BLESSED BE THE TIES THAT BIND

by TIFFANY HOLBERT

To my mother: I’ve learned, the way that all children do at some point, that no one’s love, attention or affection will ever compare to yours.

To ensure the privacy of those involved, the following names are either abbreviated or fictional: Nicole, Tess, Aly, Jen, and Kara. I know that my experience within the church is not indicative of the collective experience, and I want to be careful to tell only my story and not anyone else’s. It is not my intention to do any harm to those involved, but to begin a healing process for myself.

I

t was a few weeks before my 15th birthday, in August 2002, when the day came. I sat cramped in a window seat, agitated and antsy. We had just settled in with our bags secured overhead and seatbelts fastened. Our breathing was still heavy from the dart we made from one end of the airport to the other. It had been several months since my parents broke the news of their decision to divorce and live 1,000 miles apart. I chose to go with my mom to Florida, leaving behind my whole world in Anderson, our small hometown in Indiana. Only now, as I sat on this plane with its engine roaring, did it all become real to me. “I can’t hold it,” I told my Mom. I took a deep breath of stale, cold cabin air and darted toward the back of the plane, headed toward the lavatory. Once inside, I took a deep breath, suddenly feeling claustrophobic. I tried to fight the tears burning behind my eyes, but at that moment I realized my fight was gone. I’d spent all of my energy over the past several months trying to keep my composure so that I could handle this situation gracefully. There was a knock on the door, followed by the voice of a flight attendant asking if I was all right. I was holding up our departure. I mustered an affirming sound and wiped my face before I pushed the door open and headed back to my seat. People looked at me, irritated that I’d delayed their journeys, but I was in no hurry to begin mine. In the final days of the divorce, when I made the decision to go to Tampa, I told myself that this would turn out okay – that starting over in the sunshine would be better than the mess that surrounded me here. I climbed over my mother’s lap and tripped over my brother’s lanky legs before slumping down in my seat again. Another flight attendant stood in front of us. She said her last words before departure and hung up the microphone.

Somehow, I’d convinced myself that this would be easy, that moving to Florida would be a fun adventure. But now the reality hit me: I was leaving behind everyone and everything I’d ever known and loved. All I could think about was my Dad in our newly rebuilt home with room for five, how lonely I’d be without the church youth group that had become my family, and how I’d survive in a new high school. It was too late. We were off to Tampa whether I was ready or not. * * *

I struggled to find my footing as we settled into our new home. My new high school was three times bigger than the one I’d left, which was nestled between cornfields and filled with familiar faces. Here, I sat among strangers day in and day out and hardly understood my classmates’ heavy Southern twang. I kept my head down, speaking only when called on and wearing headphones to avoid conversation outside of class. When I was home, I locked myself in my room and listened to tapes of sermons I purchased with leftover lunch money. My brother jokingly called me a monk, but my faith seemed like the only thing there was to hold on to. Church had been a part of my life since childhood. My parents made sure that it was. At the Church of God in Anderson, I’d spend Sunday mornings in church, Wednesday evenings in Bible study, and summers in vacation Bible school. As my family crumbled, I found a new comfort in my church. It was the only place, it seemed, I could find peace. I’d fallen in love with God and felt an overwhelming call to the ministry. I had to leave my church family behind, but I felt my passion and commitment to the call hadn’t faltered with the move. A few months into my sophomore year, I was home sick when Pastor Paula, a feisty, blond preacher on TV, caught my attention. Compelled by her conviction and charisma, I held the remote in my hand, listening intently. This was the first time I had ever heard anyone preach like this. By the end of her halfhour show, I had learned that she was the co-pastor of a church in Tampa. This seemed to be more than a coincidence. I took it as a sign. Perhaps this was how I could fit into this new life. I begged my mom to take me the church I’d seen on TV – the place that could bring me back to life. Though she was wary of the size and flashiness, I wore her down. She agreed to make the 30-minute drive to South Tampa so we could attend a Sunday night service.

My aunt and cousin, who lived in Tampa, joined us. As we approached the campus, I straightened my back and stretched my neck in the backseat, looking all around to be sure I wasn’t missing anything. We drove past the scrolling marquee for the first time and continued down the drive, passing hundreds of international flags that lined the landscape. There were greeters everywhere, outfitted in fluorescent vests, waving and smiling at the cars filling the lot. Inside, it looked like a palace. The carpet and chairs were a royal shade of purple. The pulpit was huge. The pastors sat in a row of large, cushioned chairs on the left, and the choir and band were on the right. I’d traveled to churches all around the Midwest with my youth group and attended national church conventions every year, but I had never seen anything like this. The congregation remained on its feet throughout the praise and worship portion of the service. The people danced, jumped, sang, and shouted in every corner, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. Should I sing or clap? Sit or stand? As the congregation settled, attention shifted to the pulpit where the feisty blond preacher from TV stood beside her husband, the church’s co-pastor. It was almost impossible to see their faces from where we sat, but the action was projected on large TV screens throughout the sanctuary. The pastors were outfitted in expensive suits and jewelry. They seemed accustomed to the cameras swinging overhead, capturing each hand gesture and facial expression. As they spoke, words dripped from their mouths like sweet honey, each one more enticing than the last. Under their influence were award-winning musicians and athletes and thousands of adoring fans from every walk of life. Somehow, they’d all found their way here. Week after week, service after service, they returned to this place and sat like baby dolls, mesmerized by all that was before them. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was about this place, or why the larger-than-life pastors seemed so intriguing, but just like the others around me, I knew I’d be back.

W

ithout Walls became our church. While my mother encouraged me to ease into the newness of the mega-church, I wanted to be there as often as I could. I attended Sunday mornings and evenings as well as a midweek service on Thursdays. The size of the church made it hard to become part of the church family, though. Without Walls had 10,000 members, whereas my church in Anderson

had only 150. I sat with a rotation of strangers week after week, our only bond being the place we’d chosen to worship. Months passed and the only names I’d learned where those of the pastor’s armor-bearers, who constantly trailed behind them, carrying their Bibles. I also knew the famous members whose names were often called out from the pulpit. It felt good to be in the presence of such high spiritual energy, but it wasn’t quite like my old church. I began to accept the fact that I’d probably never know who gave the best hugs or whose dinner rolls were the most coveted. New members were encouraged to “get plugged in,” to find a place in the church where they could serve. I started out with what I knew: the choir and youth ministry. Choir practices were held on Tuesday evenings in The Loft, where youth service was held on Thursdays. The Loft was like a nightclub, appealing to the urban neighborhood where it was situated. The lights were kept low and music was always playing. The room was painted black with a row of spotlights hanging overhead. It was the ultimate hangout spot. I managed to meet a few people during choir practice, but nobody I was ready to let into my life. Still, it felt nice to have some human contact, something I avoided at school. The youth ministry was even larger and busier than the choir. Two-hundred teens each week made it a struggle to stand out from the crowd. At my old church, I was handpicked to be a leader and enjoyed the extra trust and responsibility. Here, every week was a fight just to be noticed. I showed up early to choir practice one week. As I waited for the rest of the choir to arrive, I overheard one of the youth leaders say she was fasting until God blessed her with a job. She seemed bubbly and outgoing, and I saw a chance to connect with someone that maybe I could help out. Her name was Nicole, and she was one of the youth group’s praise and worship leaders. When she sang, she did so with her whole heart. When she wasn’t singing, she was loud and silly, always outfitted in bright colors and oversized hoop earrings. “So, you’re looking for a job?” I asked her just minutes before practice began. I had started working at a call center that sold business directories. The job was miserable. It probably wasn’t the perfect fit for her personality, but it was a job. “Yeah, just about anything at this point,” she said. She was a year older than me and had just graduated from high school. I told her about my job, saying it wasn’t fun but the pay was good. “We should hang out sometime,” she said. The next day, I gave my boss her number. Within the week, she’d gotten the

job. We went out to McDonald’s to celebrate and ended up talking for hours. She took me to her house because her parents had requested to meet the girl who helped their daughter find a job. They greeted me with hugs, offered me a hot cafe con leche, and told me I was always welcome in their home. I felt my life begin to take shape again. * * *

“You should always be mentoring someone and have a mentor,” I heard from the pulpit. The pastor stood before us, excitedly telling the story of Elijah and Elisha, two Old Testament prophets, whose relationship was our example of the power of mentorship. It made me realize that everybody who was somebody had a mentor in this church. It seemed to mark those who were serious about growing as young Christians. I’d met Nicole’s mentor, the pastor’s executive assistant, just the week before. I followed suit and set out to find my Elijah. After weeks of quiet observation, I chose Tess. Nicole introduced me to her one Sunday after service. Tess was the leader of a youth group for 11- to 14-year-olds, and she taught a class before Sunday service for those that felt called to ministry. Her preaching was spirited like Pastor Paula’s. Hoping to gain her attention, I attended her class faithfully. I was inspired by Tess’ passion for ministry and her no-nonsense attitude. I was ready to take on a leadership role and felt she was the person to prepare me to serve in the way I felt called. After a powerful message one service, she gave an altar call that led almost every young person from their seats to the front of the room where she stood. She prayed and laid her hands on everyone that came to the altar. She turned off the microphone and walked quietly to the back of the room, as they all stood there, praying, crying, and singing with their hands lifted up to heaven. It was my confirmation that God was using her to speak to me. I saw her doing exactly what I felt God was calling me to do — offer myself as a spokesperson for Him. That evening, weeks before my high school graduation, I sent Tess a text message, too nervous to talk to her on the phone. “Will you be my mentor?” * * *

Tess and I both lived on the north side of town, about 30 minutes from the church, so we began carpooling. On Sundays, I drove while she sat in the passenger’s seat, putting the finishing touches on the message she would deliver to the youth group. On our drives home, she told me stories of her past: the mission trips she’d been on, her friends from Bible college, her short stint as a phlebotomist, and the time she’d spent traveling with Pastor Paula. “I don’t know what it is, Tiff,” she said. “You just have a way of pulling stories out of me.” Tess was single and in her late 30s. She was a debt collector by day, though her energy was focused on realizing her dream of running a full-time ministry. I entered her life as another protégé, Aly, was leaving. Tess hinted that it had been an uncomfortable transition. I wondered what she meant but was too shy to ask pressing questions. “Don’t get used to having me all to yourself,” she told me. “Aly is coming back to me.” Her heartbreak over losing Aly consumed our early conversations. Instead of spending time teaching me, Tess would sit across from me on her couch and cry over how much she missed Aly and all the things Aly had learned to do over the course of their two-year relationship. Quickly, I felt like more of a burden than a blessing. Driven by my desire to mirror the relationship I heard about from the pulpit, I served her fervently, hoping that she’d forget about the painful break from Aly and spend her time teaching me. I began cleaning her home once a week, like she told me Aly had. I had her car washed and serviced regularly and learned to temper her moods. Throughout Tess’ service, I served her the way the pastors’ armor-bearers did. I carried her things everywhere. My job was to anticipate her needs and tend to them. I kept a bottle of water at room temperature, breath mints, hand sanitizer, a notepad, and a pen. If she had to ask for anything during the 90-minute service, I had failed. Tess had been in a few bad car accidents that left her with chronic neck and back pain. She constantly went to doctors seeking relief. I’d drive her back and forth to the chiropractor, pain management specialist, and emergency room as she requested. Without any real cure, she managed her pain with an arsenal of pills and muscle relaxers. Understandably, she blamed the pain for her unpleasant demeanor. She would hold it together long enough to preach on Sunday mornings and have a chat with the kids after, but on our car rides home, she’d

she’d fall apart. She trusted me, so I often got the worst of her. While I felt privileged to know Tess, vulnerabilities included, I longed to learn from the woman I was so inspired by after watching her preach with such authority. I began praying for her even more than I prayed for myself. I begged God to heal her and asked that she would find happiness. Before long, she consumed all my time and energy. It started as uneasiness that I tried to ignore, but eventually it became full-blown anxiety that I battled daily. Resentful of the expectation that I’d originally set for this relationship, I lost my appetite and nearly 30 pounds. One Sunday, Tess picked me up for church. I couldn’t find it in me to be “on” the way she was used to. She stopped at Panera Bread and ordered me a cup of chicken soup. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten, Tiff?” she asked, looking over at me. “I’m not hungry,” I said. “I need you to eat and be well so you can take care of me,” she said, handing me the soup. I opened the cup and sipped slowly on the broth. I was eaten up from the inside out. After a year of our relationship, I felt trapped. The days that I couldn’t find strength to be “on” for Tess grew more frequent. I was drained. To my chagrin, Tess took on a new protégé, Jen. Jen was an amateur boxer whom Tess had met through one of her doctors. She was sassy and fun to be around, but her presence caused tension between Tess and me. It became clear that Tess preferred Jen’s companionship because she perked up when Jen was around. Tess laughed and told jokes with Jen, something she stopped doing with me. Tess pushed me out when she was up, spending her free time at Jen’s boxing matches and practices but pulled me in was she was down, leaning on me for support. Jen was the one who got the best of her, and I stayed just close enough to get the worst. Angry and hurt at being second to another protégé again, I withdrew from the church. After all the time and energy I’d given Tess, I couldn’t understand how she pushed me out of her life so quickly. I took a seat by myself in the sanctuary one Sunday evening, away from my usual seat with the other youth leaders. Nicole came over and asked why I’d been so distant. She knew something was wrong, but I was bound by my loyalty to Tess and refused to talk about the issues we were having, even though they were affecting my life so much. I became the keeper of Tess’ secrets. I was careful not to destroy the perfect

image she displayed on Sunday mornings. I didn’t tell anyone about how she’d pushed me aside for Jen or the all the times I’d watched her self-medicate, even though I was so hurt and confused by it all. I couldn’t share any of Tess’ secrets with Nicole, so I shut her out too. I found a new friend in Kara, who had just begun attending Without Walls. Kara and I had much in common and she was easy to talk to. She was a gymnast; before moving to Tampa, I’d spent years tumbling and cheerleading. She and I were both studying psychology in college – her at a Christian university and me at the University of South Florida, where I’d just started my freshman year. The more Kara opened up to me, the more I let my guard down. I finally shared the details of the unraveling relationship I had with Tess. She let me know that she too had experienced a controlling and manipulative relationship with a mentor she’d met in church. After each conversation with her, I felt less isolated. Not long after we met, I was chatting with Kara on the phone, as I often did while making the 45-minute drive from campus to the gym where I had started coaching gymnastics. At this point, I was trying to drown out my thoughts every minute, with a phone conversation or booming music, in an effort to fight the overwhelming anxiety from my relationship with Tess. Kara was midsentence in our conversation when I interrupted her with a scream. An impatient driver waiting to exit the shopping plaza forced himself into my lane. I swerved left, trying to avoid rear-ending him, and then swerved right to avoid an accident with another driver before losing control of the car. The car spun in the middle of the four-lane highway. I was headed straight for a huge tree but stopped by T-boning a Tahoe. When the car finally stopped moving, I shut my eyes tightly hoping this was a nightmare. A sudden knock on my car window let me know that it wasn’t, and I unlocked the door for the concerned stranger that stood outside. It was one of two witnesses who stopped to tell the officer arriving on the scene what they saw. “He pulled right out into her lane and spun her out,” the man said. The man standing beside him nodded in agreement. “You already know everything is going to be all right,” the officer said as I stood outside the smashed car crying. He pointed to the blue Post-it note on my dashboard, my favorite scripture written in pink ink. “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” – Isaiah 26:3

I called Kara to let her know what had happened, and within minutes she was there standing beside me. She took me to the hospital so I could get checked out. The only obvious injury was a gash across my neck, where the seatbelt had cut into it. By the time my name was called by the emergency room nurse, Kara had calmed me down. “It’s just a car,” she said. “This can all be fixed.” I was sitting on the examination table when there was a knock at the door. It was another police officer. He asked Kara to excuse us. She left, and he began asking me routine questions about the accident. He said he found prescription drugs in an unmarked bottle in the backseat of the car. He asked if I knew what they were. I didn’t, but I did know whose they belonged to. Pushed by both my frustration and the officer’s probing, I gave the officer Tess’ name and phone number. “This kind of thing could get you into a lot of trouble,” he said before stepping out of the room. Filled with rage, I texted Tess. “Just tell him you’re holding them for me,” she said. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Our toxic relationship was about to explode publicly. The nurse came back in to take me for an X-ray, and while I was walking toward the machine, my knees got weak and I fell to the floor. My head was spinning. I was panic-stricken and overwhelmed by the weight of the secrets I’d been keeping for Tess and how she’d asked me to protect her reputation at the cost of my own. Kara called the youth pastor while I was away. When I returned, he was waiting on the phone to speak with me. “I’ve spoken with Tess,” he said, “and I don’t want you two speaking anymore.” He told me that he and his wife thought that they’d seen this coming. This was the second time they had been called in to pick up a mess Tess had created. The pastor said that a couple of years ago, they took Aly under their wing after she had a falling out with Tess. “We’re going to take care of you,” he said. “Everything is going to be all right.”

E

arly the next morning, I sat up from the couch that Kara’s family had offered to me for the night. I flipped open my laptop, unraveled my headphones, and popped one bud in each ear. I played the song that

had been in my mind. Wild horses I wanna be like you/ Throwing caution to the wind, I’ll run free too The frenzy and panic had left my body, leaving behind the dull, tired ache of a broken heart. I stood up slowly, my muscles achy and stiff, and tiptoed through the living room, past the sunroom to the pool and gently closed the door behind me. I sat down on the cement and felt cold underneath me. I raised my knees to my chest and exhaled before pulling my cell phone from my pocket. There was a string of text messages that had gone unanswered. The only one I opened read: Please just call me. The night before had left a harsh finality before us, one I wasn’t quite ready for. Of all the things that had been broken, my loyalty wasn’t one of them. Tess let the phone ring three times before she answered, although I knew she was waiting for my call. “Where are you,” she answered without any greeting. “At a friend’s house,” I replied, careful to omit the details. “Are you okay?” she asked, her voice mixed with worry and irritation. “I’m fine,” I said coldly. “Don’t act like nothing happened, Tiff.” I cringed at hearing her say my name. “I’m fine,” I repeated sternly. “All right,” she said, her voice softening in response to my push. “I’m not mad at you,” I said after a long moment of silence. I tried to make sense of how our chaotic relationship had led us here. “I understand. I know the kind of things pain can drive a person to do,” she said. “No,” I interrupted as I jumped to my feet. “You will not do this to me.” For the first time, I recognized her words for what they were: manipulation. “I’ve got to go,” I said. I pulled the phone from my ear and hung up before she could respond. It was the last time we spoke. I began to move on slowly but surely. It felt like a bad break up. I went through stages of sadness, anger, and hurt before finally trying to find myself again amid all the rubble. I still spend time at the church but also kept a safe distance. My trust had been shattered. On a Sunday evening in August 2007, almost a year after the accident, I sat in the sanctuary with Nicole and Kara on either side of me. Praise and worship had just ended and the pastor asked that the cameras sending a live stream to

the Internet be turned off. Pastor Paula and her husband stood before us solemnly as they announced their plans to divorce. Gasps filled the sanctuary, tears fell, and people got up and walked out even as the pastors promised things would remain the same. Shortly after, the youth ministry that had bonded us like sisters and brothers was dismantled. The youth pastors stepped down. The reasons weren’t fully explained, nor were they relevant because, somehow, I found myself in the midst of another broken family. * * *

I sat in the computer lab in the USF library well after midnight, printing out my Ball State University application. It was just months before the start of the 2008 school year, and I had made the decision to leave Tampa and go back to Indiana to start over again. Two months later, I was accepted to Ball State. I packed my things and stuffed all my belongings into my two-door car, leaving behind everything that couldn’t fit. I drove 17 hours to my Midwestern roots to find that the life I’d left long ago wasn’t there anymore. My dad had sold the home we’d fought so hard to restore, and all the friends I’d looked forward to seeing again were away at college. Classes started and I was sitting in the lounge in the Atrium, a dining court at Ball State, when my phone rang. It was the youth pastor’s wife. She was the one who consoled me after the fallout with Tess. Before I left Tampa, she made me promise to keep in touch. We talked for a while. Before she hung up, she said, “I don’t want you to ever think that that the experiences you had with God here weren’t real.” I hung up the phone and couldn’t help but wonder if they actually were.

If I Leave Here Tomorrow by The Invictus Writers is licensed under a Creative Commons-Atrribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.thedudeman.net. Photo by Matthew Hine, available through the Creative Commons License. See the original picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hine/163943549/.

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