With her Janis Joplin-meets-Alanis Morissette growl and her decidedly worshipful lyrics, Sarah Kelly stood out when she arrived on the Christian music scene in 2004 with her Grammy-nominated debut Take Me Away. But behind her smile and platform of hope in Christ was an abusive past, including a rape, that she hadn't yet dealt with—until recently. In recent interviews, Kelly has revealed that she was in no less than three abusive relationships. One of them ended after the guy suggested that Kelly, then an eighth-grader with virtually no self-esteem, try to kill herself—and so she tried, but was saved when her parents found her unconscious and rushed her to a hospital. Another relationship ended when Kelly said no thanks to a guy's marriage proposal—so he raped her. And just last year, she ended a seven-year marriage to an abusive husband by getting a divorce. Now with the release of her sophomore disc, Where the Past Meets Today, Kelly has resolved to be honest—no matter the cost—and opens up about how she found the strength to worship in the midst of less-than-ideal circumstances. We talked to her more about the pattern of the abusive relationships than the specific details—and how she's now finding hope and healing in God's grace.
For you, making Where the Past Meets Today wasn't just business as usual. The past year has been a real turning point for you, hasn't it?
Sarah Kelly: Well, it's been the best year of my life and the worst year of my life—all at the same time. It's been the best because I've had peace for the very first time after dealing with an addiction to abuse that's been a part of my life for so long. My new album turned out to be an outlet for really being honest about everything, a safe place to admit that like everyone I am messed up and that I need God every day to get through. These are all things that started coming out in my music on [her first album] Take Me Away. I was becoming a worshiper who worships in spirit and truth—worshiping in the middle of situations I didn't understand. Where the Past Today is the continuation of that journey.
Most people have heard about addictions to things like drugs or alcohol or even an addiction to the fame and the spotlight, but how did the addiction to abuse begin?
Kelly: When I was 12 or so, I started going to a new Christian school where the peer pressure was to be the best Christian. For some reason or another, the guys were nice to me, but the girls were incredibly cruel—until I started dating my first boyfriend who was going to become a pastor. I guess the girls thought I might introduce them to his friends or something. But anyway, they started being nice to me for the first time, and I liked the approval that came with being his girlfriend—even when he was abusing me. He used physical force that constantly put me in a state of fear. Yet, abuse is just the drug for the real addiction of self-hate. Some cut themselves, like I did, and then some find relationships that treat them the way they feel they deserve. Somewhere deep inside, I was subconsciously attracted to those who would mistreat me.
Did you confide in anyone about what was going on?
Kelly: Yes, my sister—but not until a couple of years ago. It was a bit tricky to speak of because all of these guys who abused me were active in churches, and I did not want on to be black-listed.
Coming from such a strong Christian background, it had to be a shock that someone within the church, someone who was going to become a pastor, was doing this.
Kelly: Well, maybe at the time, but now I've come to realize that abusers are passionate people—and that is their good and bad trait. Just because someone is a pastor doesn't mean that he/she doesn't struggle with addictions, too. There are a lot of expectations that come with serving in church—and really anyone serving in church is just as flawed as the next person. But we all tend to cover up those flaws to please people.
What do you think it was that made you susceptible to this kind of abuse—again and again?
Kelly: Probably insecurity and the need for perfection. It took me a long time to even be able to talk about it, because it's embarrassing. No one wants to admit that this has happened to them. But the truth is one out of every four women is abused. To break that cycle in my own life, I had to learn how to live for the approval of God—not people. I never had a real, full sense of who I was in God, how much he really loved and valued me, so I looked for that approval from others. When you aim to please people, that leaves you prone to things like abuse.
And breaking the cycle meant breaking it off with the abuser—and most recently, that would have been your husband.
Kelly: I finally admitted it to my pastor and my parents, and they helped me see that this is not what God expects or wants for me. And yes, I am happily single now.
Were there ever any consequences for him? How do you feel about him now?
Kelly: He has moved far away. But I still believe that God has huge plans for him. He was and is loved and esteemed highly in our church. In fact, he was considered a leader. And just like I didn't feel safe to tell this secret, he didn't feel safe to get the help he needed from the "baggage" in his own life before he got saved. I wish him the best in dealing with his painful past as I deal with mine. And that very thing is why I devote my life to promoting honesty in the church. We've got to let people be human and not feel the need to put on the "perfect front."
And ultimately, that's what you're talking about on When the Past Meets Today—the need to be honest about everything whether it's good, bad, or ugly.
Kelly: Absolutely. I'm not trying to be the poster child for abuse here. That's not what I want. But God has used music in my life to connect with him. And I believe that true worship is accompanied by honesty. I know this sounds strange, but I honestly wouldn't change a thing about my life looking back. I would not have the inner strength that I have now if it were not for those awful years. I would probably never be driven to sing.
I think it's funny, but my voice isn't that good. I'm not the best singer. But I do think people crave honesty, and that was what was important to me most in making this record.
Christian music isn't always honest, and often likes to have that proverbial bow tied at the end of songs. So, do you think more artists may follow your approach to writing honest songs?
Kelly: Artists ultimately want to be accepted by their culture. Let's face it, we all crave acceptance. But it's hard to be honest when you want to be accepted. But honestly, I think more artists are speaking out in truth, and people can connect with that so much more than something that doesn't come from an honest place.
Whatsteps have youtaken to heal from your abusive relationships? Often, people in such a situation go through a period of self-loathing, of "How could I let this happen?", before learning to love themselves all over again.
Kelly: I felt a tremendous amount of guilt at first [after the divorce]. You know, feeling like, "He's such a good person that it must have been me that drove him to that behavior." Then it was guilt for giving up on him—guilt for wanting more for myself. I went to Christian counseling and kept in close contact with my pastor from home to battle the "everyone hates me now" thoughts.
You've heard the saying,"Once an addict, always an addict." Women who once struggled with eating disorders often say it's a lifetime struggle to not fall back into those habits and behaviors. Does you wrestle with similar struggles? Does one ever "get over" being addicted to abuse?
Kelly: I think there is healing. However, it is a constant battle to "love your neighbor as yourself." The second part of that equation is tougher for some than others, but it is equally as important. The biggest healing I've found has been just burying myself in the Bible—the Psalms and Proverbs. It seems that when I don't know how to think of myself—or to "take my thoughts captive" in this area—that God's Word is the most effective way to battle it.The Psalms show that David went through a lot, too, and it's comforting to know you're not on the journey alone.
For more about Sarah Kelly, visit our site's artist page, where you'll also find our review for her sophomore effort, Where the Past Meets Today. To listen to sound clips and buy her music, visit Christianbook.com.
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I found a My Space site for this artist as well.
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