Yesterday, The Pitch released an article that discussed the voucher system both DeVoss (current sham of a Secretary of Education) and Greitens (current MO governor) want you to believe actually works, when in reality, it’s been shown that it hinders: the less than average education and testing abilities of students who had used a voucher system to attend a private school, for one thing. However, it mainly focused on the dark side of public money funding private, religious schools: the emotional, mental, and often times physical abuse students are subjected to under the protective, blindly-tolerant umbrella of fundamental Christianity. Specifically, the article tears apart the carefully created, but easily destroyed image of Tri-City Baptist Church & Christian School: a monster of a church that squatted on a hilltop, cold and foreboding in the middle of Independence, Missouri.
As I began to read the article, I was not prepared for the torrential downpour, the flood of emotions that surged through my body. Memories that had been buried for 15 years came bubbling back to the surface, their slime oozing out across the waters til I was overwhelmed with it all. There was a reason I had purposely forgotten, left behind those memories I experienced, or heard about from friends and their older siblings, or alumni of the school that I reconnected with in later years. After sharing the article on facebook, I wrote that there were far too many thoughts and emotions to include in an article comment. However, I couldn’t leave them festering in my mind.
- I remember the prayer chapel after hearing about the 2000 shooting.
I remember how, instead of sadness and remorse, and prayers for the husband and father left behind, everything was focused on the daughter- the adult woman who chose to leave- and how selfish and sinful her choice was, driving her mother to commit murder. I remember people lamenting that the daughter’s rebelliousness had caused her mother to take her eyes off of God. (No. The mother’s eyes were so full of self-righteous religion-based hate, that all she saw was God, and THAT is what drove her to murder.)
- John Logan was a father of a classmate.
I remember the church essentially forcing those he abused to identify themselves and come forward. I remember it being used as a publicity stunt for a new young boys’ program.
- Dwight Free was the husband of the BEST teacher I ever had in my life.
I remember the church and the pastor blaming his $1.5 million embezzlement for the $15 million in debt. (yes, he committed a crime, but being crucified as a scapegoat is prideful, selfish, and unnecessary)
- Ed Greene would have been my youth pastor if my family hadn’t moved from Tri-City to New Hope in summer of 2002.
- Mark Greenway was fairly prominent in my childhood- one of my father’s friends & (former) business partners, and the cause of ruined credit, financial stress and the almost bankruptcy of my family.
- Mark Herbster was, and still is a misogynistic narcissist who used his position to better his personal finances, leach funds out of the congregation under the guise of “donating to his family doing the Lord’s will.”
I grew up in the church and school, which I attended from preschool to the end of my 8th grade year. Upon being dismissed from the final family chapel/graduation service & awards ceremony, I turned to my mom and said “Alright, I’m done. I’m sick of these people. Homeschool me.” The quote “The school operated on a caste system, which placed students whose families attended Tri-City Baptist Church on a higher rung… Tri-City would cover up the sins of families, and the families would cover up for Tri-City.” is insanely accurate.
The only reason my family was accepted the way we were: what was seen as a ‘lax’ attitude towards parenting/enforcing the ridiculous school rules, our open-minded & accepting view of Christianity, our blatantly pro-equality & feminism stance (which had been instilled in me and my sister by my mother, my aunts, my grandfather), was because the church thought we were rich. My mom remembers the underlying tension well. “The only reason we were accepted the way we were into that community was because we had a big house, people thought we were rich, and we sent all of our daughters to the school.” We- my sisters and I- were blessed with what God gave us. We would make perfect wives and mothers. We were the ideal breeding mares.
If my family had not grown up in the church (I was the first baby born to the church when they moved from Truman to their massive, white building that’s now iconic), I would have been on much rockier ground than I had been during my years at the school.
- I read books that weren’t approved. I read more than a girl should.
- I loved school & getting an education. I was better at it than most of the aspiring preacher-boys in class.
- I didn’t want to ever go to a Christian college.
- I wasn’t ever going to be a stay at home mother. I was going to have a career.
- I loved “boy things” – sports, pants, being loud & rambunctious, fixing things, being outdoors. I was the opposite of their ideal quiet, compliant, submissive girl.
The school, and church, while as organizations didn’t publicly promote conversion therapy, it was something that was talked about in positive and glowing terms regularly – by teachers, deacons, parents, and staff.
The church turned a blind eye to congregation members who left- either the church, or the faith entirely, by claiming that their Calvinistic worldview showed ‘they weren’t predestined.’
From a friend who experienced this first hand: the administrative and pastoral staff hid their racist, pro-segregation, sexist mindset behind the guise of Christianity- forever blaming the bus ministry and those who utilized it for issues in classrooms, programs, etc. The youths who depended on the bus ministry, (who were mostly minorities and non-white) or “bus kids” as the church congregation called them, were kept in a teaching program separate from the “church kids” – those whose families were church members (roughly 95% of the congregation members were white). Supposedly, because the church kids were too knowledgeable of the teachings being given in the bus ministry, they were given their own separate program. However, over the years, busses kept being sold, funding was cut, time was stripped away, and eventually, the church completely shutting down the entire bus outreach branch of the ministry.
There was a cast-iron mold that each individual was supposed to fit into, and if you failed, you were failing as a Christian.
I remember the rampant bullying done by classmates and others, including the teachers. I remember being one of only a few voices that consistently stood up to oppose the verbal abuse. Mental illness and disorders: ADD/ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, etc., were seen as fixable issues between the individual and God. There was a tangible fear between students and teachers, because reaching out for help was a sign that your faith was weak, and you were failing as a Christian.
Body-shaming drove many of my classmates, schoolmates, and even myself and my sister to eating disorders and self harm. As women, working out was proud & selfish. You were drawing attention to your body that should only be shown to your husband (after you were married). However, you were supposed to stay thin and attractive for your future husband, which meant many girls turned to uninformed dieting, bulimia, or anorexia.
Abuse was swept under the rug in the name of Christian punishment. Spousal abuse was supposed to be tolerated, because divorce was seen as a worse sin. Divorce was a selfish decision to tear apart “what God had brought together.” Truly healthy, equal relationships were seen as strange and abnormal. The husband was the true leader of the household. He was in charge spiritually, physically, and in every other aspect. The wife’s job was to preside over the household & the children. It was the natural order of things.
Humility was so honored and revered, it turned to pride. Self-advertisement for Christ was merely a thinly veiled way to prove, flaunt, how wonderfully Christ-like you were. Bible studies, youth group activities, boasting self-depreciating “confessions” in a class or a program, volunteering and being involved as much as you could, were all ways to wordlessly (or not-so-wordlessly) shout how Christian you were. You could spiritually boast about the gifts God gave you, but only if they were used for the church.
The more you went to church, the more esteemed and respected you were. The more you dedicated yourself to the church, the better you were. Missing a Sunday service was frowned upon-whether you were sick, out of town, or had other obligations. The more you sacrificed, whether it was healthy and wise for you to do so, the more revered you were. If your life didn’t fully revolve around the church as an organization, you were seen as a lesser Christian.
Out of all of this, there were still small, shining patches. In elementary school, I had some of the best, most inspiring & caring teachers of my life.
Mrs. Scroggins, the strongest teacher in that school, was my first grade teacher. She had the perfect balance of no-nonsense and unconditional love for each of her students. It was because of her that my mom was able to remove my younger sister from a mentally and emotionally abusive teacher. (It was also she who headed up said teacher’s firing very soon afterwards.)
Mrs. Free, my second grade teacher, was around through a lot of changes. I got glasses and was worried I would be teased- she came to school the next day wearing her brightly colored specs. I began to play the cello, an all-out weird instrument for a 2nd grader, and was teased because it wasn’t “cool, like a trumpet or a real instrument” – she had me bring in my cello for a special show & tell session. She fostered my love of weird animals like lizards. She LOVED the fact I wanted to work full time when I grew up. She fed my love of reading.
Miss DeShaun, in fourth grade, saw my bookishness and allowed me to take off with it full force. She added fuel to my fire, and inspired to be weird & quirky. She relished my dream of being a pilot like my grandfather, and my idol at the time: Charles Lindbergh.
Miss Swofford, fifth grade, was one of the most understanding, patient people in the world. She encouraged my adoration of costumes, theater, music. She loved that the instrument I chose in band was percussion. She poked and prodded me along when I was starting to feel that being smart wasn’t cool, and showed me how to break away from that fear.
Mrs. Stevenson, six grade, was there when I fully absorbed my bookishness. I began to solidify my path in becoming a librarian, and she was with me every step of the way. She gave me books, guidance, a hug if I needed it. She also made puberty feel not as scary, and in a school where the word “sex” was taboo, and sex education was seen as a way to encourage pre-marital relations, it was a welcome support.
Outside of school, my parents helped build me and my sisters up as independent women. When I was sent home with notes that my books weren’t appropriate for school (Star Wars, Catcher in the Rye, A Wrinkle in Time, were just a few), my mother showed me to switch book covers before heading into school, so an ‘approved’ book was actually an inappropriate one in disguise. She coached me in being respectful in my arguments, and how to stand up for myself and others. My dad gave me confidence in my love of outdoors & sports. Both of them taught us that equality was a right that was given by God, not taken by him, as many of the patriarchal rules and lessons taught.
The experiences, both good and bad, from Tri-City’s cult-like community made me who I am today: a loud, proud, pro-public school, pro-equality feminist, pro-argument woman who has a partner, not a governor, as a future husband.
I met my best friend in the church’s nursery, and was able to grow up beside her every year from preschool to 7th grade.
I got my love of music from their band, orchestra, and percussion ensemble programs.
I got my fierce, unbending feminist streak by being born and forged in the fire of a staunchly anti-feminist society.
My experience ended better than some. After leaving the church and school, I was able to throw myself completely into my studies, a career, extracurricular activities, and hobbies that kept me occupied, traveling, and far too busy to dwell on the emotional abuse I didn’t realize I had been suffering under for half of my lifetime.
I got lucky.
I had parents who were supportive and saw me as an equal. I had friends who kept me grounded outside of the community. I had a grandfather who was stronger, wiser, and more humble than anyone I’ve ever met, and the most kind, accepting Christian man in my life.
Tri-City’s cult-like beehive of drone-Christians was cultivated, grown, and weeded by spiteful, hateful men who used the name of religion to further their self interests. They hid behind God’s word to spread their un-Christianlike beliefs to their following, un-apologetically leading hundreds to reject the faith entirely, families to dwell and fester in unhealthy and often abusive relationships, and causing almost an entire generation years, decades of pain, self-hate, and abuse. I’m glad their hypocrisy is slowly being stripped away, and I’m glad its survivors, including me, are able to speak.