When Sarah found Jesus at age 20, it was off the back of a pretty troubled youth, full of mental health issues, self-harm, and some serious risk-taking behaviour.

She started going to Hillsong, and says that she “found hope and a lot of comfort in my faith. Obviously faith doesn’t fix everything, but I felt like I was heading towards a good place.”

“I had a growing passion for the word of God. I was reading it a lot by myself, every day, sometimes for a long time.”

At the same time, Sarah knew she needed ongoing help and support. She had heard of Mercy Ministries, and then her pastor encouraged her to apply. She says, “It was basically what I was getting with all my existing support, except they’ve added the faith component, and it sounded like it’d be really good.” She was 22 when she was accepted to the programme in 2005.

Mercy Ministries (now known as Mercy Multiplied) is a non-profit Christian organisation that aims to “help young women break free from life controlling behaviours and situations.” It was founded in the south of the United States in 1983.

Mercy Multiplied (formerly Mercy Ministries) operated two homes in Australia from 2000-2008.

Mercy Multiplied (formerly Mercy Ministries) operated two homes in Australia from 2000-2008. Mercy Multiplied

Mercy opened two homes in Australia in the early 2000s. Eternity understands that some key people at Hillsong were early supporters of Mercy Ministries in Australia, with one Hillsong member serving as director of the board of Mercy during its operations in Australia. Both Australian Mercy homes were closed in 2008-09 after widespread rumours of abuse.

Sarah says of her pre-Mercy days, “I had a growing passion for the word of God. I was reading it a lot by myself, every day, sometimes for a long time. I would highlight things in it.”

In the early days of her time at Mercy she would read the Bible in any extra time she had, after all her homework and chores were complete. “I still needed my own independent private time with God. That was my time to hear from God, not through a sermon or a staff member, I needed to hear from God for myself,” she says.

“If you fail to [complete the Mercy programme], you fail God and you’ve fallen out of his will, and if you’re out of his will you’re out of his grace, out of his favour, out of his plan for your life, and bad things are going to happen.”

But under the influence of Mercy her beliefs about God were twisted such that she began to believe that the orders of Mercy staff became synonymous with the will of God.

“When you apply they tell you that they pray over [the admissions list] and believe that the girls they take are the ones God is telling them to take in. Once you’re in [Mercy] they believe that God’s will is for you to finish the programme. So if you’re supposed to be in Mercy and stick with it and graduate and be healed, then that’s God’s will. If you fail to do that, you fail God and you’ve fallen out of his will, and if you’re out of his will you’re out of his grace, out of his favour, out of his plan for your life, and bad things are going to happen,” says Sarah.

After six months of the Mercy programme Sarah says she was so “psychologically broken” she decided to simply accept everything the staff said.

“My faith became toxic to me. God became toxic to me.”

“At Mercy, [the staff] represented God. They spoke and acted for God. If they asked you to do something, it was God telling you to do it. If you disobeyed them you were disobeying God. By the end I could no longer discern between them and God,” says Sarah.

“[Mercy] was toxic to me. My faith became toxic to me. God became toxic to me.

Sarah says that by the end of her time at Mercy she couldn’t read the Bible anymore. “Afterwards, for a long time and still now, I couldn’t get back into [the Bible] like I was. I still feel unsettled by it. It’s still always this thing that hangs around me that I can never really shake.”

Sarah’s experience at Mercy caused her to question everything about her faith, but she says she was never tempted to walk away from Jesus as have some other Mercy Girls, because she had already wrestled with the truth of Christianity. “I wasn’t a Christian because I was brought up Christian. I’m a Christian because I chose to become a Christian, because God called me to become a Christian. That’s who I am.”

“I still believe that God is good, but it will never really be the same.”

But she still says that her experience at Mercy meant she had to start again from the very foundations of Christianity. “It became so convoluted [at Mercy], and I had to come back to the most basic thing – the message of the cross,” says Sarah.

“I have never settled back into what I enjoyed about my faith. I still believe that God is good, but it will never really be the same.”

*Eternity recognises that Sarah’s experience does not represent every person’s experience of Mercy Ministries.

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