My mom called them jokingly ‘little goats’, as they walked single file, from tall to small, into the Brethren meeting hall. Admittedly, the girls did resemble the goats from my illustrated fairy tale book; pointy faces with handkerchiefs as head coverings and long checkered skirts. I loved looking at the youngest girl who had dimples in her cheeks and smiled with her head cocked to one side. The mother patiently adjusted the handkerchief over her daughter’s white pigtails as the girl repeatedly tore it off while looking over shoulder at us, the teenagers in the back making faces at her.
The family was a bit odd, even to Northern Dutch Brethren standards. For one, they seemed more conservative – already the young girls were wearing head coverings, which usually started for adult or adolescent women once they officially partook in the weekly ritual of communion. The husband, brother W. was German and came from a closed Brethren branch known to be more restrictive. The wife opened up at times and revealed that she was not allowed many freedoms such as wearing jeans or cutting her already thinning hair. Secondly, the family would disappear from the church for months, then reappear and ask for help, as in financial assistance. This would be a conundrum for the church. They were required to help those in need but questioned whether they were enabling a man who was using the church as a social security policy.
Such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod.
As long as brother W. said the right words he was a true church member. Brother W. suggested songs to sing, spoke prayers and participated in the communion. The one son they finally had, after all daughters, got to wear a little suit to the services and one could not help but smile. I remember studying the girls and feeling sorry for them. I wondered if they were being teased at school – such long uncut hair, such pale serious faces. “Such well-behaved kids,” my grandma would nod in approval.
Once my dad came home after visiting the family. “It is weird,” he said, “the kids all had to bow to me in greeting.” My dad was trying to tell brother W. that this wasn’t necessary, but W. didn’t want to hear any of it and made every kid bow for my dad, hands clasped together, which made my dad feel uncomfortable.
Was the church a safe haven for men like brother W.?
This week the news came out regarding the Turpin family in California. “How is it possible nobody has reported anything?” This was a common sentiment upon hearing the news. The religious Turpin family home schooled their children and lived in a neighborhood where houses are close in. When the 17-year old daughter managed to call 911 the police found the rest of the children malnourished, shackled and locked into the home. It turns out neighbors did notice odd things; the children hardly ever being out or being out at late hours and not responding to conversations. One comment made me think about the family in my church so many years ago “When kids are being that obedient, it is a clue something is wrong.”
Brother W. was tried and sentenced a couple of years ago. There had been sexual misconduct in the family, to what degree I’m not sure. Was the church, the church I grew up in, The Brethren, a safe haven for men like brother W.? Protected by a community, the Bible, brothers and elders as long as the right words were being spoken and heard? Did the church not look at the signs – the extreme requirement for obedience and submission that point to abuse? Did they refuse to see the signs? Was my church culpable to abuse?
We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
I know that in today’s world there is more awareness around abuse and signs around it than 30 years ago. However, families such as the Turpins still live among us. There is no excuse to provide them a safe haven or turn away from signs when we see them – we need to take a risk and report them. We need to look a child in the eye and ensure they are okay.
Last I heard Brother W. is participating in communion again. “God forgives everything,” The Brethren teach. “Not that” I say. We need to protect the children.
Pietje - say Peach-a!