The violence no one sees: leaving fundamentalism in rural towns
Laura McConnell Conti experienced religious fundamentalism from the inside. She grew up and then fled from a high control, Christian group known as The Truth in rural NSW. She shares in this essay the extreme and complex challenges that particularly women, face when wanting to leave these communities and how that results in many remaining trapped for life. Laura asks us all to consider the wider community responsibility that we have in understanding the dynamics and tools of control in these communities and to not turn a blind eye, no matter how challenging to our personal beliefs this may be. This work was written on the lands of the Wamba Wamba and Barapa Barapa people of South Western NSW.
CONTENT WARNING: The following work contains distressing content related to family, religious and sexual violence. If you or someone you know requires support, please call 1800RESPECT or 1800 011 511; for situations of immediate danger, please call 000.
When I start conversations about religious control and abuse, immediately people assume I’m talking of Islam, and of issues of multi-cultural city suburbia. I am not. I am talking of white, high control Christianity, in rural Australia. We’re too quick to assume religious control relates to Islam, when in fact its crosses religious groups of all kinds.
Often rural and regional white Australians don’t connect religious abuses with the fundamentalist Christian groups living in their own communities. I’m talking of high control groups such as Jehovah’s witnesses, Brethren, Truth, Mormon and some strands of Pentecostalism. These groups have thriving communities in rural and regional Australia, and are often misunderstood as ‘simple, god-fearing, harmless Christians’. That’s not to say some of them aren’t in fact lovely, generous and kind people. Usually they’re hard working, from successful small business families, dress well and are respectful to outsiders. However, some of these groups are high control, limiting the lives of women and young people, carefully managing their education, careers and interactions with outsiders. Some of these communities shun and excommunicate people who step outside a tightly defined set of norms and behaviours. In Australia we tend to dismiss fundamentalist Christians as being free to ‘do their thing so long as they don’t harm us’ under religious freedom laws. In my opinion the concept of religious freedom should extend to ensuring someone is free to leave a religious community without the experience of being shunned, excommunicated, threatened and in some cases, actually harmed.
Managing family violence in a rural and regional setting is a difficult and twisted process before adding other intersecting identities such as race, culture, religion, sexuality and class.
Rural family violence providers are often underfunded, over stretched and under resourced. These services usually have little-to-no experience of religious control and abuse, they’re battling at the best of times to meet the needs of the general rural community experiencing violence. It’s my experience that women and young people from fundamentalist communities will avoid family violence providers, knowing they don’t have the time or the breadth of understanding of their situation to provide culturally and religiously nuanced support. For instance, some fundamentalists are reluctant to share meals with outsiders or stay in rooms which have shared walls with outsiders. This often puts domestic violence shelters off limits for cultural reasons.
Leaving an abusive family or community is a long and arduous process, which is usually done alone or with support of another community-leaver, not with mainstream providers. The hesitation to use mainstream services means our needs are often overlooked, misunderstood or ignored, because we’re not visible to providers.
People (usually women and young people) who leave high control groups tend to have worked for considerable time to create a space safe enough to leave. Usually they’ll leave and go to an urban centre, away from their family and community. As someone who did that herself, I found that to be traumatic and unnecessarily difficult. I left with nothing; no money, no support, no home and in a city five hours from my home. It shouldn’t need to be like that, we should be able to safely stay in our local communities if we wish to. We’re leaving multi-generational communities, because a vast majority of fundamentalist Christians are three, four, five, six generations deep in their faith. We’re raised with our cousins, second and third cousins, our connection to a community of faith is deep. Often, we have no, or limited connections outside our families and communities. Leavers who choose to stay in their local community in rural and regional Australia face violence, abuse and harrassment far beyond the average rural survivor of family violence.
All rural Australians know about the complexities of rural homes and family relationships; the presence of guns, isolation, interconnected family finances with multi-generational farms and businesses. Rural families can be conservative, add issues of gender or sexuality to an average rural family and it can be volatile. Genders and sexualities other than CIS-gendered, heterosexuality are simply not acceptable to fundamentalist Christians, leaving gender and sexuality diverse people ostracised and rejected. Often, they’re thrown out of their family and community, and left homeless. They leave for an urban centre, rebuild and never return. Those who try to stay find themselves ostracised, where family members refuse to acknowledge their existence and cross the street of small towns to avoid them.
I write these stories not to scare, ostracise or cause alarm, but to speak truth to the realities of being an ex-Christian fundamentalist from rural Australia.
What does someone do when seeking help from violence and abuse in a fundamentalist family or relationship? Call the police, who might be 200, 300 kilometres away? As someone who has called the police countless times about religious abuse and threats, and been told ‘it’s a family matter, resolve it with your family’, let me tell you, police are unlikely to support someone leaving religious control. They’re unlikely to even drive the distance to speak to you, they’ll generously tell you you’re on your own, over the phone.
If you get lucky (because it IS luck) to get a police officer who’ll take religious control and threats seriously and pursue an AVO, you’ll rock up to a small local courthouse, and have to buy lunch at the one café in town, and stand right next to the perpetrator and their family because there is nowhere else to go. When you park your car outside the courthouse, they’ll park next to you, they’ll pursue you with bibles and prayers while you’re waiting for your AVO hearing. Even if you get an AVO granted (many don’t – magistrates often dismiss religious issues), the stories of threats to leavers of fundamentalist Christianity are harrowing. Wheel nuts on cars mysteriously coming loose, wheels coming loose on the highway. Shot gun casings left in mailboxes, shotgun bullet casings left on doorsteps. Front farm gates padlocked shut, bank accounts cleared out, children taken by family deemed more ‘godfearing’ and better suited to raise the children. Garages and sheds mysteriously burned down, bible after bible left on cars or doorsteps (sadly, they never seem to run out of bibles).
If a fundamentalist Christian leaves due to childhood sexual assault or sexual violence, they’re likely further traumatised by long and drawn-out court processes. These groups have deep pockets and will stop at almost nothing to clear the ‘good names’ of men in the group. They hire QCs and KCs and will appeal and appeal, with seemingly endless funds at their disposal. Meanwhile a survivor is often financially crippled, shunned from their community so has no support and living in housing stress. Women in particular find it difficult to gain employment, as our education and work outside the home has been curtailed in line with strict gender roles performed in fundamentalist groups.
I write these stories not to scare, ostracise or cause alarm, but to speak truth to the realities of being an ex-Christian fundamentalist from rural Australia. We’re often shunned, disowned and left traumatised by our experiences of leaving and surviving outside the group. We often lose our sense of home, community and family. There is a place for mainstream services, community groups and neighbours to reach out and support us. There is an urgent need for us to be heard, supported and for us to be able to safely leave and remain in our rural communities. Fundamentalist children are often in your schools. Fundamentalist women and young people are often in your supermarkets and streets. What can be done to make sure those women and young people have a choice to leave and leave safely, and remain in the communities they love and know?
Laura McConnell Conti is an ex fundamentalist Christian, raised fifth generation inside a group known as The Truth. She was raised in far western and south western NSW in regional and remote communities. She has worked as a writer, advocate and activist for ex fundamentalist women and young people for 20 years. Her work can be found at www.lauramcconnell.com.au She is also cofounder of BCorp, #GoKindly, and a Chartered Accountant by trade (something has to pay the bills when you leave fundamentalism with nothing).