Amid a wave of ‘church hurt,’ a pastor tries to repair Christians’ relationship with God

First Published      Last Updated Mar 08 2017 06:18 pm

Boston • For two years, Terrell Hunt was a Christian without a church.

At the church in the Washington area where he had grown up, Hunt worried that the leaders lectured about good behavior but didn't act as they preached. He heard members talking badly about one another. One day, a member preaching about toxic habits addressed his sermon to one young woman, causing her to burst into tears in embarrassment. Hunt became convinced this church just wasn't for him.

Every day, he prayed on his own. He read the Bible. It was a lonely faith.

"It was really, really hard. It made me feel like, if this place isn't for me, is any place really for me? Am I ever going to feel comfortable again?" said Hunt, 27. "I just felt a really deep sense of hurt."

That's when he found Community of Love Christian Fellowship — a church where Hunt joined a community of other lost souls just like him.

Pastor Emmett Price has a term for what a lot of people went through before they came to his congregation: "church hurt." The term, which refers to the pain sometimes inflicted by religious institutions — a pain that distances sufferers from their communities and from God — is an increasingly prominent topic of discussion among Christian clergy.

Publishers Weekly featured four books on the topic published within a five-month span, with titles including "Wounded in the Church" and "Hurting in the Church."

In these books and in conversations with fellow clergy, ministers offer a variety of suggestions for treating church hurt. Price goes about this work in a variety of subtle, tangible ways.

He tries to keep his services low on jargon and ritual, opting instead for simple songs and a sermon in the sunny, wood-floored multipurpose room of a larger church in Boston's unpretentious Allston neighborhood. There's no hierarchy of deacons at Community of Love, no questions about how long someone has been a Christian or who has or hasn't been baptized. At the start of every service, Price says, "Welcome to Community of Love Christian Fellowship, where God loves you and we do, too."

At Community of Love, some members were previously put off by a stuffy or cliquish church. Or maybe they were upset by a pastor who demonized them for their behavior or their family situation or their sexuality. In at least two cases, they were sexually abused by clergy.

One way or another, many were traumatized by the church, the very institution that they had thought would guide and comfort them.

Price, a pastor with a background in African-American Baptist churches who founded this small nondenominational church five years ago, said that sometimes healing comes slowly. He admires the people who return to his church over and over, trying to repair their relationship with religion. "I cry when they are able to call me 'Pastor,' " he said.

Shannon Collins, a member, has heard these stories, too. She called Community of Love a sort of hospital for injured souls.

"It's not a coincidence that we all ended up here," she said. "We all got hurt."

Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister who in February published one of those books on church-inflicted trauma, said that a congregation such as this one is common, but Price's response to it is not.

"Certainly any clergy that has their door open for pastoral care will hear these stories," she said. "What's difficult about it is because you are representing the church, you feel like you need to defend the church."

Defensive responses, she said, leave people hurting who still yearn for a religious community in their lives but feel they can't go back to a church that has treated them badly. She says there has been a growing wave of people hurt by churches in the past 20 years, leading to the sudden swell of books on the topic. Among the apparent causes, Merritt said, are many churches' lack of caring during the AIDS crisis, revelations of widespread clergy sexual abuse and churches' intensification of their opposition to gay equality.

Although Price doesn't usually put it this way for fear of stigmatizing his approximately 65 congregants, he says his church is in some sense "the place for recovering Christians."

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