The Dropouts: Dani Kelley

It seems only fair that I started with introducing myself and telling you a bit of my story.

I grew up at Greenwood Hills Bible Chapel in Fayetteville, PA, home of the similarly named summer camp where I also worked from 2000-2006. I also attended quite a few retreats and conferences outside of GWH (as Greenwood Hills is often abbreviated), including Brooklyn Bible Chapel’s fall youth retreats in Baltimore, West Virginia Family Bible Conferences in southern West Virginia in the summer, and the winter Myrtle Beach Bible Conferences. I even made a trip to Seabrook’s spring conference down in South Carolina one year, not to mention spending a week attending CMML’s Missionary Orientation Program in 2006.

How must people who knew me probably remember me: playing piano in the tabernacle at GWH with long hair, T-shirt, baggy pants, and sneakers.

How must people who knew me probably remember me: playing piano in the tabernacle at GWH with long hair, T-shirt, baggy pants, and sneakers.

Those who knew me during those years will probably remember that I was in no way, shape, or form a casual Christian. Nor was I casual about my adherence to assembly principles. I lived out my faith as a Christian and an assembly girl to the best of my ability and as consistently as I could. Often I even brought friends from my non-denominational Christian school with me to conferences in hopes that they would see that Christ was preeminent in the assemblies and maybe they would more seriously dedicate their lives to Christ (which would, of course, prove itself in them joining an assembly). I made sure that my faith was on constant display so I could fulfill the mandate in 1 Peter about being ready to have an answer for the hope that was in me.

While I professed salvation as young as 3 years old and “got saved” several times after that, I made the conscious and earnest decision to follow the Lord just a month shy of my 14th birthday. I was struggling with serious depression, suicidal ideations, self-injury, and an eating disorder, and I latched onto the hope that I would find deliverance from my body of death through the person of Jesus Christ.

O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7:24-25

From that point onward, I regularly studied the Bible, spent hours in prayer both silently and in keeping a regular prayer journal, and attended meetings of the assembly as often as I possibly could. I spent a lot of time talking to various spiritual leaders that would come to the chapel year-round due to their connection to the camp, and especially during the summers when The Big Names would come for entire weeks of preaching 3 hours a day. I got to know them, talked earnestly with them about biblical and personal matters alike, counted many of them as mentors and friends. The peers I befriended while working at the camp were my closest most trustworthy friends, and we shared a deep love for the Scriptures and the Christ they led us to. Of course, we were teenagers, and we weren’t perfect in any way shape or form. I don’t think any of us would argue that we were. But we did constantly spur one another to grow closer to the Lord.

I had no frame of reference for other belief systems outside of the people at my non-denominational Christian school and later the members of my college’s weekly Bible study. I was always the only Plymouth Brethren Christian among my friends outside of GWH. But since I believed the Plymouth Brethren way of interpreting the Bible (again, I’d been taught no other way) I became very practiced in assembly apologetics…which often resulted in friends avoiding talking about the Bible with me because I absolutely couldn’t understand their point of view and would reject it outright, with a list of Bible verses at my side to prove my point. The friends I brought with me to the camp often expressed that they felt like outcasts among the brethren, and I assured them that they were reading too much into things and that we welcomed them with open arms and hearts. I knew that some of the older brethren doubted the salvation of those who weren’t from the assemblies, but I didn’t know of any of my beloved mentors or friends who believed this. I’m sad to say that in my zeal for assembly principles and inability to truly listen to my friends, I participated in shaming them for not being the “right” kind of Christian.

I always had questions. I think all Christians do. The problem of pain and the goodness of God, the seeming personality conflict from the Old Testament to the New, predestination versus free will and striking a balance that includes the two, end-times prophecy and how a loving God can be justified in sending the majority of the existence of mankind into a torturous eternity…but I was taught answers to those questions that I believed wholeheartedly.

The more I learned about what being truly spiritual meant, how a Bible-believing Plymouth Brethren woman ought to behave in particular, the more I realized I fell far, far short of the mark no matter what I did (whether working myself to death to be a better more godly woman, or trying to rest and trust in the Lord to mold me as He would). I used the Bible verses I discovered (as well as the ones I was given) to try to quell the ever-increasing internalized fear and unrest. I internalized that my fear and unrest were rooted in a spirit of unbelief, pride, and a refusal to submit to God-given authority and scripture. I began systematically cutting things out of my life that I believed weren’t God’s will for me: friends, music, past-times. I worked to cultivate within myself a gentle, quiet spirit (which wasn’t as hard to do as it could be since I am very much an introvert). I didn’t realize it at the time, and I never would have put it this way, but I was slowly flogging and shaming and silencing and erasing myself so that nothing but Christ would remain.

This eventually culminated in my applying to and attending Bob Jones University in 2008. I chose BJU rather than Emmaus because I already had an associate degree in graphic design from my community college, so I chose the school whose theology most closely mirrored my own that also carried my major and had an assembly close by. (Graphic design was my chosen vocation in part because of my natural talent, and in part because I believed it to be a God-honoring career decision since I could support my husband from home whenever I got married and I wasn’t putting myself in a career where I would have authority over men in any way.)

BJU was certainly much more strict than I believed was necessary (and than many of my friends and mentors believed was necessary as well), but I believed with all my heart that I would learn godly submission while a student there, that it would be a trial of fire that would refine me into a more godly follower of Christ. But the years of internalized shame and discipline, combined with the toxic atmosphere of BJU, left me suicidal once more. I’m thankful for a wonderful roommate, along with my now-husband, for being there for me during this extremely difficult time.

I was expelled from BJU early in my second semester for having pre-marital sex (which is another discussion for another time, perhaps). Once again, I’m thankful for my now-husband and my roommate (along with a couple of friends from back home) for helping me get through each day. When I saw how BJU reacted to my sin (and me, as a result), I finally realized that they were demonstrating the logical end to my increasingly conservative beliefs (and what I would later decide was the logical end to biblical literalism, which was a cornerstone of my faith). I was shaken to my core, and decided that grace and love were the order of the day, not rules, even if the rules could be backed up with the entire Bible.

Shortly after my expulsion, I began experiencing what I can only describe as post-traumatic-stress symptoms related to Christianity in general but particularly any assembly function I attended. I powered through it to the best of my ability for almost 3 years, until the stress of nausea-inducing limb-paralyzing migraines that only presented when I attended church made me realize that taking care of myself needed to look like taking a break from the assemblies. For the next two years, I let myself ask the questions I’d pretended were answered for years and finally examined the answers I’d believed and found them wanting. I found friends online who had the same questions, who had similar stories to my own, and I began to find healing in the various survivor groups for both Bob Jones University and other denominations such as Sovereign Grace Ministries and the Independent Fundamental Baptists.

I searched during that time for anything I could find that was an unbiased critical look at the Plymouth Brethren, but couldn’t find anything that wasn’t specifically about the Taylorites of the Exclusives overseas. It seemed that everything I found fit the narrative that I’d been taught that the open assemblies were biblically sound, and the exclusives were legalistic and borderline cult-like.

Me now. The haircut is definitely a metaphor.

Me now. The haircut is definitely a metaphor.

This past summer, I realized that the next step in my healing process was to let go of Christianity altogether. I’d identified as an agnostic theist in the Christian tradition for quite some time, but realized with acute pain that I no longer believed in the God of Christianity, and I was unsure of my belief about a god at all. Having lived my faith openly and honestly and without censorship, I thought that I should live my doubts with just as much integrity. There has certainly been quite a lot of heartache and pushback, but I’m still committed to continue writing and thinking and processing aloud as I always have.

For the first time in my life, I’m finding peace and joy and community in ways that I was promised as an assembly girl. I’m learning not to internalize damaging messages. I’m learning that people have inherent worth, that humanity is capable of good, that faith doesn’t require being insulated from the world, and that the world is not the evil, scary place I’d been told it was, and that a lack of faith absolutely does not mean a lack of hope. And I’m friends with a group of progressive Christians that give me hope for Christianity at large. I am content.

Now? I’m trying to put together the resources I wish I’d had when I started really asking questions about the Plymouth Brethren. I’d love any help you could offer if you’ve spent time among the brethren — agnostic, atheist, Christian or otherwise. Your story is valuable, and together we can build a community so no one else has to be alone when leave the Plymouth Brethren.


5 thoughts on “The Dropouts: Dani Kelley

  1. Dear Dani, thank you for your courageous blog. I too have lived with traumatic experiences caused by being in a Plymouth Brethren church, in Maryborough Queensland Australia. Ive felt SO alone. Been through church discipline while suffering domestic violence, lost my faith in God for 10 years. Moving back to this town after 10 years away has brought it all back. I am still treated by the church members as a proverbial “whore of babylon”. Finding it hard to keep faith in God I totally understand your position. You know how it is, old friends wont even have a cup of tea with me, but send me information about different speakers coming to the church. Ive been searching the net to find other people who have had their lives derailed by a cult that looks like a friendly family church. Im going to follow your posts, thank you for being so brave. I would love to find a forum where we could all talk about our experiences with a view to healing. Thank you for your bravery, Lisa

  2. The open brethren have had a number jailed for sexual abuse against children in Queensland I have read of the sex at the Silky Oaks Children Have a brethren controlled institution I assisted in law against the institution for a number of ex inmates, brethren have been noted for the claim Christ will forgive so you to should, speak to the elders in many cases the elders were the abuser, the brethren are a sect with no order as to teaching spirit driven what brethren men have to remember “After death the judgment” and not all who call me Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven” I no longer believe in heaven or hell after dealing with broken lives from the brethren I am prepared to go where sexual abused believe they will end up.

  3. My aunt and uncle were once the managers of Greenwood Hills. Since I’m a FL girl I only went there once for summer camp in the early 90s, but we had a family reunion there when my uncle was manager. It PB world is a small world.

    • *gasp* Oh my god! I know your aunt and uncle. I was so sad to hear of his passing. I hope your aunt is doing well.

      I do run another site where I write about broader-scoped things, usually focusing around building bridges between Christians and atheists and examining current events and media through a feminist humanist lens. Feel free to check it out, and I’d love to chat sometime if you want to drop me a line through the contact page. Thanks for reading!

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