Karen Wanjico had no choice.
Turn away from her mother like the rest of the congregation, or be exterminated by God at Armageddon — which could come any moment — with no hope of resurrection.
Wanjico was 17 years old when she shunned her mom. She said it was the most devastating thing she’s ever done.
Now, at 49 years old, after earning a Master of Divinity degree and working several years as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, Wanjico can talk about what happened to her.
She was spiritually abused.
Pete Evans, chief investigator for Trinity Foundation — a group that investigates religious fraud — said spiritual abuse is widespread and takes many forms.
“We would say it’s rampant throughout the U.S.,” he said.
Spiritual abuse, Wanjico explained, is when authoritarian religious groups use power and control to instill fear and guilt into worshipers, manipulating them to behave a certain way.
Similar to domestic abuse, if victims don’t deal with the trauma, Wanjico said, it can damage one’s mental health, relationships and world view.
That’s why she’s created, “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse: From Hurt to Healing,” a day-long workshop designed to help people understand how spiritual abuse works and how to move toward healing and forgiveness.
The next workshop will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 23 at Bethany Presbyterian Church, 2607 S. Ray St. There is no cost to attend, though participants are asked to contribute to the lunch that is provided, if they are able.
“I think one of the realities is that we don’t have ways in our culture to deal with toxic spiritual stuff and because of that, pain is allowed to maintain for far too long,” said the Rev. Paul Rodkey of Bethany Presbyterian. “In my career I don’t know how many hundreds of people have come in who have been deeply wounded by the Christian church, usually by the narrow-minded, judgmentalness of it … it’s like domestic violence abusers, same dynamic: ‘I love you, but I’ve got to beat you.’ The theology of oppression is somehow an example of Jesus, really?”
He said homosexuals are easy targets for spiritual abusers, but just about anyone can become a victim.
Evans has studied spiritual abuse extensively, particularly in cults. He said false healings is a common form, where people believe they will be healed, sometimes even give money, and then are told they have a secret sin or don’t have enough faith.
He’s seen people escape, but said to some the consideration of a change is more frightening than remaining in the uncomfortable situation.
Wanjico said when people are kicked out of the faith communities they know because they disobey, or if they leave on their own will, they re-enter the world lost.
“They’re outside of the group now, so there’s a good chance of depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide; some pretty serious things can occur,” she said. “They’re very suspicious of trying to make friendships…How do you define yourself if you’re no longer a member of XYZ?”
When Wanjico left her faith community at 27 years old she wasn’t sure how to find a new community because she was told everyone outside her group was worldly. “They’re fornicators. They’re drug addicts. So who do I hang out with? What do I do?”
Evans said healing can come through frank discussions. “Oftentimes, victims are relieved just by talking … and finding they are not alone.”
The “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse” workshop will include discussions and healing exercises. Wanjico said it’s important for participants to stay for the entire program. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org.