An Open Letter to Jon Payne (District Superintendent of the Forest Lakes District on Reflecting on my Life in Wisconsin)

An open letter to Jon Payne the EFCA District Superintendent of the Forest Lakes District in Wisconsin. This is a reflection of my life in Wisconsin, attending Marquette and the city of Milwaukee which was once my home. This also remembers a different time in life. A time before I knew what spiritual abuse was, and how dark many parts of evangelical Christianity can be. It was a time I had hope and trusted the church. Is was a time before one was burned and fried.   

“Trust is like a vase.. once it’s broken, though you can fix it, the vase will never be same again.”

Walter Anderson 

“Trust is like blood pressure. It’s silent, vital to good health, and if abused it can be deadly.”

Frank Sonnenberg 

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Soren Kierkegaard

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5 NIV 

Milwaukee Skyline



I am going to write you an open letter. This one will be different than many of the previous ones I have composed. You can read the open letters I have written to Steve Highfill, Glen Schrieber, Eddie Cole, Bruce Martin, and Bob Rowley.  In this letter I want to reflect on my life in Milwaukee and Wisconsin from 2000 until March of 2005 when I moved to Washington, D.C. I have a lot of emotions that come to mind when I think of the Dairy State and I want to get those out. I think you’ll know me much better in sharing my life more with you. 

I moved to Milwaukee in August of 2000 to attend grad school at Marquette University in Milwaukee. I remember driving across country with my Mom to start a new chapter of life. Likewise I recall the first night in a motel in Silver Spring sharing pizza with my Mom. I remember moving into my grad student housing and picking up books for grad school. When I learned that one class at Marquette had around 13 books I thought to myself, “surely there has to be some mistake?” Nope I had enrolled in some tough classes and was deeply challenged. Marquette stretched me deeply. It was much harder than college and at one point I didn’t know if I wanted to continue. I was deeply struggling with the work. I spoke with my Mom who encouraged me to think about it, and I then re-committed myself to finishing the program and not withdrawing.  Here I am 16 years later and I am thankful for that conversation with my Mom. While I attended grad school I worked in the banking industry. It was a unique experience, I remember the time I stopped bank fraud. I have a lot of memories of the banking world. But getting back to Marquette I loved the campus. I lived in the library and took it in when I was there. I lived both in the library and the computer lab as grad school was demanding. One thing that I must write about as a Marquette alum is the Marquette basketball program. I was at Marquette when Steve Novak, Dwyane Wade and Travis Diener played. Sadly I was at Marquette when Al McGuire died. I recall the shock and the feeling at the time. With Al’s death the seashells were broken and the balloons had popped. We would not hear about French pastries any more. Going to Marquette basketball games was a religious experience. To be in the Bradley Center and watch Marquette play was amazing. The sounds, the noise, and the intensity. You were a part of something unique and one knew it, and its something that I miss to this day. All I have to do is close my eyes and I am back in the Bradley Center. I bleed blue and gold and its from my days at Marquette. I love that school and have many fond memories of it. 

At Marquette I helped plant a Crusade chapter. Initially it was me and four girls that did it. One of the most memorable events was me and a couple of other people driving through a blizzard to see Rebecca St. James in Judson, Illinois. I also befriended people in University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM) Cru as well. People like Kyle, Jason Norum, Joe Blow, and Zach. My time in Crusade was memorable and a lot of work. Planting a new chapter took a lot of time. I was involved in helping to run it, and still remained involved when I graduated in 2002. I regularly went to TCX which was the Christmas Conference for Cru in Minneapolis. The late nights, the worship, and the fellowship with other people in Cru were fun. I have friendships from Cru and those conferences that I still maintain today. I remember hanging out and desiring to learn and grow more. One thing I remember is Greg Marshall rapping during the praise and worship on stage at TCX. If I remember correctly Greg led Cru worship at UWM. There were also retreats to Lodi and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Many of the people I mentioned above I have fond memories of today. Where would my life be without Joe Blow? Where would it be without so many other influences? I actually spoke with Joe by phone last week as I was driving back to D.C. from Pennsylvania last weekend. Then there was Zach. I can still recall his unique laugh, going to church with him and more. The nickname he had is that of “chuckles.” There were also the late night breakfasts from time to time at Ma Fischers on the east side of Milwaukee. One tradition that was unique to many of us in Cru, and Milwaukee at the time was to head to the Lake front of Milwaukee and on the shore of Lake Michigan watch the Firstar/US Bank fireworks. On the eve of every July 4th or so US Bank held their fireworks display for the city. Just hanging out with friends and watching was memorable. In addition to Cru I have memories of Redeemer Evangelical Free, Elmbrook, Eastbrook, Wooded Hills Church, and Springcreek Church

Welcome letter from Redeemer Evangelical Free in Milwaukee

There are many other things about Wisconsin which I cherished. Going to Madison was neat. I wrote about Madison in “A Closer Look at Scott Sterner from Acts 29’s The Vine Church in Madison, Wisconsin; Is Scott Tilting the Forest Lakes District Toward Neo-Calvinism as the Forest Lakes Director of Church Multiplication?” There were trips to explore Fond du Lac as well as Appleton and Green Bay. Fond du Lac really did not have much. However there were a couple of neat bookstores in the area that I liked to frequent at the time, when I passed through. Green Bay is a neat city and one that I enjoyed. The Packers are treated like a religion in Wisconsin and the dedication to them is unlike anything I have ever seen. In Green Bay I liked to visit the Titletown Brewery. And then I also liked to visit the National Railroad Museum. Green Bay also had some good sports bars as one could expect. Once when my Mom visited we stopped in Green Bay as we took in the Packers Hall of Fame. My Mom and I continued on into Door County which hands down is one of the nicest places I have visited. Sometimes when I needed to get out of Milwaukee, Door County was where I headed. Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor were fun places to unwind. Taking the car ferry to Washington Island was also neat. Being in Door County during the fall was amazing. Watching the leaves change color and taking it all in, was breath-taking.  Wisconsin is a beautiful place to be in the fall. To be from California and see those changes in weather and seasons was unique. 

I have a lot of other memories that I would like to share. There is the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum which are neat to see. Going to Maders in Milwaukee from time to time was a part of living in Milwaukee. Milwaukee has great food, hands down. Favorite places to visit in Milwaukee were the Pizza Shuttle, Pizza Man, Safe House, and a couple of places on Wisconsin Avenue that I believe have since closed. Doing the Riverwalk, and walking in the Third Ward is memorable. Going to Summerfest and having a beer and taking in the music was also a must. Milwaukee is the City of Festivals and I took advantage of Irish Fest, Polish Fest, Italian Fest and more. I moved to West Allis upon graduating from Marquette and one thing that was neat is the Wisconsin State Fair which is actually coming up next month in August if my memory serves me. Seeing all the exhibits and hanging out and exploring it were neat. The first time I attended the Wisconsin State Fair I got sick because the food was rich. I called in sick to work, and I later learned that happens with people who never experienced Wisconsin cuisine before. The delicacy at the State Fair is the Cream Puff. Then there was also the Herb Kohl milk stand which had samples of milk in many different flavors. And yes in addition to traditional flavors such as plain, chocolate or strawberry milk you also had flavors such as root-beer, cherry, and raspberry.  In Milwaukee I also hung out in Family Christian Store in Mayfair and at Sommerfelds in Milwaukee. One thing that was neat, especially as a train nerd was watching Milwaukee Road 261 pull into the downtown Amtrak station in 2003. There was also the Milwaukee Brewers games along with brats and cheese curds. You may think I am crazy for saying this but I miss Wisconsin winters. I wish we could have snow storms in D.C. that rivaled what existed in Wisconsin. You might know this Jon, but when I lived in Wisconsin the joke was that Wisconsin had four seasons – winter, winter, still winter and road construction. 

Those were some of the many memories I have of my times in Wisconsin from August of 2000 until March of 2005. In March of 2005 I moved to Washington, D.C. and I have been here since then. I still have a lot of connections to Milwaukee and Wisconsin. I have been back a couple of times, and I am hoping to get back in the near future. 

But there is another aspect that I miss that I also want to raise with you Jon. From 2000 until 2005 I trusted the church and had hope in it, whereas today I struggle with it. You see Jon in 2000 I was about four years removed from Mormonism. When evangelicals spoke about cults they often did in the context of organizations like the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witness. Plus there were some evangelicals who referred to Catholicism as a cult which deeply bothers me today. And that is how I thought at the time also. When I was a Christian in Milwaukee, Wisconsin it was a different time. 

It was a time before I learned how much of a problem child sex abuse can be in evangelicalism. 

It was a time before I knew the dark sides to people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll and more. After all some of the ministries I was in promoted or encouraged people to read their material. 

It was a time before I knew how painful and traumatic spiritual abuse can be. It was a time when I could take ministers, ministries and churches at their word and trust them. Today I no longer trust the church or many aspects of it. It was a time before corrupt organizations like The Gospel Coalition came on the theological scene. 

It was a time before I watched people I knew get chewed up by evangelicalism and be fried and burned out. 

It was a time before I knew that many atheists and secular humanists are right about corruption and problems with evangelicalism. And lest you think otherwise I do believe in God today. How I can walk into a church from time to time absolutely amazes me given my history. 

It was a time before Neo-Calvinism became a force to be reckoned with and someone like me who had a history in the Evangelical Free could go to an EFCA church and belong, and call it home. Let me ask you something people like me who are not into Neo-Calvinism have a place in the EFCA or are we to be spiritually homeless? Do people like me belong? 

It was a time before I knew people who were gay and heard their painful stories of what they dealt with in evangelicalism. I think of my former small group leader and others who I met. I think of my former accountability partner’s  brother who went through hell in evangelicalism.  The church has really screwed up this topic bigly. His family was afraid of facing church discipline because of the situation. 

It was a time before I had to blow the whistle on one church leadership situation who employed a violent sex offender (Fairfax Community Church) and concealed it from the church. It was hard to do, but I remember what took place at Elmbrook in 1999 and that is why I did it. 

It was a time before I learned why rape and sexual assault are a problem in the military. I learned it in the context of a false accusation and realized that when a military officer abuses his authority, that is what can happen. It was before someone who claimed that they had “sound doctrine” and into Matt Chandler and John Piper could do something so evil that it took aim at my name, reputation and ability to earn income. Psychologically I am stuck. One of the reasons why I am stuck is because I learned that Evangelical Christians do not say they are sorry. They don’t own their mistakes. Its a huge part of the reason why much of evangelicalism is so toxic, and why the world ignores and doesn’t respect many Christians. Pardon my language as I say this, but much of the world sees through the bullshit. They know what love is when they see it, and they know what genuine sorrow and remorse is when they see it. Much of this is missing from the Evangelical Christian church.  

It was a time before I saw how even parts of the EFCA, para-church ministries, and churches can be cult like or cults. Jon I still can’t believe that I was involved in a church outside Milwaukee that had its youth group go to a convenience store to fight a demon and remove it from an aisle. I still can’t believe Trish Stern from Wooded Hills told me that story in her office. As they say in the military…whiskey, tango,  foxtrot!

It was a time before I learned how spiritual abuse can drag on for years. You have a “new normal” and your life is full of pain. While you adjust many happy clappy evangelicals want to stick their head in the sand when it comes to the reality of spiritual abuse and problems.

It was a time when I had hope in the church. A time that I believed in its mission and that the church as an instrument for good in the world. When I see what some people email me about what is happening in many churches, there are times I thought I would vomit. Its that disturbing. 

To sum this up Jon it was a time that was different. It was a time that I sometimes wish I could go back to. A time before spiritual abuse, cynicism, disillusionment, and bewilderment. But the reality is that I can’t go back….even as much as I am tempted. Living in a bubble is not healthy and good. I sometimes wonder if the reason why some people go into the pastorate or work in ministries like Cru or Navigators is so that they can surround themselves with like minded people and stay in a bubble and exhibit group think and have their beliefs reinforced. You know what I learned Jon after my faith crisis? When Jesus said that the workers are plentiful but the harvest is few, Jesus was right. The problem is evangelical culture thrives best inside a bubble. Then on top of that you add Mark Noll’s theory of the scandal of the evangelical mind and you quickly learn why so many evangelicals pull back from the world and dig a deeper trench.  Its sad, but to a world full of pain, trauma and difficulty many evangelicals miss incredible opportunities to show the world the love of God. 

Jon, as you have already learned this is a busy blog. I crank out at least four posts a week and I have many projects in the works. I want you to know that I am a people person and if you ever want to meet or talk up in Wisconsin someday when I am back, I would be happy to. I don’t hide behind my computer screen instead I like to meet people and work at trying to resolve issues. This blog has taken me up and down the East Coast. Plus I have also been out to Missouri and Kansas where I have gotten to meet and talk with people out there. I was denied peace and I saw how dark parts of evangelicalism can be. In my case the situation dragged on for years and even popped up in the hospital room where my Mom was dealing with the illness that would take her life. Evangelicals want to plant many churches. In my opinion if they really want to honor the Lord they can start with closing a number of churches which are questionable. I write a lot about the EFCA and have worked and written about 10 districts now. In your case Jon I have already written about three of your churches. First Free in Onalaska, Blackhawk Fitchberg outside Madison, and Acts 29/EFCA The Vine Church in Madison. I have enough material to write at least 80 posts about your district. In time I will work through it. And what usually happens is that one or two people approach me about a situation or more. You should know that much of this I do not enjoy doing. Had it not been for what I endured, then quite simply I would not be doing this. But people are getting hurt and these issues need to be raised. Not only that but I also believe that many Evangelical Christians misunderstand the atheist and secular humanist community. And I would like to help people understand and grow. Nothing is going to happen if people remain in their bubbles. My goal is to shatter those bubbles and get people to talk. I am hoping one day to find peace. How and when and how I just do not know. So that is it for the day Jon. I will leave you with a song about a legend in Wisconsin which I learned about when I lived within the confines of the Dairy State. I hope you have a good day in Wisconsin. 

Please take care, 

Very Respectfully, 

David Bonner 


One thought on “An Open Letter to Jon Payne (District Superintendent of the Forest Lakes District on Reflecting on my Life in Wisconsin)

  1. Pingback: Crossway Fellowship in Manassas, Virginia Gets a New Senior Pastor, and a Look at the EFCA in the Washington, D.C. Area | Wondering Eagle

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