'I left an abusive Christian community’
Mary Ngatia suffered emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse at the hands of Jesus Army members. Years later she discovered a God able to heal and help her begin a journey towards forgiveness
I was born into a Jesus Army community house in Northampton. My parents had been inspired by a very young and vibrant preacher who encouraged them to give up all they had and live equally with everyone else in community.
We shared everything – cars, food, money – and everyone was called brother and sister (quite confusing when you’re a child trying to work out who your immediate family is).
As I got older, I didn’t really feel comfortable or safe in the various community houses. Adults would often bring alcoholics or addicts back for evangelistic reasons, so I never knew who might be at the breakfast table. One day, someone pulled a knife on another person. I watched my dad stand in between these two guys, holding them apart.
I didn’t enjoy my school life, either. I went to the local comprehensive and some people thought I was weird because I didn’t have a TV at home; I struggled to fit in.
I was indecently assaulted twice by two boys I trusted in the Jesus Army community. The long skirts the leaders made us wear for modesty didn’t protect me. I never reported the abuse because I was ashamed and didn’t think I would be believed – the culture was one where girls and women were to blame for the desires of boys and men. Men were put on pedestals and girls were oppressed. I began to think there must be something wrong with me.
I was banned from one of the community houses when I was twelve. I was told many years later by the person who banned me that he was trying to protect me from the men, but at the time it was seen as the utmost disgrace for a young girl. I was told, in the words of one elder, that men “couldn’t cope with me”. Those words have haunted me ever since. It meant I was to blame for the abuse I’d received. I must have been provocative. I must have caused it.
Leaving Jesus Army
By my late teens I felt very lost. When you’ve been so isolated, with no access to wider culture, you have little idea what the real world is like. It’s extremely hard to leave because everyone outside the community is talking about things you know nothing about.
When I finally did leave, the simplest things in the outside world would terrify me, like going to the shops or getting my hair done. I didn’t know how to go to a salon and I didn’t know how to buy clothes, because it had all been done for me. It’s really hard to join in conversations when you don’t know about TV characters or pop stars. Even now I struggle with that.
Lonely and afraid, aged 19, I sought solace in a man who had also left the community. I moved in with him, but he manipulated me and took advantage of my vulnerabilities to control me. Eventually, he raped me. One day I got a knife out and thought: “This is it. This is the moment I choose whether to live or to die.” Thank goodness I chose life.
A new chapter
I left that relationship and soon after met the man who would become my husband. I really felt he loved me and, two and a half years later, we were married and starting our family.
I still believed in God. I had pinned this verse from Proverbs on my kitchen wall: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5), but I didn’t want to go back to church. I definitely didn’t want to bring up my children in church.
As time passed, I started seeking God again and one day I braved it; I went into Broadmead Baptist Church. I sat at the back and tried to avoid getting into a conversation after the service. I didn’t want anyone to find out where I’d grown up. I didn’t want people’s judgements.
Over time I became a regular and a few people discovered my backstory, but it didn’t seem to bother them. The church became a safe place for me.
Then a few years ago, the abuse that took place in the Jesus Army was reported in the press. I read a story from one survivor in a newspaper and within weeks people I had heard nothing from for 25 years were sharing their trauma. We were all suddenly talking about our stories and we discovered we’d all suffered the same abuse and we’d had the same difficulties in life ever since. During this time, I learned that the majority of my siblings had been abused too. There were hundreds of us suffering.
The fallout was overwhelming, but it was almost like a veil had been lifted from my eyes as I saw everything in the light for the first time. I stopped believing the lies I'd been told and started to realise that what had happened wasn’t my fault. I went to specialist counselling, and through it all I felt God walking beside me, slowly revealing the lies I had believed. He showed me how much he loved me and taught me to love myself.
Even in my darkest moments, I look back and see that God has been faithful to me. God placed people around me in my new church who provided support and encouragement when the past came crashing back to meet me. I felt the love of God through those people, and I've experienced the healing power of that love.
I’m still learning how to forgive Jesus Army for what they did. I know unforgiveness will lead to anger and bitterness and will eventually destroy me, and I definitely don’t want that!
I believe God can use my experience for his glory. I believe he can restore all that has been lost. I never thought I would be openly talking about this – it was something to hide; it was my dark secret. But God has shown me that bringing things into the light may be painful, but he has the power to replace that pain with his abundant joy and love. He can turn fear into bravery, he can change hate to love and he can replace rejection with acceptance. Above all, I'm learning that I’m not alone.