How I Overcame Church Hurt & Recommitted To My Spiritual Journey

We should all approach our spiritual health just like our mental and physical health. Here's how.


Listen, I know some of you read the headline, rolled your eyes, and said, "Oh gosh, here we go," but this ain't your typical church-girl fairy-tale.

As a child, I was raised in a strict, Christian household, and for the most part, I actually enjoyed it. I found church to be a safe haven and a place of peace. I loved waking up to the sound of Mahalia Jackson, the Clark Sisters, and the Rev. James Cleveland mixed with the smell of pancakes before going to school.

And who doesn't like the obligatory after-church feast of collard greens, mac-and-cheese, fried chicken, yams, homemade rolls and sweet tea?


At age 7, I had a spiritual, out-of-body experience at Vacation Bible School that truly connected me to God and the love of Christ, and it's something that has always stuck with me.

Things took a turn for the worse when, at 12, I experienced trauma in church due to a leadership scandal I did not understand at the time. It divided the congregation, brought shameful drama, and changed my life forever. A couple years later, my mother divorced my stepfather---a major figure in our church and a gifted gospel musician in his own right---and things changed even more drastically. Anything that reminded me of those times turned me all the way off, and I could not even listen to choirs sing or anybody mention "the Lord" without cringing.

I began to see church and Christianity as something false---a place where facades superseded faith, where you couldn't trust anyone or anything.

l felt my place of peace was taken away from me and that people in authority---who I revered and thought were perfect due to their position in the church---had failed me. I went from going to church just for holidays to not going at all.

By the time I got to college, I'd attend chapel only because it was expected, not because I was into it. I even became an atheist for a short sting during my junior year. I just couldn't deal with the doubt and withdrew from anything spiritual.

I did end up being led back to Christ---but not after a journey I had to walk on my own. This story may be a re-run for a lot of us---I get it, sis---but I just find it interesting that many people don't approach spirituality---or their spiritual health---like they approach career advancement, money management, or physical health and wellness.

When you have a job that's toxic or not a good fit, what do you do? Send out resumes, research other positions, quit, and get another one, right? When a diet or workout regime isn't working, what do you do? You stop, alter it, or find something else, correct?

I think more people would benefit from thinking about spirituality in a different way---one that is a personal process to connect deeply with God and why you're here on Earth. I hope the steps I took will inspire someone else to find peace and really honor their spirit by taking accountability and reconnecting with their own journey:

Don't Be Afraid To Ask Questions


Some of us were raised to believe that God is this big, bad dictator who just wants to punish us and ask us to do things we don't want to do. We cannot be ourselves---curious human beings---without practically being damned to hell. I believed this at one point. Many churches focus more on robotic condemnation than empowering redemption.

My mom, in her own Christian journey post-divorce, told me, "I am praying for you. Ask God the questions you have. Go to Him." The rebel in me said, "OK. I'll try this. God, can you show me you're real and not a total manipulative faker?"

A month after asking God that question, I got a chance opportunity to intern for a major magazine in New York. I didn't take that as a sign, and I was still angry and confused. I ended up connecting with a brilliant young lady who was interning at another publication. We just instantly clicked. She was upbeat, a bit radical, had a fly Afro (among a sea of mostly white interns), and she was a great editor. I learned so much from her over several weeks and we became thick as thieves.

One day, she said, "I know you're questioning God. He has not left you." She then asked if she could pray with me. I was taken aback because I did not know she was religious, let alone a Christian. We'd never really had these conversations and, at that point, I'd never told her about my childhood experience. At first, I wanted to totally cut her off. Then something said, "Just let her do it. It won't hurt. You don't believe anyway."

She didn't beat me down with Bible verses, preach at me, or come at me aggressively at all. She actually waited until I was genuinely comfortable with her, as a friend, to even ask to pray with me. I respected that, and it softened my spirit. I began to feel a bit different. The questions came back but with less anger and more childlike curiosity. I felt free.

Do Your Research And Explore


The Capricorn in me likes to be armed with information so that I am not making choices based on ignorance. (And yes, I referenced a zodiac sign. I'm a Christian who referenced a zodiac sign. Yes.) True, our childhood experiences can affect our adult decisions, but I decided that the past and whatever I'd been shown didn't have to dictate my future. I challenged myself by following a Bible-reading schedule---which the friend from that internship experience introduced me to. It was a yearlong schedule that would get me through the entire Bible, and I actually finished half before that summer was over.

I also began to research different churches and denominations, their missions, and their leaders' backgrounds. I'd try to attend a different church at least once a month, just to expose myself and find out where I could connect. When I couldn't go into a church, I'd watch YouTube videos or live-stream services online. I didn't fully invest in going back, but this helped me get over some of my negative thoughts about pastors, church folk, and preachers.

I learned that not all are alike, not all are a fit, and there are many who are genuine and have ministries that speak to the intellect and explorer in me. I also learned that there are common traits and practices of some churches that turn me off and how to create boundaries for myself without feeling guilty about it.

I also ventured into Buddhism, and I would attend meditations and events with a friend who believed in a mixture of religions and spiritual practices. She was a person who just wouldn't commit to one, and that worked for her. I dabbled into Islam as well, and I enjoyed certain aspects of it including the discipline and the cultural diversity. Rastafarianism was attractive as well because I loved the idea of just being free of certain vanities, committing to Ital eating, and living a country life in Negril or Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Though I loved the teachings, meditations, and literature and was intrigued, I just did not connect with my spirit and the way I saw the world like the Biblical teachings of Christ.

Find A Balanced Support System


With this one, I want to put an emphasis on balance. (So, if sis is wearing skirts to the floor, never curses, and goes to church 7 days a week, and that triggers negative thoughts about your spiritual journey, that may not be the one you want to consult for balance. On the other hand, if you feel something is strongly drawing you to a way of life that includes those elements, explore it.)

I'd only been exposed to a glimpse of Christianity, and the people associated with it were a monolith. I had a totally one-sided, warped view of what being a Christian meant. I prayed and sought to widen my understanding by seeking support from balanced sources and individuals.

My sister, my mom, my mother's now-husband, and my uncle (a pastor who has diverse life experiences, can authentically change from a three-piece suit and Italian shoes into Air Force Ones and a white tee, and has helped people overcome addiction, incarceration, depression, and other life issues) became a huge support system. They were Christians who knew the Bible but didn't slam people with it, and they had been transparent about their own issues with God and church. They were also avid readers, invested in conferences and speakers, and could approach religious debates with compassion, humor, and intelligence.

With the help of a support system that included people with their own stories of spiritual transitions and growth, I was able to find new truths and widen my perspective.

Face Your Fears And Release The Shame


During my exploration---and after a bit of therapy---I found that I'd held church leaders and other Christians to a high, unrealistic standard, almost as if they were gods. I had to come to terms with their humanity, and I had to reconnect with the concept that God is greater than man. I had to offer grace to them and to myself.

As humans, none of us are perfect, and shame is not something that nurtures the spirit, nor does it help us in connection with God---at least not for me. The more shame I felt for not being perfect---and for the childhood memories from church---the less I wanted to even fool with God or anything spiritual. In the same vein, I still hold Christian leaders to a certain standard, and when I see red flags, I pray about it, watch, and then act accordingly. This is a constant work-in-progress, but I'm grateful I have an open heart and the opportunity to even do this. Some of us are so hardened from trauma that we cannot see ourselves through to salvation or freedom, and I think God lives in that space where we forgive ourselves and others for hurt of the past.

I also had to say, "Well, Janell, are you really mad at the 'church' or at yourself? What has God asked you to do that you are not doing? How can you be an asset?" I still struggle with this because again, trauma is trauma, but I find that if I put things into a self-accountability perspective, I can look at my journey more optimistically instead of just saying forget about it. For example, I can say, "Oh, the pastor has asked for two offerings in the past 45 minutes. I'm out," or I can say, "Hmmm, I wonder what the Bible says about tithing? How does this play into my role in being here? Where is the money going? Do I see tangible results of what this church is invested in? What is God moving me to do at this moment?" and make a decision from there.

This is my thought process for continuing to move forward and give the journey a chance.

For anyone who is questioning spiritual connections they've made with God, whether it was due to childhood or adult trauma, I challenge you to continue through the process, ask questions in the journey, seek God in prayer and meditation, get therapy---do all you can to connect with where your heart and spirit find a home. Your spirit is directly linked to all other aspects of your life, so it's important to invest attention to that part of yourself.

I'm not ignoring nor disregarding the issues in religion---especially within Christian churches---but I choose to focus on what God has for me to do and my role in shifting the narrative. I've found peace in the redemptive and servant aspects of Christ, and I've been able to survive other traumatic experiences through my faith in God and belief in Christ. It suits me. It is what I believe in. It anchors me. My spiritual health means a lot to me, and I plan to nurture it just like any other aspect of my life.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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