Founder of Mission Serenity Michelle Hood talks about her years of abuse by an Adventist church elder, the distressing reaction of the church, and the organization she set up with her husband to help people in similar situations.
Question: You have founded an organization in Australia called Mission Serenity, a charity supporting survivors of abuse, especially in the church. How many different people have you helped?
Answer: Mission Serenity has never kept records on the actual numbers as confidentiality is precious in these issues. We have been kept very busy since we started some thirteen years ago.
Can you give us a basic idea of some of the people's stories?
Some of the stories are heartbreaking and survivors have had to endure a life of pain, addiction, mental, and physical health issues, broken relationships and lost life potential. The ripples in the pond are extensive and can never be quantified.
Are the stories mostly connected with the Adventist Church?
While a great many are from the Seventh-day Adventist Church we have worked extensively outside the church in both secular and non-secular environments.
Mission Serenity is solely about helping people heal and overcome hurts, habits, and hang-ups. We run programs related to those things. We offer counseling individually or to couples facing relationship problems.
We have had huge success with marriage counseling. Couples come to us for a “marriage boot camp,” so to speak, usually over a weekend. People have come from all over Australia and New Zealand for these sessions.
God never wastes a hurt, and as he promised in Jeremiah 29:11, we know not the plans he has for our peace, purpose, and future. He had a plan for me and one for my husband, who struggled with addictions in his life. God has healed us and he certainly had a plan and a future for us and has given us much peace. He always turns the things of Satan around for his good purpose. And people who have experienced the tragedies of this life are the best people to help others overcome and heal those exact same tragedies. Oh, what a purpose!
What form does the help and support from Mission Serenity take?
We started Mission Serenity to support the adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. We soon realized that we had to expand into other fields so we could support both the victims and also those affected by the brokenness of the victims.
It soon became obvious that we could not do this work alone and we needed to develop programs that could spread far and wide throughout the community and the local church.
We did a lot of presentations in churches to improve awareness, not only of the abuse but a better understanding of how to manage and work with those who had suffered. This also included the families of perpetrators who become victims too, in other ways.
We have counseled and mentored hundreds of survivors and their families in many different ways with family interventions, couples and relationship rescue weekends, and referrals when needed.
We established our own Christ-centered twelve-step recovery program called Recovery Road, and have supported several local churches in establishing their own twelve-step ministries where survivors — indeed people from all walks and with any hurt, hang-up, or habit — can get healing support in their own district.
Our books and media have been seen all over the globe and the books are now being published by other help groups in their own countries to cut the cost of shipping.
People come to us via email, phone, Skype, or in person for counseling either singularly or as a couple. Groups from clubs and churches come to us for training in our recovery program or we travel to them — in Australia or internationally. We are available for sermons and lectures on recovery and inconvenient truth stuff that isn’t talked about in church these days: pornography, addictions, child sexual abuse within the church, and more.
Our message is a message of inconvenient truth. We speak to please God, not people (Galatians 1:10).
Do you also offer shelter? Legal advice?
We do have accommodation here at the farm retreat for couples or individuals who come for counseling, and we have space for groups who come for training.
We don’t offer legal advice.
Do you and your husband run most of the counseling sessions yourself? Do you have any formal training as counselors?
I’m a trained counselor. My husband Graham is a human factors trainer. I have degrees in nursing, psychology, and law.
When did Mission Serenity begin?
Mission Serenity began as an idea thirteen years ago when my husband and I met, having lived very troubled lives. We clearly saw God’s hand in our meeting and believe God had a vision for us to transform our brokenness into a life of healing. We haven’t looked back.
I was struggling with the after-effects of the abuse and Graham was fighting to overcome an addiction to pornography.
We often use the saying that “God never wastes a hurt” and we have seen this bear fruit in those who come through our recovery program. They shine with a new intensity when they realize that their suffering was just a part of their education for God’s work in their later lives. Just as a glow stick must be broken to give off light, people who are broken can transform into people who glow for the Lord. God doesn’t create the damage, but He has a unique way of turning that scar tissue into something beautiful if we come clean.
Disease of the mind causes disease of the body. If you don’t deal with disease of the mind it will manifest itself eventually as disease of the body.
Do you have employees? Volunteers?
Mission Serenity is mainly run by Graham and I, but we have a small board and a great group of volunteers that have been with us from day one.
You are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in the Adventist church. What happened?
I was groomed, from the age of three, by a prominent church elder/Sabbath school teacher/Pathfinder leader who was very charismatic and admired by everyone, especially children. Other church members respected him. After several years of grooming (during which I lost my sense of personal space, acceptable boundaries, and what was privately mine; and gained a warped sense of what was right and wrong), I was sexually penetrated one Sabbath, when I was nine years old. I was continually molested every Saturday: at Sabbath School, during church, at lunches, picnics, Pathfinder camps, campmeetings, church socials, and game nights.
He told me that because I had been adopted that my parents would give me back to the orphanage if I told them anything about what he did to me. So I learned not to show my emotions or feelings in any way.
I was raped at age 11 and this continued nearly every weekend until I was 15.
When I escaped to an Adventist boarding school, I didn’t fit in. I was only 16 when I became infatuated by a worldly man of 24. I went from one abusive relationship into another, very easily, because I still did not understand boundaries and how to protect myself. We had four children together. I brought them up by working the night shift as a nurse.
When my father died unexpectedly, I had a breakdown, and ended up telling someone about the abuse I had experienced as a child — the first time I ever spoke about it to anyone. He encouraged me to press charges. So I did.
I learned about another victim of the man who had abused me. When some of the church pastors heard about what had happened to us, they discouraged us from talking to the police and told us that the church could handle the situation internally. One of the pastors was the son-in-law of the perpetrator. They told the man about the charges we were bringing against him, then arranged a meeting for us, so that he could tell us how sorry he was. But we refused to meet him.
The church arranged counseing sessions for me, but when I discovered I was seeing the same counselor who was talking to the perpetrator, I did not go back.
The court case dragged on for more than three years, and was eventually shelved because the perpetrator claimed ill health.
Did I get justice? No.
The memory of the abuse consumed me, and I fell into a cycle of addictive behaviors.
How has this experience impacted your life?
The sexual abuse I suffered as a child severely impacted my life. It not only took away my innocence; it made me lose my identity for 45 years. I only got my identity back at age 52 when I forgave my abuser to his face.
I lost who I was, I lost financial security, I lost my education for a long while, I lost my self-esteem, and I lost my self-worth.
I believe I could have been so much more in my life if I had been able to progress through childhood normally and go into my education at an earlier stage. If I had been loved by the church body as I should have been, that would have gone a long way toward healing me at an earlier age. But they turned on me and denounced me as wicked instead.
When I was abused, I learned to hit the adrenaline button, so to speak, as a way of coping. Because then I was in control of something! At first it was running. Then riding horses. And finally driving. And so began a lifelong addiction to driving powerful cars long distances and very fast. The adrenaline urge ended up with me going to prison after accumulated speeding fines meant my driving license was revoked — yet I kept driving because I had to, to exist. I was convicted of having contempt for the law and was sent to prison for four months. This happened at the exact same time that my abuser (who had been forewarned by the church pastor that charges were going to be made) was moving around from a pastor’s home to another family member’s home to avoid the serving of the summons that would begin my court case. While he was moving around from safe house to safe house under church protection, I was sent to prison for driving my car.
When I was imprisoned for driving without a license no consideration was given for my circumstances of mental anguish; nothing was admitted about the current state of my abuse claim. I was trying to cover my pain — that is all. But there was no understanding.
The coping mechanisms I put in place to help me cope with the abuse became addictions and eventually led to adrenal burnout and my near death from subdural hepatomas.
A few years after the court case, out of the blue, I met my gift from God — my atheist husband. I hadn’t been to church in 35 years and it turned out to be an atheist who said he would be my bodyguard and go back with me. I was scared. And scarred. But I wanted to be baptized.
The pastor at the church we went to was amazing, and within six weeks my husband and I both put our hands up for baptism.
You later took your case to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. Did you feel like you got some validation there?
When I was able to speak at the Royal Commission I vented all this about my story, and related it to the stories of thousands of other victims and their journeys into crime or addictions and wrecked livelihoods and education for the same reasons. The Royal Commission got it. They heard. They listened and they were in tears. They began to look at themselves and the reasons behind addictions, crimes, and lifestyle choices that people make.
Yes, the Commission gave me validation.
What are your goals for Mission Serenity?
We have recently decided to remove the not-for-profit and deductible gift status of our organization because the corporate governance issues were too costly by way of time and money for the benefits gained. We have never been ones to seek money and while we have always appreciated the donations we received, seeing these used to manage the corporate side was too much.
Now we have gone back to the basics and continue Mission Serenity in a way that all its resources and energy is totally devoted to the core work of healing.
We are constantly supporting people all over the world. We are flying to New Zealand next to establish a twelve-step group over there.
Do you feel that sexual abuse of children is widespread in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Do you have any figures or statistics?
We have to accept that abuse is no different in a church environment than it is in the secular community. On a per capita basis the statistics are about the same, with some experts saying that it can be worse in a church environment because of the group’s reluctance to deal with the dirty issues. There is a perceived naivety in churches — members still struggle to see that anyone in their midst could abuse a child.
Yes, I do feel abuse has been widespread within the church. Because the church body as a whole wants to think that all people are good people — Christians. But “Christian” is only a word. There are very few people who are truly Christ-like in their behaviors. We are all sinners and strive to be Christ-like. Clearly some just find it too hard, though they still consider themselves Christians.
We should not be fooled. Interfamilial abuse is the most common form of sexual abuse — not strangers.
We become complacent along with the other pew-sitters and we can be just plain naive.
I have spoken to hundreds of victims from within the church. Whenever I speak about myself, dozens whisper in my ear “you’re telling my story.”
We deal with victims, perpetrators, and other family members affected by having abuse happen in their family. We see them all. We can even help past perpetrators, providing that they want to heal, recover, make amends, and take responsibility for what they may have done and consequently face up to the consequences of the crime.
What more should the church be doing to protect its children and prevent abuse, addictions, and trauma?
You never heal a wound by putting a Band-Aid over it. It will fester and bubble away until one day it will boil over with its infection and be much, much worse. The Adventist Church pushes the health message. Let's do it completely, and focus on the whole person.The recipe for healing is in James 5:16: Come together in small groups and talk about stuff and pray for each other so that you and all may be healed! That is the core of recovery. Don’t bottle it up. We have to talk about things we don't like to talk about in a trusting, confidential group. We have to address the disease of the mind.
What advice do you have for people who have experienced abuse in the church?
You can heal, you can recover, you can live a wonderful life, and you can have a peaceful future with hope and purpose as Jeremiah 29:11 tells us. Believe me, I know.
Do you work on Mission Serenity full time? Can you tell us more about what else you do in your career and in your free time?
Mission Serenity has been my full-time job for 13 years now. My husband is also working full time in Mission Serenity around his aviation career. My husband’s job has financed Mission Serenity all these years. We have had some donations, but by far the biggest financial support has come from my husband.
In my free time I love gardening and landscaping — I find those processes very cathartic. I commune with God in His garden. We love caravanning weekends and fishing weekends away on the boat, when we can enjoy the beauty of God in His landscapes.
We have six children and twenty grandchildren between us.
Do you know of similar organizations to yours working with Adventist church members?
There are no other ministries like ours that we know of.
God put it on mine and my husband’s hearts to help other people heal way back in 2006 when we began our healing journey. We became convinced that our purpose was to help other people overcome and heal in the same way that we had. There are no better qualified people to help others overcome issues they are struggling with than people who have struggled with and overcome the exact same issues. Victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence; people suffering from overwork, road rage, anger, porn addiction, sexual addiction, and many other addictions can all overcome. God chose us to help and pressed us into action. That is His plan for us and we have peace in following it.
It is beautiful to see the hope grow in someone’s face when you tell them that their life has a purpose — even when that life feels so messed up. And that purpose is to help others overcome the issues that they are about to overcome, with God’s help. What a hope. What a transformation awaits them. What a future!
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Hood.
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