For the last year and half I’ve kept a short list of resources for domestic abuse victims, and this spring I started working on revising the list to include more churches and faith-based resources. Frequently the church response to abuse situations is so poor that for a victim, leaving an abusive home very often means leaving or being excommunicated from her (or his) church home as well.
Many domestic abuse survivors receive far more loving care and practical help from non-Christians that they don’t know than they do from people who have sat beside them in the pew for years. When that happens, it becomes extremely difficult to remember what the point of church is, and many people who leave never return to any church at all.
Portland is a sizable enough city. Churches that are welcoming to abuse victims and understand the particular struggles they face shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? Churches that have small groups geared toward domestic abuse recovery must be out there, yes? I mean, churches all over the place have resources for drug recovery or grief counseling or divorce. Helping the hurting is what churches are for, right?
Compiling a list of churches that are either up to speed on the unique struggles abuse victims face or that actively have groups geared specifically for them proved to be a far more discouraging endeavor than I anticipated, and the number of churches that actively provide for people in such situations is appallingly small. In the process of looking for churches, though, I came across Pastor Ron Clark of Agape Church of Christ in Downtown Portland. He has been actively working in this field for the past twenty years; teaches Pastoral Counseling and Advanced Pastoral Counseling classes at George Fox, both of which cover a variety of abuse and sexual and domestic violence related issues; and works with his wife Lori on a team that runs clergy trainings three times a year covering abuse, sexual assault, trafficking/prostitution, and pornography.
I emailed Ron and asked him if he knew of any local churches that fit one or both of the above criteria. He sent me short lists for each category (we’ll talk about why they were short in a minute), and we talked a little more about what it means to be a church where victims/survivors can feel safe and why churches that have programs for the abused still don’t always fit into that category. His explanation of the distinction between those two sets is very helpful.
Churches where victims/survivors can feel safe: Meaning that misogyny is unwelcome, females are encouraged to be safe even at the expense of their marriage, and victims can feel heard. These communities also confront religious leaders who allow abuse to go on in their churches.
We have found that some churches have ministries to the abused but the following problems develop:
- Pastors are not trained to help, only a few female counselors.
- They have hosted our training but no clergy attend or work with further trainings.
- While there are ministries that work with survivors, the pastor either doesn’t preach about DV [RS: Domestic Violence] or still tends to insinuate that divorce is not acceptable to God without clarifying that abuse violates the covenant
This is just our thoughts and does not insinuate that survivors/victims do not receive help. We have had trainings at most mega churches in Portland but we continue to hear from members that they are encouraged to go back to their abuser. While this doesn’t represent the beliefs of all leadership, there still exists a climate that we list as “not safe for those in abuse.” While not threatening it does not tend to confront male privilege, misogyny, or women needing to be safe at all costs.
In an interview for SOJO.net, Ron was asked the following question:
What has surprised or challenged you as you teach this material?
“…our church has partnered with countless agencies and encouraged other churches to host our trainings and have witnessed 2000 people participate in them. However, most attendees are county advocates who want to learn more about working with faith-based clients. Only 5-7 percent have been clergy. I do have a group of ministers who faithfully attend and are now prepared to work with victims, but they are a small percentage of overall participants.”
All of this frustrates me. When I read my Bible, I don’t see Jesus doing any of this. I see him comforting the grieving. Throughout the Bible I see standing up for the downtrodden as a recurring theme. I see the harshest of injunctions levied against violence in both speech (“revilers” in Biblical parlance) and act.
It frustrates me that when I talk to people, they say things like, “Well, I think a lot of times women claim abuse when they just don’t want to be married anymore” and “Well, he shouldn’t act like that towards his wife, but he’s right that her job is to submit to him and she still has to do her job whether he does his or not” and “Well, she’s pretty crazy. I don’t think he’s the problem.”
It frustrates me that people say this when I’ve sat with the wife (or sometimes, though less frequently, the husbands who end up in abusive situations) and talked with her and cried with her and know she has massive, specific, justifiable complaints that are either backed up by witnesses or by the husband’s own admissions or by both. It frustrates me that even when the wife’s complaints are of the type that if anyone other than the person who has promised to love her for the rest of her life were doing them to her, he would immediately be arrested, I can’t defend the wife in any specific way or tell that to the person sitting across from me without breaking the wife’s confidence.
It frustrates me when the complaints are of the type that are completely invisible unless you live with the person but where the domineering behavior is so severe that the wife’s health has spiraled into an entire constellation of stress-related illnesses and mental health struggles so bad that can barely think straight, yet because the results are visible and the cause is not, people see her as unstable instead of as crushed by another person.
It frustrates me when people become so blinded by their own vision of theological perfection that they snip out compassion.
I don’t talk about this stuff in person as much as I did when I first became involved because it makes me angry. I worry that I will end up yelling at someone I care about because I can’t figure out how to graciously tell people to stuff it when they make comments like that, and I don’t think yelling at people promotes any sort of healthy discussion or encourages people to think through things more deeply. Instead I write (often more personal communication than public blogging, but at least some of each), I listen, and I pray.
And next Thursday, I am going to Ron Clark’s seminar on Addressing Intimate Partner Violence From a Faith-Based Perspective so that I can understand better how to recognize bad situations when they cross my path and learn better how to help. Lay people are encouraged to attend the training as well. If you would like to understand the issues and help make your church a welcoming home for those whose own homes are marked by confusion and terror, I hope you’ll come too. Here are the specs:
Addressing Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) From a Faith Based Perspective
Sept 28 2017 9:00 AM- 3:00 PM
East County Church of Christ
24375 SE Stark St., Gresham, OR 97030
9:00 Registration and Welcome
9:15-10:15 Sessions 1: Basics of IPV (9:30-10:30)
Dr. Ron Clark, Agape Church of Christ
10:30-11:30 Session 2: Secondary Aggression and Ministry
Stacey Womack, ARMS (Abuse Recovery Ministry & Services)
11:30 Lunch available on your own
1:00-2:00 Session 3 Panel Discussion: Shame and IPV (1:30-2:30)
Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue Team
2:15-3:00 Session 4: Bridging the Gap Between IPV and Faith Leaders
Dr. Carlos Richard, Tabernacle Church
This event is sponsored by the Agape Church of Christ and is a free training. Due to limited seating they ask that all attendees pre-register. There is no charge for this workshop.
This is late notice on my part, to be sure, and I apologize for not getting this out sooner. If you can make it, please let them know asap, but you can still register at the door if you forget (but don’t forget; click that button now and be done with it). If you can’t make it this time but would like to know when the next one comes up, please click here to email the Agape Church of Christ office and ask to be put on the listserv for the next training.
P.S. I also often come across people who seem to think the scope of the problem is being exaggerated. The current data looks much more like it’s vastly underreported, and the stories that are starting to come out from all over have very distinct patterns. Here are a few places to begin further reading. These stories are all consistent with ones I have personally heard myself from Christian women who are or have been in abusive marriages or that I have read from court documentation and survivor stories from Christian women all over the country.
Enough is Enough: Why the Church Has to Stop Enabling Abusive Men – Start here. Gary Thomas speaks at a long-standing Christian conference and is overwhelmed during the break by the quantity of women who come to him describing the horror they are enduring in their homes and asking what they should do. Right now there are 365 comments on this post, and huge numbers of them are from people pouring out their stories and asking for help as well. Take some time to read through them.
An Open Letter to the Church From an Abused Christian Wife – Anna Grace Wood is a Reformed Baptist homeschooling Mom who has been through all of this herself.
Survivor Story – This is a good example of why it often takes women so long to leave and why people who don’t see what happens behind the doors of the home in question respond as though the wife has gone crazy.
I’m Still Here: On Leaving Abuse and Being Ignored in the Grocery Store – What often happens after one does finally work up the courage to leave (also a reason people stay so long, hoping to avoid being completely ostracized).
#WhyIStayed – Short, personal tweets from women on the crushing ramifications of their finally deciding to leave, and why it took them so long to do so.