From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
UMNS# 05136-Church must be sanctuary to domestic abuse victims,
Fri, 4 Mar 2005 15:29:25 -0600
Church must be sanctuary to domestic abuse victims, survivor says
Mar. 4, 2005 News media contact: Fran Walsh * (615) 742-5458*
NOTE: Photographs, a UMTV report, and a denominational statement are
available with this story at http://www.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=6886.
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
fidelity 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 Faith Trust Institute, one-third of all women in
relationships report being abused in some way by their husband or
"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
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
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
United Methodist News Service
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