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Church must be sanctuary to domestic abuse victims, survivor says

 


Church must be sanctuary to domestic abuse victims, survivor says

March 4, 2005       

A UMNS Feature
By Allysa Adams*

The first time Debbie Harsh was beaten by her husband, the injuries sent her to the hospital. Scared, demoralized and confused, she got out of the house, healed physically and immediately turned to the only place she felt safe: her church.  

“I always thought that the church would be the first place you go for help,” she remembers.

But the pastors at her nondenominational Christian church didn’t know how to help Harsh. With good intentions, they sent her to a Christian counselor, who urged her to forgive her husband and drop an order of protection against him. The counselor’s message was that “wives submit to your husband and husbands are the head of the house … and he pointed out to me that I didn’t have my husband’s permission for that order of protection,” Harsh said.

When she returned to her husband, the violence continued. Fearing for her life and the safety of their two daughters, Harsh finally left her 16-year marriage for good in 2000 – against the advice of her pastors and church leaders.

“They wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t pursue a divorce, and being beat up by a husband wasn’t grounds for divorce,” she said. “Only sexual infidelity was grounds for divorce.”

It is a story Harsh says is all too familiar—one in which churches focus more on forgiving the perpetrator than on helping the victim. As founder of Domestic Violence Education: An Interfaith Project, she works to educate the faith community in Tucson, Ariz., about domestic violence. Since 2003, she has spoken to churches, synagogues, Sunday school classes, church social action committees and other religious groups. 

“I can’t think of any better place than a faith community—a church—to help victims of family violence,” she said.

The Rev. Paul Caseman, senior pastor at St. Marks United Methodist Church in Tucson, participated in one of the program’s seminars to prepare himself to deal with incidents of domestic violence in his congregation and community.

“Sometimes domestic violence is one of those issues we put on the back burner and say, ‘Surely domestic violence is not happening in our church,’” Caseman said. “That’s naiveté on our part to believe that.” 

According to the FaithTrust Institute, one-third of all women in relationships report being abused in some way by their husband or boyfriend.

“I think we’re all aware that domestic violence is out there. I think when we hear the personal stories and the roles that the churches so often do not play, we realize our unawareness leads to more domestic violence,” he said.

What can the church do?

The United Methodist Church encourages local congregations to “create a church climate of openness, acceptance and safety that encourages victims to speak of their pain and seek relief and healing.”

The church’s lawmaking body, the General Conference, also recommends other steps in its statement, “Violence Against Women and Children,” found in the 2004 Book of Resolutions.

It encourages “all clergy and lay leaders to work collaboratively with community agencies on prevention strategies and to provide for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of victims, offenders and other family members.”

The Book of Resolutions suggests that churches assess community resources for violence prevention and response and, where appropriate, start new programs and services. “Wherever possible, undertake new programs ecumenically or as part of a community coalition.”

Other steps include setting up peer support groups for battered spouses, holding awareness events and urging church members to do volunteer work in shelters and crisis centers.

Annual conferences, agencies and seminaries can promote education on domestic violence for clergy and lay people, as well as provide training in abuse prevention and intervention, according to the Book of Resolutions. Other possible actions include supporting policies and services “that protect victims, hold offenders accountable and provide support for family members.”

Harsh says the church must educate its members about the realities of domestic violence and challenge them to work to prevent domestic violence.

While issues such as domestic violence are not pleasant, Caseman says they are real and the church must address them.

“If we ignore the tough social problems or pass them by with only a nod, then we’re not helping our congregation, and we’re not being part of the gospel at that time,” he said. “Jesus knew that people were hurting, and he addressed those.”

Years after being abused, Harsh still deals with the emotional scars, including anger with the church. For about a year, she did not attend a congregation. “I was very angry and probably very angry at God for a while,” she said.

Today, she realizes that it was her faith leaders who let her down, she said. “God himself was near to me during the whole time and strengthened me and supported me, so God did not fail me at any point.”

*Adams is a freelance writer and producer in Tucson, Ariz.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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