When the Hillsong Church introduced Mercy Ministries to the congregation, there was much excitement. There was finally somewhere that “girls in trouble” could go to keep their babies, or sort out other consequences of their sins while being pampered like a princess into a brand new life.
Pastor Bobbie Houston set up a Mercy register at David Jones, much like a bridal register, where members of the congregation could buy household goods for the girls at Mercy House: perhaps a washing machine or a dustpan and brush. It was like one big Hillsong wedding for the Mary Magdalenes they were forgiving. See how good God is to those sorts of girls?
But girls who have undergone the Mercy Ministries program say the experience did more harm than good, as the Herald reported yesterday. Rather than receiving psychiatric care and support, they were isolated from the outside world and given treatments which consisted of prayer reading and exorcisms.
To understand how this could come about, it is necessary to understand the relationship between Mercy Ministries and the Hillsong Church and the philosophy that unites them.
Hillsong has always been proud of the origins and progress of the Australian incarnation of Mercy Ministries. According to Hillsong folklore, a female congregant, unable to find help in Australia for an eating disorder, travelled to the United States for treatment at Mercy Ministries. Mercy Ministries was created by an American, Nancy Alcorn, who says she was frustrated in her role as a juvenile justice officer because of the injustices of the system. She determined to open a place for young women that would be independent of government funding and intervention, and free, so women would feel sincerely cared for.
While the Australian congregant was at Mercy Ministries, she was visited by a Hillsong pastor. The pastor was so impressed with the work being done she decided to bring the program to Australia.
Mercy Ministries was a godsend for Hillsong. Desperate young women who are violated by the world draw a sympathetic audience. It seemed a simple concept for Hillsong to mimic locally and it was presented as a utopia of female health. Hillsong is an organisation based on recruitment and fund-raising. Mercy Ministries was an opportunity to do both on a new and larger scale.
The founders of Mercy Ministries are fundamentalist Christians who are primarily obsessed with women’s bodies and what they choose to do with them. The Bible is used to justify the supposed inferiority and intrinsic sinfulness of women and homosexuals. Hillsong teaches that a woman’s purpose, as an afterthought of God, is as a helper and a companion at best, and with Eve as their ultimate matriarch, the cause of the fall of all mankind.
The teaching when I was at Hillsong included the lesson that women are attached to their offspring eternally. All the miscarriages, terminations and stillbirths a woman has during her life time grow up in heaven, waiting for their mother to join them.
But you will never see any of this on Hillsong pamphlets. All you find are photos of shiny, happy people holding hands. And inside the front cover is a promise that a truckload of love is waiting for you whenever you want it. It’s only in the third dimension that you discover how much love costs. The love dries up when the money runs out or, worse yet, when you don’t agree with the program.
Mercy, justice, liberty and compassion are concepts that evangelicals view as their own. They believe their God is the author of these values, and that with a monopoly on truth they have an imperative to administer them globally.
It is no surprise that the girls and young women who attended Mercy Ministries did not receive the psychiatric help they were seeking. Fundamentalist Christians are suspicious of psychiatry and psychology, unless prefixed with the word Christian. Psychotic symptoms such as voices are evidence of demons that medication cannot expel. I recall one Hillsong pastor proudly describing his own daughter’s employment at Mercy Ministries. He said she could counsel by birthright, aided by her bible college wisdom.
Having worked in a women’s refuge for five years, I know there are few social services out there. And such little love. It’s hard for young women who are tired, frightened and hungry to distinguish love from opportunism. Something has to be done to advocate for the needy when fundamentalists can smell their blood.
Tanya Levin is a former member of the Hillsong Church and the author of People In Glass Houses.