Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.
The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.
Shame and Stigma of Incarceration
Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!
It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.
An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.
Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.
Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”
Gospel of the Risen Inmate
The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!
This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?
Reimagining Our Prison Ministry
My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.
Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.
The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.
And Remembering the Victims
Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?
“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.
The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
Grabbing Resurrection Hope
Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.
This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.
In the weeks and days leading up to Christmas, the average Christian spends a lot of money, time, and energy preparing for the holiday. While I’ve always considered that time of year to be a very special one, I’ve often wondered why we don’t elevate Easter–or Resurrection Sunday, to use the name that many believers prefer–to the same level. After all, didn’t Jesus come into the world for the very purpose of suffering, dying, and rising again to demonstrate His love and give us new life?
So why don’t we celebrate the day Jesus arose from the dead the way we celebrate the day He came into the world? Well, if I interviewed every believer I know, I’d receive a multitude of opinions. For example, some men and women of faith would say it’s because Resurrection Sunday is more somber than Christmas. When these Christians think about the horrific thing that was done to Jesus to save our souls, they can’t help but be sad. They don’t like thinking–or talking about–the demise of any human being, let alone the torture and death of the One they call Savior. So, while they honor the day Jesus was resurrected, they aren’t inspired to engage in the same type of festivities as the ones they deem appropriate for Christmas.
For other Christians, the difference in how they celebrate these two holidays stems from the fact that they aren’t constantly being courted by retailers that promise to provide just what they need to have a perfect holiday. In other words, as Resurrection Sunday approaches, they don’t feel the same kind of pressure or obligation to buy the right presents or hang the prettiest decorations. So, they don’t do anything special for the holiday. Still others would probably say that it’s simply because, other than Passion Plays or Sunday school programs put on at churches, there just aren’t that many religious traditions associated with the holiday.
But does it have to be this way? Couldn’t we begin today to create our own family traditions that recognize the fact that Jesus kept His promise that He’d die and then, on the third day, be alive again? Isn’t that very fact pivotal to our Christian faith? Isn’t that reason enough for a celebration or, even better, kicking off certain lifestyle changes that will last long after the holiday has come and gone?
Holiday traditions have a wonderful way of ushering in greater spiritual awareness and a renewed commitment to one’s faith. They can provide us with opportunities to fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as share our faith with non-believers. And they can also help us make our faith more tangible in the eyes of our impressionable children.
One way to do this is to set aside time to pray and read God’s Word every day, particularly reflecting on verses that remind us of His Son’s sacrificial love for us. Among the verses you may want to read and meditate on are the following ones: John 3:16; Romans 10:9; Luke 19:10; Romans 5:8; and I John 4:7-10. Don’t feel as though you have to do this alone. Invite your spouse, a prayer partner and even your children to join you. If you already set aside time for devotions, you may want to use the time to not only read them but memorize them. That way, they’ll not just be counted among the many that you perused this year, but listed among those that meant enough to you that you chose to engrave them into your heart and mind.
Reaching out to others during this time is another way to take your appreciation of the holiday to new level. Some people do this by inviting unsaved relatives, friends, or neighbors to go to church with them. Others may opt to host an event–such as a brunch, dinner party, movie night, or even a dessert party–in their home for relatives and friends who appreciate Christian fellowship as much as they do. In addition, those that love giving presents on holidays could consider making homemade gifts–such as sugar cookies made into shapes representative of various components of the Gospel message (e.g., a cross, sheep, stars, etc.)–or purchasing small gifts at their local Christian bookstore.
You also could fill your home, office, and car with sights and sounds that are symbolic of Christ’s life. Little figurines displayed on mantles or tables in your home, as well as small ornaments, hung on bedposts, doorknobs, or even your car’s rear-view mirror could serve as perfect reminders of what God did for us through His Son. If you’ve been thinking about incorporating more faith-based forms of entertainment into your life and home, this is the perfect time to start. Check your local library, video rental store, or favorite bookstore for inspirational titles and schedule a few movie nights. And don’t forget to set aside time to be blessed by the ministry of music, whether you enjoy the gospel, contemporary Christian, holy hip-hop, or sacred jazz. Let it play softly in the background while eating dinner with your family, as you complete chores, and as you’re commuting to and from various places.
Regardless of which traditions you decide to infuse into your life in the coming weeks, what’s important is that you hold on to why you’re adding them. Celebrate the good news of Easter unabashedly so that you, your loved ones, and anyone who crosses your path will have the opportunity to experience a renewed appreciation for Resurrection Sunday and all that it symbolizes for God’s children.
The holiday season is a special time of peace, joy, goodwill toward others, and … job cuts.
Just scan the headlines of companies announcing layoffs.
It wasn’t always this way. But even before the pandemic, companies had become less gun shy about blasting employees around Christmastime. Shedding jobs in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year helps companies to balance their books and start fresh in January. For the jobless, it can make for a wrenching cheerless holiday. Meanwhile, those on the employment bubble are left thanking their lucky stars, that is, until the next round of cuts.
Heartless or just business?
Actually it’s both. The motive is certainly not about “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” This is why, ironically, losing your job during the holidays may be the best gift for you.
How do I know? It happened it me.
One November, a few years back, my supervisor called me into his office as if nothing was wrong, told me that my services were no longer needed and handed me a manila folder. This was just six months after I had joined the well-known company, relocated my family (with two teens in high school), and bought a home. As devout and God-fearing as I would like to think I am, I didn’t feel very spiritual at that moment. But the scripture is true: “What man means for evil, God can turn to good” (Gen. 5:20). I eventually chose to join God’s plan to use that dark moment to refocus me on faith, family, and a brighter future.
I got fired up.
How did it happen? My book, Fired Up, explains the four steps:
1. Talk About It. I immediately told friends and family what happened, instead of wallowing in shame.
2.Pray About It. Through daily prayer I reflected on my past accomplishments, which inspired and helped me plan my next career move.
3.Feel It. I embraced my emotions, but managed them. When anger raged and I felt like hurting the guy and cursing the company’s owner for the cowardly classless way they fired me, I let it flow. I also took a kickboxing class as an outlet to kick and punch out anger.
4.Forgive. These first three steps helped me to learn from the situation and reject the bitter feeling of wanting harm to come upon my ex-supervisor and the company’s owner. They weren’t thinking about me, and so I was cheating my family and myself by ruminating about them. I refocused on “Me Inc.”
Job cuts come with the territory. Especially if you’re an at-will employee (and not under contract), you can be slashed at any moment. For those who have gotten the ax, wanting to return the favor to your former boss is a waste of time and energy. The appropriate F-word is “forgive,” so that you can move up to what God has prepared for you.
As I mentioned, employers want to start fresh after the New Year, so December and January are actually good times to find your next job, if that’s what you want. Maybe God wants you to start that business he placed into your heart! Either way, stay focused, keep your head up and put your feet to the pavement. For those who are dealing with a jobless loved one or spouse, particularly a male, here’s some advice to help them press on:
1. If you’re married, encourage your spouse. The Bible teaches that women have the power “to build up” or “pull down” their homes (Prov. 14:1). Wise women understand “death and life is in the power of the tongue.” (Prov. 18:21). The guy is already feeling inadequate as a breadwinner. Instead of tossing more dirt on his fragile ego, show that you’re in the trenches with him. Likewise, men must encourage their wives through a job loss and love her sacrificially (Eph. 5:25-27).
2. If you have children, include them in the recovery process. Together, tell the kids what’s going on. Too often we shield children from bad news because we don’t want them to be disappointed. Forget that. It’s a disservice to them. Children need to learn how to handle hard times because they will become adults who will have to handle hard times. So, there won’t be any expensive Christmas gifts under the tree this year? Tell them why and that the holiday is about Jesus the giver not Santa the credit card debt creator. They’ll survive, and you will too.
3. Cut expenses and eliminate debt. Most of the economic pundits claim that America must spend its way out of the recession for jobs to return. Guess what? Those old jobs that required obsolete skills aren’t coming back. The banks — especially the ones that were bailed out by our tax dollars — are cutting expenses, investing and reaping huge profits. Do the same.
4. Pray together. Job losses often trigger divorces. God allows us to face challenges so that we can shed the excesses and distractions of daily life in order to refocus on Him — the source of our increase. Losing income is a wakeup call to recognizing who your Provider truly is.
It hasn’t been easy, but these God-directed steps worked for my family and me. None of us have been hungry or without shelter. I moved on to better employment. I have my own radio show. I’m pursuing a doctorate. My book and consulting business are doing well. (These things likely would not have happened had I remained in that old position.) Our two teens are in college. My wife and I remain on the journey.
Losing your job is never easy, but it’s not a death sentence. What you do afterward is an opportunity to grow in your relationship with God and think more creatively about the days ahead.
The Christmas season is about faith, family, and future. Don’t let a job loss — a painful but temporary thing — take your focus off of what really matters.
When you see a man walking down the street talking to himself, what is your first thought? Most likely it’s, “He is crazy!” What about the lady at the bus stop yelling strange phases? You immediately become guarded and move as far away from her as possible. I know you’ve done it. We all have.
We are so quick to judge others on the surface level without taking the time to think that maybe God is placing us in a situation for a reason. Maybe it is a test and in order to pass, you must show love and compassion for something or someone that you do not understand.
Perhaps the man or woman you judge are suffering from a mental illness. However, do not be deceived by appearances, because mental illness does not have “a look.”
More Than What Meets The Eye
When most people look at me, they see a successful, 20-something-year-old woman who is giving of herself and her time. In the past, they would only see a bubbly, out-going, praying and saved young lady who is grounded in her faith. When outsiders look at me, they often see someone with two degrees from two of America’s most prestigious institutions, an entrepreneur who prides herself on inspiring others to live life on purpose, and simply lets her light shine despite all obstacles.
However, what so many do not know is that there was a time when I was dying on the inside. On a beautiful summer morning, at the tender age of 25, I suddenly felt sick. It was not the kind of sick where one is coughing with a fever and chills. I felt as if there were a ton of bricks on top of my body and I could not move my feet from the bed to the floor.
Then, there were times when I was unable to stop my mind from racing. I had a hard time concentrating on simple tasks and making decisions. My right leg would shake uncontrollably and I would get so overwhelmed by my mind.
It was in those moments when I inspired to begin researching depression and anxiety. I had the following thoughts as I read the symptoms: “This sounds like me. But, if I’m diagnosed with depression and anxiety, does this mean I am no longer grounded in my faith? Would I walk around claiming something that the Christians deemed as not being a “real” disease? Am I speaking this illness into existence?”
NAMI also describes anxiety as chronic and exaggerated worrying about everyday life. This can consume hours each day, making it hard to concentrate or finish routine daily tasks.
As the months passed, my symptoms became progressively worse and I became so numb to life. I slowly began to open up to my church family and some of the responses I received were so hurtful. I received a variety of suggestions on everything from speaking in tongues for 20 minutes to avoiding medication because it would make my condition worse.
As a result, I did not know what to do. I felt lost and alone, because a community that I turned to first in my time of trial and tribulation did not understand me. I was so deep in my depression that praying and reading my Bible was too difficult of a task to complete.
As time went on, I eventually went to the doctor and guess what? I was right. I went undiagnosed for over 10 years. Imagine the consequences if a person with cancer, AIDS/HIV or diabetes went undiagnosed.
The Breaking Point
I eventually found myself in the hospital after a friend called 911 to notify them of my suicide attempt. I was so removed from life that when the doctor asked me the day of the week and date, I could not tell him.
Honestly, I can tell you a number of reasons why I tried to commit suicide. Some of them were external factors, such as finances. Some of it was burn-out. Some of it was unresolved childhood issues and genetics.
However, after learning my family medical history, I discovered that several members of my family battled mental illness during their lifetime. Both of my parents battled mental illness, and my grandfather informed me about the time he tried to commit suicide at the age of 14. My uncle was admitted to the hospital due to schizophrenia.
A Bright Future
Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed. God has placed amazing people in my life from family members, friends who are simply extended family, doctors, therapists, and medication.
While my goal is not to rely on medication for the rest of my life, I am grateful that I found something that works while I work through recovery. Looking back to where I was about two years ago, I would have never saw myself living life with depression and anxiety.
I believe in the power of prayer and God’s word. As the scripture states in James 2:17, “Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” This leads me to believe that no matter how difficult the situation is, I will have to work towards healing and recovery even though I have a strong foundation and faith.
Do you have words of encouragement for someone who is battling mental illness? Share your thoughts below.
It’s not easy to be hated by the person who is supposed to love you most, and unfortunately, being toxic has become normalized in our culture.
Many see misdirected aggravation, gaslighting, physical abuse, and more as “love tactics.” When a child only knows pain as a source of love, then they too love in that way and any other form of healthy love seems abnormal.
However, the question is, can a person ever love authentically if they were raised to be toxic?
The assumption is no. When someone is exposed to consistent, toxic stress, they are vulnerable to mental and physical illness that can sometimes develop into a genetic trait, according to Hey Sigmund; therefore this behavior is biologically passed on through generations.
However, despite the science behind the effects of toxic love, there is always hope for a better life.
Fighting for Love
“I just felt like I wasn’t loved by my mom, says Monique, a woman in her 40s who was often told she wasn’t good enough. “I felt growing up in my mom’s house I wasn’t allowed to be me, an individual.”
To suit her mother’s perfect image of a family, Monique, was to participate in certain activities without any consideration of her talents or desires. While at the same time, her brother was given free reign to participate in activities of his choice throughout their childhood.
And to make matters worse, Monique’s father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and would often abuse her. She recalls him touching her to satisfy his physical desires and severely beating her when she reported it to her incredulous mother.
Fortunately, Monique found refuge in her grandmother’s home, where she found the kind of love her mother envied. Monique remembers her mother punishing and verbally abusing her as a result of the love she received from her grandmother.
Like many girls, Monique found herself looking for love in empty relationships during her teen years that lead to a forced, terminated pregnancy and physical and emotional abuse similar to the treatment she received from her own father.
Eventually, Monique met a gentle and caring man named Laz. However, Laz’s compassion and gentleness were unfamiliar to her, which ultimately lead to Monique returning to one of her previous, toxic relationships.
She went on to marry a former flame named Xavier and stayed in her abusive marriage for eight years.
“Towards the end of my [3rd] pregnancy, I found out he was cheating and when I confronted him, he hit me,” says Monique who recalls her toxic relationship that mirrored her childhood. “He asked, ‘Who are you to question me?’…It felt like because of the way I grew up, if I wasn’t getting hit, then it wasn’t love,”
After her divorce, Monique fought against her toxic past. She made the decision to rise above her father’s mental illness, her mother’s jealousy and apathy, and their collective effort to make her their emotional punching bag for their marriage troubles.
Although the struggle did not end after her marriage when it came to love, her children, and health, she remains hopeful enough to fight for the love she deserves. She charges her will to carry on to God, because without Him, she would have taken the final blow to end her suffering.
Turning Off the Gaslight
Bella was born to a Catholic family that rejected her mother for having a baby with a man that she later learned was married. The rejection caused her mother to make multiple attempts to prove her worth to the family by making Bella seem exceptional, but in private her mother was spiteful and unloving as the list of accomplishments grew.
“[My mother] did everything for me to prove herself, but not for the love of me,” Bella explains. “She worked hard to put me through private school and extracurricular activities, but at home I was repeatedly told I was nothing; sometimes she even called me a waste of a human being. To this day, she has never told me she loves me.”
Whenever something would go wrong in Bella’s life, she would automatically blame herself as a result of her relationship with her mother. Even when her husband and father of their two children committed adultery, she took the blame.
As time went on, Bella lost the love of her life, her job, and believed that she would never be loved which drove her into a suicidal state .
Until one day, Bella decided that she had enough and began to fight for her life, beauty, and self-love through therapy. “Once I figured out that I wasn’t this awful, unlovable monster that I was made to believe as a reality by someone who was unloved, it turned my world upside down in a great way,” Bella says. “It never would have happened without me doing the work in therapy.”
As a result of her treatment, Bella was led to a love that she has been enveloped in for the last four years. Even though the pain of rejection transcended through two generations, love won in the end.
“In the middle of all of this, I met a man who just rained love on me,” Bella joyfully exclaims.
Is there hope after a toxic upbringing?
“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of [your abuser], which I also hate” (Revelations 2:6, NIV).
In the beginning of this article, the question was, can a person love authentically if they were raised to be toxic? The answer is yes, but you must fight for it.
It is easy to nurse the scars of someone that you love, because love is to be unconditional, right? But what good is unconditional love when a person’s pain has replaced the spirit that you desperately want to love?
That is spiritual warfare and it is best to back away and allow God to handle it if they are unwilling to get help. It is important to recognize the signs of someone who has been abused and trying to regain power, which can include verbally sharing memories of their toxic loved ones.
Fortunately, Bella and Monique worked past those painful memories found a way to defeat them so that the tradition of toxicity ended with them and a reign of love could begin.