Finding refuge, hope, healing
Offering sanctuary from abuse
By Jane Dennis
Insults come first. Verbal punches. Putdowns. Taunts. Intimidation and coercion to wield power and control. Shouting matches turn into threats and fierce arguments. Violent fights and all-out rage inflict unbearable physical and emotional pain. A deep, dark abyss of loss spirals into despair, hopelessness, often homelessness and running with nowhere to turn.
Some victims of domestic violence are finding places of hope and healing in The United Methodist Church. Ministries provided through congregations, annual conferences and churchwide agencies offer refuge, escape, hope and help for rebuilding lives.
Harbor House Crisis Shelters, a ministry of the Wisconsin Conference and Faith United Methodist Church in Superior, Wis., provides housing and services for homeless women and families.
"Ninety-nine percent of women who come here have been victims of domestic violence at some point in their life," said the Rev. Barbara Certa-Werner, Harbor House's executive director. Domestic violence is "one of the Top 5 leading causes for homelessness."
The seven-bedroom facility housed 458 individuals in 2010; half were children. A stable living environment is top priority.
Harbor House wrapped caring arms around Chicago native Sheila (last name withheld on request) after fear and violence engulfed the 49-year-old mother of nine.
After leaving an unhealthy relationship and a crime-riddled neighborhood "where you're ducking bullets and people are jumping on your kids," Sheila first lived with her older children and eventually ended up in a shelter for battered women in Superior. She now lives in a transitional apartment provided by Harbor House with her youngest child, a14-year-old boy.
"This is my time to get myself together," she said. "They have been wonderful to us here. I thank them everyday." She wants to find permanent housing and see her son go to college.
Concerned for children
Sheila worries about the effect of the violence her children have witnessed. At 12, one son lost three of his friends to violence. One was strangled by his mother's boyfriend. Another was killed in a gang beating.
"His father was shot in front of him and a bunch of other kids," Sheila added. "Did anybody counsel those kids or get them help? No. So many kids have seen horrible things and need counseling."
Sheila and her son receive counseling and other help through Harbor House. Most of the children there are victims who have witnessed ongoing abusive behavior.
"That's pretty scary because they are seeing it," said Certa-Werner. "There is evidence domestic violence is a learned behavior."
The cycle of abuse is difficult to break. Many women at Harbor House relate stories of parents disciplining them with beatings or of being sexually molested by a family member or family friend.
One conversation Certa-Werner had with a woman struggling in an abusive relationship is seared on her heart.
"I asked her, ‘Don't you want something better for your children?' She said, ‘Well, this was good enough for my mom and my grandmother; why wouldn't it be good enough for me?' That cycle of ‘I don't deserve anything better' is one of the difficult things we face."
Harbor House helps women understand that they deserve to be treated with respect and without violence. Clients receive help in getting a job and a place to live. The programs for children focus on self-esteem, life skills, making good choices and encouragement to stay in school.
"There is a misconception that domestic violence really doesn't happen, or it doesn't happen in the church or to middle-class people," Certa-Werner said. "Domestic violence can happen to anyone and everyone. It doesn't have a skin color or an ethnic preference. It doesn't discriminate."
Not every local church can start a shelter, but all congregations can support and promote existing community services, raise awareness of domestic violence and reach out to those afraid to speak up.
Churches should provide crisis hotline numbers in their restrooms, said Certa-Warner. "The church is a sanctuary and should have that information available so those who need help with a domestic-abuse situation can get that number without someone else knowing. That's one thing every church can do."
Pastors need to "preach on domestic violence and what the Bible says," she said. "We need to have Bible studies and learn what we can do as a faith community."
According to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. Yet, domestic violence is one of the most chronically under-reported crimes.
San Francisco's Gum Moon Women's Residence, established in 1871 and affiliated with the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, cares for women afraid to report abuse or fleeing abusers. It provides transitional housing facilities and other services. Most of those served are Asian immigrants.
"In the Asian community, normally we don't speak about problems such as domestic violence," said Susan Lee, program associate. But the women who turn to Gum Moon for help "have nowhere to go, and there's no help available to them. We have services, informal counseling and case management. We help them look for jobs and, ultimately, permanent housing."
Global problem unites men, women
United Methodists do not limit their efforts against domestic violence to the United States.
In January, United Methodists in Angola, including Bishop Gaspar João Domingos, marched in support of a new law against domestic violence. They carried a banner, "United Methodist Church says no to every type of violence."
In September, the Confederation of Methodist Women in Brazil will host a nationwide 13-day journey focusing on preventing domestic violence and human trafficking and promoting services for survivors.
In 2006, the Council of Bishops signed the National Declaration by Religious and Spiritual Leaders to Address Violence against Women.
|RONNY PERRY/UMNS PHOTO ILLUSTRATION|
In 2010, United Methodist Women (UMW) and United Methodist Men (UMM) joined in an initiative to raise awareness of domestic violence, encourage congregations to hold programs on it and to learn about services in their communities. A DVD and study guide, "What Churches Can Do," produced by the FaithTrust Institute, is available in each annual conference.
"Domestic violence is so prevalent," said Julie Taylor, coordinator of child and family advocacy for the women's division. "Even if it's not reported, we believe it's the experience of a lot of people in the pews. It's not spoken about; it remains hidden."
The women's division collaborated on an interfaith documentary, "I Believe You: Response to Intimate Partner Violence." Broadcast on television in February, the DVD will soon be available to churches as part of the UMW/UMM initiative.
"We've got the same heart about it," Taylor said of the partnership. "We want domestic violence eliminated. No more."
Jane Dennis is a freelance writer based in Little Rock, Ark.
Domestic Violence Facts*
One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
85% of domestic-violence victims are women.
Women, ages 20-24, are at the greatest risk of non-fatal intimate partner violence.
Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.
Almost 1/3 of female homicide victims reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner.
The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $5.8 billion each year.
*National Coalition against Domestic Violence, www.ncadv.org.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, (800) 799-7233.
The Office of Child and Family Advocacy, United Methodist Women, (212) 682-3633, firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Breaking the Silence," downloadable resource includes Bible study, www.umc-gbcs.org (search "domestic violence").