How to recognise and escape spiritual abuse
This week, I met Nataline Daycreator, a wonderful coach and author who works to help victims of spiritual abuse. She is herself a survivor of 14 years in an abusive Pentecostal community. She told me her story and the lessons we can draw from it.
Hi Nataline. First of all, how do we define spiritual abuse?
An organization called INAASA defines it as 'a form of abuse that manifests when those in religious authority/leadership manipulate and use control tactics to undermine, disempower and subjugate those who look to them for guidance and advice in a religious capacity'. Most people who go into religious communities are trying to get close to God, not their leaders. Some leaders abuse their authority for power, money or sex.
What got you interested in this subject?
I experienced spiritual abuse for 14 years in a Pentecostal community in North London. I say community rather than church - a lot of places of worship may call themselves churches but often they’re not regulated by the Diocese of London or any ecclesiastical body. They use the term to validate themselves.
How did you become part of this community?
I grew up in Jamaica. Although I wasn’t brought up religious, growing up in such a beautiful place, I always had a sense there was some higher Being or orchestrator. My family moved to London, and I got pregnant when I was 18, and readily accepted the fact that I was a mother. I felt I needed support and God’s help. I thought if I got to know God He’d show me how to be the mother my child needed.
So I went on a quest to find God. I went to a shop near the Finsbury Park mosque, because I was interested in Islam, but the man in the shop was so rude and dismissive towards me that I walked straight out. Then I tried the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Whenever someone invited me to a faith community, I went, but I always asked questions - who was the Holy Spirit, who was Jesus? I had heard these terms but had no understanding of their relevance to who God was.
Most people answered these questions like they were trying to sell me a car. But I met one man, he was quiet, dressed rather shabbily, he answered in very simple and plain language. He seemed very humble and unassuming - they’re the worst ones! That was the pastor of the Pentecostal community I ended up joining for 14 years. I met his wife who was also a minister as an Evangelist, and I met their children. Then I went to hear him preach and talk. Initially it was just 12 people or so. We met in a church in Haggerston East London, the services were held there on Sunday afternoons. They rented the space from Haggerston church to have its sunday meetings, shortly after I had joined we moved to Edmonton Methodist Church, where again we hired the church on Sundays. This is common practice for smaller communities.
What did you like initially about the community and the services?
Well, I didn’t like the fact that they were quite long - it was usually from 2 until 5 every Sunday. But I loved singing in services and later started the choir. Though I was very new at learning this religious life, I had a sense of connection to God. And a sense of peace, in the early days, and of community, belonging and security, because you felt you were under God’s protection, and 'in the right lane'. In hindsight I wish I had realised that connection was free and could be experienced anywhere, without terms and conditions.
Then, in my second year in the community, people started telling me what my purpose was, what my personality would be. I was given all these responsibilities - I was choir director, Sunday School director, the pastor’s personal PA. I wasn’t given any training, or support or financial budget - I believed this was a part of my service to God and I paid for this out of my own pocket, although I was really struggling as a lone parent. Unfortunately these is not uncommon in some small unregulated churches.
Gradually, I lost my sense of identity, my self, my passions and desires, I became a mechanism for the community. It felt like a treadmill, where I was always trying to please the pastor and his wife, so that I would win one of their public displays of affection and approval. For example, if you brought a soul ( a person you had invited ) to church, that would win you some public approval in front of the church, and everyone in the congregation would want that approval too. I was never praised for who I was, only for what I did for the ministry.
So you met your husband in the community. Was it an arranged marriage?
Not arranged, but it was certainly officially approved. We had a genuine connection, we were into similar things, we were both quite entrepreneurial. I don’t think the pastor and his wife liked the fact that, after marriage, I was more loyal to my husband rather than the church. So the first week we came back from our honeymoon, they gave my husband the Brotherhood leadership role. He was never asked, he was told that's what he would do and he did it, with this came many responsibilities that drew him away from our marriage and further into ministry roles. They got their claws into him. Sometimes, when he got angry and lost his temper, I heard him repeating things the pastor had said to him.
Your husband was abusive, but the domestic abuse was closely connected to spiritual abuse by the pastor?
Yes. My husband was verbally and psychologically abusive to me and physically abusive to our children. But it was backed up by spiritual abuse. He and the pastor would twist scripture - they’d take a small verse like ‘the wife must submit to the husband’ and would leave out the rest ‘and the husband must submit to the wife’. If my husband was abusive, I would call the pastor (we could never call the police, who we were told were ungodly, worldly and secular - the advice of the pastor must come first), and the pastor and his wife would come round and tell me not to make my husband angry. His behavior was totally undermined as abusive, I was made to feel responsible for him and they would pray over us accordingly. I was warned to never call the police.
I believed if I went against the pastor, I was going against God. There was a sense that our religious leaders were higher than the state - higher than the police, judges or doctors. After five years in the community, I wanted to leave. But I was terrified that if I left, I was leaving God and would be open to demonic attacks. The pastor and his wife insisted that I was not spiritual enough, and if I had any doubts, it was the Devil trying to lure me away, and I should fast and pray until the doubts left. We were on an endless treadmill to win God’s approval and it seemed it only came through the mouth of the Pastor or his wife.
They tried to exert huge control over their congregants - the mind control was very extreme. They’d even say the Lord had given them power to come into our houses in the spirit, meaning their spirits would leave their bodies and watch what were doing in the privacy of our homes. Its seems crazy talking out loud about it now. When I think back now, yes some of it was sheer craziness. We also gave contributions to a trust to buy a church building, and were given permission by London Underground to fundraise at their stations but in fact, the money from the trust went to buy a house in the pastor and his wife's names. But if you questioned any of this, you were giving in to the Devil and seen to be moving away from God.
Towards the end of my time there, I realized I really did know myself, the real me and that gave me a core of strength. I knew I couldn’t just leave physically, not yet, but I could leave mentally. So at services, I’d look out of the window at the seagulls. Or at worship, I wouldn’t try and win their approval. I’d shut down so it was just between me and God. I prayed to God that the pastor’s wife wouldn’t lay hands on me during prayer, and she stopped. I detached myself from the church, mentally, and realized the real truth that I wasn’t in danger of the Devil. I was building the strength to say no more.
Then one year I went to a Hillsong conference in Australia, on my own. I needed to get away from it all and have the space to think clearly. This was an act of rebellion in itself, as our ministry had a conference at the same time. At the Hillsong conference, I met a policewoman, and we talked and opened up to each other. She told me ‘you’re going through domestic abuse and spiritual abuse’. She gave a name to what I had been experiencing through all these years. It was an incredible wake-up. When I went back, my husband became angry over something. This time I told him to leave, I rang the police, and my husband rang the pastor. He left before the police arrived, and went to live at the pastor’s house. I never went back to the community after that. My ex husband wasn’t perfect, but I believe he could have got better if he’d got therapy. Instead, he only turned to the community and sought their approval.
But they made it extremely difficult for me to leave. They would turn up at a new church I went to and demand that the church give me back. I had to take out an injunction against the pastor. But I got out. I jumped ship, I and my six children, and landed on safe ground. I found freedom and peace and a stronger connection to God. I also read the Bible afresh, and before where I just saw condemnation and shame, I saw love shining out. When I was leaving the community, I was terrified of displeasing God. But I thought, if He’s really the God of Love, He’ll know I’m trying to do right.
How common is spiritual abuse?
It’s extremely common. It happens in Christian communities, in Muslim communities, in Buddhism, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses. I met someone from a safety agency, she said it affected perhaps one in four people in churches here in London. It’s very prevalent in African and Caribbean churches. In Nigeria, for example, Bishop Oyedepo, who runs a church with some 35,000 members, publicly slapped a girl in the face in the front of the congregation and called her a witch. In these countries, there are no women’s rights. And when these churches come to the UK, they often bring that culture with them.
What can be done about it?
The first thing is the government could introduce a national register of all places of worship. There’s a complete lack of accountability and regulation. Every Sunday, the most vulnerable people in London walk into places of worship - people with mental health issues, people who have been sectioned, alcoholics, people who are hurting immensely looking for some relief. And they’re placed in the hands of people who are not at all trained, qualified or accountable. The English judiciary also needs to be less deferential to ecclesiastical authorities in law cases - if someone has committed a crime, it shouldn’t matter if they call themselves a pastor. Finally, if people think they may be suffering from spiritual abuse, they can also contact me directly or organizations like the Family Survival Trust.
Did the experience put you off religion entirely?
I’ve redefined religion. It should have this meaning: something that brings well-being to the whole person. If it doesn’t do that, it shouldn’t be granted the status of religion. If it is intended to harm then it should classed and treated as an act against humanity. Personally, I have a very strong relationship with God, but I’m still wary of organized religion, and all these labels we put on people: Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Catholic or whatever. They just close people off from each other. That’s not who God is. Religion has taught me I that I carry that a sinful nature, while being in love with God has taught me that I carry the inherit blueprint of who He is. One of these beliefs sets me free, the other enslaves me. Religion led me to a life of beating up this self that God the artist carefully and mindfully crafted to be unique and diverse from my millions of kin, and yet still one with Him.
So you don’t miss the community of being in a church?
I have community that I fellowship with all over the world. Through Facebook, for example, I have developed a network of like-minded people, who have faith but are also free thinkers. It’s been very healing. I’ll still go to church too at times, when people invite me, and I enjoy it. I’m sure there are healthy churches, but I don’t seek it anymore, I am no longer led by fear.