On Trauma and Community Organizing

On Trauma and Community Organizing

I’m going to tell you a complicated story about the time I went to a community organizing conference and came back a few pounds lighter in tears. I’ll do my best to be honest without causing undue harm to the organizations and people involved in very good work around the country. Content warning for spiritual abuse.

In college, I attended a fundamentalist Christian church that neither ordained women ministers nor let women participate in Sunday services in any meaningful way under the pretext that women might accidentally teach men something, a no-no according to a literal interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12.

It was a strange choice for me – I had grown up in a church denomination where women could be ordained – determined mostly by the people I met and the person I was dating. But I thought I would be able to find my niche regardless of the strict gender dynamics.

The college ministry, in some ways, functioned as an independent entity and we had a fairly progressive academic as our college minister, so I hadn’t felt restricted from speaking my mind or joining theological conversations, at least at first.

But after about a year, that minister left and was replaced by a stricter adherent to this particular brand of Christianity. Sexism began to permeate every event. I was a Religious Studies major, so I knew more than most people in the room about historical context, the original languages of the Bible (I took Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic), and genre, but I found myself silenced or bulldozed over by men with opinions during weekly Bible Studies.

Then church leadership appointed a worship leader that couldn’t read music when there was a female musicology student who would have readily volunteered had she been allowed to participate as a leader. Things were boiling in me underneath the surface for weeks, and probably months, but I had tried to keep my mouth shut. 

These were my friends, after all. Weren’t they?

 Shit hit the fan one day when a woman who had come to our house for a gathering overheard me tell a group of people I was sick of the church and decided her best course of action was to tell our college minister. He called me into his office and told me that I was “making the church look bad” and needed to stop making a scene.

You have to understand that by this point I felt I had nothing left to give. I felt abandoned by church leadership (Why didn’t he care what I thought about the church? Why did it only matter what other people thought?) and scared that I could be tattle-told on in a context as intimate and familiar as my own home. The rigidity of the hierarchy and its unwillingness to recognize the gifts, intelligence, education, and dedication of the women of the church, let alone respond appropriately to criticism (from a woman? Gasp!) made me feel trapped in a visceral, desperate way.

What’s worse is that my hysterical response to all this only reinforced church leadership’s stereotypes of women. There was nothing I could do to convince anyone that I mattered. And a part of me wondered if maybe I didn’t matter, after all. That meeting with the college minister sent me into the most serious spiritual and personal crisis of my life and I spent many afternoons and evenings after work crying in bed.

Flash forward to July 2016. I had been involved with my local interfaith community organizing group for just under a year and, while I had found many interactions and experiences quite gratifying, I had occasionally run up against behavior and rhetoric I found inappropriate or sort-sighted.  

I was anxious to attend the national conference to get a better sense of the context and underlying ideology of the group, hoping that it would ease my worries. 

Though I believed very strongly in the concept of community building for the purpose of local advocacy, I had increasingly felt agitated by the rigidly structured meetings, lack of transparency from leadership, and the feeling that I was always being guilted into doing and saying things I felt uncomfortable with. I was excited to room with a friend I met through organizing and bounce ideas around with her in the evenings.  

It’s hard to explain completely coherently what happened there, but I’ll do my best. The first full day of the conference began at 8:15 and ended nearly ten hours later with only a couple 5-10 minute breaks and about a half hour for lunch. The day was comprised of a series of intensive, fast-paced lectures packed with information with no time for open-ended questions or processing. This was fairly terrible for a few reasons: 1. I already knew nearly all of the information presented because local leadership had already provided it throughout the last year, 2. there was no opportunity for participation, so attendees were unable to use their brains, really at all, to connect with information in a new way, 3. it was impossible to question the basic ideology of the organization because lecture leaders were not trained – nor had the time – to respond to complex theological or relational questions.

One particular instance comes to mind. During one lecture on the importance of engaging our communities based on their self-interest, the leader suggested that the church is actually wrong when it suggests that the Bible teaches us the importance of self sacrifice, instead insisting that we should work to see ourselves as powerful.

If you’re familiar with Christianity at all, you’ll know that, in fact, the entirety of the Christian narrative hinges on the literal self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our salvation. Since this particular brand of organizing seeks to mobilize religious communities, there were several ministers present and, naturally, a few of them had some real concerns about the leader’s interpretation of their religious text. One man raised his hand and asked how we could reconcile her reading with the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the poor in spirit…”) and she essentially dismissed it.

That triggered another pastor to raise his hand and force her to allow space for the conversation. If you’re a religious adherent, countering an unclear and potentially contradictory interpretation of your theology is of grave importance. The leader didn’t answer the question. Anxious to complete her monologue, she simply moved on.  This was intolerable. It’s okay to disagree, but you have to allow space for that disagreement to work itself out.  

Here we were at a conference focused on community and dialogue and we were permitted to work toward neither. 

 The whole day felt like this. The people in the room wanted so badly to participate in a fruitful way but they were not allowed to. By the evening, I was both bored out of my mind and agitated by the way things had been handled during the lectures. I ranted a bit with my roommate and went to bed, hoping the following day would be better. 

Boy, was I wrong. The next morning continued the lecture series. To make use of my brain, I decided to write down a quick list of improvements to recommend to conference leadership, knowing that there was a designated time for feedback later in the day. When the time came, we were told we had 4 minutes to answer 4-5 short answer questions. The forms were not anonymous, the questions were leading questions intended to obscure real critique (“What was your favorite thing about the conference?”), and the moderator insisted on calling on people to share their responses. I scribbled down the list I’d written earlier that day and then…I just lost it.  

I turned in my form, then starting shaking. I ran out of the conference room and hid in the hall by the bathroom. And the tears started coming and they wouldn’t stop. A nice catholic woman came and tried to soothe me, but it was all I could do to go back to the conference room and grab my bag before rushing back to my room. I laid in bed crying, fell asleep from the fatigue. I woke up and felt numb.  At 2:00 that afternoon, I was supposed to go back to attend more sessions, but I couldn’t.

I found a tucked-away coffee shop and planted myself there for a couple hours before heading out to a nearby marina to let myself stop thinking for awhile.  Here’s what I think happened: the rigidity of the ideology, lack of opportunity for appropriate critique, real and implied silencing, harmful Biblical literalist approach to religious texts, and tightly controlled hierarchy had thrown me back so hard to that place of utter hopelessness I’d felt at my church 5 years ago that all the wind had been knocked out of me.  

I was dangerously, irrationally afraid that I would get in trouble for criticizing leadership. I was afraid of being abandoned. 

I was afraid of being made to look crazy. I was so afraid the only thing left to do was to cry. I’m starting to cry again as I write this. What I experienced back then at church was spiritual abuse. It was trauma. And the conference had triggered that trauma.

I was being forced to feel viscerally – in my shaking muscles, in my bones – the injustice – and yes, it was injustice – I’d felt back then. The irony of that. Here I was at a social justice conference feeling silenced and marginalized. All I wanted to do was shut off for awhile. All I wanted to do was to make it go away.  

Fortunately, I was already planning on leaving early the next morning to head to my current church’s retreat weekend in the mountains. While there, I was able to talk to people I trusted about my experience, sit and not think for awhile.  

And I was overwhelmingly, giddily grateful for a religious community that does not deal in rigidity and exclusion. 

That welcomes women and gay people and trans people and black people and former Evangelicals and people with doubts and everyone to the table and says, “You belong. We will not leave you.” 

What a gift. What a miracle.  I don’t know what I’m going to do about my involvement with the community organizing group. But I know I am not alone.  

And that’s helping me breathe again.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

May we recommend...


  1. From your description of the conference, it sounds as if the information could have been presented as a series of pre-recorded lectures, accessed from one's own home. There didn't seem to be any time or consideration given for small-group sessions or even just networking in the hallways.

  2. Thanks for that perspective. I think you're right in observing that these were trainers, not educators. I wish they realized that they, too, would benefit from a scenario where they were allowed to learn and question and grow.

  3. Thank you! I really appreciate that; I never know with posts that are vulnerable and slightly "off topic" whether I'm making a good decision in posting them.

  4. Hey, Cat. Thanks for your response. Have you read Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans? She exited her Evangelical church for very similar reasons and I found reading her generous, gracious book affirming and cathartic.

  5. I can't help in any way, but this was a wonderfully honest post and I really appreciated it.

  6. Leah – thanks so much for writing this. I am currently going through an exit from a church that looks a little similar to what you experienced with your first story from five years ago (criticism being shut down, women not being given equal voices or welcome into leadership – I knew it was a complementarian church, but my hopes had still been high…perhaps naïvely so). It's so hard to know what you have to confront in one hand and yet also hold in the other hand the idea that, because you are a woman, stereotypes will be reinforced simply by virtue of the fact that you are a woman and are criticizing (no matter how "kindly", "gently" or "open-handedly" it is provided.) It's made me furious, and I'm trying not to allow it to make me bitter…but I seriously need Jesus for that, because it's hard to feel so shut down.So sorry that all of that got brought up again for you. How awful. Glad to know you have a church community that you can share all of that with and still have a strong sense of belonging. I have that currently with individual friends, but not yet with an entire church community where I live. All that to say – no, you're not alone!

  7. Sounds like a packed agenda. Like too many classroom situations where trainers and not educators preside. They lack the depth to be taken off script. But my main response is to share a few general rules I use to avoid paternalism in community involvement. First is to know the board of the community organization is largely composed of persons representative of those served (Could be some who've "escaped" and want to enable others to.) Second is that I work in a chain of command which includes, perhaps as immediate supervisor, someone who is peer to those served. I had that with On Our Own, Charlottesville and the Independence Resource Center. Church outreach, I do, and I do gratefully, but I feel paternalizing when I do, and wish for another way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.