Awhile back I posted a testimonial from someone I know who was sent to a Pentecostal “Drug Rehab” facility as a teenager. I recently found out another person I’ve known for some time had a similar experience when she was sent to a Christian treatment center for issues of “self-harm.” Although she is out as an atheist, her current living situation does not allow her to be completely open in expressing her nonbelief, but I asked if I could share her story anonymously, and she agreed.
I hope other atheists, who may share a similar past, will be helped by reading the following account. And I have added some random thoughts of my own at the bottom, regarding points that stood out to me for various reasons. With that, here is her story:
My Experience at Mercy Ministries
First let me tell you a little about “Mercy Ministries” (founded in 1983 by Nancy Alcorn), based on what they say on their website:
Mercy Ministries’ free-of-charge, voluntary, faith-based residential program serves young women from all socio-economic backgrounds, ages 13-28, who face a combination of life-controlling issues such as eating disorders, self-harm, drug and alcohol addictions, depression and unplanned pregnancy. Mercy also serves young women who have been physically and sexually abused, including victims of sex trafficking. Using proven methods, a holistic approach and professional counselors in a structured residential environment, Mercy has helped thousands of young women be restored to wholeness. Mercy’s goal is to help these young women find freedom from their issues and empower them to serve in their communities as productive citizens.
Mission: Mercy Ministries exists to provide opportunities for young women to experience God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and life-transforming power.
Vision: Mercy Ministries is committed to being an effective and well-respected global organization dedicated to transforming lives of generations searching for truth and wholeness.”
I won’t go into all the details about my past, but I went there struggling with self-harm, anorexia, depression, and suicidal tendencies. I never got better while I was there.
They say they are “voluntary,” but to a point that isn’t true. You go in voluntarily, but if you want to leave, it is not that easy. They tell you that you will never get better without them. They tell you they are your last hope. They talk you into staying with threats. Fear controls you when you are there.
Multiple times I would try to talk to staff members about how I wanted to self-harm, and they told me I was lying and I needed to go write an essay about how I needed to work harder, how I could stop being an attention seeker, and how I should look to God to solve all my problems. Oh, and favoritism is so obvious. They don’t even try to hide it. Once I saw a girl stuff food into her pockets. I told the staff because I thought I was helping her by reporting it. The girl flipped out, threatened to commit suicide, told them I was targeting her and hated her. I got in a lot of trouble for that, and had to write an apology letter and read it in front of the other residents and staff. It was humiliating. This girl was a favorite of Nancy Alcorn, because she was one of the first residents from Peru, with very wealthy parents, who donated a lot of money to the program. As a result, she was able to get away with so much.
Most of the staff made me feel low for small things. Told me I was manipulative, rebellious, not following God’s plan. They made it clear I was sinning and beneath them. They told me I must not want to get better because I was “choosing” to hurt myself, “choosing” to starve myself, “choosing” to live the life I was living. They condemned me for things I did in my past, even going as far as blaming me for negative things that had happened to me.
Mercy makes it clear they are not a medical facility, but they tell women they will have access to medical treatment if needed. What they don’t tell you, is you will only be able to see “approved” Christian doctors, and you will not be able to talk to the doctor alone—a Mercy staff member is always in the room with you. After a month of being at Mercy, they took me off my medicine cold turkey. I got very sick and depressed, but they refused to give me anything and insisted this was the devil attacking me. They believe mental illnesses are evil spirits that need to be prayed away. They repeatedly tell you that the only answer is Jesus. They performed exorcisms on some of the girls, even though they claim they don’t. And when girls try to come forward and tell the truth, they call them troubled souls. I witnessed them take a girl into a room while she was having a mental breakdown. They closed the doors and made the rest of us go to another part of the house. We could still hear yelling, but didn’t know what was going on. She told me later they made her stand in the middle of the room, laid hands on her, and called the demons out by name, to cast them out of her. She said she was afraid to tell anyone she still felt the same, because she couldn’t let that happen to her again. She looked absolutely terrified.
They control everything you do. They control what and how much you eat, when you sleep, when you shower, and which residents you can talk to. They are homophobic and do not allow girls to touch in any way—not even hugs. You aren’t even allowed to do another girl’s hair. Apparently, in their eyes, a hug could make a lesbian stray. If they thought you were getting too close to another girl they would make you do a separation contract, which means you cannot speak at all to that resident. Like I said, they control everything. Nothing could be done without their permission.
Five months after I walked into those doors I realized I had to get out, one way or another.
I tried to run away but didn’t even make it off the property. After that, I was forced to sleep on the floor in one of the staff member’s bedrooms for several days.
Eventually, I stopped telling the staff I was struggling, and I cut in secret. Instead of starving myself, I would make myself get sick. I hid it from everyone and pretended I was getting much better. I did all the counseling work I was supposed to, watched countless sermons in a classroom, read lots of books, wrote lots of essays, prayed, and rebuked all the “demons” that were supposedly controlling me. I acted happy about attending church three to four times a week and praised a god I thought had failed me. I told everyone how happy I was and kept a smile on my face. Finally, eight months into my stay, I was able to graduate and go home. Eight months of absolute hell. I was only 16.
When I left, I was an absolute mess, but I was so good at hiding it at that point. I trusted no one. I thought god hated me, because I didn’t get better like most of the other girls did. I thought I was a failure. I still got in front of my youth group and spoke about how Mercy saved my life and how god set me free. I encouraged girls who were struggling to seek help there. I was applauded for my courage. And I regret that so much. It was all a lie, but I was scared to tell anyone the truth. Scared I would end up back there, because I couldn’t go through that again. I convinced myself Mercy was a wonderful place, even though I struggled daily.
It took me seven years to finally admit to myself there was no god. Funny, how once I did that, my depression seemed to fade a lot. I guess trying to please a god that doesn’t exist causes a lot of emotional issues when you can’t be perfect. I still struggle with some things, but really, who doesn’t? Thankfully, I am no longer self-destructive, and I will never give credit for that to a god or Mercy Ministries ever again.
I didn’t follow Mercy’s rules. I mean, ultimately I am betraying them by speaking out against them. At least, in their eyes, it’s seen this way. And in my own mind, during the time it had been torn down and built back up to worship Mercy, I saw it this way too.
It has taken me nine years to talk about what I experienced at Mercy Ministries and how it affected me. It feels pretty damn good to finally get that off my chest. I am done keeping this to myself, I am done hiding the truth.
This is where my friend ended her story. I’m glad to say that she is doing much better these days. However, in reading her account and perusing the Mercy website, I recognized a few things about the story I wanted to consider further.
I think the first thing I noticed when I proof read it were these two lines from the Mercy website:
“Mercy also serves young women who have been physically and sexually abused, including victims of sex trafficking.”
“Mission: Mercy Ministries exists to provide opportunities for young women to experience God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and life-transforming power.”
I found it odd that “forgiveness” was listed at all. I can’t imagine what a victim of sexual abuse, or sex trafficking, would need to be “forgiven” for? In fact, the reality that many victims of sexual abuse feel guilty about what has been done to them, I would think would be a good reason to stay as far away from the idea of “forgiveness” as possible. They don’t need to be told they can be “forgiven.” They need help to realize they haven’t done anything that requires forgiveness, and that they are not responsible for the abuse they endured. I realize the doctrinal implication of “forgiveness.” But during treatment for sex abuse, it seems that doctrine might be one that should be set aside for another time and purpose.
Ultimately then, when I got to the part of the testimonial that said, “they condemned me for things I did in my past, even going as far as blaming me for negative things that had happened to me,” it reminded me of the above statements I’d seen at the website.
My next concern was that the person who penned this story was dubious about the credentials of the counselors at the facility. While I was not able to find specific information, the site does claim that all workers in counseling roles “are required to hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in social work, psychology, counseling or a related field, and more than 80% have master’s degrees.” I don’t know if this means a degree from “Liberty University,” or if the master’s degree has to be in a similar field. But they are claiming a related education is required by counselors at the facility. When I looked at their “Meet the Board” and “Meet the Staff” pages, there wasn’t much collective background in related areas of experience. But when I looked at some other random treatment sites online, I found it wasn’t unusual for such facilities to not give out much in the way of detail about credentials/qualifications. I found it surprising, but there it is.
Exorcism? Or “Prayer”?
I was struck by the comments about exorcism:
“They performed exorcisms on some of the girls, even though they claim they don’t. And when girls try to come forward and tell the truth, they call them troubled souls.”
It’s insidious when someone targets mentally fragile people. They know that if anything goes wrong, the word of someone with a mental illness, or even a history of mental illness, will always be suspect. It allows people to easily prey upon them, because who is going to believe this “troubled” person over a facility counselor? Telling fact from fiction when you’re dealing with someone with a mental disorder has it’s challenges, I imagine. But using that distrust in order to take advantage of vulnerability is predatory. Obviously, I was interested in what Mercy had to say about this at their site:
“As a Christian organization, Mercy Ministries believes that spiritual warfare is real and that prayer plays an important role in healing and spiritual growth. Mercy Ministries does not perform or endorse exorcisms as part of its treatment curriculum. Our emphasis is on the power of God’s grace and unconditional love to help hurting young women overcome addictions and past hurts.” [Emphasis mine.]
I am aware that “prayer” in many churches includes “laying on of hands.” In fact, I was raised in a church that did not practice this, and the one time it was ever done to me, I felt extreme discomfort—and that was as a healthy minded young adult. Just the other night I had dinner with friends who had done some interviews at such a church this past weekend. One of them had this same experience, and I asked if it made him uncomfortable as well? He could not express enough how uncomfortable it was to have a load of strangers randomly touching him while they prayed and spoke in tongues. My point is not simply that this can be a violating and unnerving experience, though. It is that, to the uninitiated, the difference between this sort of “prayer,” and an exorcism, might not be readily apparent. And I will say outright that the difficulty in differentiating the two speaks volumes. When someone says they don’t practice exorcism, it is possible there is what you and I might consider a “prayer” equivalent happening. Considering this group espouses belief in “spiritual warfare”—there may be some hair splitting going on here between the “prayer” they admit they practice, and the “exorcism” they claim they don’t.
Mercy Helps People?
This also caught my attention at the website (no survey link provided):
“Mercy Ministries International has helped over 3,000 residents in its 30 years of operation, and in a recent survey of former Mercy Ministries of America residents, 93 percent of respondents said Mercy Ministries ‘transformed their lives and restored their hope.’”
It was unsurprising when I read in the testimonial that, “I still got in front of my youth group and spoke about how Mercy saved my life and how god set me free, I encouraged girls who were struggling to seek help there, I was applauded for my courage. I regret that so much.”
This is a huge problem within the atheist community. Atheist voices are very often silenced by intimidation and fear. At TAE we commonly receive letters from people explaining to us that they are atheists, but can’t tell anyone they know. Some of these people are still maintaining a theist façade, in order to fit in and not face repercussions for their nonbelief. I often wonder, if everyone who does not believe a god exists could be somehow identified in a single moment on the globe—exactly how many of us would there be? We can’t know, because so many of us are often marginalized to the point we can’t risk being identified. Not surprisingly, then, some of us, in order to stay under the radar, adopt the voice of theistic rhetoric, espousing beliefs we don’t hold, because it’s unsafe for us to be out, and we need a more acceptable disguise until it becomes safe. When Mercy says their survey indicates lives have been “transformed”—can we trust that survey? Can they? How many of those people might be exactly like my friend—gushing praise for the program in hopes of being accepted or, more worrisome, not sent back?
And that is what stuck with me most of all, “I thought god hated me, because I didn’t get better like most of the other girls did.”
It made me wonder, did most of the other girls “get better”? Or did they also simply learn that acting better was their only way out?