The Impact of Shame on our Communities: An Interview with Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar and I reconnected recently at an event in Berkeley, CA at American Baptist Seminary of the West. We realized we had met over 10 years ago when we were both birthing ministries in Denver, Colorado.  Mine was called “The Journey Project” and Kathy was planting the church she currently co-pastors, The Refuge,  The Refuge is a mission center and Christian community dedicated to helping hurting and hungry people find faith, hope, and dignity alongside each other.


Kathy has recently written an impactful book, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward when Everything You Believe is Coming Apart.  It offers hope for spiritual refugees, church burnouts, and freedom seekers.  Her book is centered on helping people journey through shifts in faith that can often leave them disoriented and lonely.

Kathy has a powerful story to share about Shame’s Shameful Impact on Community.

Her own story, combined with The Refuge’s story, helps us to understand how devastating shame’s impact can be, both personally and corporately.

Kathy also helps us to explore just how freeing life can be when it becomes a “Shame-Free Zone!”

One of the things I love about Kathy is how freely she shares her own story, bringing hope and freedom to others who were bound by shame.

Kathy’s Story

“I grew up in a family with a lot of dysfunction.  Depression, alcoholism, divorce, and chaos created a deep longing for love.  In high school, I ended up pregnant and had an abortion.  This became a secret which then became full blown shame.  I didn’t know what to do with my feelings, so I just pushed them deeper and deeper into the dark abyss of my soul.

I ended up accepting Christ in elementary school at Vacation Bible School but didn't begin going to church until I was a teenager.  At first, I felt very forgiven and free, but as time went on, I became increasingly bound by shame.  I kept confessing my sin to God, but I never felt fully forgiven or got relief from my secret burden.

It wasn’t until I began to tell my story to “other people” that I started to experience freedom.  Don’t get me wrong, it was terrifying.  The fear of rejection and alienation was palpable, but at that point, I was so desperate for relief, I was willing to take the risk.

I ended up going to a group for women from my church who were learning to be honest about our struggles and pain.  We all had different stories, but the thread that was common between all of us was shame.  As I took the risk to speak my “secrets” out loud, the relief wasn’t immediate, but I experienced a small window of hope that was enough to crack open the door.  Eventually I found a container big enough to fully bring it to the light so I could live in freedom!

I understand the risk in bringing our secret sins to light because we fear those who love us may abandon us when they realize how damaged we feel.  Once I shared my story with my friends, I needed to tell my husband.  This required me to walk a bridge of trust (read Tamara's post, Crossing the Trust Bridge), and I was terrified of his reaction. Instead of shame or blame, he took me in his arms and told me he was so happy I had finally told him the truth and that the barrier between us was broken.

My move from the “shameful secret” to “friendships of freedom” took place over 21 years ago, and yet I still struggle with experiencing shame. It's not an easy thing to shake, but has really solidified my commitment to healing groups.

The Refuge has been shaped by healing groups.  We’ve sought to become a healing community where honesty and authenticity is embedded into our DNA as a church.

As I compare the first church where I was called to our community at The Refuge, I can fully see the difference with the freedom to share “our deadly secrets” with a need to keep our secrets hidden.

It’s been apparent that healing communities will never become “mega-churches” because it is just too messy.

The challenge for all churches is to create places for God’s story to be told.

As pastors at the Refuge, we realize we need to walk the long story in creating a “Shame-Free Zone.”  We must offer a loving presence and stability.  We can’t rush healing or make the timing come through our own terms.  Our role is to create the sticky stuff so love and acceptance can stick.”

Tamara:  What are your insights in how shame affects community?

Kathy:  Shame is like a brick wall around us.  It keeps us isolated and alone, afraid to reach out in fear of “being found out.”  We begin to believe the lie that I am the only one who struggles with shame.

I notice that those who are bound by shame have a hard time looking up.  They are often resistant to receiving love because the lie that they aren’t worthy to receive love permeates their thinking.  They’ve been shamed and abandoned by people in their past, so they expect the current people around them to do the same.  It can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Most importantly, it is a very small leap to believe people will reject and abandon us, to believing that God will leave us.  They are often asking themselves, “Why would God desire a relationship with someone as screwed up and unworthy as me?”

Often, physical touch is challenging.  They may resist hugs.  Receiving love of any kind is challenging, so we often have to move slowly, taking our cues from each person to what they are able to accept.

But, when the door is opened just a crack, amazing breakthroughs begin to happen.  Heads begin to lift.  Backs are straightened.  Eye contact takes place.  Commitment to the healing group increases as belief is birthed that perhaps “I am not a throw away” after all.

Our Dad front cover
Our Dad front cover

The fear of God being mad at them is replaced by the reality that “I can survive telling the truth” because these people aren’t running away from me.

Tamara:  Will you explore how important trust is in exchanging freedom for shame?

Kathy:  Sure, I will tell a story of a strong leader in the Christian community who came to The Refuge.  She appeared to be on the fast track to success.  Outside, she was confident, educated, well respected.  On the inside, she was full of shame, self-hatred, and loathing.  She came to the Refuge because she realized that her life as she knew it had become unsustainable.

When she began to trust that she would be accepted in her weakness, rather than shamed, trust became an anchor.  It was as if the ground came up beneath her, providing a foundation from which to live.  She became more open and less hardened.  She began to express her longing to be really loved.  She realized she had left her true self behind, and shame had helped create a false self that she believed would buy her acceptance.

As she began to trust The Refuge community, she found a family where everyone mattered.  She discovered parents, mothers, and sisters.  She also found men who were safe, kind, and who offer security.

Tamara:  It’s almost as if trust becomes the “grenade” that blows shame to pieces.  We can move from being immobilized by shame into being energized by trust. 

Do you have any closing thoughts?

Kathy:  Yes, it really does take a village to build community.

Our lives were never meant to be lived in isolation.

This is when we are the most vulnerable to believing the lies that we aren’t worthy to be loved or accepted.  In reality, we have a God who loves us so much he deposited himself inside each one of us.

Kathy Escobar
Kathy Escobar

Tamara:  Thank you, Kathy, for sharing your honest and compelling insight into your experiences with shame. 

You can find out more about Kathy and her ministry through the links below:


Read her blog.

Go to The Refuge.


Helpful Resources to Live in the Shame-Free Zone:

I’ll be continuing the discussion around the effects of shame in our lives.  Look for more interviews to follow in the coming weeks.