Religion and Domestic Abuse

This article courtesy of STL Today.

This is a great article. One thing I notice in particular, however, was that after years of work, heavy advertising, personal calls to over 250 other places of worship for a domestic abuse awareness and support event — only 8 people showed up. This is deplorable, but an unfortunately universal state of affairs.

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By Michele Munz

Kaye was a member of another congregation, a stranger when she visited Pat Merold, a pastor’s wife with an empathetic ear. The mother of four told her story hesitantly at first, barely looking up.

For years, Kaye’s husband called her fat and ugly. He brought women to their home for sex. He didn’t even try to hide it.

Kaye eventually mustered the courage to tell her minister what was happening.

But the minister belittled her pain. He said her husband, a church elder, was a good man. She just needed to be a better wife, he explained, then things would get better.

As she repeated her minister’s advice, Kaye’s quivering chin gave way to sobs.

Merold’s husband was pastor of a California church about 25 years ago when Kaye confided in her. It was the first time an abuse victim had come to her for help.

“What I learned was that these things do go on among people that go to church, and we have to listen,” said Merold, who moved with her husband, Ben, in 1991 to Harvester Christian Church in St. Charles.

For many reasons — often ignorance or denial — religious leaders struggle with how to respond to domestic abuse. Their focus is to keep families together and protect marriages, which, at times, can put their good intentions at odds with protecting victims, say advocates and some clergy members.

Yet clergy can be a powerful authority in challenging abusers, who sometimes falsely use religion to justify their abuse, research shows. Clergy also can be a source of physical and spiritual healing for victims.

Initiatives nationwide and locally are helping clergy to realize their unique role in combating domestic abuse and to respond to victims appropriately. The first step, advocates say, is to recognize that victims are in the pews.

Kaye eventually joined Merold’s church. Within a couple years, Kaye moved to another state to escape her husband.

Merold didn’t know it at the time, but Kaye’s ordeal was the first lesson in what would become her calling — to be a faith leader who listens and gives victims hope.

“It’s the lowered eyes, the sense of shame that grabs my heart,” Merold said.

FIGHTING DENIAL

Merold, 77, took the podium during a recent domestic abuse seminar for clergy members in St. Charles County. She was asked to speak about her ministry, which has taken the lead in the area in not only offering protection for victims, but tackling domestic abuse as a social issue within the church.

The ministry started, Merold explained, with a woman from Bible study who loved coming to Harvester Christian but was often absent. Suspicious, Merold visited the woman at her immaculate home.

Merold was appalled at what she found: The only food in the refrigerator for the woman and her two young children was a slice of cheese and two soda crackers. It wasn’t because of a lack of money — her husband did it to control her.

“I didn’t have any experience with that kind of thing,” Merold said.

During her speech, she tried to inspire the crowd, but building interest among clergy hasn’t been easy. The St. Charles County Family Violence Council, which organized the free event, sent brochures to every place of worship in the county — more than 250 — and followed up with phone calls.

But only eight people showed up — two from Merold’s church.

Denial is the biggest reason clergy don’t get more involved, said Rev. Al Miles, a hospital chaplain and author of “Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know.”

“What I hear is, ‘We don’t have that problem,’ or ‘Our women are too smart to be involved,’ and ‘No true men of God would do that,'” Miles said.

But statistics show domestic abuse is too pervasive for churches to be insulated. One of four women will be physically or sexually assaulted by a husband, ex-husband or boyfriend, according the National Violence Against Women Survey. Men can be victims, too, though not as frequently as women, the survey found.

Some domestic abuse extends beyond violence; it includes isolation, intimidation, criticism and stifling control. It cuts across all races, incomes and religions.

Victims who are religious prefer first to seek help from their clergy, studies show, and the response they receive will determine what they do next. However, only 8 percent of clergy feel prepared to offer good advice, according to data collected from over 500 religious leaders.

Indeed, some suggestions from clergy can be detrimental, advocates say. Victims have been told to keep to their vows, forgive, submit, persevere.

“If I’m being told by someone I recognize as my spiritual leader that I need to stay and pray and obey,” Miles said, “it’s all the more imprisoning.”

‘OVERWHELMING’

It’s difficult for religious leaders to learn about domestic abuse, especially when they contend with so many issues among their flocks, said Rev. Aleese Moore-Orbih with the FaithTrust Institute, a multi-faith organization that address religious issues related to abuse.

“They are overworked and have so much on their plates already, that they perceive it as something overwhelming,” Moore-Orbih said.

Clergy can find support through local victim-service providers, though the groups struggle to find common ground.

Clergy “look at us as non-Christians who just want to break up homes,” said Gloria Johnson of Life Source Consultants Inc., the primary victim-service provider in north St. Louis County. “We need to be able to bridge that gap.”

Despite challenges, the silence on domestic violence is disappearing, Moore-Orbih said: “Seems like every day, another denomination or faith organization is stepping up to the plate saying, ‘we want to do something.’ “

At the conference in St. Charles County, Merold said she had much to learn after discovering the empty refrigerator.

Merold bought the woman groceries. Later, the husband dumped the food on the table, put a gun to his wife’s head and ordered his family to “start eating,” Merold recalled.

A few weeks later, Merold got a call in the middle of a cold night. The woman and her children had fled to the streets in their pajamas. The county’s shelter was full. The Merolds took them in.

Days later, the pastor’s wife spotted a small house, back from the street. It would be a perfect place for someone to start a new life, Merold thought.

But she feared going to her church board to ask them to buy the house. She and her husband had only been at the church for two years. At the time, there were only 300 members.

The board’s decision, however, came easy.

‘CALLED TO RESPOND’

The Step Up Ministry started with that one house, where two domestic abuse victims and their families are allowed to stay with no time limit. Each year, Merold makes a brief plea for donations before the church — now with 3,500 members. Giving has been so generous, the church purchased another house that serves two more families.

Church support also helps provide car repairs, job training, medical care.

Merold started a weekly support group — Hope and Peace — for domestic abuse victims at the church. The brochures in the church lobby read, “Abuse is not God’s plan for a relationship!!”

Such outward messages from the church are just as important as knowing how to respond when victims disclose their abuse, advocates say. Religious leaders can let it be known that abuse is not tolerated. They can debunk misinterpretations of scripture used by men to justify abuse or leave victims feeling trapped.

“Every religion has sacred text that has been misinterpreted and used to subjugate women,” Moore-Orbih said. For example, the Jewish teaching Shalom Bayit can leave women feeling they must “keep the peace” at all costs.

And yet, about 95 percent of women of faith report they have never heard their leader preach about abuse, according to a national survey.

Father Harry Byrne, a Dominican priest for nearly 35 years and faculty member at Aquinas Institute of Theology, decided to take on the topic for the first time during a homily at St. Francis Xavier College Church, on the campus of St. Louis University. It was October, domestic violence awareness month.

“Unfortunately, in the past, our church has, in some ways, not helped much in this epidemic of domestic violence,” Byrne said that day. “We have not spoken out against it. … The Church rejects all forms of domestic violence and urges women to protect themselves and their children, even if that means some form of separation from their abusers.”

Twice the usual number of people approached Byrne afterward, thanking him for his words, he recalled. One was an emergency room nurse who treats victims. Some, he suspected, were victims themselves.

The experience made him realize domestic abuse permeates all levels of society, Byrne said, “and how churches especially are called to respond to this, not only in charity, but to insure that our theological notions are in no way supporting this idea.”

‘BEGIN WITH FAITH’

Clergy can help create a culture that values women, Moore-Orbih said. Domestic abuse is a learned behavior of power and control that can be mistakenly reinforced by religion, she added. “The way to begin the transformation … is to begin with our faith.”

Standing in the expansive lobby of Harvester Christian Church, Merold straightened the Hope and Peace brochures and Step Up donation envelopes in their slots along the walls.

On Sunday, more than 3,000 people will walk by. They be will wearing their Sunday best, seeking salvation and the strength to be Christ-like. But Merold never forgets that among those bowing their heads are men who hit and women who see no escape.

She says, “They’re among us.”

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