When she asked why I have PTSD, I told her that I was not comfortable sharing that with her. She then proceeded to tell me that if I was really a good Christian… if I REALLY trusted God, then there would be nothing wrong with me. It was at this point that I told her to have a good day and walked out. -Jess Rios
Once upon a time I was part of a cult of personality surrounding itself around a charismatic leader who had a special ear to the Holy Spirit. His words were straight from the mouth of God; our own God-sent prophet.
It was a cruel place where God was eternally disappointed and we had to be better in order to gain his favor. Being better meant we had to be more Christ-like. Being Christ-like in this context had less to do with striving to put off the old man and put on Christ, and more to do with imitating the Christian who most looked like they had their shit together. Whoever was most popular was the standard. Whoever had the pastor’s favor was the goal.
I was raised with the understanding that this was my family, and you never turn your back on family. This meant that I had to seek their acceptance and their favor in the midst of their cruelty. Never being able to fit into their cross-shaped box, I left bearing a heavy burden of guilt and shame.
Years of studying Scripture and Theology, I’ve learned that despite their use of the name Christ, and their spouting of conveniently selected Bible verses, they are not Christian. I see this clearly by the bitter fruits they bear.
Recently a story emerged on Facebook. A friend of mine announced she was leaving the church through a message left on her Facebook page. With her permission I now share her story. I encourage you to read her tale and her experience where she was prevented from attending a program due to her disability and having a service dog.
What I am most impressed with is her gracious attitude. She isn’t bitter. She just wants to share her story.
Please read and share in her experience!
Why I feel I can never return to Calvary Chapel of Hanford, CA.
by Jess Rios
I would like to start out by saying – I do not have anything against religion as a whole or any denomination of Christianity. That being said… I will never return to Calvary Chapel of Hanford again.
I started going to Calvary Chapel Hanford around 20 years ago with my mom and my brother, and while there I found I was never really able to connect with anyone. I always felt like an outsider looking in, and much of the time I felt I was treated as one. I figured that was what church was like -you were either “in” with the right people, or you were left out. At some point along the way, I decided that since it was only one day a week I could tolerate the experience.
Then I started going to the junior high/high school bible study groups. Just like Sunday, try as I might, I felt unwelcome and unworthy of notice or recognition; even if only as a sister in Christ. The isolation and sense of being unwelcome would get so overwhelming that I started going outside when the group began praise. I felt I didn’t belong, but still I came because I felt it was what I was supposed to do –try to find fellowship.
I tried to talk about this with various people higher up in the church hierarchy, but I was always told to pray about it. And I did…for years. Nothing ever changed.
Fast forward to recently.
I have a service dog to help cope with a serious medical condition. It feels awkward having one because people ask a lot of questions, try to pet her even when I ask them not to, and some shoot me disgusted looks because they don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) the medical benefits provided by my service dog. Sadly, most of this seems to happen at church.
When I came back to Calvary Chapel (after one of my many moves away) I made sure that I informed the pastor about my service dog. I never thought it would be a problem; especially at church. I was always taught that church is the place you find love, acceptance and forgiveness –the place where you can come as you are and find God’s grace and mercy. I soon learned that this was not always true.
It began with people giving me dirty looks when I would walk into church with my service dog, looks that continued until the day I left. It wasn’t as if my dog “Whatsit” and I were disruptive. I did my best to be as discreet as possible to keep others from feeling uncomfortable, but some seemed upset simply by her very presence.
One time we had this BBQ to celebrate the anniversary of the church. On the day of the BBQ my mom was working in the bookstore. I asked her if she would watch Whatsit while I got us some food.
Halfway to the BBQ I was stopped by a woman who asked where my service dog was. I was confused why it mattered to her, but I told her that I left Whatsit with my mom so I could get us both food. She sneered and told me that it was good that I wasn’t bringing her with me because dogs are “disgusting” and she would “contaminate the food.” I was shocked. I felt insulted. I was hurt. I did my best not to cry as I got our plates. When I got back to the bookstore I told my mom what happened and she was just as surprised as me.
A few weeks later I decided that I needed to talk to the woman about how she made me feel, how the situation still bothered me, and hopefully find a new start. Since my mom knew I was going to talk to her, she went up to the woman and let her know that I wanted to speak to her (yes, my mom did kind of overstep her bounds but she also knows I don’t always know how to start conversations like that, and she had the very best of intentions).
So… the woman comes over and we sit down and start talking. Her husband hovered close enough to listen in, but I tried to ignore that. I explained to the woman that what she had said really hurt me and that I never expected to be treated like that by someone at church. At first she tried to tell me that she was sorry I took it the way I did. I asked her if there was another way to take someone saying your service animal is disgusting; she had no answer for that. She asked why I needed a service dog and I gave my blanket answer of PTSD, anxiety and depression and that she helps me make it through the social part of the day.
When she asked why I have PTSD, I told her that I was not comfortable sharing that with her. She then proceeded to tell me that if I was really a good Christian… if I REALLY trusted God, then there would be nothing wrong with me. It was at this point that I told her to have a good day and walked out.
I found my parents in the church café and told them what she had said. That didn’t go over very well. Not two minutes later the woman’s husband comes storming into the café and starts to yell (yes, audibly raised his voice in front of everyone) at my mom. I couldn’t take it. I told him that he would not speak to my mom in that disrespectful tone. Ironically, he goes off about how she had no right to say anything to HIS wife about a situation she was not involved in (because… storming into the café and yelling at someone about something that did not involve him at all couldn’t possibly be construed as him getting involved in a situation that had nothing to do with him). Eventually he walked out of the café.
A little later that day my mom checked her email and he had written to her apologizing for his behavior. He asked her to pass the message along to both Jeff and I. I found it kind of offensive and slightly telling that he made no effort to do the apologizing himself to either Jeff or I, but instead put it on my mom to pass along the message.
Fast forward another couple of weeks.
There is a women’s bible study that is done every year in autumn called “Apples of Gold.” Once a week, women who sign up for it, meet together for dinner and bible study. I signed up seeing it as an opportunity for fellowship, and especially because it was something my mom and I could do together before I move.
About four days before the event began I got a message on Facebook from the pastor of the church. In essence… he told me that some of the women running it had “sensitivities” to dogs being at the table. He asked me where Whatsit would be sitting. I told him that she either lays down on my lap or at my feet. He said that her being on my lap would put her too close to the food. I said that was fine and she would just lay at my feet like she does in restaurants. It was at that moment he told me that she either had to be in a crate during dinner or I couldn’t come.
Again, I was in shock. I asked him why it would be an issue at a church event when it is never an issue when I go out to eat, to the movies, or anywhere else in public. He told me that he had been very “accommodating” so far in allowing me to have her with me at church. He also made sure to point out that, as a church, they do not HAVE to follow the ADA laws that prohibit places from banning service dogs from their businesses.
I asked him why the wants of a few (the women not wanting her at the table) ended up being more important than the medical need of one (me needing to have her with me). He said his offer was keeping everyone in consideration.
I tried to explain to him that my service dog could not do her job from a crate. He told me that I should think about it, get back to him later. Then he wrote an incredibly ironic, and hurtful, statement:
“I’m not saying this in a mean way, but it wouldn’t hurt to think of others. That’s what I’m trying to do – think of you & those signed up who are coming, not to a public restaurant, but to a private event.”
I took a few days to respond to this.
I got in touch with someone else from the church who also has a service dog. I asked him to help me think of an alternative solution to the situation, or if he would be willing to talk to the pastor on my behalf. We came up with a couple solutions that could accommodate everyone involved: I could sit at separate table either in the same room, or different room (if necessary) during the meal. That way everyone could enjoy their meal without worrying that a dog is nearby. Or we could have a table made of a group of women who would not be bothered by Whatsit.
When I messaged the pastor, I offered the two solutions. He responded by telling me that neither of those solutions would work. He then brought up that he talked to the same person that I did (not knowing, at the time, that I spoke to him too) and that he chooses not to bring his dog to certain functions. Refusing to understand that my condition and the condition of the other member in question were incredibly different, the pastor then told me:
“That’s what I’m now asking of you. We are certainly willing to accommodate you when we can, e.g., Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights. Whatsit would certainly be welcome at Triple HHH. Apples of Gold is just not the place for her. I believe God brought you here to further your growth in Him, and to help you heal. This series would be great for you… But without Whatsit.”
That is when I told him that I had spoken to the same member he was referring to, and that member agrees that Whatsit cannot do her job from a crate. I told him that, contrary to what he seems to think, I cannot choose when I need her and when I don’t. He told me he was sorry that I felt that way. I responded telling him that it is not how I FEEL, it is just the way things are right now. He clarified saying he meant that he is sorry that I feel unwelcome.
I told him that telling me that I have to choose between going without my needed service dog or not going at all…that anyone being put in that situation would feel unwelcome. That I couldn’t just flip a switch and decide I that I’m magically better.
All he could answer was:
“I don’t want to argue, but not everyone would feel unwelcome. Disappointed, maybe; but not unwelcome. This just isn’t a good event for you to bring her; most everything else at church is, and I’ve been accommodating”
To which I responded with:
“So because some women feel that dogs shouldn’t be around a table, you’re trying to make me choose between allowing her to do her job or not attend. And yes. Anyone that needs their service dog with them in that kind of situation would feel unwelcome.”
Fed up with the years of trying to find my place in Calvary Chapel, to experience the fellowship we so often prided ourselves on, I told the pastor I did not feel that I could continue going to the church.
The only thing he had to say in response was:
“Hmm… So we have one problem, one disagreement, and you break our Christian fellowship over it? You don’t need to do that; I think you know we love you. No one always gets their way in a group of people who are all imperfect.”
“It has nothing to do with me wanting my way. And I am sorry that you cannot see that. It has everything to do with not being accepted as I am. Flaws and all. Disabilities and all. What is this love you speak about? You throwing in my face that she’s been welcome up until this? People at church giving me dirty looks when they see me with her? Being confronted at church and basically being told that she is disgusting? That is not how I view love. And I cannot go to a church that feels that the wants of a few goes before the need of another. I understand that you clearly do not agree with me on this. And that is fine. Putting me in a position to either choose for my service animal to be completely ineffective at her job or to just not attend… That is a very unfair position to put me in. I could understand if someone was allergic. But you have already told me that it is because some women don’t feel that dogs should be at a table. And it is hurtful that that WANT is more important than my NEED of a service dog. I really don’t know how else to explain it to you.”
I went to church the following Sunday to request a refund of my sign-up fee. When I asked the person who was “in charge” she didn’t even look at me, just said that it would be done. I later asked her if I could speak to her for a moment. She stated she was not allowed to speak to me about the matter, and that if I wanted to talk about it, I had to talk to the pastor.
That hurt a lot. She was basically told she was not allowed to speak to me, and it cemented my feelings that I needed to leave Calvary Chapel Hanford.
(I found out later that during one of the meetings for the event, that the pastor brought me up specifically and had them vote on if Whatsit would be welcome… it was unanimous that she was not.)
I still don’t understand how they can feel right about acting in such a way. How they can feel justified in leading an event that is supposed to be about graciousness, love, and acceptance… all the while not showing that to someone who, and I hate to admit this, needs it.
What is most confusing, is that in the secular environment, something like this would not be acceptable. Laws are in place to prevent this sort of discrimination. Why is it that the secular world, driven by the laws of men, would treat me with more dignity, than a church which has the very law of God?
I have many of examples as to how I’ve been made to feel unwelcome, this is the most recent, and frankly, the most painful. To the few I have come to love in Calvary Chapel Hanford, I will miss you, but I cannot keep myself in an environment that is toxic to me.