The UnBoxing Project: Ashley’s story


This is Ashley’s story.

Content note: victim-blaming, religious manipulation.

Do you know what it’s like when
You’re scared to see yourself?
Do you know what it’s like when
You wish it were someone else
Who didn’t need your help to get by?
Do you know what it’s like
To wanna surrender?
I don’t wanna feel like this tomorrow
I don’t wanna live like this today
Make me feel better, I wanna feel better
Stay with me here now and never surrender
Never surrender. – Surrender, Skillet

“Mama! Mama! Look at the butterfly!” I squealed in delight at the wonder perched on my shoulder.

“Don’t move, Lovey! It’ll fly away.”

I stood as still as possible as my mom snapped a picture of this beautiful creature, and watched as it flew away. I remember thinking as I watched the butterfly float into a beautiful, summer day, how amazing it would be to be able to just whisk yourself away whenever you chose. I had no idea how much I would pine for that fantasy to become a reality.

I always remember my parents being there, no matter what the occasion was. Pajama day at school, grown-up day, job day, doctor’s appointments, they were always present. I can’t remember an important event they were not there for.

I went to them with everything, no matter how strange, and they were always brutally honest with me. I liked it that way. Being a straightforward person, I needed that to grow. Things were always so comfortable–and then 2001 came and everything changed. Drastically.

My mom had gotten involved with a church when she was 15, and the experience had always stayed with her. She had visited a Pentecostal holiness church and had received what they call The Holy Ghost, which to them is the basis of salvation. You cannot attain Heaven without it, and once you have received it, even if you walk away from God, you are marked and you will be a target for Satan.

My dad, on the other hand, is Irish/German and was raised Catholic. He was actually an altar boy growing up and wanted to become a priest. However, he grew out of that sometime in high school.

While living in Louisiana, my mom met a girl named Billie Jo, and they went to a Pentecostal church together. My mom converted all the way this time (lost the pants, threw away the jewelry, chucked the TV and music) and as soon as my dad joined, we essentially became Amish with microwaves.

Source: First United Pentecostal Church of Colorado Springs

But even then, my parents broke me in slowly. As an only child, I had practically every Disney movie known to man, and they allowed me to hand over my Disney movies in exchange for Veggie Tales. From there, it was my Veggie Tales traded in for either a trampoline, or a puppy. My daddy bought me both.

They introduced me into that world slowly, and with ease. I appreciated that, even then. I knew they could have completely ripped everything away from me and made the transition harder than it already was. But they didn’t.

I never thanked them for that. I guess it kind of got buried under everything other emotion that surfaced after.

At first, things weren’t so bad. The family environment was great. Having no family in Colorado, the church appeared to be exactly what we needed. I started going to the church school which consisted of about 50 kids. I made friends quickly, and it seemed so easy at first. We were accepted as new converts and everything was cool. My parents also made friends, and were treated like family by the pastor. They were like their kids.

I believe this is what started the depth of my parents’ relationship with the ministry. Around 2006, the pastor decided he wanted to evangelize and ended up electing a man from Mississippi to pastor the church. I’ve never seen a man so hell bent on changing people for the worst.

Brother and Sister Burgess // Source: Ashley Kavanaugh

To my parents, this couple took the place of God. I have literally heard my dad say that if John Burgess asked him to stand on his head for 6 hours a day, in the middle of I-25, that he would do it without hesitation.

They believe that he is the voice of God, that even if he is wrong, and they sin because of his advice, that God would honor their obedience and look past their own wrongdoing.

The church services are filled with hype and the sermons are mostly guilt, especially directed at young people. They warn us of the wrath of God if we choose to walk away and almost every service we are reminded of the horrors that have happened to backsliders all through Pentecostal history, including those from our own youth group.

One instance in particular was one of my close friends Sharonda. She grew up with me, my mom babysat her and her older sister, and I looked up to this girl. She was my idol for a long time. She was my piano inspiration, she was cool, and she loved people. I’ve never met a heart as big as Sharonda’s.

She was shot and killed late summer 2012. The case was never solved, and the Burgesses made not only her death, but her funeral an omen and message to all of us, that we should not run from God, for he is a jealous God, and his vengeance is strong.

She is seldom mentioned among the young people. It just hurts too much.

Source: First United Pentecostal Church of Colorado Springs

The Burgesses continued to push their way into the minds of the church, and more and more young people have been driven away from God.

Most of the “backsliders” that I know, don’t even believe in a benevolent God anymore.

This started to become my opinion very young. I couldn’t see how any of this made sense. I thought the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was just and honorable? Not malicious and manipulative.

After my parents began to blindly follow the Pastor, I started to lose control. I shut off all emotions because I just couldn’t handle them anymore. I began to get more and more reclusive, and eventually began to blame myself for the guilt and pain that my parents were dealing with due to the controlling ways of the church. Everyone feels this way. It’s their modus operandi.

I didn’t know how to help and I began to fall into a deeper depression. I began to self harm. This was done is so many ways, I can’t even begin to explain it all. Eventually, the self harm wasn’t enough. I attempted suicide six times starting at the age of 11.

I tried everything. Nothing worked.

My mom caught me cutting once and literally dragged me in to Shanna Burgess (the pastor’s wife), who promptly told me as I lay on the floor. bleeding profusely, that it was all in my head and I needed to stop being so angry at God.

She told me I was the one to blame.

After coming to her weeks before with my heart wide open and breaking in pieces, I explained one reason why I felt so alone. I was raped when I was 6 years old and had no way to express my feelings. She, of course, immediately took this information to my mother who denied it profusely. My parents have never believed me. She told me I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself because come on, it never happened!

I hated them before but after this? I could never forgive them.

They had and still have a hold on my parents like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Source: Ashley Kavanaugh

When I turned 18, things started to look up. I was finally allowed to have a phone because I had turned 18 (pastor’s rules for youth), I was finally granted rights to a car (that I bought, of course) and everything was going good. I had been in good graces with the Burgesses and my family and I was following the rules to perfection.

And then after a falling out with my best friend at the time, I started to become close friends with a girl named Racquel. We began to grow closer and closer as the months went on, and before you knew it, we were opening up to each other. I told her things I had never told anyone ever.

Eventually, our concerns about the church and their doctrines, the Burgesses and all sorts of other questions came to the forefront of our conversations and we began to discuss them. We grew even closer after learning about some of the abuse that the other one had endured.

We got caught discussing these topics, and we were separated and forbidden to speak to one another. This happened four times.

Each time we grew closer and closer and eventually, we started to go to extreme lengths to see each other. My parents and the Burgesses resorted to lying to both of us, trying to force us to hate each other.

After another six months of not speaking, we once again rebelled and talked about what had happened. We realized they had lied to both of us, obtaining information by hacking email and bank accounts. My parents forced me to stop attending my college classes because Racquel might try to visit me there.

We communicated to each other through Eleanor for about three weeks, and then we started to sneak out again. We had contemplated running away many times before, but something was different this time. When two adults aren’t allowed to talk because they get caught listening to One Direction, there’s some serious malfunction going on. It had reached an all time idiocy and we had had enough. We both left home, and the night I did that was the hardest decision of my life.

Three days later, my dad was going to throw my stuff on the sidewalk. My mom, who was out of town at the time, convinced him to let me come pack my stuff, so he left for a few hours. Racquel and Eleanor went with me. The first thing I noticed when I came in was that all my pictures were facing down and some sat in piles on the floor. I almost lost it then.

I just remember feeling like my parents died, and I was cleaning out their house.

A little later, Cynthia Jeub and Aaron also came over. I’ll never forget the look on Cynthia’s face when I saw her. I walked outside to greet them, and she just looked so disturbed. But there was also pride in her eyes.

She hugged me for a good ten minutes. I’ve never expressed how much that hug meant to me.

They helped me pack up and I decided last minute to check my mom’s car. I went to look for any remaining items, and when I opened the door, I saw that the inside of the car was destroyed. I can only assume my dad went crazy and trashed the car. It was really scary.

Everyone was panicking because we didn’t know when he was coming back, and he has guns so people were starting to freak out. We left not long after. It didn’t really hit me until then, how drastic the change was going to be.

Since then, I have gone through a lot. I’ve put myself through an abusive relationship, made myself be something I wasn’t, lost connection with my family for months at a time because of “religious differences,” moved around a lot, found out I was adopted by my dad, been through a ton of counseling, self-harmed, ran from my home state, even shut my humanity off a few times.

But one thing I can say I haven’t, nor will I ever do, is forget who I am and where I came from.

I can’t express how hard it has been. The sleepless nights, the thousands of times I’ve cried myself to sleep, and woke up screaming. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

But you know what? I don’t regret it. I can’t. I’ve invested too much into this decision to fault it. To those of you trying to escape, its not impossible. It’s not easy, but I promise its worth it. We have helped more people come out since my decision to leave, and the feeling is so liberating, knowing you are a voice and a model for them.

To those of you who have siblings that are still in captivity, don’t give up hope. They will make it. YOU are their light, no matter how dark you feel sometimes. Because sometimes the darkest shadows have been cast by the brightest lights.

And no matter what bad choices you make long the way, I’ve found that I don’t have to be ashamed of them. Because they are finally my decisions. So while wading through your red river of screams just as we have, remember you do not fight alone. You can make it.

And never surrender…. the battle will be worth it, and we will win the war.
I don’t wanna feel like this tomorrow
I don’t wanna live like this today
Make me feel better, I wanna feel better
Stay with me here now and never surrender
Never surrender

Ashley attended public school and later homeschooled online. She finished her senior year at the pentecostal church’s school. She was the first person on her mom’s side of the family to finish high school and attend college. She is interested in psychology, forensics, and criminal justice.

The Underground Railroad: Being an angel with a shotgun
The Underground Railroad: The trouble with freeing people
Why the name Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad: Racquel’s story
The Underground Railroad: Defecting from a cult
The Underground Railroad: Ashley’s story
The Underground Railroad: Cynthia Jeub’s story
The Underground Railroad: Options, not ultimatums
The Underground Railroad: Gissel’s story
The Underground Railroad: Homeschool, the perfect hiding place
The Underground Railroad: Self-care during activism
Underground Railroad Stations: How you can help (Cynthia Jeub’s thoughts)
Underground Railroad Conductors: How you can help (Eleanor Skelton’s thoughts)
The Underground Railroad: Surviving and thriving on the outside

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