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Inside The Family Place


Read Part 8 of the Deadly Affection Series by The Dallas Morning News

by Emily Roberts | Sep 25, 2014

Deadly Affection - Part : In church, a taboo topic 
Religious leaders try to break silence about domestic violence among flock

September 23, 2014
by Dianne Jennings
The Dallas Morning News

Here in what some call the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” the faithful regularly flock to houses of worship for guidance. Dedicated clergy preach about forgiveness and gratitude, the need to help the poor or comfort the grieving.

But religious leaders — in churches, synagogues or mosques — rarely address what to do if Mom or Dad try to kill each other.

A recent survey by Christian-based LifeWay Research showed that almost two-thirds of 1,000 Protestant pastors said they speak about domestic violence once a year or less.

“When there are things we don’t talk about, this is one of them,” said Michael McKee, bishop of the North Texas conference of the United Methodist Church.

Academics call it the “Holy Hush.”

But faith can be a powerful recovery tool, so local shelter workers are trying to break the clergy’s reluctance to deal with family violence by pushing them to recognize the problem, get training to address it and bring attention to it by preaching about it.

Many pastors want to do more to help domestic violence victims but say they need more training.

“We will always have this problem,” said Dr. Marie Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister who founded the Faith Trust Institute, which works to educate clergy about domestic violence. “But what we’re working toward is making it rare and unusual.”

‘Not in my church’

When Jessica Brazeal, assistant director of clinical services at Genesis Women’s Shelter, went to work for the shelter four years ago she learned domestic violence affects 1 out of 3 women. That meant victims and abusers were sitting in the pews with her on Sunday as well as at the shelter.

“That, for me, was a big eye-opener,” said Brazeal, who holds a degree in biblical counseling.

A lot of pastors don’t see it that way. According to LifeWay, 72 percent of pastors who speak about the issue said domestic violence is a community problem — but only 25 percent said it’s a church problem.

The “not in my church” notion is “a chicken and an egg problem,” said Fortune. “If you don’t look for it, then you’re not going to see it. And if you don’t know what to look for, it’s all happening but you’re not seeing it.”

The Rev. Bobby Gibson Sr., associate pastor at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, said his first professional encounter with domestic violence happened when a woman confided to his wife that her husband was abusing her. From what Gibson knew of the couple, though, he “just didn’t think that he [the husband] was capable of that.”

But when the abuser was confronted, he “didn’t deny that it had happened,” Gibson said.

Many incidents and a lot of education later, Gibson is “very much less skeptical.” Now when a victim approaches Gibson or a staffer at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, we “go in just openly honestly listening and believe the person.” They then work to find community resources to help. And at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, it’s not unusual to hear the Rev. Tony Evans, senior pastor, discussing the topic as he did last Sunday when he told parishioners that “submission never means abuse.”

Gibson’s initial reaction is not unusual, Brazeal said.

Recognizing abuse is sometimes difficult for clergy because the abuser often “seems like a great guy,” she said. “He’s in the choir, he’s head of the ushers, he is the chair of some committee. So when she comes forward and says, ‘This is what’s going on,’ it makes it harder to believe.”

Chidinma Ward was disappointed by her church’s response after her estranged husband held her at gunpoint for hours. Even though he was arrested and convicted, “Nobody wanted to take sides when I was asking for help.”

“It surprised me,” she said. “It hurt me.”

“By not taking a side, you’re taking a side.”

Long list of fears

In addition to fearing they won’t be believed, victims are often reluctant to talk to their spiritual leader because they may not be ready to leave; they may worry about their abuser losing his job or going to jail; and they may feel ashamed their marriage falls short of the religious ideal.

Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, professor of pastoral care at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, cautioned against blaming victims for not coming forward.

“They are surviving,” she said. “They keep things under control so the abuser won’t kill them.”

Women of faith are no more likely than secular women to be victims of domestic violence, said Dr. Nancy Nason-Clark, who studies abuse, faith, gender and culture at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. “But the journey after violence has occurred can be very different for women of deep religious commitment.”

Vanessa Vaughter, education program manager at Hope’s Door, remembered when a domestic violence victim told her, “I’d rather be dead than divorced.”

Her faith told her divorce was a sin, said Vaughter, who graduated from seminary. “And she felt like she would be a failure.”

One reason pastors don’t talk about domestic violence, McKee said, is “because we don’t know what to do if someone comes to us.”

Indeed, more than half of the pastors surveyed by LifeWay said they didn’t feel sufficiently trained to deal with domestic violence.

When McKee attended seminary in the 1970s, the subject rarely came up. Today some seminaries mention it in passing while others delve deeper.

In a recent class on pastoral care for women at Perkins, students took part in a role-playing exercise called “In Her Shoes” to try to understand the experience of abuse victims.

The exercise, which included hypothetical trips to the hospital for injuries — and to the funeral home if their character was killed — was painful for many students. For some, the discomfort came from awareness of how often the clergy fails victims.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Reggie Nelson of pastors’ previous reluctance to address domestic violence. “I’m a preacher’s child ... I’m in seminary. And I would tell somebody, ‘You don’t want to go to your pastor — you want to go get some help.’”

Stevenson-Moessner designed the elective classes to make the next generation of pastor’s “church changers.”

Some of the electives require students to be trained in domestic violence at a local shelter, while others work at a rape crisis center. Stevenson-Moessner makes a point of framing the certificates students receive so they can be hung on the wall of a new pastor’s office immediately — signaling to anyone seeking help that he or she is qualified to make a referral.

Interpretations

Stevenson-Moessner said she was “mobilized” to study the church’s role in domestic violence when she heard an evangelist tell a college audience that “women are to be submissive to their husbands even if they are beaten to a bloody pulp. In doing so, they may win their husband to the Christ.”

“I thought if this was what the Bible teaches, I need to rethink following this god,” she said.

Ultimately she decided the evangelist was misinterpreting Scripture. Many others agree.

“When someone is abusing someone else, particularly a man against a wife, it’s not because of their faith,” said Steven Smith, professor of communication at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “It’s because they’re practicing inconsistently with what their faith teaches.”

Rabbi Howard Wolk, community chaplain for Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas, said anyone who uses sacred passages to justify abuse is perverting Judaism. “In Jewish law, there’s absolutely no justification, no grounds, for a husband being abusive of a spouse or a wife being abusive of a husband.”

And Mona Kafeel, chief operating officer for the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation, said that using sacred passages to justify abuse is always a misinterpretation.

Still, such interpretations persist, counselors said.

When Connie Nash showed up at church “black and blue” from her husband’s beatings, a pastor told her she “needed to keep forgiving, and I needed to pray for him and just keep asking God to change him and to help me be a better wife,” she remembered.

She felt church leaders wanted her to remain married because she’d made a commitment “till death do us part.”

“People don’t literally think they’re going to have to take it to that extent,” she said. “That I might actually die being married to this person.”

She wrestled with the belief that divorce is a sin, but eventually a counselor pointed out to her that Jesus forgives.

“It was like a light bulb went off in my head,” Nash said.

When she was told she would not be welcome at services if she went through with the divorce, “I kind of felt bummed out about church,” Nash said, “but I never turned my back on God.”

Today she doesn’t have a church home. But she still has “my time with God daily.”

Training for clergy

Nash now uses her experience to help others, including attending a recent “Safe on Sunday” training session for clergy.

“Safe on Sunday” is one of several informal clergy trainings offered by local shelters. The name stems from the fact that more domestic violence is reported on Sunday than any other day. One reason for that may be some sort of carryover effect from Saturday night excesses or sporting contests.

About 10 clergy members attended a recent session held at Union, a nonprofit coffee shop sponsored by the United Methodist Church, in conjunction with The Family Place.

Experts say that while most religious leaders want to help domestic violence victims, they need training because their natural instincts may do more harm than good.

Protestant pastors and domestic violence

A thousand clergy were surveyed in May about their awareness and approach to the problems of domestic violence in a project sponsored by Sojourners and IMA World Health. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research which conducted the survey, said pastors rarely talk about the issue, but they would like more training to know how to help.

For instance, many faith leaders suggest marital counseling when confronted with domestic violence. But that’s “an incredibly dangerous response,” said the Rev. Mike Baughman, who ran the seminar.

Marital or couples counseling sends a message that the abuser’s behavior is the victim’s fault.

Learning to refer victims to professionals is a key training tool for clergy who often want to do it all themselves.

“If you need open heart surgery you wouldn’t go to a psychiatrist, you’d go to a cardiac specialist,” McKee said. “If somebody’s having issues related to domestic violence, let’s send them to someone who really has experience with domestic violence.”

That doesn’t negate the power of prayer, he said. “Prayer is sometimes finding the resources to help you move through this difficulty.”

Progress

Progress in piercing the Holy Hush is slow, but it’s happening, one congregation at a time.

In July, some local imams focused on domestic violence during a special Ramadan sermon in their mosques. Area imams have also signed a “zero tolerance” statement on domestic violence, said Kafeel.

In August, Benjamin Dorr preached his first sermon on domestic violence at Northridge Presbyterian in Dallas at the urging of a member who works at a local shelter.

And in October, Methodist churches across North Texas are being encouraged to address the issue during National Domestic Violence Awareness month.

Hearing a “no abuse” message from the pulpit is critical, said Christine Woods, a survivor who serves on the board of the New Beginning Center in Garland.

Woods said it was only when she reconnected with church that she found the strength to leave an abusive relationship.

“Until then, I was beaten down and I was a shell of who I was,” Woods said. “I became this weak, quiet, broken person. And when I reconnected with my faith and my God, I just immediately started to get strong.”

Bishop T.D. Jakes, senior pastor of the Potter’s House, which has an active domestic violence ministry, said preaching about the issue once a year isn’t enough. Addressing domestic violence must become part of a church’s culture.

And that’s a tall order, he said, because religious leaders often “have this need to appear perfect. And there is this innate belief that this is not a reality in our church, that we are good people.

“But you can be a good person and have a bad problem,” he said, “and if we open that discussion we will have done God a great service.”

How houses of worship can help domestic violence victims:

Talk about the problem of domestic violence — in sermons, in prayer requests, in classes.

Display books or brochures from local resources offering victim assistance in private places such as women’s restroom stalls. Publicize domestic violence hotline numbers.

Become familiar with community resources such as shelters to be able to make referrals.

Provide training for church staff on how to recognize and respond to victims.

Support the safety of victims and follow up with them if they go to court.

If both partners continue to attend church, arrange for them to attend separate services or provide escorts for the victim.

Read the full article and view photos at Dallasnews.com.

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