Faith communities and churches provide a social network for individuals and families, comfort for the grieving, hope for those who are depressed, redemption for sinners, and care for the sick. When a church member is diagnosed with cancer, he/she is upheld in the prayers of the congregation and supported with encouraging cards. When a family in the church loses a loved one, church members bring meals and send flowers. In many churches, support groups and counseling are available for people who are dealing with addictions, grief, divorce, or other concerns.
But, what kind of support does a person receive from her congregation when she reveals that she is being abused by her spouse or partner? After working at Safe Harbor for the past two years, I honestly cannot answer this question. It is difficult to know what a victim of domestic violence might experience when she turns to her congregation for help. I have learned that the kind of support that a victim receives tends to vary from congregation to congregation. Congregational support for victims depends on the congregation’s leadership, its membership, its theology and beliefs, and its understanding of domestic violence.
Here are the stories of two victims:
Lena went to her church seeking guidance after her husband violently assaulted her one evening and threatened to end her life if she did not obey his commands. Naturally, Lena was afraid for her life. During this violent assault, Lena was able to pick up the phone and call 911 while her husband was in the bathroom. When he found her on the phone, he held a gun to her head and beat her even more severely. When law enforcement arrived, Lena’s husband was arrested. Lena was taken to the emergency room and treated for the injuries that her husband had caused. She knew that her husband’s brother would be trying to get her husband out of jail as soon as possible, so she decided to go to her pastor the next morning to seek guidance.
When Lena walked into her pastor’s office the next morning, covered in bruises and shaken emotionally, she told him what her husband had done and asked him for advice. She explained to him that she had been abused physically, sexually, and emotionally for years and that she was finally ready to leave. Lena’s pastor looked at her from across his desk and said, “Lena, I’m glad that you’ve come to me to confess. Now, it is time for you to ask God for forgiveness.” He told Lena that she had committed a sin by calling 911. He quoted pieces of Scripture about the importance of a wife “submitting to her husband”. He told Lena, “You brought shame to our husband’s name by failing to submit to his authority, by provoking him to use violence, and by calling the police. You must ask for God’s forgiveness and then go home to your husband, asking for his forgiveness, too.”
Lena was filled with guilt and conflicting emotions when she left the church office. But, she didn’t take her pastor’s advice. She hesitantly picked up her phone and called the crisis line number for the local domestic violence shelter, which a nurse in the emergency room had given to her. Lena was able to find safe shelter and services through this organization, and she was eventually able to find the support she needed from a new church family.
Sarah didn’t consider herself to be a victim of domestic violence. Her husband never punched her or gave her a black eye. It wasn’t until she went to church one Sunday morning that she realized that she was a victim. In the sermon that morning, her minister talked about God’s desire for humans to “love one another”, treating one another with respect and care. The pastor talked about domestic violence in this sermon as an example of how humans fail to “love one another”, sharing the story of a woman whose husband had complete control over her life and who would harm her or threaten her if she ever disobeyed him. As Sarah listened to this story, she was reminded of her own life. She started thinking about her relationship with her husband. He did not allow Sarah to spend time with her family or friends; he controlled her finances and her whereabouts at all times. When he was angry with her, he would throw plates or other objects across the room – sometimes at her. He would push Sarah onto the floor and put his foot on her chest, threatening to break her ribs if she ever disobeyed him.
After the service, Sarah made an appointment to meet with her pastor. During their meeting, she tearfully told her pastor about the abuse and the threats that she had experienced over the years. At the same time, she said, “I feel like this may be my fault, though. He tells me that I provoke him to do these things. He says that, if I could just be a better wife, then he wouldn’t have a reason to get angry.”
Sarah’s pastor looked at her from across the table and said, “Sarah, I don’t know everything about your relationship with your husband, but I do know one thing: it is not your fault that your husband is abusing you. We can only control our own actions – we cannot control the actions of another person. So, nothing that you do or say can “make” your husband hurt you or threaten you. He may blame you, but it is not your fault.”
Sarah and her pastor talked for a while longer. At the end of the meeting, her pastor gave Sarah the number to a local crisis line for victims of domestic violence, encouraging her to call this number for further support and help. Sarah was able to call a few days later and schedule her first counseling session. A few months later, Sarah left her husband and filed for divorce. She continued to seek counseling from her local domestic violence program and also continued to receive valuable support from her pastor and her church family. She shares, “I never would have thought to seek help if I hadn’t heard my pastor talk about domestic violence in that sermon. As I heard the story of that victim, I realized that I could identify with her. I realized that I was a victim of abuse. It was one of the toughest moments of my life. But, that story saved my life.”
How Can Your Faith Community Provide Support for Victims of Domestic Violence?
Unfortunately, domestic violence is a widespread epidemic in our communities, our nation, and throughout the world. Domestic violence occurs in all types of communities – people of all age groups, racial/ethnic groups, religions, educational backgrounds, and income levels can be affected. However, domestic violence is also a “silent” problem – victims are often too ashamed or frightened to talk about their problem openly. Therefore, you never know who might be a victim of domestic violence in your faith community. Here are a few ways that your congregation can reach out to victims who might be struggling in silence:
- Keep brochures and crisis line numbers for domestic violence programs and shelters in public areas of your place of worship (near the sanctuary, on bulletin boards in hallways, in restrooms, etc). You can receive free Safe Harbor brochures and materials by calling us – 864.467.0603.
- Regularly address the issue of domestic violence in worship services, Bible studies, and Sunday School lessons (through sermons, prayers, lesson topics, etc).
- Refer members to domestic violence programs (Safe Harbor, etc) who indicate that they are victims of abuse – victims can call our crisis line 24-hour crisis line – 1.800.291.2139.
- Support local domestic violence programs through your service/outreach/volunteer ministries.
- Teach congregation members that abuse is never acceptable or justified.
- Avoid rigid teachings that might cause a victim to stay in a dangerous or violent relationship (i.e. teaching that divorce is always a sin and never permissible, that the wife must always submit to her husband’s authority, etc).
- Keep domestic violence victims in your prayers and thoughts.
- Contact Safe Harbor or your local domestic violence program to arrange for a speaker to come to educate your faith community or group about the issue of domestic violence. 864.467.0603.
- Visit the Safe Harbor website for more resources – www.safeharborsc.org