Stina is a writer-friend I met at Collegeville this summer. We bonded over birth-stories, evangelical colleges, and overseas trips that left us both limping. Everything I've read from Stina has been thoughtful, careful, and beautiful, and what she's sharing with us today is the absolute perfect way to begin our Searching for a Second Simplicity series. Enjoy.
There was a time when I didn’t know if God was good.
It was the summer I fell in with a group of fire-breathing Pentecostals and the summer I questioned the salvation of nearly every Christian I had ever met. It was the summer I interviewed migrants in a Kenyan refugee camp as an intern with the United Nations and the summer I nearly lost my mind from secondary trauma.
It was the summer when everything unraveled. My ideas of good and bad, true and untrue blurred into a swirling mess, a cyclone that ripped through the faith that had been growing steadily since childhood.
Some days I peer at the landscape of my faith and see the devastation that lingers even now, nine years later. It looks like the path a windstorm can wrack through an old-growth forest. It looks like a trail of downed trees. Sure, I can see regrowth among the broken limbs on the forest floor; I can see new saplings poking upward in sunlight. But I can’t help staring at all those snapped trunks and exposed roots, wondering at all that I lost in that storm.
Before that summer, I was just another earnest Jesus-girl.
My heart was unguarded, my hands eagerly searched for God during worship songs in chapel, my prayers were often and my “quiet times” regular. My Bible was always in my purse, passages underlined, its pages marked with dates and stars. A well-thumbed Book of Common Prayer sat on my bedside table, alongside journals scrawled with written prayers and emotional pleas to God, asking him to use my small life for his Kingdom.
Though I was a serious young Christian, I didn’t compare to the spiritual elite on my evangelical college’s campus. You know the ones: they led discipleship small groups, were selected as student chaplains, and majored in youth ministry. A few started hosting Holy Spirit meetings during my junior year and the whisper of revival started to spread. People were talking about speaking in tongues, about prophecies and miracles.
I wanted it all, this mysterious supernatural part of God that I never encountered in my mainline church upbringing. I wanted to be known as a highly spiritual person, an elite who knew the power of the Holy Spirit. And I wanted to serve God in the most despairing of places, in the hardest of soil.
And then it fell into my lap, like a direct response from God himself: an opportunity to work in Kakuma Refugee Camp in a desolate part of Northwestern Kenya. I jumped. Yes, Lord, I will go, I prayed. Please God, teach me more about your Global Church. Teach me about your Holy Spirit.
Soon I was packing missionary-length skirts and loose cotton shirts. I got vaccinated for yellow fever and printed out copies of my immunizations from the student health center. I took new passport photos at Wal-Mart; I started malaria pills and bought mosquito netting. My suitcase was packed and weighed, then reweighed.
I was ready for what God was going to teach me. It was the perfect mindset, that aching vulnerability, for a spiritual abuser to prey upon.
I’m finally here, I thought, my eyes scanning the arid scenery. Acacia trees dotted an otherwise empty horizon. I remember watching men on bicycles kicking up red dust as they pedaled, yellow jerry cans strapped to the back of their bike frames. The dry heat was smoldering, creating crescent sweat-stains under my Henley t-shirts.
I spent those first weeks of my internship in the United Nations compound, a compact fortress amidst the sprawling miles of corrugated tin roofed shacks and tents in the refugee camp across the dirt road. Located in the northwest corner of Kenya, Kakuma Refugee camp was home to an estimated 85 thousand refugees from neighboring countries. (Today, the population has more than doubled due to renewed war in South Sudan.)
During the workday I would interview refugees about the worst moments in their lives. I typed their stories of rape, starvation, torture and military raids on my laptop computer. And, after the interview was over, I made a decision about that refugee’s fate. About whether their story of displacement met the UN’s definition of a refugee. About whether they had a shot at leaving the refugee camp through a resettlement program. It was a humiliating power for a 21-year-old intern to wield in the lives of vulnerable people.
The traumatic stories I absorbed each day hit hard, nearly knocking me off my feet. I needed my faith to ground me, so I started attending a Christian fellowship meeting among aid workers in the compound.
I remember that I was the only non-Kenyan at that first meeting, and I remember meeting Andrew. When I heard him share his testimony, claiming that the Holy Spirit was alive and well today and performing many of the miracles described in the book of Acts, I knew that God had led me there. Here it is, I thought, this is the sign that God is giving me. I need to learn from this man.
Over dinners in the cafeteria, Andrew would entrance me with tales of spiritual warfare, witches and curses. About how the Holy Spirit would give him audible directions: talk to the person in the red hat, give them this message, cast out that demon, raise this person from the dead. These were not topics covered by my church upbringing or even my Evangelical college courses. I would sit there transfixed as he told me how narrow the true path was, how American churches were brimming with false teachers and demons.
I started to believe that most Christians, including my pastor mother who taught me the words to “Jesus loves me this I know” when I was a small child, were on the outside of God’s salvation. I thought that people I knew and loved were perishing in droves. They didn’t know the real truth, the secret truth that God only reveals to those who receive supernatural gifts of the spirit.
At the end of the summer, Andrew prophesied that I would soon receive these gifts, these powers. He prophesied that I would go back to my college campus and lead a Holy Spirit revolution, bringing people back to the true faith, to the narrow path.
To this day I have never spoken in tongues, heard a direct prophecy from God or raised anyone from the dead. Instead of returning to my college to lead a Holy Spirit uprising, I limped home with a warped, damaged psyche. I was a mess.
I questioned the very goodness of God. I raged against God for the horror movies that some refugees actually live; I wept over scars and mutilated bodies, I had flashbacks and nightmares about militias and underground prison cells. And I despaired that I wasn’t good enough, or spiritual enough, or faithful enough to receive the spiritual gifts that Andrew promised I would receive.
But now I have a name for Andrew’s manipulation and warped teachings: spiritual abuse. Those two words put together have brought some semblance of meaning, of understanding to my story. I have had time and space to dissect Andrew’s theology and uncover the pseudo-Gnosticism that lurked there all along.
I no longer believe that God is about excluding and hiding and withholding from those who seek good things. Doesn’t Jesus tell his disciples that God gives good gifts to those who ask? Not a stone instead of bread, not a snake instead of fish?
The gifts that God has given me are less exciting, less immediate than those Andrew promised. I’ve come to appreciate that slow, hard work of the kingdom comes through cultivating the fruit of the spirit as much as through the flash and sparkle of the obviously supernatural gifts. The kingdom comes through patience as much as prophecy, through gentleness as much as miraculous healing.
Still, I keep grasping around for a faith that rings true both in the American Midwest where I live now and the dusty desperation of Kakuma refugee camp where I lived then. I still don’t know why I met Andrew. I don’t comprehend why storms come or how God allows stable trees to topple. The remaining tornado path in my spiritual landscape still confounds, still upsets.
There are days when it’s a struggle to believe. Some days I question whether God has any purpose for my life; some days I wonder if I am floundering in darkness outside God’s love like Andrew said. I mourn the loss of that earnest Jesus-girl and the simple faith I once espoused.
But sometimes I can see sunlight pouring through the damaged tree line. In those moments I sense God’s presence as tangibly as the bright sun on my face, I can feel His warmth. I remember that the Spirit can be like the whisper of wind in the branches, a gentle restorer of all broken things.
Stina KC is a fledgling writer who blogs occasionally athttp://stinakc.wordpress.com/. After turning 30, she decided it was finally okay to write for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty Anabaptist/Anglican hybrid who likes to write about faith, motherhood, and being all grown up. Stina lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.