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Content warning: this piece contains mention of mental illness, spiritual abuse, homophobia, sexual assault, suicide, and death
Disclaimer: Sam Toews is the author’s sister
The muffled voice of the pastor echoes around her as she fixes her eyes on the concrete floor. As the sermon drones on, a small crack begins to form in the concrete. She looks up at her sister, then her mother, and then her father. No one else seems to notice. She shifts her foot until her small pink shoe covers the damage.
For Sam and I, growing up in a small religious town meant spending Sunday mornings sitting in church pews tuning out the preacher. We sat whispering to one another until we could finally go home. Maybe if we could have held on and tuned out those sermons just a little while longer, things would be different.
Attending youth group every Wednesday evening was a high school rite of passage in our town — that is if you fit the mould. Youth leaders could do no wrong, and if you could be like them, you were a “good” Christian. When we were older, we realized when the worship music stopped and Wednesday turned to Friday, the façade of perfectly poised adults who could do no wrong faded away and those youth leaders would commit the sins they said God would condemn us for.
One cool fall night as parents were pulling up in the parking lot to pick up their kids who weren’t old enough to drive, one of the youth pastors made their way over to Sam before she could slip away and broke the news: she wasn’t a good influence on the other youth and was no longer welcome.
Sam took a step back with an utter loss for words.
The leggings she wore — though similar to the leggings every other girl wore at the time — were too tight and showed off too much. The friendly tone of voice she used with the boys was too flirty. The way she presented herself wasn’t representative of the Christian youth they wanted to parade around town.
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” — Romans 15:7
In “The Harmful Practices of Modern Youth Ministries,” Sam Magdalein writes about youth pastors building small groups under the guise of helping kids find community when really, they’re used to hook kids into the church during a time where teenagers rebel against it. These youth groups quickly became exclusive social clubs, and the presence of actual Bible teachings became less and less important. After hours upon hours spent playing games and gossiping in the church on school nights — I can attest to this.
Staring at her shoe, still hiding the crack beneath it, she ignores the pastor as he speaks of adultery to the crowd of people before him. The congregation listens intently, some nodding in agreement, some raising a hand in the air as some sort of attempt to reach out and touch God. The crack moves beneath her foot as though it were growing. She shifts uneasily in her seat, telling herself it’s all in her head.
High school moved like a train, carrying some of its passengers with ease while it destroyed others in its path.
On top of everything else, Sam had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. The new youth group at another church in town seemed like a fresh start, so Sam joined and signed herself up for an outreach program in Winnipeg.
It was another attempt at faith and belonging.
As the youth group stepped off the bus onto downtown streets they were bombarded with rules and protocols. No leaving the church after dark, no hanging out on-on-one with the opposite gender, dress modestly, lights off at 10.
After a long day of touring the city, Sam thought it would be okay to go for a quick walk around the block with another outreach member, even though he was a guy. Sam stepped out of the church doors and into the street — a breath of fresh air.
What she didn’t know at the time was that she would be verbally abused and berated by the youth leader when she returned. At sixteen years old, she was told she was a slut, a sinner, and once again — no longer welcome.
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” — Romans 2:1-3
Only one in three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child still do so according to an article written by Canadian Christianity. The survey was based on over 2,000 Canadian adults ages 18-34 and stated that three-quarters of these adults no longer identify with the Christianity they grew up with. Instead they identify as spiritual, agnostic, atheist, or as having no religion.
For the first time since 1985, religiosity in Canada has fallen below 70 per cent. According to Statistics Canada only 68 per cent of Canadians ages 15 and up report religious affiliation. Christianity itself appears to be on the sharpest decline. The number dropped from 67.3 per cent in 2011 to 63.2 per cent in 2019.
In an article for Global News, Reverend Jason Meyers said, on average, the United Church of Canada loses one church per week across Canada with no expectations for that to change. Statistics Canada highlights the generational gap in churchgoers, finding that 85 per cent of Canadians born between 1940 and 1959 are affiliated with religion, while only 32 per cent of Canadians born between 1980 and 1999 reported religious affiliation. These trends suggest that future generations will likely continue to leave the church.
Society has changed a lot over the last decade alone. Teachings by the church about homosexuality, abortion, lust, and more are no longer acceptable to many people who see these ideas as outdated and harmful. Some churches shifted their teachings to be more accepting and inclusive, while others became places where many no longer feel welcome.
As she stares at the wooden pew in front of her, searching for pictures in the grain patterns, something in the corner of the ceiling shifts. Her eyes dart to the ceiling and she sees another crack beginning to form. This one much bigger than the last, leaving rubble to rain down and fall to the ground. She looks around her. Still, no one else seems to notice.
One last chance. A last-ditch effort to make amends with God.
Graduating from high school felt like freedom for Sam. What comes next? University, college, a career, travel?
After some research into different options, Sam decided to sign up for Youth with a Mission (YWAM) in San Diego — or at least that’s what she thought she signed up for until she found herself on a bus to Tijuana, Mexico. It turned out the program she’d chosen had a head office in San Diego, but their actual school was in Tijuana. Excitement took over during the booking process and a few key details were missed. Nevertheless, Sam was already on her way, and anywhere was better than her hometown.
In the beginning it was new and exciting and awkward all at once. She made friends with some other students quickly and got used to their class schedule. The daytime classes revolved around historical religious teachings while sermons took place in the evenings.
Some students were there to learn, and judged those who weren’t — others were there to party. Most people knew this going in. A lot of people use YWAM as an excuse to travel and party while their parents are content thinking they’re becoming better Christians.
Palm trees towered above her as she walked across campus toward the chapel. The sun had just gone down, and crickets were beginning to chirp in the long, dry grass. She opened the door and sat down near the back with a friend.
The sermon for the evening was about lust and sexuality. The pastor passionately spoke about sinful thoughts and rambled on about staying pure for God. He took a long pause before asking those sitting in the audience to stand up if they ever experienced ‘unholy’ thoughts about someone of the same gender.
Silence fell on the room like a weighted blanket.
He spoke again, telling them he could feel there was someone in the room who had these thoughts. He said God himself was telling him there was someone in the room.
Some students stirred among the silence and finally one young man stood up. Soon after, a few women followed, including Sam and her friend who felt pressured by the silence to give in and confess.
The pastor was satisfied and allowed them to sit back down for now. After an hour of talking about how sinful their thoughts were, he let everyone go back to their dorms.
The next day, the young man who had confessed his sins the evening before was told by leadership to carry around a suitcase for the rest of the week. The suitcase was filled with rocks. Neither Sam nor any of the girls who stood up were required to do this — only the guy. They were told this was the weight of his sin and that he had to carry it before God could take it from him. They spoke of an all-forgiving and endlessly-loving God, yet punished him for loving someone.
“Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” — Song of Solomon 8:7
Youth with a Mission is a large Christian missionary organization with campuses all over the globe. Young adults can sign up for their program in the participating country of their choice for three-month terms. After their initial three-month term and an optional outreach program to another country, students are given the option to participate in Discipleship Training School (DTS). DTS is a six-month program that includes both a lecture phase and an outreach phase. After completing DTS, students are qualified to become leaders of the next group of students to attend YWAM.
In 2018, David Joel Hamilton of YWAM reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to homophobic views, stating in a release, “We hold unswervingly to God’s original design for holy matrimony between one man and one woman as described in Genesis 2:23-24. All sexual activity (heterosexual or homosexual) outside of this God-ordained arrangement is sin.”
Shock and fear fill her eyes as she watches the foundation of the place that raised her Sunday after Sunday begin to crumble. She opens her mouth to call for her mother, who sits listening intently to the pastor, but nothing comes out. She can feel the earth beneath her shaking, the pew she sits on creaks and moans, and her foot slips into the crack as it widens and spreads. The pastor speaks on about modesty.
The image of him dragging the suitcase around campus haunted Sam as she walked back to her room — his shoulders hunched over, the wheels making a horrid scraping noise that attracted the attention of everyone he passed. Some averted their eyes to ease his shame and others glued theirs to him.
Two students who had just finished their DTS invited Sam and her friend to join them at the beach for the evening. Students were allowed to go off campus after school hours.
The sun was setting along the coast, yellow, orange, and blue tones danced over the water as the four of them ran in, laughing and diving beneath the surface.
One of the guys moved closer and closer to Sam; the other did the same to her friend. They moved their hands through the water until they found the women’s bodies and began to explore without asking .
As the young man’s lips reached toward Sam, she pulled away. Nearby her friend struggled to do the same. Neither of the men let go. Sam’s and her friend’s pleas to stop grew louder and the men tried to stifle them. Passersby were far enough away to think they were all just having fun.
Eventually, Sam and her friend slipped from their grips and made their way to the shore as fast as they could with tears in their eyes.
“You’re not going to tell anyone about this, right?” asked one of the guys.
Of course they were.
Startled and frightened, they made their way back to campus trying to figure out how two people who had just finished their Christian leadership training could abuse them like this. In only a few months they would be in a position of power over so many students.
Reaching campus campus felt like a relief. Sam and her friend went searching for the men’s leader, who they had come to know and trust. They finally found him and explained everything that transpired on the beach.
“Well, why did you go to the beach with two guys then?” he asked.
The men were absolved of all blame. Instead, the women were showered with it. The events of that night were covered up and never brought up at YWAM again.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” — Genesis 6:11
Several sexual assault allegations over the course of two decades have been brought against YWAM in Perth, Australia according to an article written for Daily Mail. In 2018, footballer Jarryd Hayne was on bail awaiting trial, accused of sexually assaulting a 26-year-old woman. In 2019, the program accepted his application into their DTS program. Hayne has since been found guilty and sentenced to five years and nine months in jail with no chance of parole for almost four years.
Similar to the #MeToo movement, a #ChurchToo movement began in 2017 involving two queer women exposing how churches are often littered with sexual violence against women and children. This inspired Rebecca Lujan to speak her truth in 2019 and start the #YWAMtoo movement that quickly gained attraction.
Lujan claims she was sexually abused and groomed at YWAM. In her article, “#YWAMtoo: My Sexual Abuse Story,” she says no one from the organization reached out to her after she shared her story. The closest she had to contact was an article called “Trail by Social Media,” which alluded to women accusing men of sexual assault being trendy.
According to an investigation by The West Australian, around 20 former students and staff detailed their experiences including claims that YWAM leaders failed to report sexual assault to police and told victims to apologize to their assaulters for ‘leading them on.’
She cries out as the wood beneath her breaks, and she begins to fall toward the crack in the ground. The walls have begun to look like ruins as everything around her turns to dust. Her family finally turns to look just as she falls beneath the surface.
I saw the bright, smiling photo of my mom light up my screen and answered without thinking twice. She’d probably forgotten I was away at a friend’s cabin for the weekend.
Her voice was shaky, and I could tell she was trying to keep it together to talk to me. I’d heard this tone in her voice only two other times: when my dad died, and the first time Sam attempted suicide.
The cause was once again the latter. Sam was in the hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, soon to be admitted to their suicide ward.
In 2021, Sam was officially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Her psychiatrist says religious trauma is likely one of the main causes.
Treatment for personality disorders is often intensive and requires patients to re-live much of their trauma before they learn to cope. Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often affects victims for the rest of their lives.
Sam has begun intensive treatment and therapy with the goal of learning to live with her diagnosis and everything that comes with it. It is only the beginning of a long road ahead.
Accusations continue to plague YWAM and churches across the world as more people feel comfortable sharing their stories and holding them accountable.
Like many others who have been abused and mistreated in the church, Sam and I have both grappled with our faith. The religious aspect of our lives has changed tremendously since we spent our Sundays sitting in church pews tuning out sermons. We still consider ourselves somewhat spiritual, but want no part in the organized religion that put us through hell for the promise of heaven.