Of “Crash Helmets” and “Trigger Warnings”

*I feel like today’s post needs a disclaimer. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s very, very personal. No, it doesn’t come to any neatly packaged conclusions. It’s been a very, very rough day today, and I’m still working through it. But my hope is that someone else might stumble across this in the future and find some solace and hope in the fact that what they’re facing/feeling isn’t insurmountable, and that they’re not alone.*

Today is Valentine’s Day. And it’s Sunday.

And it’s been 5 years.

I almost stayed in bed today.

I *really* didn’t want to go to church. Seriously. So I pulled the covers over my head and managed to go back to sleep. And guess what I dreamed about?


If she’s going to preach at me in my sleep, I might as well go hear the real thing. At least then it will be HER words I’m listening to, instead of the crap my subconscious makes up.

[I mean, really, she was reading people’s grocery lists out loud from the pulpit in my dream. AND she was barefoot. Feet weird me out. NOT COOL. That dream needed to end then and there.]

So I went.

There was a woman handing out adorable little buttons at the door that said “I am loved” as people came in. I took one, but instead of pinning it on my blouse, I passed it off to a little girl who happily pinned it on herself instead.

I was not feeling the love.

I was feeling……a lot of things…..but definitely not the love.

You want to know what I was hearing in my head this morning?

“You’re a mess.”

“Why can’t you just conform?”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Your preaching is a joke.”

“Ministry? You think you have a ministry? No one even wants you here!”

“You’re nothing but an assistant!”

“Impact award? Are you kidding me? You’ve done nothing but cause trouble everywhere you’ve been stationed. You are a detriment to the ministry, and liability to the Army as a whole.”

Yep. THAT’S what I was hearing today.

Five years ago today, I had an encounter with my commanding officer that ended in my sudden, less-than-graceful ‘exit’ from officership.

A few days prior, our janitor, Bobby, had lost his battle with cancer and passed away. He wasn’t a particularly good janitor. He broke more than he fixed, and made more messes than he cleaned. He was simple minded, didn’t have good hygiene, never wore clean clothes…… and was one of my very favorite people.

Bobby was THERE. He believed, with all his heart, that he was doing his part to make the world a better place by being a church janitor. And he WAS. Bobby’s heart was absolutely made of gold. Even when he broke things, he would remind me [as he presented me with a cup of ‘peace offering coffee’] that God loved broken, and could fix anything. He believed that with all his might.

And there wasn’t a person on the planet that Bobby thought was too far gone to be loved by God and the church.


Bobby knew what that meant. It meant all the people that were hard to love. People that no one wanted to be around. People that made society feel unsafe. People like his family members. He knew what they had done. He knew who they had hurt. And he believed that they deserved God’s love and grace as much as anyone who sat in our pews.

And I agreed with him.

He also believed that we needed to keep our congregation safe. He understood that there were consequences for unacceptable behavior. He got that.

But he believed in love.

So did I.

There were people in the congregation, however, who did not.

Not only did they believe that his family members shouldn’t be welcome in the church, but they thought that, because Bobby shared the same last name, HE shouldn’t be welcomed either, because “he might have the same tendencies.”

After hearing this load of crap for almost a month with our senior pastor not doing much of anything to counter/stop it, I’d had enough.

So on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, I preached about love.

Seems like an innocuous topic, right?

Until it isn’t.

Until you start talking about what it looks like to love people who aren’t easy to love. Loving people who aren’t like you. Who do things that you find are abhorrent.

Being a Christ-follower means loving every single human being because, if we believe that ALL people are created in the image of God, it means that EVERYONE is deserving of not only our love, but the love of the one whose image in which they’re made.

They didn’t like that.

Not one bit.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out that was the last sermon I’d ever preach as an officer. The next day was Bobby’s funeral, and after the funeral, while doing dishes in the church kitchen, the senior pastor snapped at me not to put the dishes in the cupboards because “You don’t know where they go.”  I sort of laughed, and chuckled in response, “I’ve been here more than two years. I’m pretty sure I can find the knife drawer.” And I kept cleaning.

That night, at home [we shared the rectory house — she had the entirety of the main house, and I had a basement apartment] she came storming down the stairs into my apartment without knocking [something she did ALL THE TIME and irritated me to no living end] and woke me out of a nice nap on my couch.


Wait, what? What in the world was she talking about? I struggled to remember……and blanked.

“What are you talking about?”


“Are you KIDDING me? All I said was that I know where the knife drawer was…and I DO.”

She kept railing at me, as I sat, stunned, on my couch.

Finally, I’d had exactly ENOUGH of her craziness.

“Listen. You can’t just barge into my apartment and start screaming at me. We can either have a civil conversation, or you need to get out. I mean it. I’m not letting you stand here and scream at me.”

Well, that was it. She went completely off the rails.


And she flung herself down onto the couch.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just stand there [I’d jumped up as soon as she sat down]….so I went into my bedroom and phoned headquarters.  This wasn’t the first time she’d exhibited irrational behavior, and DHQ needed to know. I needed help. Or a new appointment. Preferably both. But I wasn’t going to live one more night with that woman. I stayed in my room the entire evening. When I finally needed to come out to go to the bathroom, I assumed she’d be back upstairs in her part of the house, but nope. She was still there, sitting on the couch with her arms folded and a sour look on her face. She heard the door open, and she glared at me.

I slammed the door closed again, too afraid to come out of my bedroom.

This time, I called a friend who lived near DHQ in Philly. What should I do? She suggested packing a bag and coming to her house until I got it all sorted out. This was a reasonable idea. I had an appointment at headquarters with the DC the next day. So I quickly threw a uniform, some civilian clothing, a pair of pajamas, and my phone charger into a backpack, and literally RAN past her into the bathroom, packed up my toiletries, and RAN back out the door. I could hear her screaming at me that I didn’t have permission to leave with the church van as I backed out of the driveway.

That night, in Philly, I cried myself to sleep.

I didn’t know it, but that would be the first of many nights like that.

My meeting at headquarters did not go well. I went to who was supposed to be the pastor’s pastor, our leader, for help, for council, for reassurance, and you know what I heard instead?

“You’re a mess.”

“Why can’t you just conform?”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Your preaching is a joke.”

“Ministry? You think you have a ministry? No one even wants you here!”

“You’re nothing but an assistant!”

“Impact award? Are you kidding me? You’ve done nothing but cause trouble everywhere you’ve been stationed. You are a detriment to the ministry, and liability to the Army as a whole.”

And it went on and on….for THREE. SOLID. HOURS.

He berated me for three solid hours.

By the time I left his office, I was so shell shocked that I couldn’t remember how to get back to my friend’s house. Couldn’t think clearly enough to dial the phone. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t do ANYTHING.

I finally came to my senses enough to know that it would be dark soon, and I didn’t want to be in that section of Philly at night, so I had to leave. But where could I go? I knew I couldn’t go “home” because she was there….so I drove to Reading to my best friend’s house in the big, 15 passenger church van.

I don’t remember much of the next few weeks there.  I slept a lot. When I wasn’t asleep, I wandered the house. As long as I kept moving, I could basically be numb. When I stood still or sat down, I wept uncontrollably.

One afternoon, I came to the realization that it was over. My officership was over. My entire identity. My life. It was just going to be GONE. Stripped away.

What would I do? Where would I go?


And in my desperation, I stood in front of her fridge with a bag of baby carrots in my hands, thinking how easy it would be to just eat the entire bag.  I’m deathly allergic to carrots.

And I remembered Bobby.

And I wondered — was he wrong? Was there really a point where god couldn’t love you any more? When his back would turn on you, and you were entirely, utterly alone, unloved?

Because that’s how it felt, standing there.

Clearly, I didn’t eat the entire bag of carrots that night [though I did eat enough to trigger a rather scary reaction].

I did cease being “an officer, a pastor, a soldier, an affiliated member of any kind” in the salvation army.

I lost my identity.

And for the past 5 years, I’ve struggled EVERY DAY to just survive. Literally.

My pressing issues have been — Will I have enough money to pay my rent this month? Will I have enough food to last until I get paid again? Will I have enough gas to get back and forth to work, or should I ration it and walk today in case it rains tomorrow so I don’t have to walk then and show up wet?  Do I have enough money to turn the heat on this month? [that answer was usually no]

I worked three jobs.

Learned to eat oatmeal several meals a day.

Learned how to hide my poverty from people in the community I’d known “before”.

The past five years have been pure survival mode. And I’m really happy to say that I found a much better job in October, and now I’m not in *such* a dire place any more. I have enough money to start thinking about getting a different car [one that has windows that actually open, and wheels that aren’t in danger of falling off], and to start re-exploring things that feed my soul, like music and pottery.

It’s a good place to be.

And, it’s a scary place to be.

When I was in survival mode, it was easy to not deal with everything that happened while I was in the army, and with everything surrounding my unplanned exit.

But now, 5 years later, that Pandora’s Box has cracked open, and I can’t stop it. I’m so very grateful for the wonderful church I’m part of, and especially for our pastor, who literally wades through this crap with me as I begin to sort it all out.

That being said, I almost didn’t go to church this morning because i didn’t want to ‘people’ today.

And, to be honest, I sort of wish that I hadn’t. Sort of.

Because I’ve been thinking about all of this stuff all day now….

but I’m thinking of it in the context of the sermon this morning [which, incidentally, did NOT involve Aija reading people’s grocery lists like in my dream].

Guess what she preached about?

I could almost see Bobby sitting in the front pew nodding along.

Love. Even when it’s difficult. Even when it makes us uncomfortable.

She spoke of “trigger warnings” before she started her sermon today, because she talked about sexual assault, and wanted to give people advance notice — not so they could get out of having the conversation, but so that they could prepare themselves and do what they needed to do to in order to be PART of the conversation.

Welp,  it certainly triggered me. But not that particular topic.

What triggered me were her statements about being loved. Every part. There’s not a part of me or you that is so broken that it would make us unworthy of love.

And that sometimes, we need a crash helmet when we come to church.

I’ve had a lot of feelings since I left the army – some of the strongest of which have been guilt, shame, failure — just about every feeling a person just released from slavery, or some sort of refugee who had been displaced and lost everything would have.

I still alternate between “this is the worst thing that ever happened to me” and “this is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

And yeah, there’s a lot of  relief to be out of something so abusive and dysfunctional.

But there’s also disorientation. I lost my whole sense of identity and purpose.

And there’s the shame. Tons and tons of shame. It has taken me to a  place where I could think of nothing else except to apologize for merely existing and taking up space.

I’ve had moments of intense anger toward the army. Not so much now, but even today, as I sat listening to the sermon, the questions swirled in my head — Who  do they think they are to treat people that way? Do they have any idea what it is to live and love like the Jesus they worship?

I’ve had a lot of questions for god over the past year – you know, now that we’re beginning to e back on ‘speaking terms’.   “Why do you let this go on?  Why do you sit still? Do you care? Are you even really there?”

And I constantly question myself. I can’t help it.  “Am I crazy?  Maybe i actually am what they say I am?  What is the truth?  Who am I now? What’s the real me? Is it who i was in the army, or who I am now, or something in between? Almost all of my friends from back then are gone now, and once i clumsily came out, most of the rest vanished too….did i really mean that little to them?”

And the really big ones — “Does god still love me, even though I’m not ‘following my calling’ anymore? Will anyone still love me if they really saw all of me?”

According to the sermon this morning, and a sermon I preached myself 5 years ago this week, that answer is yes. I just have to believe it. That’s the hard part. But I’m working on it, and I’m so glad to have an amazing pastor in my life who will listen to me, and keep reminding me until I believe it on my own.

And somewhere up in heaven, Bobby is smiling, nodding, and agreeing with that, wholeheartedly.








2 thoughts on “Of “Crash Helmets” and “Trigger Warnings”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. In my 11 1/2 years as a single female officer I have and am facing so much abuse and injustice. It is very hard not to feel shame and anger.
    I thought you may be interested in these 2 websites.
    http://aroomofherownfoundation.org/ And http://www.maryjohnson.co/
    I listened to Mary Johnsons book An Unquenchable Thirst and could really relate.
    I want to do research on the abuse of power in religious organizations. Please let me know if you come across info that would be helpful in my research and let me know if you would want to contribute personally.


    1. Jess – thanks for reading and sharing. I could say a lot about the abuse of power in the church, but the biggest thing is that we allow it to happen. We think we are submitting to the will of God, when in reality, we are allowing ourselves to be subjected to abuse over and over. I’m in the church now where the pastor has really healthy boundaries. I wish someone had taught me when I was an officer that that was okay. she has boundaries both between herself and the congregation, herself and other church employees and I would assume between herself and other church leaders. you need to make sure that your entire identity is not caught up in the Salvation Army. and take a hard look at why you stay. if there are more hardships, struggles, tears, and abuse then there are good things, perhaps you should think about a life on the outside.

      As far as resources, the best book I’ve read lately is Susan Campbell’s dating Jesus. there are some really good, strong parallels between what she grew up in and what I lived in the army as well. pay particular attention to the metaphor of the sword breaking off inside of her. it is truly worth the read. please know that you can always email me, and I will listen.


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