EASLEY—The Rev. Richard Reams can’t forget the time he went to a children’s center and knelt to give a girl a high-five.
The little girl flinched.
“It’s OK,” Reams heard the girl’s sister tell her. “He won’t hit you here. It’s a safe place.”
But the look on that child’s face still haunts him, and today he and other South Carolina United Methodist pastors are part of a growing number of clergy driven to do what they can to heighten awareness about domestic violence and abuse and offer up the church as a safe place for help.
Reams and dozens of other pastors in the Anderson District headed to First United Methodist Church, Easley, April 3 for a discussion on how churches can offer a faithful response to domestic violence.
Led by Susan Burton of the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, the gathering shared information, tips and next steps to help victims and stop violence.
South Carolina is the fifth deadliest state in the nation when it comes to women being killed by men; in 2015 it was No. 1, and it has held the deadliest spot four times in the last 18 years since the Violence Policy Center began its rankings. Men can be victims, too, though a disproportionate number are women and children. Globally, one in three women has been beaten, forced into sex or otherwise abused by someone she knows—including her husband. It occurs in every community in every racial/ethnic composition and every economic status.
With such figures, one would think the church would be an ideal place for preaching and teaching about domestic violence. But Burton said a LifeWay research study found that 42 percent of Protestant pastors never or rarely speak about domestic violence.
“It’s really heavy, it’s ugly; why bring that ugliness in the church?” Burton said.
But UMC Social Principles say churches should provide a safe environment and support for victims of family violence and abuse, Burton said—and it’s the Christian thing to do.
“Our call as United Methodists is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and part of that transformation is a world without exploitation and violence,” Burton said. “Our job and our call are to interrupt the violence. … If we don’t use our voices, who will?”
The Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray, Anderson District superintendent, said because South Carolina is consistently in the worst rankings for domestic violence, it seems many in the state have somehow normalized behaviors of dominance, violence and control, but that must change. And she is hopeful the clergy gathering will be a step in the right direction.
“Pastors are in unique roles to both lift up this Jesus-modeled standard as well as be attentive to and safe spaces for those touched by this often well-kept secret,” Leonard-Ray said. “We all need our level of awareness raised to this pervasive reality and must do our part in teaching and modeling healthy masculinity, as well as elevating the value of our sons and daughters as those made in the image of God and therefore intrinsically worthy of respect and value.”
Killing people, ruining our girls
Abusive behavior is largely about power and control, Burton said, and there are five types of domestic violence: physical, psychological, sexual, verbal and economic.
Some men say, “If you leave me, I’m keeping the kids,” while other men have all the financial power because their wives are stay-at-home mothers or turn over their paychecks to their husband. Other men force their wives to get pregnant by preventing birth control.
“It is absolutely a public health concern,” Burton said, noting domestic violence involves injury, non-communicable diseases, mental health and substance use, sexually transmitted diseases and reproductive health disorders, and said churches have an obligation to do something about this.
Reams couldn’t agree more, and he said it starts with taking about domestic violence and then partnering with domestic violence groups and other nonprofits to offer haven, life skills and other help to local neighbors.
“It’s killing people, ruining our girls, and it’s ludicrous—absolutely crazy—that we’re talking about everything else but that,” Reams said.
Burton and other pastors discussed a number of things people can do to recognize possible signs of abuse. Women in abusive relationships have much in common with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder; they’re often jumpy. Some women cake on makeup to cover bruises on the face.
“We must listen (for the things not being said), believe (even if it’s outrageous) and understand,” Burton said.
What to do
Burton said we must teach, preach and be an ally for victims, creating healthy/healing spaces and advocating for change, whether individual, cultural or institutional.
Individual change involves changing oneself, such as getting divorced or leaving the bad situation.
Cultural change involves being aware of the messages our children and other are receiving. Are there television shows for little girls that show girls as leaders? Do books in our church nurseries feature girls as females or secondary figures?
“Think about the role of women in the church; only 15 percent of women in Scripture have names,” Burton said, noting that part of our role as Christians is influencing the people in our pews. “We must change the expectation that girls be married and in relationships as what defines them.”
Institutional change involves changing unfair laws and other policies and practices.
As Burton noted, “In South Carolina, a man can get five years in prison for abusing a dog but a maximum of 30 days for beating his wife or girlfriend if it’s a first offense.”
Several factors can help keep people from becoming domestic violence victims, she said, and urged churches to do what they can to strengthen these.
Structurally, factors include access to quality healthcare, educational opportunities, employment and livable wages, food security, housing, safe neighborhoods and social inclusion.
Socially, birth circumstances, family support, neighborhood/community, workplace and access to money, power and resources can help.