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Breaking the Silence

Doris Wellington uses her own story to warn against the dangers of complacency in the church.

When Doris Wellington was standing at the altar on the day of her wedding in 1978, she knew instinctively that she was making a mistake. She ignored family members who tried to tell her that she should reconsider her marriage to a young Pentecostal pastor, and she forged into a dysfunctional marriage that would eventually collapse after she discovered her husband led a secret gay life.

Now, 30 years later, she has self-published a book recounting her experiences as a catharsis for herself and as a warning to others.

Titled "Church and the Cult of Silence," Wellington’s book is intended to be part memoir and part expose. It was written to simultaneously expel her own personal demons and warn church leaders about the dangers of silence and the consequences of complacency. Using her own story as a framework, Wellington explores several case studies in which Protestant ministers marry women to conceal their homosexual lifestyle, church members who seduce teenagers and domestic violence among clergy marriages.

"This book is going to be controversial," said Francis Terrell, Wellington’s sister, who will be hosting a book signing for her sister next week in Mount Vernon. "But in reality it’s a healing book. This is a book that can change your life."

A NATIVE OF Wilson, N.C., Wellington’s family moved to the Parker Gray neighborhood in 1968 in search of a better life. She was one of 11 children, a large family that encouraged the values of hard work and strict values. The Wellington family quickly became active members at Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church on North Columbus Street, where young Doris quickly established herself as a gifted speaker who was eager to be part of a larger church community. By the time she graduated from T.C. Williams in 1970, the leadership at Mount Calvary had recruited her as the youth leader and asked her to go on a speaking circuit to evangelize in the name of the church.

"I would go all over the place and speak to kids about their anxieties, about dating and about how to put together a youth ministry," said Wellington. "The more I did it, the more invitations I got."

One day while out on the Northern Virginia evangelical circuit in 1978, she met a young pastor from another church who would later become her husband. The man was a fire-and-brimstone preacher with a shadowy secret life that she wouldn’t find out about until later. At the time, she was a starry-eyed youth minister who had fallen in love with a charismatic pastor who was popular in Pentecostal circles and eager to establish a relationship with her. They shared a passion for the church, and they began a brief courtship in which the two began spending more time together at church events and evangelical travels.

Eventually, they started planning for a wedding. But even then she had indications that something was amiss. Her sister refused to talk to her about the man she had become engaged to, and the silence was obviously an indication of distrust — one that became increasingly difficult to act upon as the wedding approached. As the silence between the two sisters grew, their relationship became strained by the weight of swirling rumors and whispered innuendo.

"I heard he was gay, and I didn’t want to see my sister get hurt," said Nancy Burkhardt, Wellington’s sister who is now a fine arts professor at Paine College in Augusta, Ga. "But silence about that sort of thing was the norm in the Pentecostal Church. Looking back on it now, I understand that the silence was a sign of naivete and denial."

AFTER THEIR MARRIAGE, the newlyweds moved to a small community outside Alexandria in Northern Virginia and took control at a troubled church. The two had been selected to preserve the old members, find new ones and bring some life back to the congregation. Yet their marriage began dissolving almost as soon as it was consummated, and the husband began spending more and more time away from home. As the church collapsed around them, their marriage came to a crashing halt when she confronted him about his extended trips out of town.

"He threw the mattress on the ground and told me to sleep in the corner," said Wellington. "That was when I knew it was over."

Wellington moved out, and the couple separated. She later sought a divorce, but the two could never agree on terms of formal separation. A few years later, according to Wellington, her estranged husband was murdered. Although she never got to the bottom of what happened, she suspected that his private life had something to do with the homicide. Returning to the church where she was married to pay respects to his family was a gut-wrenching experience, she said — one that forced her to reconsider her life yet again.

"Three days after the funeral I moved to Georgia, and it was like a resurrection," said Wellington. "Carrying his name all those years was like a weight around my neck."

SHE NOW SPLITS her days between Augusta and Alexandria, an active church leader who recently celebrated her 30th anniversary in the ministry. She is now the leader of an independent church known as the House of Wellington, and she said that writing the book was a cathartic experience for her — one that she hopes will lead others into speaking out against mistreatment, especially when silence is the norm. She said that she chose to self-publish her book because she didn’t want to deal with the possibility of censorship, and she’s now finally ready to break the silence and speak out against the silently destructive double lives that she says are commonplace in many church cultures.

"I’ve never taken the opportunity to tell my story until now," said Wellington. "Writing this book was definitely a venue for my own healing, but it was also a way for me to help other people shake the stigma associated with sexual abuse."