it’s great, it’s wonderful. You don’t have to have one thing you’re working through. You don’t have to, you know, have one big issue in your life. You can just go just to work on your life. So, yeah, that’s one of the reasons why we talk about therapy a bunch is because we want to normalize it in that way for people who are curious. But maybe it was like something that was more stigmatized when you were growing up. It definitely was in our universe. So, yeah, another reason I want to share this story and this experience is because I really do want for my children to have a better experience with organized religion and their faith in the future. Like the number one goal, I think for me now is to protect them from this kind of stuff. And I think one way we can do that is to be a little bit more open and a little bit more honest about it all.
Emma: Yeah, I agree.
Elsie: OK, so we’ve mentioned before that we were raised in an evangelical Christian church and home, so we were Baptist, Republican, anti-gay, and we lived with a very large list of do’s and don’ts, including like very specific things that are kind of wild. And this is stuff that I’ve definitely bonded with people on through the years, because if you were raised this way even a little bit, you’re like all of a sudden like, oh, my God, someone else who knows what I went through. So one of the specific things from our, like, upbringing and this is a little bit specific to the ’90s, is that it was like a very big thing, that it was wrong or a sin to listen to secular music, which is like any regular music, and we only were supposed to listen to Christian music, so this is actually one of my big steps of rebellion/independence when I was twenty three years old. I only listened to Christian music exclusively until I was twenty three years old. And then one day I walked into a used music store and bought a CD of Ben Folds. And that was like my rite of passage into the real world.
Emma: Woah getting wild!
Elsie: I know it’s so funny that I chose Ben Folds. My first the CD is that I really wanted where Ben Folds and Bjork.
Emma: Good picks!
Elsie: Yeah, I graduated from a Christian high school where the dress code was wearing skirts below your knees every day and your shirt had to be three fingers wide your strap so you could wear like a stop with no sleeves. But it couldn’t be like a tank top tank top with like spaghetti straps.
Emma: No spaghetti straps. That’s a sin.
Elsie: No spaghetti shops allowed. Yeah, that was like a big, big part of our formative years was avoiding spaghetti straps. A few other fun facts about me. These are crazy. I memorized an entire book of the Bible. No one asked me to. I did it on my own in high school. I think…Emma did you do it too?
Emma: Yeah. Which book did you do?
Emma: Mine was Colossians.
Elsie: And that is — that really…memorizing the whole book of the Bible? I feel like it explains a lot about our specific church upbringing. It was very competitive and in some ways it was like almost a little bit militant. Like we were very disciplined children and we were…there were good things about it, which I’ll get to. But there are weird things, too. So one of our hobbies and I mean voluntary, non-required things that we did for an after school activity with our friends was door to door evangelizing around our Christian school. We would go up and down the streets and knock on doors with our Bible and try to get people to say the prayer to become saved.
Emma: Yeah, we had a map of Springfield and our goal was to do the entire map and we would highlight it. Yeah, and we were…we wanted to do all of Springfield eventually that was our big vision.
Elsie: We did not. We did not get that far. (laughs)
Emma: We did not get that far. No.
Elsie: But we did it a lot. It was like a couple days after school every week we would do it for an hour or two. This is a bonkers one…file this one under bonkers. When I was in eighth grade, my youth pastor told all of us that God was going to return before the year 2000, which this would have been in like 1997 or 1998. So I was still in high school or I would have still been in high school when God was returning. So basically he scared the shit out of us all and made us feel like nothing in our life was going to matter anyway. Our lives were already almost over and we just need to spend all of our time evangelizing to help other people not go to hell. One of my first concerts was OK, so anyone who knows anything on this list is a little bit in our club. My first concert was Amy Grant. My first CD was DC Talk and in high school I thought it was a sin to date or kiss. And this was from the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which was a smash hit ’90s classic for church kids. We also thought it was a sin to wear a bikini and Emma and I basically wore the most modest possible swimsuit with long board shorts over the top of them. So basically like a grandma swimsuit with a men’s swimsuit on top of it On the bottom, is what we wOre in high school. So not to make boys sin.
Elsie: Yep. All right. Let’s take a quick sponsor break.
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Elsie: So I’ll talk about some of the pros. When I first read this outline, Emma was like, you should buy more pros (laughs) because I think I was like pouring out my…
Emma: Well I just don’t want them to get the impression there was nothing!
Elsie: Right. There definitely were things that I learned that are really, really positive. One, we learned to work really hard and we learned how to excel and compete, which I know that the word compete is not necessarily good in a Christian context, but it was good when I started my career and I needed to work my way up. I didn’t finish college and I, you know, kind of started a career from nothing. And it really helped me in that context because I already knew how to set goals and achieve big things. Like, for example, we just shared we memorized a whole book of the Bible. Like nothing like that happens if you don’t make a plan and execute your plan, you know, and then you get to brag about it at the end. But it’s actually so much work in the middle. So we learned how to do that work, which I think is something really valuable that we got from it. I always knew I could do difficult things from a young age, which I think not every high schooler gets to have that experience. It’s something I really want my children to have. I also learned how to be an extreme giver and look for ways to give people big gifts when they were in need. That’s probably the number one most valuable thing that I took away from my years in the church and something that I still really believe in learning how to give a large, generous gift and to do it anonymously, not looking for credit, not looking to perform, just trying to give someone something because it’s one of your goals. You know, that you want to be a giver, I think is really, really special. I also am really thankful now that I grew up with a different perspective. I mentioned that we were raised Republican. We’re not Republican anymore. And I personally had a long, I don’t know what yours was or how you define it, but for me, I had a long transition between being Republican and being Democrat. I think I was definitely one of those people who sort of like voted for Obama prematurely (laughs). Like I was just excited to vote for a Black president at that time. I didn’t necessarily completely understand a Democratic point of view and probably over, you know, a ten year period, I had a soft place to land. I had friends who were more mature than me, smarter than me, who, you know, answered my questions about politics and explained things to me and were patient and never made me feel ashamed for what I believed or what I was conditioned for and how I was raised. And I think that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve carried with me and has been especially sort of helpful going through 2020 and the last election. And just a lot of things that have happened in a Trump era is understanding why Republican people are how they are and what it really takes to change. That it’s not going to be like an instantaneous thing and it’s not going to come from shaming, that it’s a long process and it takes a lot of support. So one of my great dreams now is to be that kind of support for people who want to take that kind of transition and that kind of journey for themselves and I, I can definitely see it happening and I think that that’s something that it’s an idea that I would hope to promote, because I don’t think that people can change as quickly as you hope that they might when your raised that way and it’s all you’ve ever been taught.
Emma: You kind of touched on a big one for me is the like not trying to teach through shaming, because I feel like growing up in our conservative evangelical Christian church that we did, there was a lot of of being taught and kind of being controlled through shame. And I now have a huge aversion to that. I, I don’t do well if someone’s trying to teach me something through shame. And I actually think it’s interesting because there are kind of a lot of people on the quote unquote left or more liberal side of things who are trying to teach through shame sometimes on the Internet. And I just have a deep aversion to it. And I think it’s left over from my Christian upbringing. I just, if you try to control me with shame, I’m out. So, yeah, I don’t think it’s…I think it can be an effective way to teach, but it is not loving and I just can’t deal. It really triggers me. I don’t even like that term, but yeah.
Elsie: Yeah. I think it’s just really, really important to understand that to switch over from being Republican to Democrat is a process and it requires a lot of education and it’s not going to happen overnight probably for most people. You know? Like I said I prematurely…
Emma: Well it’s just generally, we are all a work in progress. And if you can’t accept that in yourself and accept that in others, you need to take a step back and work on your ability to love, because we are all on a journey where we are hopefully aiming to educate ourselves, to become better at communication, to become better at loving others and loving ourselves. And you don’t know how someone was raised. You don’t know what, you know, foundation they have in their life. And this applies to politics. This applies to lots of areas. So you need to let people be the work in progress that they are and just try to help them gently on their journey and do that for yourself as well. And I think shame is not the way to go with that. Anyway, I’ll stop now.
Elsie: Agreed. Yeah, no. Can you tell we’re interested in that subject? It’s definitely a big one. OK, well now I’m going to talk about sexual experience guilt. Are you ready for this?
Elsie: The way we were raised, my guilt level for having any kind of sexual experience in high school and college was unbearable to me. I didn’t understand how to not be a perfect person and still be a person of faith. It felt incompatible to me. And I think that that’s a really, really dangerous thing to teach young children and kids. So, yeah, my faith was mainly a big success story where I tried to do like more and more and more good deeds until someone would notice and then someone would give a little speech about how great I was doing. That was a big thing in our church. We were always giving little speeches about each other. It feels now like very childish that I was always like living for that kind of approval. But I actually, looking back, was a child because I was still watching Power Rangers with my brother after school, who wasten, you know? (laughs) Like I wasn’t an adult yet, but I felt like I was an adult and I felt like the pressure to live a perfect life and I didn’t live up to it. So backing up, I’m going to share a few of my experiences and thoughts about marriage and sex. And this will sort of like help you understand how I became so confused, because it is a very strange sequence of events. So when I was in only seventh grade, I found out that my youth pastor, who was my hero and really like one of the most warm, loving people I had met in my life up until that time was actually having sex with a high schooler from our youth group and like to say that was devastating….like there’s no words that can describe how devastating that was. And it ended up not being the last time that I saw a youth pastor secretly dating a high schooler, which is crazy. It became a trend and something that happened over and over in our upbringing. So a big thing in our culture. Not everyone was raised this way so not everyone understands it is like the feeling that God tells you to do something, which is very hard to interpret and can start happening all the time about the strangest things. And obviously, a lot of it’s not going to be true. So I felt that I heard God tell me who I was supposed to marry when I was 14 years old. So I was fourteen years old and I already had a picture in my mind of who I was going to marry and it was the person I ended up marrying, and so, yeah, it’s easy to see now through hindsight how dangerous that is for a kid. Also seeing so many of our pastors and also just the pastors from other churches and different people in our culture marrying very young girls, I got it in my head at a pretty young age that I would probably marry someone way older than me, because just so many girls who were age, you know, 15, maybe 16, 17 years old, ended up starting like getting interested, dating and marrying really quickly, pastors and youth pastors who were more like 30 years old and beyond. So that was very normal in our culture and something that we never questioned at that time. And, yeah, just common. When I was in high school at my Christian high school, I knew of a couple who got pregnant together, a high school couple both in high school. And the girl was not able to keep attending our high school, virtually kicked out, and the boy was able to keep attending and graduated from the high school. So, yeah, that was like a contradiction and something that at the time I was like, that’s kind of strange. And then when you grow up, you realize, like, that’s actually really fucked up.
Elsie: And also it was a thing in our church that multiple times there would be like a high school girl going up on stage and apologizing for being pregnant and like publicly, you know, apologizing to the whole church and, you know, confessing her sins. But we never saw a man do something like that in our church. And it became a thing over time that I recognized very clearly is that men were being defended and protected and women were responsible for confessing and apologizing and fixing things. In just relationships, dating and sex, in our culture at that time, it really seemed like there was no wiggle room. It was just all or nothing. So we saw lots of people get married super fast. It would, you know, just like by you, you haven’t seen someone for six months and they’re married, very normal. And because there just really wasn’t a lot of wiggle room to have a long engagement, you’re definitely not allowed to live together. You’re not allowed to have sex. If you do have sex, you better keep it private and get married really quickly. And it just, there just wasn’t like room for those types of mistakes in our culture. In hindsight, I feel that I wasn’t at all mature enough to choose a partner at age 18, which is when I got engaged. I was barely learning how to drive my own car still (laughs) I hadn’t had a full-time job yet. I definitely didn’t have a career. I was a sophomore in college and I wasn’t the youngest person who I knew to get married. That’s what was strange. I wasn’t the first person in my friend group or my church group or my social circle to get married. It was pretty normal. There were lots of college freshmen who are married in our Bible colleges and stuff. So yeah, I already had lots of married friends by the time I got married. For talking about my first marriage, this is like kind of like a sticky area for me and I’ll share why. So when I got a divorce I was age twenty four and I had just started blogging and I was, like I’ve shared before, like our early blog posts were very like live journal-ly. There was definitely oversharing. There was definitely a lack of professionalism and purpose. We were blogging just for fun. It was not our job. So when I got a divorce, my husband asked me, please, to not share anything about our divorce on the Internet. And I promised him I wouldn’t and I never have. And then also my boss at that time asked me, he said, don’t share anything about it. Like just don’t respond to anything, basically like ghost the subject. And at the time it was extremely traumatizing for me because I was getting like really mean really aggressive comments, like, you owe us an explanation. You can’t just get past this. You can’t just, you know, pretend like everything’s normal. Like, you know, I was clearly like posting pictures in like my new apartment. And I was talking about, you know, my friends and being single. And I just wasn’t addressing it at all. And people were very angry. And I will say now that I’m past it, you know, it’s been like fifteen years. I look back and I’m so glad that I didn’t share any of that stuff. And for anyone who’s going through a divorce, who doesn’t want to share, I highly recommend it. I think that it’s a great way to protect yourself and others, and also just like protect your sanity at that time of my life, I was going to therapy once a week like I needed the support of my friends. I didn’t need the Internet, you know, combing through the details of my divorce. So I’m very thankful I didn’t share it. And also, I think that in Christian culture, it’s an all too common thing that people feel like they need to defend themselves. And how they end up doing that is throwing the other person under the bus and exposing, you know, all the things that they did wrong in a marriage. And now that I’ve been divorced for so long, I can look back and see that obviously we were both at fault and I didn’t need to prove that it was exclusively his fault, you know, and there’s nothing wrong from my vantage point now with saying I just got married way too young, period. If there seems like there’s some holes in this story, it’s because there are because I am going to leave out all the stuff about my first marriage and what went wrong and when and why, because that’s just not something I share. And it took me a long time to try to develop this story without it, because I in some ways, I think I felt like it’s not a good enough story if I can’t share the whole thing. But I decided that I’m just going to share part of it. And I hope that that works. I think that the part that I’m sharing is still a good story. And if there seems like there’s like little gaps here and there, you’re right, there are.
Emma: Yes, those gaps are called Elsie boundaries. And it’s OK to have them. And we’re going to take a quick break and hear a word from our sponsor.
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Elsie: So I’ll give you a quick timeline of how things happened because my divorce is a big part of my story. I met my first husband at age 14 at church camp where I immediately told my best friend I’m going to marry that boy who I met today. And she was like, great, wow, cool. (laughs) And it’s just like a very normal thing to say at that age. And we were into the book I mentioned before. I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which, by the way, the man who wrote that book has completely renounced it. And he, like I heard that kind of recently and I was like, good for you. So it was not a good idea to teach people that they should get married without dating at all. It’s a terrible, terrible idea, in my opinion. So anyway, we weren’t dating, but we kind of were dating. It’s like you do the like half dating is what you have to do. So some people call it like courtship and some people just call it like being friends. But you just like kind of like know that you’re more than friends. You’re just not saying that. So I basically had a high school boyfriend just in my own, like, very conservative way. So we would like make each other these like big elaborate gifts for like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. And we would like write three page letters to each other from school. And, you know, eventually we, like, did go to prom together, but just as friends, things like that. So we ended up going to the same Bible College. And then after the first semester, I switched Bible colleges because I wanted to get away from him because we were starting to get into this cycle, this like very toxic cycle of making out, feeling guilty, breaking up and then getting back together and then making out again and then breaking up again. And it was just like a cycle that wouldn’t end. So we were breaking up every few months and then getting back together and just like having horrible guilt for doing like any kind of little like sexual making out things. We didn’t even have sex, but it didn’t matter. We felt so horribly guilty. And, yeah, it carries over the summer after our freshman year, I was confused on whether I should go back to my far away Bible college, which gave me like a three-hour buffer from him, or if I should stay in town. And we started talking about marriage and I decided to just stay. And we were engaged in August and married in December. And we had, so we basically went from being broken up to being married in six months so I could see that there were red flags in our relationship and compatibility from the beginning. And I can admit that now. But I think at the time I wasn’t taught that they were red flags. I was taught, you know, God can fix anything. Every relationship has huge struggles. And that’s the main information about relationships that I was learning. So I didn’t know that maybe we just weren’t very compatible and something I learned much later. So we ended up getting married in December. And almost immediately I had terrible regrets, like it was even so bad, like on our own honeymoon. I was like, should I call my mom? Should I tell her I want to come home? It was almost really immediately that I felt like I had made a mistake and really, like, ruined my entire life was what I was afraid of. So I asked to go to our pastor and get some counseling, and he sent me to a Christian counselor who was very kind and compassionate. And she was helping me like really listening and helping me in a way that I hadn’t had. But then within our first one-hour session, like, totally flipped a switch when it came time to give me any kind of actionable advice. And she told me that, you know, as a Christian, my two options were to stay married and trust that God could fix our relationship because, of course, you know, God can fix anything, or to go ahead and get a divorce, which is what I was thinking I might want to do, but that I would need to remain single for the rest of my life if I did that. She wasn’t the only person that said that to me. It was confirmed a few more times. My grandma told me that and a couple of other people in the church told me that. And I think that it’s probably the most traumatic memory of my life is just being in this room with this woman, pouring my heart out, telling her, like, I’ve made this huge mistake, I’ve ruined my life, I’m 19. And for her to basically say, yes, you did, and here are the consequences and there are no other paths for you. So at the time, it didn’t feel like an option for me to take an alternative path, I was too afraid. I was too ashamed and I wasn’t going to go off of that advice I was given. So I did stay married for four more years. And we definitely had like a mixture of good times and bad times, like every marriage will. There was even like points when I felt hope. But I definitely stayed married way longer than I should have to someone that I really was not compatible with, all because of the advice of that one counseling session. Over the next few years, I would occasionally find a friend, usually like a woman from our church or maybe like someone like five years older than me or things like that. You know, someone I trusted, who I could confide in. And I would really tell them something that was going on in our marriage and try to like basically see if anyone would give me different advice. And every single time people would give me different advice. But it was all…they would always like just stop short of condoning divorce, because it’s just something that people just won’t do. And I feel like maybe they just didn’t want it on their shoulders. I don’t know. But people would even say maybe it’ll get better when you have a baby. People would say maybe you should try moving to another city. Maybe you should try finding a job for a while where you work weekends, which I did do. (laughs) And yeah, obviously none of those things solved our marriage issues. So towards the end of our marriage, I got my first good job and I kind of like had my own career and my own thing for the first time. And it gave me an opportunity to make friends outside the church, which was huge for me. So, yeah, eventually I found myself in a hot tub at a random hotel. I can’t even remember what city we were in. We were teaching at a scrapbook conference and all my friends were scrapbook teachers. And yeah, I was sitting in a hot tub bawling, telling them all this stuff that was going on in my marriage. And finally, for the first time, someone told me what I really needed to hear, which was just simply that my life wasn’t over and that no matter what happened, I would still have a future ahead of me. And I think that’s like the biggest thing that if I had a time machine, I wish that I could hear that sooner because I really did believe that my life was over and that I didn’t have any kind of chance, like I had just made a mistake that was going to haunt me forever. And now I’m so grateful for those people. I’m sure, like it was probably a big deal to them. It was just like a random crying girl. But I think it’s really sad. Like one of the main things I wish I could say to the church, you know, is not to make people feel like they don’t have options because the church actually does support people after they’ve gotten a divorce. And a lot of people get divorces. You know, we all know that like statistics of divorce inside and outside of the church are not different. But for some reason, they won’t support you when you’re in that part of your relationship leading up to the divorce. And I think that at that age, I wasn’t able to move forward without that support. So I was just stuck. So I feel really grateful that I finally, finally got the support I needed. So we found another marriage counselor and they were a Christian counselor, but it wasn’t like the first one. It was definitely like a more mainstream counselor, because as soon as she heard our story and heard our concerns and all of the different personal things we shared, she immediately started breaking us up into individual sessions. She gave me a book to read that was like very eye-opening to me and empowered me with the information I needed to leave my marriage. And also she, you know, immediately told us, like, the simple advice that the church hadn’t been giving us that we didn’t know was like, you don’t need to be building a house together right now. You don’t need to be trying to have a baby. You need to be figuring this out first and you need to put all of that, you know, on hold. So, yeah, just that one little hot tub session with my scrapbooking friends. And then one counselor changed my life. And after that, I had what I needed to kind of move on and, you know, move into the next phase. I knew that I was going to lose all my friends. I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue going to that church and I didn’t really want to anymore. And it was a heavy amount of loss and sadness. It was really like, you know, a big part of my life, like when we were sharing on the podcast recently about the live nativity pageant. (laughs) You know, like a lot of like very happy memories, all of the travel I had ever done in my life at that point was for missions trips, you know, and things like that. All of my friends were my friends from church. So I really was like losing everything and starting my life over again at that age. So, yeah. So eventually I did move out and I started getting phone calls. And my last, my last memories with the church were the pastor calling me and having like this super weird conversation. Like I couldn’t even really understand what he was trying to say. It was like he had been like told on his to-do list or maybe by his wife or maybe by someone else that he needed to call me, but he really didn’t want to. So I couldn’t even understand what he was like trying to say to me. He was just letting me know that he was calling me on a phone. And then women from the church who were calling me, telling me, you know, that I needed to go back with him and give him another chance and that, you know, from their experience, that was the right thing to do. Whatever they had been through was worse than what I had been through, which they didn’t know what I had been through. So it was like a really horrible thing to call and tell someone you barely know. And then, you know, rumors started circulating in our church that I would hear occasionally about like the reasons why it was probably my fault that we were getting divorced because I had the job where I traveled. And back to the point of like, you know, the church will support men and blame women whenever bad things happen. And that’s my experience. I don’t want it to be true, but it is true. I think I’m done talking about divorce stuff now, but I just hope that in the future that the church will normalize divorce because divorce is normal and it’s going to be normal. Like it’s sad, but it’s a part of people’s lives. And shame and guilt don’t keep you in a marriage. And if they do, maybe they shouldn’t. Alright. So moving on, I can stop crying now. It was actually the beginning of a very joyful season in my life. This is when I started A Beautiful Mess, Emma was like sort of like my like on again, off again roommate. We made lots of fun memories together. We started traveling together and I knew, like, really quickly that I had made the right choice, that it was life changing in a good way. I had to make all new friends and I had my first apartment. My parents got me my divorce present bed, which is like I still have. And it’s so sweet and cute as they were just trying to be supportive. And I got to do a lot of things that I had missed just because I became an adult so quickly. Moving straight from my parents house into my first apartment with my husband, I got to do a lot of like just like regular things that people in their 20s do. So that was really fun and a special time. And I did try a new church with my new group of friends.And I went a few times and it felt very much the same. It felt like a sort of like I was disconnected from it. But the teaching was the same and the message was the same. And I realized after only going a couple of times that I didn’t really want to repeat those same things again. So I decided to just take a break from it until I felt like there was like a hole in my life. And that’s one of the big things that we were taught in our upbringing, is that when you’re away from the church, there’s a hole in your life and there’s like a need that’s not being fulfilled. So I decided to just wait until that hole presented itself and it never did. It’s been like more than 14 years and I’ve never been to church again. So I am thinking about attending again. I’ll go into that at the end, but it’s for different reasons. And I think it’s like a very, very different type of situation than it was at that time. So. Oh, anyway, the other thing I learned on the other side of everything that is so messed up that I would I wish I could tell my 19 year old self is that life is honestly pretty easy for a Christian person who’s divorced. It’s easy to find a new church. It’s easy to find new friends. It’s easy to find new men who want to date you who aren’t scared of dating a divorced person. It really was not a thing where I felt like I was rejected in any way, except for before I got the divorce, when I was like living in the, like, sadness and oppression. So I feel like it opened up my world a hundred times more than it closed it. And not too long after that, I met Jeremy, who had also had his own, like long and difficult church journey. He like had quit college to become like in a worship band. And he was like traveling around the country doing that. And he had quit that within, like, I think a year of us meeting. So we kind of met at like a very good time for both of us, because we were both ready to start a new life together and get our new education and kind of like go through this long process of unlearning things that were ingrained in us and relearning things that we chose as what we thought was right. So. I think that for anyone who’s been through a situation like this, I just want to say like it’s OK to have a gray area in your faith, it’s OK to not have everything perfectly defined and have an answer for every question. I lived in that place for a long time. I still kind of do. And I actually think it’s a really healthy way to live just to realize that, like, maybe I’ll change my mind later. Maybe I don’t have all the answers because those are always true whether you know they are or not. I feel like we didn’t tell enough funny stories. So maybe your episode will have more funny stories because there really are some. But yeah, for the most part, it was really sad because I lived for a long time just trying to get over the guilt and shame that was so, you know, such a big part of our upbringing. So I’ll tell our church status now. So this is kind of exciting and different. I’ll just give, like, the sort of like bookends of my own journey over the last five years, somewhere in between Donald Trump becoming president and me, you know, listening to Hillary’s podcast, like her first one of her first, like I think it’s her first episode. Her second is like all about her faith. I think that just learning that liberal people can be really people of faith and absorbing that. And I think that also, just like having Donald Trump as a president where I personally believed he wasn’t really a Christian and he wasn’t really, you know, being an example of what a Christian should be. But it felt like a lot of his supporters were Christian. It like brought me to a place where I felt like defensive of the Christian faith. Like I somehow, like, cared about it more than I had in a long time, which was a weird feeling to have. Like, I kind of like wanted to be a part of, like fixing the church or reforming it or teaching my kids the parts of it that I think are filled with hope and valuable and can help you in your life and definitely not teaching them to, like, blindly follow someone like Donald Trump, who, in my opinion, is like the opposite of a Christian. So, yeah, somewhere over the last few years, I, I don’t know. I also like got really into Pete Buttigeig and I don’t know, like followed some people who really talk about their faith all the time but are extremely liberal. And then one day we were driving and this is during covid, but we were driving down the street on one of the cute neighborhoods in Nashville. And there was this church with like this giant Black Lives Matter sign in front of their church. And I feel like that was like my moment where I kind of did a double take. And I was like, I think I actually am interested in attending church again, not like at this moment, but when covid over.
Elsie: So one of the reasons is just because I think it could be a good redeeming thing and sort of like close a chapter of my life that was really damaging and really traumatic and maybe like bring some hope, you know, back, because I actually think the teachings of Jesus are good. And it’s something that I think I would like to have in my life, but without like all the bullshit. So also, when we were still living at our previous house, our daughter was going to a Christian preschool because it was kind of like the best option we had in our area. And they were teaching her kind of a lot of Bible stories. For some reason, they tend to teach the really weird ones mostly to kids, like the story of Noah’s Ark is actually like really bad, in my opinion, (laughs) and like violent and kind of insane to believe and to teach to a child, like Daniel in the Lion’s Den. And there’s other stories like that that are just like, why is this the first story you teach a child? When I feel like there’s like other things? And she just asked me over and over and over again if it’s real and if people really died. And just like the questions that honestly are very logical, you know, it’s not just like cute animals. It’s like the whole entire population of the world supposedly wiped out and only one family spared on this boat. So anyway, I did when she started asking me those kind of questions and she’s only, you know, five years old, I started to realize that, like, she’s going to have so many questions about this stuff. And I want to surround her with support and have a religious experience that’s not traumatic and that’s not extreme. Like more than anything, like I want to raise them with a religious experience that’s not extreme since we were raised with such an extreme one. So I almost feel like us going to church now, to a liberal church, you know, that is more focused on, you know, doing good for our community and less focused on being anti-whatever, you know.
Elsie: That’s what I really want to do when covid’s over with our kids. And I think it could be a really good experience and maybe it won’t be. Maybe we’ll go and we just like won’t like it. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but my therapist helped me find an option for a church that I’m really excited to try out and it’s definitely like completely different from anything I’ve ever been to before. So, yeah, I’m excited to try that. And I hope that that puts a little bit of hope at the end. So you don’t have to email me and invite me to your megachurch because I’m not coming and (laughs) I’m not interested. And I hope that if you’re in a church that is oppressive to women or anti-gay, like, please, please, please reconsider how those beliefs are harmful and really not Christian. Wow ranty. (laughs)
Emma: I like that you’re going to try church again. I think it’s a very open way to live life.
Elsie: I’m excited to do it. Yeah, and when I was like looking at their website it’s like so they’re doing so many good things in our community, which is like the thing I was really excited to be a part of because I want to be more involved in Nashville and we’re really not that involved in local charities besides that one food bank thing we’ve been doing. So I think it will be really cool. So we will be back next month with part two, which is Emma. Part two is called Emma and Emma’s stories are some sometimes similar, but really, really different because as you heard in this episode, my story was like a lot surrounding my divorce and Emma didn’t have that. So her stories will be really different. And I hope that you all enjoy this episode is definitely the most difficult, vulnerable thing we’ve ever recorded. But, you know, hopefully it’ll help someone or if not just like provide a little bit more context in the world and a little bit more perspective. So. We love you and thanks for listening.
What a moving account. I grew up as a progressive Catholic. Despite growing up in a super liberal, “biblical stories as a metaphor” home, the shame that pervades Catholicism still impacted my self-esteem and confidence deeply.
So your point about not shaming people who have a different perspectives when trying to share our own views was a lightbulb moment. How ironic that so many of us liberals try to shame conservatives in public forums, given that the legacy of shame is what many women struggle with (regardless of political affiliations).
Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable topic. As a Christian, it breaks my heart that you and Emma had such a traumatic experience at church. I hear that authentic pain in both of your voices, and I am so sorry those things happened to you.
With your broad influence on this blog, I do think it is important to state that not all Republicans are like Trump, or need to be enlightened or “educated” to join the Democrats. I myself was appalled at much of Trump’s behavior during his tenure, but there are many, many good Republicans out there that have strong, core, Christian values and beliefs. Maybe you did not intend to sound anti-Republican, but it did come across that way to me.
Thank you for listening! To clarify- I did not mean to my little rant to come off as anti-republican and I apologize for that! I did SO much prep for this episode and it was very emotional, as you can tell. If I could go back and redo it I would probably take that part out because it seemed to distract a lot of people from the message/story I was trying to share. In my personal experience democrat values were extremely demonized and it was an important step for my growth to step out of that bubble.
Sending love to you!
Almost 50 here…. so 70’s and 80’s but same. Same. Same.
I loved listening to your story Elsie – I have been following your blog for almost 14 years now and it must be the first time I leave a comment just to say how much this story meant to me.
I felt this TO MY CORE, and based on how far I had to scroll to leave this comment, so did so many others. Thank you for being so vulnerable. I still have dreams about rescuing people from the evangelical cult I found myself in after high school. Faith after faith deconstruction is a bitch, but cheers to therapy! And cheers to you!
I had a very similar upbringing and can connect with you on so many of those levels. I have missed church, but like you, I’m not interested in getting involved again unless they’re more open minded. I also live in the Nashville area and am very interested in learning more about the church you mentioned at the end! Can you tell me the name of it?
Thank you so much for sharing your story Elsie. I’m so happy to hear you’ve found peace and that therapy has been a rewarding process for you. I imagine that making this podcast was emotionally laborious and that sharing it on the internet feels very vulnerable. I’m radiating good vibes your way and hope you feel supported and loved!
I also REALLY appreciate how you began your episode by asking people to respect that your story is your story. I really really admire your honesty and willingness to talk about your own personal experience with the church and the evolution of your own political views. It made me stop and think about how important it is to allow people to voice their own stories without the audience immediately picking apart those stories and inappropriately interjecting when they don’t align with their own experiences. Your experience and your story are your own, regardless of who is listening and what their opinions may be.
This was a great episode though I bet it was very scary to be be this vulnerable. Just checking in to see if you were planning to feature Emma’s story too? I had thought you mentioned it would be the following week but I haven’t seen anything yet! I’m so intrigued!!!
Hi Elsie! This episode was so good! Thank you for being so vulnerable. I feel we are similar personalities and on the surface we seem so bubbly and upbeat and happy (and we are) but we have real emotions, too, and it was really touching to hear your story. I don’t even know you and it made me tear up. I was raised Catholic and had a different upbringing, but lately I’ve been wanting to get back into church for a really similar idea – I want my daughter to have something to believe in and I want to be part of a community with this same purpose or reason to be together. It was great to learn more about your past 🙂
thank you so much for sharing, elsie! i truly appreciate your honesty & vulnerability. i am so sorry for those periods of hopelessness that the church left you with, truly heartbreaking. i am so so glad you were able to find hope & that you are in a better place now. as someone who grew up in the church & is still in it, your story gave me a lot to think about, such a good perspective. i’m so sorry that church/community failed you & hurt you. i’m glad you were able to break away from them and find your people. so much love to you!! xo
THANK YOU, Elsie! I know this must have been so hard to talk about, and it was honestly so moving. I’m sorry that you were so hurt and struggled for so many years – no one deserves that. Hearing some of your experiences reminded me so much of stories my husband has told me of his extremely religious upbringing, and those experiences ultimately led him away from the church altogether when his sister came out and his mother would not accept it. Time and education was been able to help them heal as a family, but sadly that’s not the case for many people. I never grew up with religion, but I was always thankful my parents encouraged me to try attending church or learning about religious teachings and allowing me to make my own choices. ? Sending you lots of love and continued healing!
Oh sweet Elsie!!!! I’ve followed you for a really long time since you had your clothing store in Springfield and probably right when you started the scrapbook stuff. Hearing your story…crying with you as you poured your heart out with a broken heart made me love you even more. I see why you are so intentional and authentic! Praise the Lord for those kind people in the hot tub! I would have been that person if I was in that hot tub! What a heart wrenching start to your adult life. It is so sad when religious situations or people create such hurt that isn’t backed up by what God really wants for us.
Sending you and Emma all the love and hugs. So excited for her journey!
Elsie, thank you for sharing your very personal story. I was crying with you as I listened. I am so glad you were brave and ventured out into this beautiful life you created for yourself.
P.S. My youth pastor also had an affair with a high school student! I lost my faith for a long time over it. I now belong to a beautiful liberal church (ELCA Lutheran) and have an especially amazing group of strong women that I call my church sorority.
Elsie, I commend you for sharing your story. You are not alone in this “gray area.”
I experienced an extremely similar upbringing, and have only realized within the past few years how much trauma I suffered as a child and young adult because of the church I was involved with.
The election last year forced me to wake up and decide what kind of Christian I was going to be, and I voted democratically with kindness, love, and Jesus in my heart. Luckily, I have had a drastically different church experience as an adult which has led me to believe that true Christianity is not what Trump embodied as a leader.
Thanks again for sharing!
Thank you so much for sharing Elsie ❤️??
I grew up a conservative Christian and still am one. I voted for Trump (twice) and I’d do it again but I still agree with much of what you wrote, and I want to apologize to you as a Christian for the ways the church misrepresented Jesus to you. I’m a teacher in a Christian school, and part of my job is to teach Bible. I’m teaching through the gospels and Acts to middle schoolers and high schoolers. Something that has really shocked me doing this study is to realize how appalled and angry Jesus was at the way the religious people of his day had completely missed God’s message. One of the main conflicts in the gospels isn’t between Jesus and the world (which is what I grew up believing and what the church often focuses on), but Jesus and the religious people. It’s the same way now. We want to take a relationship with God and tick the boxes. Requiring you to have a knee-length skirt and no spaghetti straps isn’t any different than all the sabbath laws the Jews created to keep themselves busy and looking spiritual. Many of the things you experienced were not Christian at all and were instead opposed to the gospel. The shame you experienced is a real thing, and something the church should repent of. And you’re absolutely correct in your comments about divorce. I too had no support until after mine was over. Then there was much more kindness and grace than I would ever have believed. Some of the church marriages that end in divorce actually could be saved if the couples didn’t wait to get help out of fear for what others might say, or if pastors and leaders would support women more. I don’t write any of this trying to convince you to come back to church, but I do think you might be surprised to re-read the Bible and see how much God hates religious oppressors and hypocrites. He’d probably be the first in line willing to help you get over religious trauma. Some of God’s harshest words throughout the Bible are to religious leaders who misuse their authority. He wants no part in it.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I know that takes a lot to open up, and I was shocked to learn so many things about your Church. It was very eye opening.
I am a long time reader, and I do have to say I was a little turned off how it came across that Republicans are not the way to be and Democrats are. I understand that your beliefs are shifting you to become more liberal, but it doesn’t mean that those who are Republican are in the “wrong.”
I didn’t mean to sound absolute for you or anti-Republican (which I am not). It is true ***in my story*** that I was taught my whole life that Republican values are more Christian. Growing up I never had a chance to look up to or really listen to or respect a Democrat. When I started to do so it was life changing for me and has brought so many positives into my life!!!
I wish the best for the Republican party and I hope too see a lot more Christian values displayed in future candidates if they want that to be a part of their platform.
I hope that clears things up and is helpful. I spent so long mulling over how to tell this story because I truly wanted to be heard. Thanks for listening. 🙂
Wow Elsie, I just want to put my arms around you and give you a big hug! I so relate to your divorce story, as I myself got married right out of Christian college where I felt pressured to get married and “go into ministry” together bc that’s just what you did. I was extremely young, insecure, and impressionable and I too got married to someone I wasn’t even in love with. I remember sitting on the bed on my wedding night weeping over the mistake I’d made and now it was “too late for me”.
Even though I do believe you should try and make marriage work, I had just made a huge mistake and knew I was never going to be happy with that decision, so I got a divorce and it was ROUGH! I too had all the people calling me and even stalking me at my work to go back to my husband or else. I ended up losing my job bc of it. It was so traumatizing!
All that to say, I now have a great relationship with God and am at a wonderful church. I still have people in my family and others who are extremely conservative and sometimes judgmental toward me because I ended up kinda in the middle of the road, BUT I know my relationship is right on and that’s all that matters!
To those who’ve had bad experiences, I’m so sorry and I truly understand! Just know God does love you and what you see from “Christians” isn’t always representative of who God/Jesus is.
Thanks for being so vulnerable Elsie, and I’m so proud of you for giving yourself the time you needed to heal and then make a decision to try again. I pray it’s all good things from here on out! XXOO
Hearing you speak through your tears is so incredibly heartbreaking for me. I didn’t know any of this about you way back when we worked together. Your voice and opinions are absolutely valid. I am so glad you found love again with Jeremy. I am sorry that your experience with religion has been so awful, of course that’s not how it’s meant to be. I will pray that you will find a great church for you and your family. Thank you for being so raw and vulnerable.
Thank you so much for your vulnerability!
I grew up in a scrappy Catholic family. My parents cussed, my aunts and uncles got way too drunk at weddings, etc. However, I met my best friend in 2nd grade. She was smart, pretty, fun, hilarious – magnetic! But also raised evangelical.
Her family started pulling me in and taking me to their church and youth camps.
I started getting incredibly anxious because I thought my family was all going to hell. I watch the Kirk Cameron movie ‘Left Behind’ – and I literally walked around in constant fear that my family wouldn’t be in the ‘rapture’ – (They really should not let children watch that movie). My friend shamed me when my mom bought me Harry Potter for Christmas because it was ‘wizardry’ – I was so embarrassed. I felt guilt after a New Year’s Eve service because I had an *NSYNC album. So. Many. Little. Things.
But basically I walked around from 2nd-10th grade in constant fear and anxiety. By 10th grade we drifted and I made friends that were less shaming/strict. However, I think my evangelical friend really shifted how I developed relationships with boys/physical intimacy. Even after we drifted apart I was so embarrassed/shamed/scared because of all the ideas implanted by her and her church.
I cringe thinking about it. Honestly, before your episode I didn’t realize I probably need to work some of this out.