The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Damaged by the church? This pastor has a congregation full of ‘recovering Christians.’

Terrell Hunt, third from left, thanks members at Community of Love Christian Fellowship for their prayers, and Cynthia Ellison, left of Hunt, praises his spiritual growth. (Julie Zauzmer/The Washington Post)

BOSTON — For two years, Terrell Hunt was a Christian without a church.

At the church in the Washington area where he had grown up, Hunt worried that the leaders lectured about good behavior but didn’t act as they preached. He heard members talking badly about one another. One day, a member preaching about toxic habits addressed his sermon to one young woman, causing her to burst into tears in embarrassment. Hunt became convinced this church just wasn’t for him.

Every day, he prayed on his own. He read the Bible. It was a lonely faith.

“It was really, really hard. It made me feel like, if this place isn’t for me, is any place really for me? Am I ever going to feel comfortable again?” said Hunt, 27. “I just felt a really deep sense of hurt.”

That’s when he found Community of Love Christian Fellowship — a church where Hunt joined a community of other lost souls just like him.

My church warned me to stay pure until marriage. I still have a stain on my heart.

Pastor Emmett Price has a term for what a lot of people went through before they came to his congregation: “church hurt.” The term, which refers to the pain sometimes inflicted by religious institutions — a pain that distances sufferers from their communities and from God — is an increasingly prominent topic of discussion among Christian clergy.

Publishers Weekly featured four books on the topic published within a five-month span, with titles including “Wounded in the Church” and “Hurting in the Church.”

In these books and in conversations with fellow clergy, ministers offer suggestions for treating church hurt. Price goes about this work in subtle, tangible ways.

He tries to keep his services low on jargon and ritual, opting instead for simple songs and a sermon in the sunny, wood-floored multipurpose room of a larger church in Boston’s unpretentious Allston neighborhood. There’s no hierarchy of deacons at Community of Love, no questions about how long someone has been a Christian or who has or hasn’t been baptized. At the start of every service, Price says, “Welcome to Community of Love Christian Fellowship, where God loves you and we do, too.”

‘Just a little touching’: My own pastor excused my sexual assault

At Community of Love, some members were previously put off by a stuffy or cliquey church. Or maybe they were upset by a pastor who demonized them for their behavior, their family situation or their sexuality. In at least two cases, they were sexually abused by clergy.

One way or another, many were traumatized by the church, the very institution that they had thought would guide and comfort them.

Price, a pastor with a background in African American Baptist churches who founded this small nondenominational church five years ago, said that sometimes healing comes slowly. He admires the people who return to his church over and over, trying to repair their relationship with religion. “I cry when they are able to call me ‘Pastor,’ ” he said.

A pastor wrote a book about being a better man. Then he was caught naked, in an affair.

Shannon Collins, a member, said that racial and gender bias in many other churches causes some worshipers deep pain. She called Community of Love a sort of hospital for injured souls.

“It’s not a coincidence that we all ended up here,” she said. “We all got hurt.”

Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister who in February published a book on church-inflicted trauma, said that a congregation such as this one is common, but Price’s response to it is not.

“Certainly any clergy that has their door open for pastoral care will hear these stories,” she said. “What’s difficult about it is because you are representing the church, you feel like you need to defend the church.”

Defensive responses, she said, hurt people who yearn for a religious community in their lives but feel they can’t go back to a church that has treated them badly. She says there has been a growing wave of people hurt by churches in the past 20 years, leading to the sudden swell of books on the topic. Among the apparent causes, Merritt said, are many churches’ lack of caring during the AIDS crisis, revelations of widespread clergy sexual abuse and churches’ intensification of their opposition to gay equality.

Fat. Single. Christian. In church, being overweight and dating feels like a sin.

Although Price doesn’t usually put it this way for fear of stigmatizing his approximately 65 congregants, he says his church is in some sense “the place for recovering Christians.”

“We do have those large, glaring situations,” including sexual abuse, as well as smaller concerns in the congregation, he says. “We have the whole bandwidth of situations.”

When Hilary Davis first walked in, she was a seminary student angry with God.

She sat down alone, thinking of her recent struggles and weighed down by the years of hypocrisy and dishonesty she had witnessed in church. And then, sitting among strangers, she said, she heard the voice of God.

The Catholic Church puts one foot forward on the path to including women

“I heard God say, ‘I know you love me, Hilary. And I have received the sacrifice of your life,’ ” she said. As the melody of the soloist leading the hymn washed over her, Davis wept.

Unbeknown to Davis, that soloist was hearing the voice of God in that moment, too. Brittany Wells wasn’t a believer when she first came to Community of Love Christian Fellowship. Singing hymns before the congregation was simply a paying job, and she treated it like a serious musician.

But that day, during the same hymn that moved Davis so profoundly, Wells found herself choking the words out, missing entire lyrics. “My heart exploded. My body temperature got really, really warm. And I just started crying,” Wells said. “I just felt like I was connected to God. He was using me to deliver a message. He was using me to minister.”

Two encounters with the divine in the course of one rendition of “I Love You, Lord” is unusual. But members tend to praise this church’s role in their lives with a fervor and unanimity rarely seen in any sort of congregation.

At the monthly community conversation hour in February, the first person to speak gushed unprompted about the fellowship. “Since I’ve been coming here, I have had more peace than I’ve had in my entire life.”

Others rushed to agree. “One of the best decisions that I made was coming to Community of Love. It has really helped me to reaffirm my relationship and my faith in God.”

And Hunt said that when he started coming, “As a professional and as a man, I really felt lost.”

Now, he told his community, “It’s really hard to articulate just how much the fellowship has enriched me and made me feel like I’m just worthy — just because of the love that I have felt from everybody here and the absurd amount of prayer that y’all have put in for little old me.”

Cynthia Ellison wrapped her arm around him.

‘When people hurt, I know hurt’: An airport chaplain mourns his 10-year-old son

She came to Community of Love after her own period of spiritual searching. For years, she felt like she was losing things: A hysterectomy meant she lost the possibility of children. Then she made the tough decision to leave her longtime job as a dental hygienist. Then her adoptive mother died, followed by two more relatives — taking with them any chance that she could learn the identity of her birth mother, about whom she had unanswered questions.

“I was at a point where I felt if I didn’t go to God, I was going to fall apart. I didn’t know how to handle everything on my own,” she said. But she hadn’t had a church in years. She had had some good experiences in churches, but also some off-putting ones — the congregation too focused on how people dressed on Sunday; the one that separated everyone into marrieds and singles, leaving Ellison, single in her 40s, feeling left out.

She happened to stop at a red light while walking home from Zumba class and saw Community of Love’s sign.

Now, she says, the church has strengthened her faith and bolstered her confidence. “The first time I sat in this conversation circle, I couldn’t look people in the eye,” she said.

Sitting in the sunlight pouring in the church window, she gazed at the table she had decorated with smiley-face balloons and flowers, and then at the circle of healing souls gathered around it.

“I’m becoming who God created me to be,” she told her community. “What you see is joy, gratitude. I’m so grateful.”

Want more stories about faith? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

Why a Yale neuroscientist decided to change careers — and is now becoming a priest

Cardinal Wuerl voices Catholic support for immigrants, but urges caution about sanctuary churches

Seriously, I am giving up President Trump for Lent. Here’s how.