My name is Julie Belle and I grew up in a strict, Independent Fundamental Baptist home. My family went to church 3 times a week and had daily devotions. My two sisters and I were either in Christian schools or, were home-schooled; and, we had to abide by a very strict dress code. I could tell you of all the religious rules we had to follow but, that would be a very long list indeed, so I’ll name a few things we DIDN’T do:
• We didn’t go to movie theaters,
• We didn’t watch anything on TV,
• We didn’t watch any movies rated PG or worse, and many G movies were off limits.
• We didn’t wear pants,
• We didn’t wear skirts that were too short,
• We didn’t wear necklines that were too low.
• Sleeveless shirts, dangly earrings, most eye makeup, short hair (on women), snug clothing, and high heels were prohibited. (The general idea being that these things cause men to sin by attracting their attention.)
• We didn’t go to restaurants which served alcohol,
• We didn’t go to the beach because of the ‘immodesty’,
• We didn’t go on vacations because meant a Sunday away from church.
Again, this is just a fraction of the rules that made up our lives.
Our home was an all-girl household, except for our Dad. He ruled over us like a king rules over his kingdom. Why? Because he COULD! After all, he had heard sermon after sermon on wives being meek, quiet and submissive; handing their authority over to their husbands. Rarely was anything preached or taught about how husbands should treat their wives; and, divorce was not to be considered by any God-fearing woman. My Dad was (and is) a hate-filled man who seemed to enjoy bullying and picking on us girls as often as he could. I can’t even describe how much tension I felt as a young girl, when he’d come home from work. The atmosphere changed completely upon his arrival. I remember so many times automatically packing up my toys and going to my room because I knew I had to keep quiet and stay out of his way. He had a very mean-spirited, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude almost constantly, and took the majority of it out on my mother. I developed a talent for blocking out the sound and even the memory of their loud arguments (I say ‘their’, but it was ALWAYS my dad who was hateful. Mom just ducked her head and took it). To this day, I can’t remember most of the fights, or what they were about, only that I would stay in my room for the duration (usually several hours) and stack books on the floor vents so the hateful words and accusations wouldn’t drift up to me. He must’ve noticed how we girls avoided the strife, because he started bringing Mom to our rooms, and subjecting her to more degradation in front of us, often making her apologize to us for some petty infraction he’d imagined she’d committed against him. I remember one time it was because she’d written out a birthday card for his mother without telling him. Another time, it was for moving a stack of wood from the garage to the porch without asking his permission first.
Of course, if you ask most IFB pastors, or any woman still stuck in this male dominated religion, they’ll tell you he was well within his rights to treat Mom and us girls this way. We were taught that the man is the head of the home and to be obeyed at ALL times. ‘No’ is a word you, as a woman, don not use. This also applies in the bedroom, where it’s literally a sin to deny your husband. This is how it’s been manipulated so that women in this religion have no power, not even over their own bodies.
After twenty-five hellish years, my Mom finally had enough, and left him. I was 15, and simply relieved to be out of that house and away from such a contentious person. I remember how much longer the days seemed, because rather than having just a few precious hours of happiness each day while he was gone, EVERY hour was a happy one.
During the divorce, Mom, Holly, and I (my other sister had married by then) moved to a different town and started going to a different IFB church where I met my future husband, David. David was one of 4 young “preacher boys” in the church. He grew up going to church every Sunday and felt he’d been “called to preach” at a conference out of town. He seemed to be the “golden boy” of the church and I was flattered when he took an interest in me. He was the first man I’d ever dated, and he seemed funny and charming. Since I’d grown up hearing preachers discourage women from having careers or “jobs outside of the home”, I had no higher aspirations than to be a wife and mother, and at an early age, I felt eager to start that life. So when David proposed, I said yes, and at the age of 17 was married in the church where we’d met.
Our pastor, Dean, counseled us twice during our engagement, as was his custom. I’d like to make a note that during one of these sessions, he asked me if I was a virgin. I can only assume that his reason was simply to satisfy his own personal curiosity, since he has married many other couples since then, and I very much doubt they’ve all been virgins. Or perhaps, if I’d said no, I wouldn’t have been allowed to wear a white gown, thus making my wedding day more of a shame for me than a celebration. Of course I was a virgin though, having never even touched a man; but what if I hadn’t been? How humiliating and degrading it would have been for me, a 17 year old girl, in front of her fiance and pastor, to admit that. But these are the tactics used against women in this religious sect to keep us in our places and under the thumbs of our male authorities. There are many other instances like this that happened over the course of the years that I’m too embarrassed to write here. No, not ALL men in this religion are power-hungry, sexist, male chauvinists; but without exception, EVERY man in my life up to that point had been, and enough to make a life-long, lasting impression.
A year into my marriage, David’s true colors began to show. He came home from work angry every day and enjoyed taking it out on me. Every time we went to visit my family, he’d speak harshly to me for the whole three hour drive, making me dread my own family visits. Every time we went to a doctor’s appointment during my pregnancies, he’d speak harshly to me during the drive. When the kids were born, I made sure they didn’t cry, or he’d yell at me. If I’d get sick and couldn’t go to church, he’d yell at me, because “who’s going to play the piano?” I quickly learned not to expect him to so much as make a sandwich for himself or get his own glass of water because he’d yell at me. He was hateful to me about the laundry, the ironing, when the meals were ready, every time he lost his keys or wallet (which was often). When he lost his favorite automatic pencil (yes, you read that right) he yelled at me and stomped around the house for an hour, blaming our 3 year old daughter, then me, for not watching her properly. He threw a hammer at me once, threw a TV remote at me, shoved me against a wall in front of our little girl, causing her to cry herself to sleep that night, sobbing “I’m scared of Daddy, I’m scared of Daddy” over and over again. All this, while he was an assistant pastor, out “soul-winning” every week, counseling other married couples, and finally became a senior pastor in GA and then WV.
During the ten years we were married, I had to swallow the frequent feeling of being “trapped”. I didn’t have a job since “a woman’s place is the home.” We had one vehicle that was very clearly his, so, my trips out were limited and, he’d have to know how long I’d be gone, when I’d be coming back, if I spent any of “his” money, and how much. I found it would help a little to walk the perimeter of our property once or twice a day and expand my tiny world by just that little bit.
If God really does bottle the tears of His children, then there will be quite an impressive pile under my name, because I went through spells of crying in private, every day for months at a time; crying because of heartbreak, because of frustration, self-loathing, and hopelessness. I didn’t understand how someone like me, who took up such little space in the world, could be such a burden and inspire so much contempt from those around me. Many times I wished I could have just crawled off into a corner somewhere, invisible, and out of the way. After crying daily for months, I fell to the other extreme. I went through a depression that lasted about a year, where I barely spoke, barely smiled, didn’t cry or feel anything but a kind of deadness inside. David never noticed. As long as I had his food ready on time, the laundry and ironing done, the kids quiet, as long as I put on a good show at church every Sunday, everything was right in his world.
Thankfully, I finally came out of it, and decided that if I wasn’t allowed happiness when he was home, I could at least be happy every precious minute he wasn’t. Shortly thereafter, I had another epiphany – that there was something inherently wrong with his (and many other IFB men’s) attitude toward women. I began to detest his angry, controlling attitude, and decided that if ever a woman changed a man, it would be me. Divorce wasn’t an option, of course, since I knew I’d be jobless, homeless, transportationless and lose all my friends and probably my children too. You’re taught in the IFB that if you get a divorce, your children will grow up hating you and that they’ll end up turning to drugs and alcohol, and in general, be horrible, embittered people. So for YEARS, I tried everything from yelling back at him, to abject submission, to crying in prayer, as broken as I’ve ever been, that God would change him. I stopped praying that He would make David love me, because that seemed too grand a thing for someone like me. I simply prayed that God would somehow make him less hateful. In my mind, I was not even sure God could accomplish this.
When we started nearing the ten-year mark, I began thinking very hard about how much more I could take, if I could go another ten years, or if there’d be anything left of me by then. It was only in moments of complete desperation that I considered the terrifying idea of divorce, and even then, I’d think to myself, “What could I do differently that would make me feel better about staying with him a little longer?” I decided I’d start wearing pants. I know that seems so small and petty, it’s almost laughable, but to a young, IFB ‘good girl’, it was a huge deal. I thought that maybe if I could at least ‘look’ like an independent woman, maybe I’d ‘feel’ more like one. If I could look ‘normal’ maybe I’d feel a little less… sub-human. I knew there’d be hell to pay when I told him, but I thought surely the few days or weeks of hell on earth would be preferable to the months or possibly years of suffering a divorce would cause. This was my somewhat fractured logic, but I was a woman at the end of her rope and willing to try anything before finally giving up.
The next day I sat down with David and gently told him my decision. I cried when I told him because I knew what was coming. At first he seemed concerned, even sympathetic and curious about why I’d made my decision. Then he began to ‘reason’ with me. When he realized I wasn’t going to budge, he became irate. For at least 4 hellish hours that evening, he yelled, showed me Bible verses, following me around the house, continuing the barrage. He poked his finger in my chest, on my face, and when I tried to lay down that night, he yanked the pillow out from under my head. He put his pale, rage-filled face inches from mine and yelled, “This is my MINISTRY we’re talking about!!” The next 2 days were more of the same. When I suggested marriage counseling, things got worse. He locked us in the bedroom, pacing back and forth, holding a Bible in one hand, and poking me in the chest and face with the other. Finally, one night, he laid down beside me and told me that he was going to stop allowing me to watch my favorite shows on tv or read my favorite books anymore because they were giving me “ideas”. When I felt the familiar ‘trapped’ sensation rising in my chest again, choking me, when I realized that my tiny world was now becoming that much smaller, I realized I didn’t know what the “will of God” was anymore, but I knew it WASN’T God’s will that anyone, even a woman, live in such oppression. I finally felt some peace and resignation that I could and should end the marriage. I knew I’d rather ANYTHING than my little girl grow up to live out this same misery, or my little boy learn this same attitude toward women from his Daddy. I told David quietly that if it meant that much to him, I’d not wear pants. The next morning after he left for work, I called my mom and told her I needed someone to come pick me up within the next couple of days because my marriage was over.
After I hung up the phone, I had the sense that freedom was so close I could almost taste it. That if I just reached out far enough, I could grasp hold of it. But I also felt a sense of foreboding dread, because I’d heard so often what terrible things God does to punish those who commit the heinous sin of divorce. I honestly didn’t think He’d let me get away with it. I figured I’d either finally be free, or I’d die trying. And if God cut me down for defying Him this way, I’d at least be dead, and my misery would be over. But I didn’t die, and God hasn’t punished me. In fact, I’ve never felt so blessed or experienced His love so completely before! Yes, I was shunned by every church I’d attended or been a pastor’s wife of, and there have been some horrible, reputation-shattering rumors spread about me, (turns out, church-goers can be quite vicious once they turn on you), but I’ve barely given it a second thought in my enthusiasm for my new life. I can be my own person, and make my own decisions. I can go wherever I want to go, which, even after 2 years, still seems like a miracle to me. Since then, my kids are thriving; having come a little out of their shells, and, I feel myself coming out of my own shell too now that I can stretch my arms and breathe again.
Of course, after the divorce, David was no longer able to be a pastor according to his own church constitution. And with no more power to rule and reign over people, he’s lost interest in attending church all-together. As of right now, he’s “shacking-up” with his girlfriend, a lifestyle he’d many times preached against and looked down on others for. I also found out, that only 7 days after I’d left him (3 months before the divorce was final) he’d signed up for several on-line dating sites and one site called “hornyonlinematch.com”. He blamed me for that last one, telling me it was my fault he did it because I wasn’t there (I should’ve told him he could go f*** himself, but I have a feeling he’d already done so). I think it’s interesting to note that when these “Minister’s of God” are stripped of their authority over people and are left with only their love for God as motivation for living holy, they very soon lose interest in abiding by all the many rules they’ve set in place for the rest of us to obey.
He must’ve missed the rush of having authority over people so much so, that a few months later, he applied for a state trooper position. When a state trooper came to my house one evening to interview me about the temporary restraining order I’d taken out, he told me that all he needed was to get my statements and give David a polygraph before he would be given the job. I was shocked and a little terrified at the idea of my ex, a man so full of anger and controlled rage, carrying a weapon, and no doubt on my own property too when picking up the kids for visitation. I was frustrated that he would again be in a position of authority over good people. I answered the officer’s questions, and when he asked more personal ones about our marriage and why I’d ended it, and what my ex’s personality type was, I told him much of what I’ve written here. Before he left, he told me he’d heard David’s side of the story, and now, he’d heard mine and he was inclined to believe my side. He gave me his card and told me to give him a call if David ever gave me any more trouble. A week later, the officer called me and told me that David hadn’t been given the job and that David didn’t seem to fit the personality type they were looking for. I also heard from a third party soon thereafter, that David had failed his polygraph.
All I can say is after 28 years of living a ”separated” lifestyle, now that I’m free, and live as I choose, I have only experienced God’s love that much stronger, felt His blessings that much more powerfully, and love Him that much more freely. The Bible says, “God is Love.” God could’ve chosen to describe Himself as a God of judgment, or a God of punishment, or a God of vengeance, but the one word He chose to describe Himself with was “love”. I’ll ever be grateful for the day I finally chose to stop living under the constant threat of His judgment and started to live in the fullness of His all-encompassing love.