Survivors of domestic violence should not have to choose between their faith and being safe.
Such a dilemma can occur, says the Rev. Aleese Moore-Orbih, if they are told by their churches to stay “in a situation where it is possible for them to lose their lives.”
Moore-Orbih, a United Church of Christ pastor, is director of training and consulting for FaithTrust Institute, an organization working to end sexual and domestic violence. During the Oct. 8-11 meeting of the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, she counseled directors on how local congregations can assist abuse survivors.
United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men have joined forces to stand with women against domestic violence and are working as partners on programs, training and resources to address the problem.
United Methodist Women is among the sponsors of “I Believe You: Faiths’ Response to Intimate Partner Violence,” which will air on ABC-TV in January. The documentary explores the stories of women who have experienced abuse and how faith groups have created programs to address their needs.
The denomination’s Board of Church and Society and Commission on the Status and Role of Women also offer resources to help congregations deal with the issue. To mark the October observance of domestic violence awareness month, Church and Society has released a new downloadable resource.
For any church group, it’s important to understand that domestic violence is a pattern of physical, sexual, psychological or economic abuse used to establish power and control, Moore-Orbih said.
It’s also a learned behavior that can be worsened but not caused by factors such as alcohol and drug abuse or anger. “Anyone who abuses another human being makes a choice,” she explained. Abusers “know who they have power over and they control when and who they use that power with.”
While there are many reasons why the survivor doesn’t leave – societal or family pressure, economics, children, danger – the real question to be asked is “Why does he beat her?,” added Moore-Orbih, who founded “I Wish It Would Stop,” an advocacy program for teens exposed to domestic violence.
Fears about leaving can be very real. “The danger is real,” she stressed. “The majority of women who are murdered by their abusers are murdered after they leave the abusers.”
If church members want to help abuse survivors, they have to develop the “cultural competence” that allows them to understand the situations and develop better safety strategies and, hopefully, better outcomes.
“This is not a cookie-cutter ministry,” she pointed out. “You have to take into consideration the ethnic background of the people you are working with.”
Creating space for survivors in The United Methodist Church starts with the assumption that “they’re already there.” According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
Abusive relationships can provoke theological questions: Why did God let this happen to me? Why doesn’t God hear my prayers?
But faith also can be a source of comfort, knowing that God can be a helper and that God hates oppression and seeks accountability for those who harms others, Moore-Orbih said.
Faith can be a resource for liberation, healing and wholeness or a roadblock to recovery. “Either her faith is going to help her or her faith is going to hinder her,” she noted.
When it comes to assisting an abuse survivor, the church doesn’t replace social service agencies, but works cooperatively with them. “Only we, the body of Christ, can give her the spiritual direction and walk her down the path of wholeness and healing,” Moore-Orhib said.
During an internship with Church and Society, Meredith Hoxie created a domestic violence resource with assistance from the Boston University School of Theology's Springboard Funding.
“I wanted to develop a resource which could help educate and form leaders and laity of The United Methodist Church, addressing a pressing and prevalent justice issue: violence in the context of our most intimate relationships,” she said.
Her research included exploring the stories of women in situations of domestic violence and spending time on prayer about “the places where the church could be called to respond.” Hoxie wanted the resource to focus on advocacy, but also offer suggestions of other resources.
The aim, she noted, was to encourage more than the usual pastoral care response. “There is a need for the silence around this issue to be broken, and for the people of the United Methodist Church to speak up and speak out in a clear, unified voice,” Hoxie explained. “This is unjust.”
Working in consultation with Linda Bales Todd, director of the Louise and Hugh Moore Population Project for the Board of Church and Society, Hoxie created a resource that not only includes factual information, but also points out some of the historical, theological and interpretive shortcomings of the church’s past.
“In naming some of the ways the church has gone wrong in addressing this issue in the past, the case can be built that there is an even stronger need for a clear voice in opposition of this violence in today’s churches,” she said.
*A UMNS report by Linda Bloom. Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.