Christa Brown’s ‘Baptistland’ is a prophetic call for justice far beyond Baptist boundaries

Click on the cover to visit the book’s home page at Lake Drive Books.

‘Baptistland’ warns about the damage when male-dominated churches double-down

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

The news that startled church leaders just before Mother’s Day this year was that, for the first time, a younger generation of women is leading the exodus away from churches—this time, in higher numbers than their male counterparts in Generation Z.

What was especially surprising is that this study was released by the Survey Center on American Life, which is part of the conservative-leaning “think tank” the American Enterprise Institute. Here’s a one-paragraph summary from the Survey Center of their findings:

Even as rates of religious disaffiliation have risen, conservative churches have been able to hold on to their members, but they are facing more of an uphill battle keeping this current generation of young women in the pews. Sixty-one percent of Gen Z women identify as feminist, far greater than women from previous generations. Younger women are more concerned about the unequal treatment of women in American society and are more suspicious of institutions that uphold traditional social arrangements. In a poll we conducted, nearly two-thirds of (65 percent) young women said they do not believe that churches treat men and women equally.

To understand more about why this exodus is unfolding, read Christa Brown’s new memoir, Baptistland—A Memoir of Abuse, Betrayal and TransformationTwo years ago, you may have seen Christa’s name in the Religion News Association’s widely reported 2022 list of that year’s “top newsmakers.” RNA wrote, “Christa Brown’s advocacy for fellow survivors of sexual abuse helped force a reckoning over the Southern Baptist Convention’s history of mishandling cases of sexually abusive ministers and of mistreating victims.”

After reading Christa’s book, I invited her to spend time on Zoom talking about her life and this new book for our ReadTheSpirit readers.

Right away, we talked about the new Survey Center report and Christa said, “I’m glad that you’re making this connection between this recent polling and my book about women leaving the church—and why.”

Christa further describes her catalytic role this way: “I was the first Baptist clergy sex abuse survivor to directly address members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee at the ‘Baptist Vatican’ in Nashville, and I’ve continued to plead for reforms for nearly twenty years.” (To read much more about Christa’s accomplishments and milestones in the Southern Baptist struggle with this issue, visit Christa’s own “In the News” page online.)

Christa’s activism has connected far and wide with survivors of abuse in other “high-control, male-dominated” religious settings. Over the years, for example, she has worked closely with David Clohessy, one of the best-known international activists exposing Catholic clergy sexual abuse. In fact, David’s endorsement is the first one listed inside Baptistland‘s front cover: “Baptistland is a searing yet inspirational memoir and sorely needed guide to all who try to expose any corrupt institution.”

Appreciating the powerful potential of this book depends on understanding this context: In growing numbers, Americans—and women in particular—are turning away from churches that they believe are toxic cultural centers of male control.

‘The fallout from this is enormous’

In our interview, I said to Christa: “Readers are going to discover that this book is about a whole lot more than just your own experiences of abuse within your denomination. They’re going to see this is a far larger pattern of male domination.”

“You’re absolutely right,” she said. “I’m describing what high-control families and high-control churches do: They want to keep control even when they learn about child sexual abuse—and other abuse of women that is unfolding. They just don’t want people to see what’s happening. They’re willing to cover up these very dark narratives—but, in the end, they can’t control the ripple effects. Those ripples build and build. And eventually the fallout from this is enormous.”

“I’m assuming that’s why the title is Baptistland,” I said. “This really is an all-enveloping culture you’re describing. Your book is a story of lives interwoven in that culture whether they’re actually at church or they’re at home or at school or at work. It’s an all-enveloping ‘land.’ ”

“It is,” she said. “What I’m describing is what happens when a high-control, authoritarian faith group connects with patterns in high-control families. Then, you see these same patterns repeating—the same relationships of oppression and dominance that translate from pastor to the congregation, from husband to wife, from parents to children, from older siblings to younger siblings. The influence of white evangelicalism in culture and politics at large is profound.”

And that’s the real power of this memoir—seeing how these abusive relationships form a community culture that’s often impossible to crack open for the protection of the most vulnerable. In one of the most horrifying scenes in Christa’s memoir, she describes how her physically and verbally abusive father flew into a rage so violent that Christa feared for her sister’s life. And, “I did the unthinkable. I ran for the phone.”

Christa called the police—but in that insular community in which her family lived, the police arrived and “asked which church we went to.” When Christa’s parents named their church—the police called for a pastor to come meet with the family! When that “Brother” arrived, his advice to Christa’s mother was that she was at fault for her husband’s violent rage. “Don’t give him reasons to get angry,” the Brother said.

This overwhelming blanket of family, congregation and community is the same claustrophobic strangle hold described by Lucille Sider in her memoir Light Shines in the DarknessLike Christa, Lucille and her brother Ron were caught in a family so immersed in male-led Protestant evangelicalism that the adult protectors in their lives could not even conceive of allowing Lucille to honestly cope with her abuse. Instead, her parents prayed over Lucille and urged her to keep the abuse a secret. Then, much like Christa, Lucille did step forward many years later and finally pursued legal remedies.

“I’m glad that people finally are realizing that these cycles of abuse are not exclusively a Catholic problem,” Christa said in our interview. “That was the dominant narrative for years and I am glad that David Clohessy and others in SNAP were able to organize so many of the Catholic survivors. But this is a problem much larger than the Catholic church.”

‘We’re all kind of on our own.’

Pursuing cases in denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention is, in many ways, more difficult than investigating the entrenched patterns of abuse and coverups in the Catholic hierarchy—and that’s another important reason to read Christa’s book.

“Southern Baptists are not organized in dioceses with bishops in charge. We’re all kind of on our own,” Christa said. “And there’s an emphasis on individual sin, individual piety and individual experiences that make it more difficult to address this as a larger systemic problem.”

However, because of activism by Christa and others, the Southern Baptist Convention was forced to at least acknowledge a problem. In 2018, a report identified cover ups involving 700 accused ministers and church workers. Then, in 2022, came a further report that detailed not only the cover up—but the leadership’s active efforts to dismiss and attack accusers and their advocates. As in the case of the Catholic church, the public finally learned that Southern Baptist church leaders had a nationwide policy of retaining those accused church leaders without informing congregations of the potential danger.

How could that happen? Wouldn’t any sane adult want to protect children? That’s why Christa’s story is so important—learning how this all could unfold in a pattern of secrecy that began with her childhood trauma of abuse within the church and continued as the abuse was compounded through the years.

Finally, though, we learn about Christa’s courageous efforts as an adult to awaken public awareness. At one point in her adult efforts, she writes, “Speaking out about Baptist clergy sex abuse began to feel like an endless Whac-a-Mole exercise in some sadistic, surreal circus. … As soon as one predatory pastor was knocked down, another would pop up. The problem was systemic, but it seemed people in Baptistland simply didn’t believe in systemic issues.”

It’s a compelling story, taking us deep inside one person’s and one family’s experience within this “land.”

But, ultimately—this is a hopeful and empowering book.

‘A God who is not boxed in’

Today, Christa no longer is active in her former church.

“How do you want me to describe you religiously in this story?” I asked her.

“Well, I can’t imagine being part of an organized, structural faith,” she began. “And I don’t particularly like the word God—because it’s become just a word to me that people can so easily misunderstand. To me, there’s a wild God—a God who is not boxed in—a God who I usually encounter in the wilderness. I live in the mountains now, so the mountains are a part of my spiritual consciousness. I look to the hills—I’m frequently hiking in the mountains. So, I describe myself as a spiritual person who doesn’t want to be put into a box or described with a particular name. I’m very content with whatever this Spirit is that I meet and I sense in the mountains.”

And in that answer, Christa describes millions of the 1 in 4 Americans who now are lumped together by some pollsters as “Nones,” because their spiritual-religious affiliation doesn’t neatly match any of the dozen or so check boxes on survey forms.

That’s where a large number of those Gen Z women are headed when they tell pollsters that they’re leaving “church” behind.

And, ultimately, that’s why Christa’s book is an inspiring story—despite the tough stuff readers will encounter in her life story.

“Hope resides in you and in the truth of your stories,” Christa writes to her readers—and survivors in particular—at the end of her book. Then she adds this stirring call to other survivors to take another step forward in their own journeys toward empowerment:

Every time a survivor understands the truth of their own experience, there is hope. Every time a survivor is able to acknowledge that truth—even if only with friends or family—there is hope. Every time a survivor finds their voice and speaks out, there is hope. When we tell the truth about something so painful as clergy sex abuse, it can empower us to tell the truth about a lot of other things. Strength grows. It’s the kind of strength that brings hope for a different future for each individual, and collectively, with thousands of us, it brings hope for a different future for our children.

A better world is possible—a world in which these horrors will be far less pervasive. I may not see it in my lifetime, but on a good day, I swwear I can almost hear that better world breathing.

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