One of the things I have loved the most about blogging is the amazing people I have met along the way. So many hard and beautiful stories are floating around out here with the same themes in them: Some kind of deep dedication to God and church, pain and struggle related to that journey, and the crazy path to find life and freedom in new ways.
The hardest part for me about these stories is the anger that I can feel inside related to unhealthy systems. The harm that gets done in the name of Jesus, the control, the power-plays do make me want to stand on tables and scream.
However, I also find hope that despite the pain, people are finding their way to healing and freedom and untangling God from the messed-up-systems that try to keep God contained.
Stories help us feel less crazy, less alone, and today I wanted to have you listen in on an online interview I did with Amy and Jonathan Hollingsworth, a mother-son writing team who recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World.
Jonathan’s story is one of falling from steadfast dedication to Christian mission into a painful faith unraveling that so many of us can relate to. Hearing the added texture of a mom, trying to sort out her own feelings about what was happening with her son and how it intersected with her own faith story, too, is beautiful and compelling.
Here’s what they had to say, my questions are in bold:
If you were to describe Runaway Radical to someone who has never heard of it before, what would you say?
Jonathan: Runaway Radical is about my desperate attempt to be a “real” Christian. I dropped out of college, gave away all my possessions, and moved to Africa in the hopes that leaving my comfortable middle-class life behind would somehow bring me closer to God. But what I found in Africa left me broken and disillusioned and my faith in shambles.
Amy: Probably the best summary I’ve heard from someone who’s read Runaway Radical is this: It’s a young man’s journey from idealism to realism to fatalism to faith.
Since the book has been released, what kinds of stories have you been hearing? Who’s been coming forward and saying “me, too”?
Amy: We are hearing from current radicals and former radicals; missionaries on the field, returning to the field, just home from the field; young do-gooders now disillusioned and their desperate parents. Jonathan asked me the other day: Could you have ever imagined this kind of emotional response to the book?
Jonathan: If we’ve been shown one thing through all of this, it’s that stories like mine are far more common than we ever could have known. The Christian community can be unbelievably hostile towards stories that don’t fit the desired narrative, and this breeds a culture of silence. So it’s beyond encouraging to hear from people who feel like our book has given them the courage to share their stories, too.
Underneath so much of this story is control. mission organizations controlling, leaders controlling, pastors controlling. Why do you think the need to control is so prevalent in christian ministry?
Jonathan: Much of the pain we explore in Runaway Radical comes from the way my church back home handled the abuse I experienced in Africa. My pastor was afraid my story would hurt the ministry’s reputation and bring disunity to the congregation, so he gave me two options: I could either lie, or I could keep my mouth shut. This kind of controlling behavior is characteristic of so many churches and ministries that value their own self-preservation above all else. No matter how it’s justified, control is always driven by fear—not love.
When I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about shame and how it is often weaved throughout so much of our lives as Christians, with an extra measure for leaders. Jonathan, can you describe how shame played into your story?
Jonathan: Shame was with me every step of the way. It’s how I came to detest my life of privilege. It’s why I endured the abuse in Africa for as long as I did. It’s what kept me silent about it all when I came home.
Amy, can you describe what it looked like to watch your son wrestle with shame?
Amy: It took a while to identify Jonathan’s shame when he came home because it didn’t look like shame. It looked like anger. Beneath the anger was depression (a severe episode of clinical depression). Beneath the anger and depression was hurt and shame. To watch him wrestle with all that, and to not understand the root for so long, was excruciating. He had internalized what had been said about him when he returned from Africa—they said he was selfish; he wasn’t a man; his parents were crazy, etc. The other day Jonathan spent an hour on the phone with a newspaper journalist. The next day the man sent me this single sentence: “Your son is a beautiful soul.” That Jonathan could have gone through the rest of his life not knowing that, but believing the caricature created of him, is a chilling and heartbreaking thought.
You’ve been on a powerful healing journey since returning from Africa. What are some of the things that have helped the most in your process?
Jonathan: Needless to say, I was a different person when I came home from Africa. For the longest time, I couldn’t step foot in a church. I couldn’t even read the Bible or pray. “You’ve changed,” my friends told me. One person even said I was heading down a dark path. Too often, Christians expect struggling people to get back on the spiritual horse and carry on like nothing happened. But I knew that would only make things worse. So I took a step back from everything for a while. I took a break from Christianity until I was ready to engage it again, and that was essential to my recovery.
As a mother, what has your healing looked like?
Amy: I remember one morning feeling especially desperate. Panicked and hopeless. A friend sent me a link to your site, Kathy, your “rebuilding after deconstructing” series, what to say and not to say, the stages of faith—the eight lifesaving posts in that series. You helped me to understand that Jonathan needed time and space and if his crisis was allowed to resolve at its own pace, it would be a path toward something more authentic, not away from it. I’ve shared that with so many other parents.
What’s one thing you keep learning about faith that has maybe surprised or sustained you?
Jonathan: What I find liberating about faith is that we all experience it in different ways—and that’s ok. As a radical Christian, I had a very narrow definition of what faith was supposed to look like. I thought this made my faith strong, but it really just made it stagnant. What I’ve come to learn about faith is that it flourishes when we give it the freedom to. This may lead us to different conclusions, but I think that’s the point. Faith leaves room for possibilities.
What words of hope or wisdom would you have for someone breaking free of an abusive, controlling faith system?
We were really fearful when Runaway Radical came out. Fearful of retribution for speaking the truth. But then a young person, a former radical herself, reached out to us after reading our book and put it in perspective for us: “Abuse says we are unlovable. Abusers tell us this lie because what they have imprisoned us with, essentially what they have built their empire with, is so fragile, and the truth we have is so powerful, that they are living in constant fear and feel they have to make others more afraid to retain their illusion of power.” It made us realize: They are the fearful ones; we won’t be made more afraid.
Thank you, both of you, for offering your story to others. I am so glad that our paths crossed out here in blog-land those years ago! May Runaway Radical offer healing and hope for those who are trying to find their way to freedom, too.
You can buy their book here.
and here are some other ways to connect with them, too: