The LORD is close to the broken-hearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
This is a story about redemption.
I was twelve years old and ready to go to a new Christian summer camp. My parents had separated a year before, and I was looking forward to a break from the constant family tension. I packed my clothes, my Bible, and five fantasy novels for the week. Once up at the cabins in the woods of Northern California, I found some free time and immediately started reading. Then things began to go wrong.
In the afternoon on the second or third day of camp, two camp counselors confiscated my novels and told me to read my Bible. I was confused but complied. Later that night, several tired, sunburned girls started crying, and the youth pastor came to pray for them. I was brought outside. Standing in the dark, not knowing what was going on but believing I had been brought outside because the adults saw some mature Christian faith in me, I devoutly prayed for peace for the other girls. The camp leaders then took me to another building, to the private room of the youth pastor, where I was made to sit on his bed while he tore up my books in front of me and said, “You know you shouldn’t be reading these.” I was in shock.
There followed an all-night forced confession led by the youth pastor and witnessed by at least six other adult men and women who were babbling prayer much of the time. Every time I stopped talking, I heard, “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus,” as if I were possessed by a demonic spirit. I was not allowed to sit with my arms or legs crossed. Later, I was led down to a bonfire and instructed to throw in the pages of the books. I began to do this a page at a time until the leaders, apparently afraid I would be burned, threw everything in at once. My mother was called and told to burn all of the notebooks of poetry I had written since the age of six as well as my first novel, Harpstring. This she did, and when I came home, the backyard was full of ashes.
Ten Years Pass
This traumatic experience changed my life as a writer and a person of faith. While I doubt the loss of my childhood poetry and fiction was a great loss to the world of art, the loss to my soul was devastating. I felt like I had been raped. So I tried to re-build an inviolable inner world where my secrets would be safe again. I wrote voluminously—a handwritten novel, reams of poetry—but privately. I made copies of my work and hid them at a neighbor’s house for fear they might be destroyed. I went to live with my father, who constantly encouraged my writing, but I rarely had the desire to share the work of my imagination with others. Hardly anyone knew that I was a poet.
While my faith in the authority of church leaders was permanently damaged, miraculously, my faith in God grew stronger. God spoke to my heart through the scriptures, I learned to lift my hands in worship, and I experienced freedom in prayer. I still trusted in Jesus, whom I had accepted as my Savior when I was five. My father brought me to a church in Santa Rosa with a good pastor who had a ministry of healing to those who needed it, and I was discipled listening to his sermons. But I could not bring myself to go to any youth group or church retreat for the next nine years.
When I started college at the age of fifteen, I looked for a school with an English major with emphases in literature and creative writing. But I only ever took the two creative writing classes I was required to take. I finished my Master’s at twenty with a focus in medieval literature. When I was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of California, Davis, I seriously considered taking seminars with poets like Sandra Gilman and Gary Snyder, even entering into dialogue with them about it, but I didn’t. I wanted to teach poetry and fiction classes for undergraduates like the creative writing graduate students did, but at that point, I didn’t really have the training.
At UC Davis, I joined Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship at UC Davis, and I decided to go on retreat with the group in the San Bernardino mountains of southern California—the first retreat I’d attended in nine years. When I arrived at the camp site, I started having a flashback. I was shaking with a sudden rush of adrenalin. I called my father in tears, like I was twelve instead of twenty-one, and told him I wanted to leave. Because there was ice on the road, I’d been traveling all day, and I was clearly in no emotional state to drive home, my father advised me to stay, sleep, and come home in the morning if I still wanted to do so. But in the morning, I thought I could stay.
I ended up meeting a young woman, who became a prayer-partner, and telling her about my experiences in July 1988 as a way of processing the flashback. Much to my surprise, this girl whom I’d never met before knew my former youth pastor! Not only that, she knew that he had moved down to the San Bernardino area and was living only an hour away from where we were with his wife, Robin, and his new baby. “Robin?” I asked. Robin had been a camp counselor, one I both loved and trusted. How could the only person I loved from that horrible place marry the only person I hated? My new friend asked if I wanted to go see them. Amazed at this turn of events, I said yes.
When we arrived, the youth pastor was not there. I spent time talking with Robin and gazing at the new baby, asleep on the bed. I told Robin about what had happened in July of 1988. She told me it would be a good idea to write a letter to her husband telling him how I felt. Then he came home from basketball practice, and when he saw my friend and I, he hugged us and then walked away without really saying anything to me. I wrote the letter later, and it was a furious letter. I sent it, but I never heard back from him.
Ten More Years Pass
After that, I was in a doctoral program, and I wrote academically far more than creatively. But the phoenix-songs inside wanted out. As an undergraduate, I had published three poems in Orbit du Novo and two more in Qasida. As a graduate student, I spent a fellowship year working in Washington, D.C. and living in Alexandria, Virginia, where I joined a group of poets, eventually creating a body of work that led me to Sanctuary, my first collection of poems. I gave one public reading of my poetry and another reading of a chapter from my third book, a fantasy story for children called Ni Jalena. When I completed my doctorate and my first post-doctoral teaching year, I dedicated one year of my life to writing poetry and finishing my third novel.
I wrapped up the writing projects just in time for my friend Kate Naa-aku Tetteh, who was pregnant with twins, to come from Ghana, West Africa to visit me. Two years before, as a doula, I had helped her to deliver her first child, Julia Jane Padiki, so we thought we could follow the same pattern again. Kate went into labor on April 25th, and I was with her when, forty-eight hours later, she delivered my goddaughters, Reina and Renée, on April 27, 2004. In the next eight days, Kate nearly died three times of complications related malaria, congestive heart failure, and a blood transfusion. But she miraculously recovered, leaving the hospital on May 5th, and some time later, we prepared to return to Africa.
That was when I received an email from a colleague at Wheaton College inviting me to apply for a teaching position. I went first to Africa and then came back for two days of interviews, after which I was immediately offered the position. I accepted. The move from the San Francisco Bay in California to Chicagoland in Illinois changed my life, not only geographically but spiritually, as God began to do a work of healing in me such as only He can do. One of many steps in the process came last spring as I was preparing a sermon for my charismatic Anglican church, Church of the Savior, on the power of forgiveness.
At this time, I realized that God had strengthened me and given me new courage to contact my old youth pastor. I called him, and we had a very important conversation. He had changed in the intervening years, earning a counseling degree and nursing his daughter through recurring leukemia—a daughter who, at the time we spoke, was nearly twelve. Among other things, he said he would have handled things at that camp so differently had he known then what he knows now, and he asked me to forgive him. I said, out loud, that I did. It was like a chain broke.
When I preached my sermon that week, I said nothing about this story, but it certainly influenced my conclusion, which was this: there is no sin that we have done or that has been done against us that Jesus Christ, our Savior, cannot redeem. The power of God to redeem evil for good, just as he did in the life of Joseph the dreamer in Genesis, has certainly been made manifest in my life. Slavery in a foreign land is never the end of the story. There is always, in God, another chapter that contains the promise of life not only for the captive but for everyone whom the slave-set-free may be empowered to help.
Now in 2008 as I approach the thirty-third year of my life, I feel like I have woken up to the memory of one of my deepest dreams, which is to be a poet, not only privately but publicly. I wish to develop my craft in community with other writers and to teach creative writing as well as literature in my roles as writer, teacher, and musician. To this end, I am sharing my life and my poetry at the Poetry Place. I am inviting others to do the same so that, together, we can celebrate poetry for life.