(RNS) — Eileen Taylor’s 20-year-old self could never have imagined her life today.
At age 20, Eileen — known to many by her previous, married name of Eileen Gray — knew nothing about Christianity, and she was on the fast track to a successful career in banking and finance.
Then she met Jesus.
Not long after, she met a man in church who also claimed to have a newfound faith. They married and later headed to seminary, where her husband enrolled as a student and Eileen took advantage of the opportunity the school offered wives of seminarians to attend classes.
Those were the happiest years of the marriage, Eileen told me recently, as she shared about the circumstances that led to her becoming headline news throughout the past year, after she reluctantly came forward to share how her former church dealt with her family after the church elders learned of her husband’s abuse of their children. (Eileen’s then-husband, who eventually divorced her, was convicted of aggravated child molestation, corporal injury to a child and child abuse. He is serving a prison sentence of 21 years to life.)
Eileen never planned to come forward about her experience with Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. On the contrary, she moved away and worked for many years to build a quiet life for herself and her children.
Then, in 2017, another woman from Eileen’s former church reached out to her, asking Eileen to share her story in order to help other women who had experienced similar treatment from the church.
Eileen’s children were young adults, and she was battling cancer for a second time. She wasn’t ready. But she continued to hear of more cases of abused women receiving spiritually abusive counseling. Some of these cases were detailed last week in a report from Christianity Today.
Now Eileen can’t help but think, “If only I had spoken up sooner.”
These days, Eileen hangs out with cops and criminals.
As a certified law enforcement chaplain with the Tehama County Sheriff’s
Office in California, Eileen serves inmates and law enforcement in countless ways: from serving as a community call-out chaplain, to teaching regular Bible studies in the jail, to running a 24-hour hotline out of her home, to placing releasees in rehabilitation out-programs, to mentoring women charged with or convicted of drug crimes, assault, embezzlement, murder and a host of other charges. She maintains these relationships with these women whether they are behind bars or back outside.
Eileen’s life now is a far cry from the white-collar trajectory of her youth. It’s also a far cry from the subservient, servile role she once played to a domineering and violent husband, a role God called her out of initially to protect her children, then herself.
I first spoke to Eileen last year at a private gathering of abuse survivors and advocates. Like everyone else, survivors represent a range of ages, backgrounds and personality types. Some are boisterous and funny, peppering their stories with humor as an analgesic to pain.
Others wear the hard armor of tattoos, piercings and purple hair, defenses against their former innocence, which seemingly betrayed them. Some still retain their identity as churchgoing Christians, struggling to reconcile what they’ve always believed with what they’ve actually experienced.
At first I didn’t notice the slender older woman standing quietly by herself in a corner of the kitchen. Someone then introduced me to Eileen, the eldest woman among these survivors. Survivors often tilt young — not because abuse has become more prevalent in recent years, but rather because speaking up and out is more realizable today than in generations past.
Back in Tehama County, they call Eileen “mother of the jail.” To the younger survivors gathered there that day, she could rightly be called “mother of the survivors.”
To spend a few minutes with Eileen is to sense under her diminutive shell the
strength of steel and the grace of a reed. It is also to recognize the power of her genuine love for the hurting and vulnerable — conditions she knows all too well.
Yet, Eileen is so much more than a survivor of domestic violence and spiritual abuse.
A year after her former husband was sentenced and imprisoned, she remembers praying, “Lord, you have comforted me so much, where are the hurting women? I want to find them so I can tell them about you and how you love them and will comfort them in their pain.”
The local jail was the obvious answer. This was the beginning of Eileen’s now full-time ministry with Ripe for Harvest World Outreach, a mission organization that depends on donations — which have, unfortunately, dropped dramatically in the year since Eileen went public with the story of how her former church handled the abuse of her children.
When she was going through her ordeal, Eileen explains, “I did not know any women who understood the grief and pain I was going through.” One woman who tried to help thought she should just “get over” the loss of her husband and the trauma of what he had done to her and her children more quickly. While this friend was well-intentioned, such advice can be given only in ignorance of the kind of suffering abuse entails. Eileen, on the other hand, knows firsthand the challenges and heartache facing many of the women she helps.
Even so, she says, “I’m not a savior type. I’m tough,” sharing a bit of the hard counsel she gave to a woman guilty of a particularly heinous crime. She added, “But they do know that I love them.”
This love is clear from the newsletters the ministry sends to supporters, which are filled with stories and pictures that both break your heart and give you hope.
One of these tells the story of Honey (whose last name is being withheld), a former inmate Eileen met in 2006, when she first began her jail ministry. Eileen shared the gospel with Honey over and over for years while Honey attended the Bible study Eileen held in the jail. When Honey hit “rock bottom,” Eileen continued to offer her love and encouragement. She was “never judgmental,” Honey explains. Finally, she continues, “I completely surrendered my life to Jesus.”
Honey was able to graduate from a drug and alcohol counselor training program, then enroll in college. Last year — with the constant spiritual and material help from Eileen’s ministry — she earned a B.A. in social work.
In a letter Honey shared with Eileen not long ago, Honey recounts the “darkness” in her early life that led her to drug addiction. Honey says she has been “clean and sober” since 2010.
Chaplain Eileen, Honey says, “has been a light to me throughout many phases in my life and I thank God for her.”
May this light — and many similar lights — continue to shine in the darkness.