Churches struggle with domestic violence

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Churches have long been between a rock and a hard spot when it comes to questions of domestic violence.

Churches, on the one hand, try to be islands of refuge for the meek and oppressed, but they also are pledged to defend the sanctity of marriage. Modern churches, however, are evolving to meet the challenge as cases of domestic violence proliferate in American society.

According to national statistics, domestic violence has occurred in 28 percent of American homes. During the decade-long Vietnam war, 58,000 American servicemen were killed. During that same time period, 54,000 American women were killed in domestic violence situations.

"Once the violence begins, the marriage vows are broken," said the Rev. Bob Deardoff of the Star of the North Lutheran Church in Kenai. "The vows include commitments to love, honor and cherish, and when there is violence in the home, there is no loving, honoring or cherishing going on."

That theme was repeated over and over in the film "Broken Vows" that was shown during last Tuesday's domestic violence seminar for women at Kenai Peninsula College.

"When people are bound by the covenant of marriage, violence breaks that covenant," the Rev. M. Fortune of the United Church of Christ said during the film. "The church's duty at that point is to help the woman recognize the reality of the situation and mourn the loss of the relationship."

Deardoff had an even more basic approach to the church's responsibilities.

"The first thing to do is to ensure their safety," he said.

To this end, he said he will make a referral to Leeshore, the women's shelter in Kenai. In the past, Deardoff said, he and his wife have even given victims of domestic violence refuge in their home, if necessary.

That, however, is not a recommended practice, experts advise, and should only be used as a last resort. If an out-of-control abuser can track his victim to your house, unpleasant, even dangerous, things can occur.

Consider the example of the Rev. Bob Owens, a Presbyterian minister on the "Broken Vows" film. He took in his daughter, who was married to an abuser when she fled the intolerable situation at her own home. A short time later, her abusive husband showed up at Owens door, slashed Owens across the forehead and threatened to cut his eyes out.

As Owens struggled with his assailant, his daughter came to his aid and was stabbed in the side for her trouble. Owens and his daughter finally managed to subdue the knife-wielding attacker. The attacker shouted his defiance as police dragged him away.

The experience left Owens a changed man. Prior to the attack, he said, he'd never mentioned domestic violence from the pulpit. Afterward, he and his daughter became activists within the church for battered women.

In the past, batterers skillfully used churches, as they also used marriage counselors, to further their power and control over victims.

"Nothing fires my indignation more than to hear of an abused woman who was counseled to stay in the relationship," Owens said. "Now I counsel to stop the violence, not to save the marriage."

The Rev. John Heagle of Therapy and Renewal Associates, a Christian counseling organization, said churches were slow to respond to the national epidemic of domestic violence but are coming to terms with the unpleasant reality.

Deardoff agrees and said his learning curve based on practical experience was steep and somewhat unsettling.

"This is not something that was discussed when I was in the seminary," he said. "These acts of anger, violence and evil are sins committed against everyone in society."

Deardoff and some of the pastors of the larger congregations in Kenai and Soldotna participate in "monthly ministerial meetings," currently chaired by the Rev. Alan Humphries of the Church of God in Soldotna, to discuss broad-based community problems.

The subject of domestic violence has come up regularly, Deardoff said, and the pastors have, for the most part, come to a consensus on how to deal with domestic violence.

"First of all, you have to believe her," Deardoff said. "People don't make this stuff up."

The next seminar in the series on domestic violence is scheduled for 3:45 to 5 p.m. Feb. 22. The subject will be, "Effects of Domestic Violence on Women: 12 Key Issues and Victim Blaming."

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