I work with Sanctuary for Families (SFF), a not-for-profit organization made up of nearly 200 lawyers, clinicians, and support staff spread across New York City, serving over 10,000 adults and children annually. I work out of one of the NYC Family Justice Centers (FJC), a program of the city’s Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence (DV). The FJC is a walk-in center structured by a multi-agency model where different agencies provide services to meet the needs of victim-survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, child abuse, and trafficking. Clients are referred to me for services related to employment, education, financial literacy, and housing.
Abuse is sin because it displeases God and violates his precious image which he imprinted on everyone. God has in mind for us a life of mishpat—which in Hebrew refers to the rich way of life that involves justice, righteousness, love, mercy, order, peace, and more. As God’s people, we are called to live in this world and live our lives through the lens of mishpat so that we can partake and lead others in redeeming a broken world. This is why I care about this cause and this is what living on mission means to me.
What have churches done in the past and what are they currently doing to help abuse victims? In my experience, I have seen local churches coordinate groups to volunteer at women’s shelters by coordinating community events or providing practical assistance. Recently, a community group from Trinity Grace Church in New York City pooled together money so that staff from Sanctuary for Families and the Bronx Family Justice Center could purchase food to restock their food pantry. This is a pantry that serves hundreds of individuals and families who come through the center, and it has been empty for months. These are wonderful, easy ways for the church to be involved.
But there are plenty of other practical ways in how churches can get involved. Shelters desperately need funding to update their buildings and space. Churches with the space could consider providing space and beds for survivors to use temporarily, especially in cities like New York where shelters are overcrowded and sometimes are unsafe for women and children. In the Bronx, for example, there is always a need for volunteers and/or funding for after school programs, English language tutors, resume coaches, mentors, food and clothing pantries, and more.
Churches can do more of these types of service by identifying the organizations that respond to domestic violence on a daily basis, and learning what the needs in their community are. Church leaders would do well to listen, especially non-judgmentally, to what is already happening in their community. This requires a posture of humility, learning, and active listening. I would love to see church leaders, particularly the lead pastor or those with influence, model this for their leadership and congregation. These kinds of creative, collaborative solutions to the needs of victim-survivors of abuse are what we need in cities like New York and others across the nation.
Churches are called to be a light in the world. My challenge for church leaders is to thoughtfully consider how Scripture informs us in how we serve others. Leaders (not just pastors) can think of ways to educate their congregation about the Bible’s holistic call for justice.
There is no biblical justification for the sin of abuse, and we need to be conscious about how some groups misread Scripture to justify these situations. For example, a misinterpretation of the passage about a wife submitting to her husband can be incredibly damaging and dangerous for the victim (for clarification on such passages, see this video, and part I and part II of this series). So churches need to think through how they would respond to victims in these dire situations. For instance, what would you say about a woman who was being severely abused by her husband—who was a pastor and had the support of other faith leaders in your community? How about a man who was being abused by his girlfriend? Would you be able to identify the signs of abuse when interacting with these couples? What would you do? How would you respond without escalating the situation or risking the safety of the victim?
Leaders should think ahead about how their church should respond to a victim-survivor of abuse. Are there people that a survivor can go to, if they want to talk and get help? Are those individuals trained to address these issues? What if the survivor is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer? What if they were sexually active with their abuser and are not married? What if a victim of abuse shows signs of fear at the mention of marriage counseling?
These are some types of questions that should be thought through proactively, beforehand so that individuals involved are careful and thoughtful in how they respond and why are they responding that way. No matter what a person’s theological view is about sexuality, sex before marriage, or other aspects about a person, those views should never be barrier for a victim-survivor to get immediate help.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Conversations about healthy relationships need to happen in church. Whether it’s included in sermons or discussed in groups, the church needs to be a place where healthy relationships between partners, in families, and among friends is openly addressed. This month, churches can consider taking advantage of Domestic Violence Awareness Month to educate their congregations, share resources, and pray for how abuse affects the world locally and globally.
If you are experiencing/have experienced abuse, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or visit http://www.thehotline.org/help.
If you know someone who is experiencing abuse, talk with them. If they don’t want resources from you, you may be just the person to provide a non-judgmental space to sit and listen to their story so that they don’t feel alone. To learn and identify signs of abuse, visit http://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Sanctuary for Families, the Family Justice Centers, or the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.