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Hugs and the Evangelical Church

Yesterday something very unusual happened. An evangelical pastor asked me for my opinion and actually listened. Last Sunday he had invited me to attend one of his church services and I decided to go have a look. To give you a little background, I met him one day when I was feeling very discouraged. I had gone for a long walk in the hills of Salta, argentina. That day he and I had a long talk (though he did most of the talking.) He seemed a little different than most religious people I’ve met. And he liked my idea of teaching English to poor children. He also is the administrator of a very interesting place here, a place which offers many possibilities for me and my projects, such as camping, swimming, teaching and nature walks. And the day I met him he reminded me of the power of beliefs. While I don’t share his specific beliefs, I do share the belief that if you have faith in something, whether it is in yourself or something else, you will get more accomplished, be less depressed, feel more secure etc. He reminded me of the book I read several years ago called the Power of Positive Thinking. Maybe you will even feel less alone. (see also my writing on Strength from Your Beliefs)

So yesterday when I saw the pastor again he asked me what I thought of his church service. I was pretty honest with him. First I told him I saw a lot of people with a lot of pain inside them. He reacted to this ok, so I added that I felt bad for the woman who went up to the microphone and talked about her personal life and started to cry and no one gave her a hug. Right before that a man had done the same thing and the pastor went up and hugged him. I felt encouraged to see that. Then when the lady finished speaking and started to cry, I waited to see what would happen. Would the pastor give her a hug?

Just then his wife got up and walked towards the podium. I thought “Ah, the wife will hug the women who cry and the pastor will hug the men,” but I was surprised to see that instead the wife just took the microphone and started to preach herself. No one gave the crying woman a hug. She walked away alone and she was left to cry alone. And she cried alone for several minutes after she got back to her chair. The pastor felt a little defensive when I told him this, though not much. He tried to explain why they didn’t hug her, saying his wife had been hugging the women members earlier.

Since he hadn’t gotten too defensive, I then added that it bothered me to see a little girl crying and no one gave her a hug either. I said I was worried, too, that seeing all the adults crying and then being frightened by the preaching (about the “devil”) was not healthy for a child. Then the pastor said something like “Not Christian children. They understand that God protects them” or something like that. He also made it sound like that girl was the only one who cries and therefore it is a problem with her and not with the church service. But I disagree.

First, I would say that little girl could well be the most emotionally intelligent child in the church. And even if not the most emotionally intelligent, perhaps the most emotionally sensitive, and therefore in need of the most emotional support, just as the hungriest person is the one most in need of food. To say or imply something like “She is the only one who cries, so therefore it is her problem, not ours", is clearly invalidating her and failing to provide her an emotionally safe environment. Legally, this would or could be called emotional neglect -- and a case could be made that exposing her to that kind of church service is emotional abuse.

I watched the little girl carefully. She was sitting next to her mother when the pastor's wife was shouting, and I mean literally shouting, about the devil. Both the mother and daughter were crying, as was much of the congregation. I felt a little skeptical about how they were using music, microphones and loudspeakers to set a very emotional mood, which induced people to cry, though on the other hand it is probably healthy to let their pain out.

But as for the little girl, I told the pastor that in my opinion the she was crying out of fear, while the mother was crying from all the accumulated pain in her life. This makes me realize there is a big difference between releasing pain and creating fear in a situation like this.

The mother of the little girl was so caught up in her own pain that she ignored her daughter, who sat there alone crying right next to her. Later, in fact, the little girl was wiping away the mother’s tears – an obvious case of role reversal.

I told the pastor all of this and added that when I work with suicidal teens I often see that they are overly-responsible for their parents’ and more specifically, for their parent’s feelings. He seemed to understand this and didn’t say anything more in his or his wife’s defense.

S. Hein
Dec, 17, 2006


More notes below

Comforting the Pastor

While his wife was preaching the pastor himself started to cry. I wasn't sure if it was real or staged, but it seemed real and after a minute or so I decided to rest my hand on his shoulder. I was thinking it was ironic that I was comforting the pastor, but I decided that if he needed comforting and I was the only one to do it, then so be it. One of my beliefs is in the power of human touch, human contact. So I couldn't just sit there and not reach out to him, regardless of my opinions about everything else.

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Note about son and daughter

The son, 18, was obviously manipulating the audience. He was also shouting and inducing them to cry but paying more attention to the sound system, adjusting the volume of the two amplifiers and changing the background music while continuing to talk or shout in the mike. As I recall, he hugged no one during the entire evening and I am going to speculate he felt little to no compassion for anyone there. His father seems fairly sincere but the son is a bit of a worry. He is learning how to manipulate the members, and has already learned quite well in fact. Ah, now that I remember it he did put his arm around an attractive female who was about his age. They walked off outside together and came back later.

The daughter,16, with two other teenage girls, was dancing during much of the service, something like cheerleaders or pom-pom girls do, and banging tambourines. She was very nervous and concentrating more on getting the steps right than anything else. Later she was crying and no one gave her a hug either.

Teenage boys

In the back row there were about 5 boys in their teens or early twenties. During the crying part of the service they also started crying. There also was young male maybe in his mid-twenties who was the father of a young baby. That young man was crying deeply for a long time. Eventually one of the boys from the back row went to hug him. But as I recall, his own wife did not, although I am not sure if in fact it was his wife because even though they sat next to each other, they rarely interacted. They did seem to take turns holding the baby though.