Lyz is, as I am, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We have some small personal connection. Her (now ex-)husband works for the same huge employer that I (and 8000 other people in town) do. We have some of the same friends. And for a short time a decade or so ago, we attended the same church. That last bit is what made this whole thing complicated.
God Land is about religion in the Midwest, liberally strewn with Lyz’s stories from her own life. In the first chapter of the book, she recounts bad experiences at a church where she and her husband were members. She wanted to discuss women’s roles within the church. She got brushed off by one pastor with a series of nebulous promises that it could be discussed later. Later, on a mission trip, another pastor refused to let her lead prayer during morning devotions, saying it wasn’t a woman’s place to do so. Eventually she and her husband left that church to join a church plant. (The Guardian published a long excerpt from that chapter if you want to read it.)
A year ago, when reading and reviewing the book, I was still a member of that church. Not only that, I was being paid to lead the music ministry. So when I published my review on Goodreads early on a Monday morning and it got auto-tweeted on my feed, before lunchtime I had a phone call from the new senior pastor telling me that, as a church “staff member” (the first time anyone had called me that!) I shouldn’t be recommending the book. It was gossip, he told me, and I shouldn’t be spreading it. I wasn’t ready to die on that hill that day, so I discussed it with him for a little while and then deleted the tweet. But it still really bugged me.
No one that I’ve talked to has disputed the broad strokes of Lyz’s stories about our church. She privately told me the same basic stories a few years before. In the book she changes the names of the pastors and doesn’t name the church, but if you’ve been in the Cedar Rapids evangelical church scene very long you can probably guess who they are. I’ve been told by others in the know that the events she described on the mission trip did indeed happen that way. And I’ve heard second hand from the other pastor that he didn’t remember his episode “quite that way”, but didn’t dispute the basic facts. (He did confirm Lyz’s note that he has tried reach out again to her on several occasions, and that she hasn’t responded.)
So if the accounts are basically true, why should their mention be suppressed? If someone hasn’t read the book or doesn’t know the people, they won’t be any the wiser. If someone has read the book and does know the people, trying to suppress the discussion only makes it look like the church has something to hide. Why can’t we just speak honestly about it? I count the pastors involved as friends, and I love the people of that church. I don’t want to hurt them. But suppressing truth, even painful truth, isn’t beneficial. Better to acknowledge and learn from mistakes than try to pretend they didn’t happen.
Back last year when the book came out I attended a reading & signing that Lyz did at a local bookstore. During the Q&A after the reading I mentioned that I, too, was trying to figure out if or when my route should lead me out of the evangelical churches where I’ve spent most of my life. Later on that night when she signed my copy of the book, she wrote this message inside: “To the Hubbs’ — get freed!”
I don’t feel that implied level of joy from having left our last church. While I have significant disappointments, I don’t feel any personal animus toward any of those church folks. I feel like we left on good terms. But I am glad to now feel free enough to tell this story. Truth will out. Sure, truth can be spoken in ways that are harmful. But speaking the truth peaceably, in love, is a necessity for the church to become the loving, safe community God intends for it to be. This bit of truth from me is overdue.