Rebecca Moatz (pen name R.L. Moatz) is another of my earliest Internet friends and colleagues whose autobiographical story, It Happened At A Lutheran Church, was one of the first e-books I reviewed. She provided us with an in-depth interview and a behind the scenes look into an intimate and harrowing episode in her personal life.
It Happened At A Lutheran Church must have had a major impact in your community. What updates can you provide since the publication of your book?
I anticipated the same reaction and even braced myself for it, especially where my son’s privacy was concerned. However, by most accounts it feels like the community as a whole is embarrassed by the book. When the initial press releases went out, not a single local newspaper, radio station or television news station responded. I was eventually interviewed by a reporter from the Reading Eagle newspaper in January, 2014, but the article didn’t go to press until April, eleven months after the book was published.
Reading has been a city in socio-economic decline since the 1960’s. What was once a beautiful and safe place to work and raise a family has crumbled into urban decay. Since the new millennium, we have held the dubious distinctions of holding both the highest poverty rate and highest murder rate in the nation. More and more kids are selling drugs, joining gangs and using guns to settle their disputes. Philadelphia news vans are here on a regular basis covering one tragedy after another. As a result, different groups have formed whose focus has been to take back our streets, rebuild our communities, and generate positive press.
Dedicated people have worked very hard to make downtown Reading a place that Berks countians will want to come to work and enjoy recreational activities in. But it’s been an uphill battle for them in many respects, especially with the press. A book like mine, detailing the emotional abuse of a child in one of the largest Lutheran churches in the city is probably not something outsiders to know about.
The book has gotten very good feedback online, however. Nearly everyone who has read it tells me they have walked away with something positive, and I have readers worldwide on nearly every continent. I have been interviewed on The Christian Authors Radio Show and featured on Lighthouse International Ministries with Reverend Allen Smith, Bookshelf News with Maurice Tudor, Venture Galleries with Caleb Pirtle, Brook Cottage Books with JB Johnston, and The Story Reading Ape with Christopher Graham.
Your family endured great tribulation throughout the timeframe narrated in your account. What were the long-term effects? Would you say that the family emerged stronger, or did the psychological trauma take its toll?
The long-term effects have been many and have evolved over the years, mainly because Joshua was only ten years old when the incidents took place. He grew into adulthood from that point on having to work through someone else’s issues, anger, and attitude that he didn’t even initially understand. Adults whom he had received love and support from for five years suddenly began looking at him and talking to him as if he was “bad” and kids whom he thought were his friends didn’t like him anymore. Then, just as it was all far enough behind him to start fading away, we ran into Pastor Kehler.
When the memories came flooding back, he was then old enough to figure out what he was actually being accused of. It was both horrifying and embarrassing for a 13-year-old boy to realize the depth of their depravity! Adults in a place where he was supposed to feel safe and loved actually thought these terrible things about him, and they told all the other adults, and everyone believed it! And worse yet, the other kids believed that he had done something really horrible! And the one person who had always been a stable force in his life, the person who was supposed to keep him safe, his mother, kept taking him back there!
He developed trust issues as a result, and he became very selective when it came to making new friends. Prior to the incident, Joshua was the type of child who made friends with everyone everywhere. Our house was the kid house; everyone was always here and in the summer and during school vacations, at least one kid always spent the night. He was the only “only child” I ever met who had bunk beds in his room, and we easily could have used a second set! After the incident, his inner circle gradually grew smaller as time went on. As the city declined, many families moved, and the number of friends he brought home declined with it.
Fortunately, the lines of communication between us stayed open, and we talked through a great deal of his emotions over the years, always at his pace, of course. Whether the conversation was a direct result of what happened at St. Paul’s or secondary to it, the discussions took place only when he initiated them. I’ve never wanted him to feel pressured or to feel as though I was prying, because I realize that there will always be some thoughts he will choose to keep to himself.
Overall, I think both individually and as a family, we are all stronger as a result of what happened. Most importantly, both Joshua and I are using our past experiences to help others, and we are both enjoying new careers based on a life of service. His father and I couldn’t be more pleased with his accomplishments and his choices.
Obviously the title of your book had its own significance. Do you still consider yourself a member of the Lutheran Church? Has the hierarchy ever reached out and offered an apology?
That is a very good question and one that I’ve had to answer several times recently. I consider myself a member of the Lutheran faith, but I am currently without a Church home. The question has come up, because I’ve been battling some new health issues and have been in and out of the hospital for the past few months. The first time I went in and I was asked to confirm my religious status, I did hesitate for a moment. What am I now? After all, I haven’t yet found another church home, and I don’t know when I will. I am not completely opposed to the idea; it just hasn’t happened yet. I did visit another church a few years ago with someone whom I thought was a friend, but he turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. One would think that experience would have been the proverbial straw, but it wasn’t.
We are all sinners, and as Abigail Van Buren once said, “Churches are supposed to be hospitals for sinners, not museums for saints.” With that in mind, I don’t have any great expectations, nor do I think the odds of having something as devastating as what happened before will happen again. When the time and place are right, the Lord will make it known, and I will try again. Until then, He and I have an understanding.
Sadly, no one from St. Paul’s or any level of the Lutheran Church has ever reached out to Joshua or our family, not even after the Reading Eagle finally did run the story. The only person I heard from was the president of the Church council. It was shortly after I left the Church, and I had sent her a letter of resignation. She left me a message asking me to return a notebook of documents that is given to each member of council. Nothing else was said. Not “I’m sorry you are leaving.” Not, “Why are you leaving?” Nothing. At the time, I thought what had happened to us was an isolated incident, so it never occurred to me that it might benefit others if I reported what had happened. I have since learned that this is an ongoing problem in our country, however, and your question has prompted me to give it some prayer. Perhaps the time has come to take the next step.
Many readers would contemplate the fact that most of these injustices occurred on the watch of a female pastor. In retrospect, do you feel that this might have been less likely to happen under a male pastor? Do you feel that Pastor Kehler was reluctant to pass judgment on an issue involving two mothers, where a male pastor might have been more objective?
No, I don’t, simply because I have had the leadership of female pastors before meeting, working with, and worshipping under Pastor Kehler. Nor do I feel it was any more or less likely to happen under a male pastor. I can certainly understand why these facts would be contemplated and how the arguments would be made, but at the end of the day, I think it comes down to individual personalities, backgrounds and life experience.
In Pastor Kehler’s case, although she is around my age, St. Paul’s was her first parish. While all ministers are going to take the success or failure of their particular parish personally, I think it may have been more intense for her, because it was a total life change. She had been married, but had no children, and was working for state government prior to becoming a minister. After her marriage ended, she decided to pursue a pastoral career, so in many ways, she was starting over. She was also from another county, so moving to Reading and becoming the pastor of St. Paul’s probably seemed like the beginning of a brand new life for her.
Before the incident happened, she and I talked a great deal about what she called time and talents. I never had much money to put in the collection plate, but she always reassured me that didn’t matter, because I gave generously of my time and talents, which were equally important to the sustainability of the Church. At the time of the incident, however, I had been sick for a few months, and Sue Ann had begun taking over some of the programs I had created and/or used to run.
One of those programs was the Junior Youth Group. We were having a really hard time recruiting more kids, and the group was getting smaller as some of the older ones started moving up to the Senior Youth Group. And although Sue Ann was no longer working outside the home since the birth of her third child, her husband had a very good job, so I don’t think the loss of her income impacted their tithing much. Instead, Sue Ann was now giving of her time and talents, doing what I no longer could. And when it came to building up the Junior Youth Group, she did an outstanding job. She lived just outside of the city, and her children went to a different school district. Consequently, she was able to recruit children and families who could better afford to tithe. The end result was she was of more value to the Church than I was, and I believe that is what motivated Pastor Kehler’s decisions.
You’ve been running a blog site, The Controversial Christian. Have you been discouraged by the Lutherans’ failure to adhere to fundamental Christian tenets? Would you consider yourself a mainstream Christian, or possibly a liberal?
Yes, I have been discouraged, both by my own experience and because it seems that there are more and more “Sunday Christians” out there these days. Growing up, I had friends who were Catholic, and I always had a problem with the way many of them incorrectly interpreted their faith, which was, “one can do pretty much whatever they want as long as they go to confession”. As a Lutheran, more accountability for my actions was expected. The flip side of that coin, however, is that I found many of my fellow Lutherans to be more judgmental of one another, which is where the “museum mentality” I referred to earlier comes into play. I have since learned that neither attitude is healthy or realistic.
I call myself the Controversial Christian, because my goal is to keep it real. I am a fallible human being who lives in a world that is complicated and messy, and to quote a friend, “I have no problem being a sheep in wolf’s clothing”. Christ was born into a poor family and He walked among the common people. By all accounts, He didn’t put on airs or act without emotion. Even anger had it’s place. So why should we, his followers, hold ourselves to a standard we can’t even begin to keep? So yes, I would consider myself a liberal Christian. But I am also starting to see other Christians go in the same direction, and I believe we may be heading towards a time when liberal is the new mainstream.
Have you been approached by believers in other denominations who found that basic Christian principles are being eschewed in favor of Church politics? Do you feel that more or less people are speaking out when wronged by their congregation?
Yes, I have been approached by believers in several other denominations, and in some of those cases the parties involved found they were finally able to make a decision with regard to their own Church challenges. It always feels good to know that something I wrote played a role in that, in helping someone find their serenity. Sadly, the sordid business of Church politics has been around for a very long time, and very few people have spoken out, which is why I thought that what happened to us was an isolated incident. It wasn’t until after I published the book that I began to learn what a widespread problem it really is.
Lutherans are generally a stoic bunch, so I think that’s why these problems have been able to fester for as long as they have. I can remember when I was just a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, my father had repeatedly turned down nominations for Church council, and when I asked him why, he said he didn’t want to get involved in Church politics. I didn’t give those old conversations any thought for years until after this happened to us. My father had already passed when the incident happened at St. Paul’s, so I wasn’t able to discuss it with him. One of my goals in promoting the book is to encourage people to speak out, especially those folks who are part of a culture like mine where it is ingrained in you to do otherwise.
You describe your lifestyle as being exclusively Pennsylvanian. Do you have any life experiences in big-city environments such as Philadelphia or Pittsburgh? Have any of your kids become young urban professionals?
I have never been to Pittsburgh, but I have spent a good deal of time in Philadelphia with my son for his health care. He was seen at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children at ages four and six and at Temple and Temple Children’s Hospitals between the ages of six and eleven for numerous surgeries and follow up appointments secondary to specialized health care that he required due to being born with a rare vascular syndrome called AVM. A good many of those trips were made by Capitol Trailways bus, and the Philadelphia terminal is located in Chinatown, where Joshua’s love of Asian culture was born.
During the follow up appointments, we had ample time between leaving the office and boarding the next bus back to Reading, so we used that time to explore Chinatown together. After one of his last doctor appointments, we had lunch a lovely restaurant where we both enjoyed our first taste of authentic Chinese tea. Another time we explored Fairmont Park and yet another time, we set out to see if we could cross the bridge over into New Jersey and back before having to head back to the terminal. It was a very hot day, but we made it half way before we gave in and turned around.
Joshua is an only child and is definitely very comfortable in an urban environment. He was only three when we moved into the city, so besides time spent at my childhood home with family up until he was about seven, urban life is really all he knows. There was a time when he thought he might want to study art in Philadelphia, but he has so many interests that he has changed his mind several times since then. He has since completed four years in the MCJROTC program at Reading High School where he earned an Outstanding Achievement Award and planned to continue his education through the National Guard.
Unfortunately, his bilateral hearing loss secondary to the AVM stood in the way of that, so he then decided to pursue a degree in Criminal Justice from Everest University where he made the Dean’s List. He recently found a degreed position at Abraxas Academy as a Youth Care Specialist, working with troubled youth, many of whom are from Reading, who have either been sentenced to the detention center for various crimes or removed from their homes by Children and Youth Services. He is also currently pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Network Security from the University of Advancing Technology, where he recently designed an anti-stalking technology program entitled Incognito This, patent pending. I had been the victim of a stalker a mere year before the project was assigned, and I was both touched by his choice and proud of his design, which received high marks from all four professors on the board.
How has life in Reading impacted your career as a writer? Do you feel as if your environment has helped or hindered your worldview as an author, and as a Christian?
Reading is a small city that is huge in history. John Updike went to the same high school that my family and I did, only back in the 40s, it was called Shillington High School; now it is Governor Mifflin School District. He was in the same class as my mother’s younger twin sisters. Rabbit Run was filmed here in Reading, and the pool scene was shot at the East Reading Pool, the same pool that is just two blocks from my home, where Joshua and I spent many happy summers when he was in grade school.
We also have a Japanese Pagoda that sits atop Mt. Penn that is lit up every night. I am fortunate enough to be able to see it from my back door window. Commissioned in 1906 at a cost of $50,000 by William A. Witman, Sr. to cover his stone quarry, the Pagoda was completed in 1908. The bell on the 7th floor was cast in Japan in 1739. It was purchased by Witman in 1906 and shipped via the Suez Canal to the New York Harbor and arrived in Reading on May 5, 1906 by rail. By 1910, the Pagoda and surrounding ten acres were deeded to local business owner, Jonathon Mould and his wife, Julia. On April 21, 1911, they sold it to the City of Reading for $1, and since then the Pagoda has been owned, loved, and cared for by the citizens and City of Reading. Reading also has a long-standing tradition on Christmas Eve; promptly at 9:00 p.m. the red lights that adorn the Pagoda begin flashing. It is a signal to the children to hurry off to bed, because Santa is on his way. And since New Year’s Eve, 1999-2000, we have an annual fireworks display that lights up the night sky above it. There is also a writer’s club that meets there on the first Saturday of the month that I intend to visit in the near future.
And although I was raised in the country home I mentioned earlier, outside of Reading, my mother’s maternal side of the family has roots in the City of Reading. Her grandfather came over through Ellis Island from Germany when he was just a boy and worked his way up through the local iron industry. She remembers growing up during the Great Depression and visiting her grandparents, who lived on the same street I do now, and watching her grandmother buy food from the various vendors who came around in those days and give it to their neighbors, a total of seven families. My great-grandmother helped keep her six children and their families fed along with those seven other families during those days. My mother is a great historian, and as a result, I learned at an early age that charity really does begin at home.
So I believe that living in Reading has definitely enhanced my writing. Big dreams have been fulfilled by folks who started out here, and big city problems are being faced every day here. All of it is an opportunity for me to become a better Christian and a better writer.
We’ve been looking forward to more works by Rebecca Moatz. Are you planning on writing religious-themed books, or personal encouragement tomes, or will we see any fiction novels?
All of the above! Until recently, I thought I would stay with what I know, writing about the many challenges I have faced and overcame, sharing how my faith played a part and ultimately grew, and providing encouragement to folks who are going through a similar situation. However, I recently had an idea for a work of fiction that I think will really take off. It’s based on some truth, of course, but taken and turned a different way that I think the reader will find quite intriguing. If it is well received, my plan is to create a book series.
Unfortunately, I haven’t done much writing during the past several months due to the health issues I mentioned earlier. Part of that has to do with being diagnosed with something called non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. In other words, I have the same reaction to gluten that people with Celiac disease do, even though I don’t have Celiac disease, so it took the docs a little longer to figure it out. And gluten is in foods you would never even imagine, like corn syrup, for example, and corn syrup is in practically everything. So, it’s been quite a process to get well. Now I am beginning the process of learning how to cook all over again.
What advice to you have for fellow Christians who have been wrongly treated by their congregation? Do you feel it is a duty to bring the matter before the elders according to Scripture, or in this day and age, should they turn the other cheek and walk away?
I think each situation needs to be taken on its own account. Common sense should prevail. If it’s an isolated incident where one person behaves badly, but nothing else changes, certainly, turn the other cheek. I try to treat other people the way I would want to be treated, and if I have a bad day and behave regrettably, I would hope someone would cut me a break. I would also hope I would recognize my human error and apologize.
That being said, if you feel it’s more serious than that, if you feel as though you’ve been shunned or judged, or worse yet, you feel your child is being mistreated, please do not ignore it! Do not make the mistake I did, thinking that because you are in God’s house, all you have to do is hold your head high and the truth will prevail.
Follow protocol, certainly. Speak to your Church elders. But if the situation is not addressed appropriately or resolved, don’t stop there, especially if a child is involved – I can’t stress that part enough, even if it’s not your child. Someone needs to look out for that child! If nothing is done, not only is that child going to suffer, but who knows how many other children may suffer in the future, because no one spoke up. There is no turning the other cheek when a child is involved. My child and I learned that the hard way.
As I said, each situation has to be taken on its own account. Pray and listen; the Lord will guide you. Whether it be to go to your Pastor, contact the Bishop, or worst case scenario, leave the Church, do whatever it is you need to do to protect that child, or yourself, for that matter. No one should be judged or shunned in the house of the Lord.
Check out Rebecca’s Amazon page at http://www.amazon.com/R.-L.-Moatz/e/B00IPPVAWY/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1403272363&sr=1-2-ent