I never understood what people really meant when they said a day was ‘a date they would never forget.’ I thought that was a weird thing to hold onto, out of everything wouldn’t you remember what happened? Why the date?’ But unfortunately, and I mean unfortunately in its true, woeful state, I understand. Sometimes events are so large, so bad, so complicated, that one single date wraps everything up in one, easier to encompass container.
This is and remains an extremely traumatic event for me. Every time I think about it, it feels like a hole is searing through my chest. I’m going to do my best to write this as level headed as possible. BUT. I am going to share about it. For two reasons.
Like with every other post, to hopefully help someone. Anyone. From repeating my mistakes. OR to let people know that they are NOT alone. I know what it feels like to feel like the only one. To feel completely and totally alone. But I also know what it’s like to make it through that void and find that you aren’t alone and the feeling of relief that floods from finding others who can relate to you.
I write because it’s the only way I know how to process my life. I believe that EVERYONE has a purpose. I’m not positive, but I put two and two together when people give me feedback on the blog posts about the hard shit I’ve written, that THIS is my purpose. To tell the stories that happen to me. To face that fear and stigma that comes from being open and honest, especially about the darker parts of the world and life, that’s what I’m here for.
So please, as I recount the worst day of my life, please, please be kind. Recounting this still hurts enough that it makes my stomach drop to the floor and I’m seeking counseling for PTSD for it because I’m fairly sure you’re not supposed to wake up at 5am sobbing or cry in the grocery store when a memory randomly comes to the front of your mind.
*I’m putting a trigger warning right here. This post deals with trauma from a church, spiritual abuse, assault, and child abuse. What happened occured in a church I trusted, with a priest I trusted. It involves my children and myself. Even though this all happened, I have not turned my back on God.
Church? Yeah, until I can sort through my distrust and pain. God? Never. This was a completely fucked up situation, but I recognize that one individual took something that is good and turned it into a weapon against me. If I had ANY idea this was about to take place, I would have turned and ran. As far as I possibly could. I’m turning off comments for this post and I’m sure I’m going to receive inquiries, but I’m reserving the right to respond to the ones I see fit.*
So I’m going to start this off with one piece of scripture that I want to etch into my arm to carry with me.
I will rejoice and be glad in
your faithful love because
you have seen my affliction.
You know the troubles of my
soul and have not handed me
over to the enemy.
We had planned Eleni’s baptism into Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan for May 11th, 2019. I had beautiful invitations printed, her godmother had hand sewn a simple, yet elegant gown, my family (who is a different denomination) were ALL coming to celebrate this joyous occasion. I was nervous, I told everyone the morning of that I was nervous, but it would be a good time.
Once we all got to Holy Trinity, we got ready for the baptism and the priest, James Berends, requested that the godparents be the people who held the baby the most as it was a huge part of the ceremony. Well, duh. From our previous baptism with Ana, who was super picky and fussy about people at that age, I held her for most of it and just handed her to her godmother for the important parts. Easy peasy. So of course we said sure.
But it wasn’t. Throughout the part of Eleni’s baptism before shit hit the fan in a big way, I tried to bounce between keeping my child from freaking out and keeping James from freaking out. Neither worked. Eleni became more and more upset, and James was becoming visibly angered. So I chose my child. I stepped in at points and took her from whatever party was “supposed” to be holding her because I knew in my heart that what James was requesting was wrong. This must have made him upset because what came next felt like a personal attack.
When we once again told me to hand my screaming child over to someone, I desperately looked to my mother-in-law for guidance, for anything because I was terrified. With over 60 people sitting in the pews, looking directly at me to see what move I was going to make next, I felt like puking. She came through. She spoke up and gave me the confidence for what I was going to need to do not long after. Standing up to, challenging a priest is hard. You’ve entrusted this person to guide you in your faith, which is HUGE. But my MIL paid a price. James Berends stepped down from the altar to where she sat, and in front of all of our family and friends, spoke to her with such venom and so condescendingly, something snapped. I stepped down from the altar and stood by her side and told James, “This is my mother-in-law, you can’t speak to her that way.”
You know in the movies when there’s something that happens, and watching, you say ‘oh fuck,’ because you know what’s going to come next is nothing but the worst? Well, looking back, this was ours. But 20/20 is truly a bitch because NO ONE saw what was going to come next. Looking back, I should have taken Eleni and Ana, turned to everyone and apologized for wasting their time, but told them there wouldn’t be a baptism. It’s my greatest regret that I have to carry with me for the rest of my life. I feel like I completely failed. I can give every reason as to why I didn’t, that I knew this was a big deal for my husbands family, that I truly didn’t think anything was going to be this bad, etc. But the fact remains is; I didn’t.
As James started to put away the oil for the baptism, I handed a finally calm Eleni over to her godmother so they could proceed with making rounds with candles on the altar to try and salvage what was left of a bad, but not catastrophic situation. Ana stood with a candle watching me, so I let them continue in hopes of keeping things from exploding.
Halfway through the first lap around the table, Ana looked at me with tears in her eyes, trying so hard to keep it under control. I had only felt that rush of ‘DO SOMETHING. NOW’ once before in my life and that was when I was delivering her and we were both starting to crash, our heart rates dropping. That moment in delivery, I said ‘I can’t do it,’ and something told me, ‘You HAVE to,’ and I pushed with everything I had left and we made it. During the baptism, I felt something tell me to ‘Move, NOW.’ I called her to me. They finished the first lap. I handed her candle to Chris and sent Ana over to my brother as she cried to make it stop. Another lap done, only one left. I got out of my pew and ran up on the altar where James Berends had laid Eleni, who was crying to the point of gasping now, flat on her back. Before I could make it close enough in time, he had stuck communion in her mouth and she started choking.
Anyone other than a monster would have known that NO ONE eats laying down because it’s just fucking dangerous. But a crying, gasping baby?
I reached through and grabbed Eleni and was desperately trying to get her upright as James tried to hold her down so the communion didn’t leave her mouth. ‘It’s fine, this is how it’s supposed to be!’ He yelled as we struggled. I raised my elbow up hard against his hands and broke myself and Eleni free from him. ‘NO! IT’S NOT!’ I frantically yelled at him. I stuck my fingers into Eleni’s mouth to fish out something, PLEASE GOD, ANYTHING! and by the grace of God, she puked out an enormous piece of wine soaked bread, bile, and breastmilk into my palm.
I can’t even explain the panic that floods through you in a moment like that or the horror that haunts you after. In my sleep, when I look at Eleni sometimes, when I’m talking, when I’m emailing, I see my beautiful baby in her gorgeous, white baptismal gown, her face turning purple. I feel James hands on my arms, trying to keep her down. I hear his nasty, vile voice in my head repeating ‘this is how it’s supposed to be,’ I feel the fear of trying to keep my child alive. To will breathe back into her.
I used to be scared of dying, but I know now that there is something worse than my death. This was it.
With puke in my hand, James took the piece of bread from my hand, held it to my face like a dog, and said ‘You eat it then.’ And you know what? I was so relieved that my baby was breathing, I ate puked up bread in front of God, family, and friends.
I realize how fucking vile it is to make someone eat puke. I realize the humiliation that it should cause. I realize that in that moment, I was being ‘taught a lesson.’ I didn’t give two shits and I still don’t. I would have done anything to get myself and my children out of there.
As I trusted my family to care for Ana, my mother-in-law rushed me out of the church into the hall where an amazing lunch had been prepared. And I sobbed uncontrollably.
It’s been two days and I’m still shell shocked. I’m angry. I’m so fucking angry. I feel betrayed. I feel like the worst parent in the world. I want to burn the world to the ground and I want to protect it at the same time. I don’t know which way to head personally, but I know for sure that my next step is to make sure EVERYONE knows what happened. I never want anyone to blindly put faith in a human being, despite a big title. I want James Berends defrocked. I never want him to be able to do this to anyone ever again, so for right now, I’m working my way through the channels I need to, but I know that if the channels are broken or corroded with negligence, I won’t stop.
I don’t know why any of this happened. I don’t know why it happened to us, but I have a pretty good idea it’s because I questioned authority of someone who perverted God and faith like a modern day Pharisee and used it as a weapon. I’m struggling to move forward with the events surrounding this. With the distrust, the hurt, the anger. But I know for damn sure I’m going to come out victorious and that, in the very end when the James and I both have to atone for the pain we caused in life, I won’t be atoning for his.
It’s been nearly two weeks. I’m still struggling. Most of the anger has diminished, but only after I screamed at Chris about how everyone fucked me over harder than I have ever been fucked over in my WHOLE life. Mostly, I’m just trying to move past what happened, but it’s so fucking hard. Everything makes it hurt. Giving Eleni a bath and her crying as I rinse her hair makes my gut wrench. When I give her food, I make sure it’s smaller than the size of the communion. Every time she coughs or makes a gagging noise from sticking her fingers in her mouth, all my blood drains to my feet and I feel hollow.
I still haven’t been able to take anything out of the bag from that day. Her beautiful white gown is stained with wine colored vomit and I can’t bring myself to actually take it out. In dark moments I consider taking the whole bag outside and hosing it down with lighter fluid and tossing a match on it.
We had to go to a meeting with Metropolitan Nicholas and discuss what happened and the next steps. I really didn’t know if i wanted to go. It made me feel like puking. My stomach is still in knots from it. But I went because I felt I needed to, to do what I could to make sure this was taken serious. I relived it and was told ‘There’s a process, but we’re not taking this lying down.’ I wasn’t given any details, I wasn’t given an answer, but I showed up. And maybe I’m naive, but I’m telling myself that that’s what counts.
I’m struggling with being strong enough to say “This happened to me, but I’m fine,” because I’m not fine. But I really hate looking weak. I’m struggling with everyone bombarding me with questions and telling me what my next steps should be or second guessing the steps I have chosen to take.
Another week has gone by, so it’s been three weeks, and nothing has happened. James still remains at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, in Grand Rapids. We’ve called and emailed Metropolitan Nicholas , and no one has given us an answer as to what will happen and when. I keep hearing ‘it’s a process,’ so much I just want to slap the next person who says it to me.
I’m not angry anymore, really. I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that of course “it’s a process” and of course anytime there is any sort of bureaucracy involved, everything is more likely to be shuffled around and filed away instead of actually dealt with. Poisonous people will be left in power because no one wants to ‘handle things rashly,’ So I guess instead of anger, I’ve settled on a version of cynical realism.
So I’m sharing what happened to my family. To me. Maybe if the people who claim to care about innocent people won’t help them, this will.
I need to thank everyone who emailed letter after letter into the agencies that I thought and trusted to take care of this problem. I’m so grateful to have had the support from everyone to do what we needed most and speak up about what happened. I love you all. I’m so grateful for you.