‘I felt like I couldn’t leave. Like only sinners left. That God wouldn’t love me if I left.’: Young, queer woman details leaving toxic church culture

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Disclaimer: This story mentions suicidal thoughts and may be triggering to some.

Growing Up

“The thing about growing up in a world where the only thing that matters is whether something pleases God is that you forget to ask questions. Actually, you’re taught that obeying and praying are the only things you are really allowed to do. It wasn’t just a church I was born into, not even just a family that thought they were doing the right thing by raising me like this, but also a school. My entire life, no matter where I looked, where I went, or how I wanted my future to be, it was guided by the notion that not only must God approve, but everyone around me who was doing the Lord’s bidding as well. I didn’t know anything other than what I was told because I was told it was us against the world, and the world was a terrible, sinful, vile place to be, so a complete separation was necessary. I separated myself for 18 years.

teen girl stuck in a church cult
Courtesy of Naomi Andreica

I want to note that my parents, especially my mom, did what she thought was best for me. She was never a cruel parent, never hated me, and never treated me in a horrible way. I was lucky in that way because I’d heard some nasty stories about parents from the church abusing their children into submission, stories I still hear to this day. I was disciplined, sure. Discipline was how the church encouraged parents to keep their kids in check, lest their souls were doomed to hell. Basically, if parents punished us and hit us when we did something wrong, it would ultimately save us in the end. I was a pretty bad kid growing up, and though I wish my mom had gone about raising me a different way, maybe explaining to me why I was being punished rather than just smacking me and hoping I’d learned my lesson later, I understood it was the best she knew. There were times I was frustrated with her because she was good at guilt-tripping me into certain behaviors, or into future favors. I wanted to communicate better with her and the people around me, but the church and the school I was growing up in didn’t allow that. You kind of just took the situation as it was, prayed about it, and hoped God would give you an answer. No answer meant you had to wait and pray some more, which is what I did a lot of.

The parents of the kids of my generation all grew up in communist Romania. They were persecuted for their faith by a dictator who really hated Christians. It was so bad kids were mocked and abused daily by teachers and peers for simply coming from a Christian family. These same kids who later grew up to become our parents living in a country where religious freedom exists, didn’t really know how to exist without feeling oppressed. Not because the US was oppressing them, but because they feared that oppression. So any word against Christianity was like persecution all over again. At the time, I agreed with all of that because how dare anyone say a word against Christians? How dare someone call it a religion of hate and fear? There was obviously so much love we gave! I didn’t get it. So, I grew up feeling like I was being oppressed too. That the world hated me for what I believed, and it would always be that way. At the same time, I was taught it was an honor to be hated because there was no greater thing in the eyes of God than to suffer for him. That when I tell ‘worldly’ people about him, and they reject what I tell them, God would love me even more because I was being mocked and losing friendships over what I saw as ‘the truth.’

teen girl in a private school
Courtesy of Naomi Andreica

The school I went to was a Romanian Baptist school, one I attended from kindergarten to 12th grade. I was involved in choirs, ensembles, competitions for poetry and essay-writing, and even theatre for a short period of time. For a long time, I was a rulebook follower, and the least likely person to ever rebel. I took my punishments quietly, never questioned anything a teacher said, and hoped God would see how good I was being. Similarly, I was very involved in the church. I grew up singing, joining girls choir, church choir, an orchestra for a short while, and even worship groups for a bit. I liked being very involved because people could see me doing the Lord’s work and praising me for it. Ultimately, it became a game of, ‘Do they see me doing this?’ rather than, ‘Does God see me doing this?’ Though everyone was saying the bottom line was whether it pleased God, I figured it out at some point in my early teen years that it was all about the image and what others thought of me and what I did. Being the perfect little Christian model was what I needed to strive for every second of every day, and it didn’t bother me for a long time because it was all I knew. I was in a bubble, and my bubble was comfortable and blissful and exciting. Why would I ever want to pop it and realize everything I’d been taught was so very wrong?

Being Queer

Unfortunately, I was ignorant for many years. The hold that being in a church like that, a school like that, has on a young mind is strong. There was an invisible force of control held over me using fear tactics and authoritarian arrogance. In this extreme form of Christianity, we were taught our goal was to avoid going to hell. Fear the Lord, and don’t do things that made you end up in hell. So everything I did, everything I said, every thought, every breath I breathed, was in hopes I didn’t ruin my one and only ticket to heaven. It all came crashing down for me when I was about 12 or 13 years old and I began to develop crushes on girls the way the girls in my class were developing crushes on boys. I can’t even begin to explain how much I prayed, how much I cried, how much I fasted and begged God to take away these thoughts and feelings. That I didn’t want them. That they were from the devil. I was terrified I would go to hell because of this. Being queer was truly the worst possible sin anyone could ever commit in the church. It was worse than drinking, doing drugs, committing adultery… literally anything. Being queer meant there was no turning back to the Lord, that a soul was lost for good.

girl dressed for a special occasion
Courtesy of Naomi Andreica

That was something I pushed away for a long time. I didn’t actively seek to understand why I felt the things I felt about girls, and I went out of my way to prove I was into guys. I wanted to relate to my peers, and I especially wanted to be a good Christian girl in the church. Other parents in the church would try setting me up with their sons, saying we’d be a good match, that we should talk. I was only ever interested in being friends with them, while also feeling like a failure for not being able to grab the attention of older gentlemen. That was the ultimate good daughter move – having a 30-something-year-old man talking to and wanting to eventually marry a girl who was 14 or 15 years old. All parents wanted that for their daughters, and even I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that when I was that age. Turns out, there’s a term for that. It’s called grooming. And boy, did I think grooming was a good thing, especially because that was the culture of the church I grew up in. The entire church community, really. Marriages would happen when a girl was 17 or 18, just barely legal, and it was seen as such a celebration. At one point, I just decided I never wanted to get married. I’d rather be alone my entire life. I didn’t know it at the time, and I didn’t realize it was because teen Naomi just never wanted to be with a man.

As I got older, I developed a sense of being left behind by my peers. Most of it had to do with the idea of dating, of ending up alone forever. I knew it was contradictory to my choosing to never get married, but I wanted what my peers had. Over time, that turned into depression. I couldn’t sleep most nights, and I spent a lot of class time introspecting rather than learning. My feelings about girls weren’t going away, no matter how much I prayed to God, and it went beyond just fleeting thoughts. I developed very real crushes on girls I knew, and I found comfort in writing with people online, especially stories about women loving other women. Writing was my safe space in this regard. But it always came to an end when I’d have to go to church or school, where I’d be reminded I was probably going to go to hell for my thoughts and feelings.

There was only one moment in my life where I contemplated suicide and wondered how I would do it, and if anyone would ever miss me. I never planned on acting on it, not really, but the ideation was there because there was just no hope left for me. If even God abandoned me, then obviously there was something so very wrong with me. I always kept it to myself, and never told anyone who really knew me in real life. I was a teenager developing a people-pleasing personality for the sake of getting to heaven because I was still clinging to that idea like it was the only thing that would get me through life somehow.

teen girl in a classroom
Courtesy of Naomi Andreica

My senior year in high school was spent being very spiritually active. We called it being ‘on fire for God,’ because our every thought and action was based on prayer and Bible reading and speaking about Jesus. Some part of me had just managed to move past that depression and pretend like I didn’t have intense emotional mood swings. Like I didn’t get angry with the world for days at a time. No, my solution was doing more for God, for the church. I was obsessed with the girls’ choir, with pleasing my girls’ choir director. I was obsessed with going to church and would go to both services on Sundays as well as girls’ choir practices on Tuesdays, choir practices on Wednesdays, and another church service on Thursdays. I even got baptized in water that year, and to this day I remember that feeling of absolute pure bliss, like nothing could ever make me that happy again. God was all I needed. It was all quite nice while it lasted because again, I was ignorant of everything else going on. I shut out all of my problems, because at least I was still going to heaven.

Going to College

My first wake-up call slapped me in the face when I started college. Throughout high school, we were taught college would be horrid. That we would be swayed to be like the world, convinced the devil would do his best to get us. As it turned out, not a single person ever mocked me for being a Christian, no one was trying to ‘sway me to the worldly perspective,’ and in general, no one really cared. That turned out to be a good thing. Not being put on the spot constantly, not having to justify my actions and words, just going to classes and learning alongside other students doing the same. It felt a lot like freedom. I grew up in a 99% white community, both in school and church, and was very much taught to be racist. But then sitting in a poetry class where most students were not white, and they were also not of the same religion I was, but not being treated differently for any of it? Wow. When I sat and thought about it, it truly blew my mind. Everything I’d been taught about college was so wrong. Professors would often tell us to fact-check them, to do our own research, to not take their word as the final word. We were encouraged to free think, to reach beyond what anyone told us to think. I wasn’t even convinced to leave Christianity behind and accept the ‘world,’ not like I was told I would be.

woman taking a selfie
Courtesy of Naomi Andreica

By my sophomore year in college, I hesitantly dared to put a bisexual label on myself. It gave me a whole identity crisis and I was led back to the idea I was absolutely going to hell, but… it also brought me some kind of peace. Meeting such a diverse array of humans at my college provided me with a mental safe zone. I felt like I wasn’t alone, not really. College readied me for adulthood, and adulthood was a whole other kind of wake-up call. I got thrown into the world of mental health and realized what I went through as a kid was traumatic, and even that the church I had gone to and eventually left behind, was in fact, a cult. The cult part was the hardest to wrap my mind around because I remembered learning about cults, and the cults I learned about were demonic, and mass suicides were usually involved. My ex-church was not like those cults, but according to the criteria of what makes a cult… it very much was. And the biggest factor that led me to eventually accept the idea I grew up in a cult was the power of control, that hold the church community had over me. I felt like I couldn’t leave. Like only sinners left. That God wouldn’t love me if I left. But that shell of a person that was sitting in her seat up there no longer wanted to be there. It was pure torture to be there, which was why I left at some point during my college years. I left, and I never went back.

Life Now

Just because I left that church cult though, doesn’t mean I left Christianity. I still consider myself a Christian, and I still have faith in God. But the God I have faith in leads with love and with mercy, traits I was taught about but rarely shown. Coming to terms with my sexuality was the most difficult thing I had to accept, especially because a part of me was still holding onto the fear being queer meant going to hell. I came out as queer (only being attracted to women) to my friend group last year, and my best friend a little after that. Not a single friend rejected me or treated me differently. I was encouraged to be myself, and most significantly, I was told they noticed I was happier.

girl taking a selfie
Courtesy of Naomi Andreica

The support I get from my friends is incredible. Of course, it is an ongoing journey as I grow and learn and figure out how to navigate being an adult having grown up in a church cult. It helped to have a few friends who grew up in the same community I did, and also leave because of how toxic it had all been. I got myself help, I worked on some things in therapy, and on others by writing and publishing a poetry book that details my thoughts and emotions for six months of this journey. I only ever plan on moving forward with my life, knowing there is a future out there for me full of love and hope and compassion. There is always hope beyond a cult mindset community like that, and if anyone is going through it thinking they’re alone, they’re not. There are a lot of people out there like me who went through similar things and are now deconstructing as well. Fear no longer controls me in the way it once used to. I am working on deconstructing the girl I used to be in a church cult that formed me and building up the woman I am today, as I exist unapologetically as myself.”

woman graduating college
Courtesy of Naomi Andreica

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Naomi A. Andreica from Chicago, IL. You can follow their journey on Instagram and buy her poetry book here. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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