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Churches providing safe place for domestic violence victims Mary Jacobs, Oct 12, 2007
@2007 DESIGN PICS
“Love does not harm,” says Romans 13:10, but in many families, abuse and violence is a fact of life. United Methodist Churches are finding ways to address the problem.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
For years, Tracy Aitken sat in a pew in the back of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas and wept. Other worshippers would hug her or give sympathetic glances, but nobody asked why she was crying.
Nobody suspected that Tracy’s husband, a well-liked local celebrity, was emotionally and physically abusing her.
And Ms. Aitken was far from alone.
Studies estimate that at least one in four women is affected by domestic violence—either as a victim or as someone who is related to a battered woman. Few churches, however, are equipped to reach out to these women in significant ways.
And despite the fact that October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, many church leaders aren’t aware that abuse occurs in virtually every community and congregation.
“This needs to be a lasting, top priority of the church, because women’s lives are at stake,” said Sumayya Coleman, a consultant who leads the Peace at Home project, aimed at combating domestic violence, in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles includes a strong statement condemning family violence, saying: “We recognize that family violence and abuse in all its forms—verbal, psychological, physical, sexual—is detrimental to the covenant of the human community. We encourage the Church to provide a safe environment, counsel and support for the victim.”
Living out that teaching, however, poses practical problems. Victimized women often turn to religious leaders for help, and often those leaders aren’t prepared to respond appropriately, according to Marie Fortune, an author and founder of the FaithTrust Institute, a multi-faith organization working to end domestic violence. “Historically, churches have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” said Dr. Fortune. “The reality is that religion can be a resource or a roadblock.”
Examples of “roadblocks” include uninformed pastors who don’t recognize domestic violence or mistakenly encourage a battered wife to “forgive” and return home when it’s not safe.
And many pastors assume that domestic violence doesn’t occur in their own congregations. “That’s just not true,” said Dr. Fortune. “I’d say without hesitation that there’s domestic violence in every congregation.”
Sociologist Nancy Nason-Clark cites a study in which only 8 percent of religious leaders polled said they were well-equipped to aid battered women. “Which means the other 92 percent are not,” she said. Ms. Nason-Clark directs the Religion and Violence e-Learning (RAVE) project, aimed at equipping faith leaders to handle domestic violence issues effectively.
With awareness and education, Dr. Fortune says, churches can become life-saving resources to battered women by offering referrals to local agencies, pastoral counseling and practical aid.
After leaving her abusive relationship, Ms. Aitken returned to Highland Park UMC and helped start the Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) program.
The group places informational cards that read “Love Shouldn’t Hurt” inside the stalls in women’s restrooms at the church. The cards include a hotline number and information on where to go for help. Women can slip the cards in a purse or pocket unobserved. Worshippers at Highland Park UMC often hear about the issue of domestic violence during services; the church has become known as a “safe place” for victims who need help.
VIP leaders also recently hosted a breakfast for leaders of Dallas-area churches, with an eye toward starting a coalition of churches to fight the problem.
The Peace at Home project in the Baltimore-Washington conference provides resources for local churches to prevent and address domestic violence. “The big piece is that churches will provide safe space for women who are living with violence at home,” said Ms. Coleman. “We’re trying to help each church develop a core group of individuals who can do this ministry in confidence.”
Ms. Coleman views domestic violence as an issue of justice as well as safety for women. She says domestic violence is more prevalent in poor and racially ethnic communities. “Wherever the rates of violent crime are high, much of that violence is domestic violence,” she said.
For churches looking to take the first step to aid victims of domestic violence, experts suggest making contact with local shelters and agencies. That can create lines of communications in both directions—a place for church leaders to turn when aiding a battered woman and a place for the shelter to turn when a woman needs pastoral counseling or other religious connections.
Don’t try to handle a battered woman’s issues with church resources alone, cautions Ms. Nason-Clark.
“Recovering from domestic violence is a long journey, and many companions are required,” she said. “Some need to be professionally equipped with legal expertise or practical resources.”
Many church members informally provide support to battered women, notes Ms. Nason-Clark, and that’s good. “A lot of what happens in individual churches happens under the radar screen,” she said. “We’ve found that many women who look for help find it not from religious leaders but from other women in the congregation.”
That help may come in the form of providing a place of respite or by babysitting a woman’s children while she’s seeing a counselor.
And one of the best forms of help anyone can offer, she adds, is a listening ear. “You don’t have to have professional credentials to walk alongside someone who has been victimized by domestic violence,” she said.
Other ways churches can help:
* Educate church leaders and staff about local resources for battered women. Those needing immediate referrals can visit www.theraveproject.org (click “Help Now”) to find the nearest shelter and other agencies. * Address the issue from the pulpit. If a woman hears a sermon condemning domestic violence, she’ll feel safer coming forward for help. Related issues, such as sexism, can also be addressed. “Sexism is what holds [domestic violence] in place,” said Ms. Coleman. The RAVE Project’s Web site offers downloadable resources, such as prayers and sample sermons. Information is also available from the FaithTrust Institute (www.faithtrustinstitute.org). * Support community agencies that aid battered women. Even small gestures will make a difference, such as providing home-cooked food to a women’s shelter on Valentine’s Day, when many battered women feel most alone. * Consider providing help for batterers, too. Some churches provide space for support groups and counseling for perpetrators of domestic violence. “Church is also a good place to bring men to accountability and to justice and to offer them hope and healing,” said Ms. Nason-Clark.
In organizing Highland Park’s VIP program, Ms. Aitken said that she was struck by the fact that many churches are equipped to address other life issues—such as alcoholism or marital difficulties—but ignore domestic violence, which affects so many people.
Dr. Fortune agrees, saying that the prevalence of domestic violence poses a clear call for Christians to help. She cites the story of the Good Samaritan.
“When people are victimized among us, Jesus taught us to stop and take them to safe place and pay the bill,” she said. “We’re always called to help those who are most vulnerable and to call to account those who would cause harm to people.”