Pastors learn about domestic abuse at Pre-Lenten Gatherings
February 27, 2017
The Rev. Dr. Anne Marie Hunter: “One in three women, one in seven men, and untold numbers of children are affected by abuse …
“There is not a single congregation who doesn’t have victims within it. Not a single one of us who doesn’t know someone who’s affected, and victims say repeatedly that abuse precipitates a spiritual crisis, and yet in most of our congregations we’re still not talking about this.”
Anne Marie Hunter’s first husband began abusing her on their honeymoon. She told no one – certainly not her pastor.
For four years she endured physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. After each episode, her husband would beg for forgiveness; but he did not stop, and the situation grew worse.
When she decided to leave her marriage, her pastor, who had first spoken to her husband, urged her to forgive him. When she said she could not return to her marriage, the pastor told her she could no longer consider herself Christian “because I obviously didn’t believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to change people,” she said.
“It’s difficult to express how I felt at that moment. The official sanctioned representative of my faith community had called me unchristian, had declared
me beyond the pale,” she said. “I had no idea how to be in that space of not being Christian. It was as though God had turned God’s back on me. I felt completely abandoned and hopeless.”
Recovering from the trauma of an abusive marriage and the spiritual crisis that ensued took a long time, Dr. Hunter said, but for the past 25 years, she has been helping faith leaders avoid the mistakes her pastor made.
Dr. Hunter, an elder in the New England Conference, is founder and executive director of Safe Havens, a Boston-based interfaith organization that promotes hope and justice for victims and survivors of domestic violence and elder abuse.
She was guest speaker at the three Pre-Lenten Gatherings for clergy in February 2017. Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar said he invited her after an enlightening conversation they had.
“I was so captivated by what she shared with me,” the bishop said. “And I learned so much about the abuse that is happening in our society – particularly that when people are abused, they often turn to their faith communities, and the leaders of those faith communities do not know how to deal with this.”
A critical step, Dr. Hunter said, is to start talking about the issue of domestic violence in our churches.
“I’m hopeful if we can break the silence in our congregations, people will be able to talk about these things years earlier – before people are seriously injured or traumatized,” she said. “The more we break the silence and take down the barriers to people getting help, the stronger our communities and families will be.”
Anne Marie Hunter suggested the following protocols for pastors dealing with domestic abuse:
Dr. Hunter said she understands that pastors want to do the right thing and that they hear entreaties from advocates for many causes. “I also know that we are pressed-to-the-wall busy,” she said. “The question is ‘Are we busier than Jesus?’”
The Gospel reading for the gatherings was from Mark 5:21-34, which Dr. Hunter characterized this way:
“Today’s Gospel depicts a scene of utter chaos with many things happening at once. If you throw in a cell phone ringing and some emails, you would have ministry in the modern age in a nutshell.
“Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He will challenge, and inspire, and minister to people all the way there. He’s also on a preaching tour; he wants to touch as many lives as possible, and as though that were not enough, Jairus, one
of the leaders of the synagogue, has begged Jesus to come save the life of his beloved daughter who’s gravely ill.
“And while all that is going on, the crowds pressed in on Jesus from all sides – crowds of people who embodied every possible human need – both physical and spiritual.”
“Like all of us here,” she said, “Jesus has a full plate.”
The woman who catches Christ’s robe – who has been bleeding for many years – is not unlike the victims of domestic abuse, who often seek help many times before they get any, Dr. Hunter said, and unlike Jairus, are hesitant about seeking help.
“Victims,” Dr. Hunter said, “don’t usually walk in and look us in the eye and ask for help.”
We have to listen carefully and it takes time, she said; it can be hard to take the time to listen because of all the Jairuses asking for our help. But Jesus, she said, is inspiring in His response.
“He stops in the middle of the short-term crisis (helping Jairus’ daughter) to attend to a deeply entrenched, recalcitrant, long-term problem. He responds first where it is hardest to respond,” Dr. Hunter said.
Pastors are called, Dr. Hunter said, to “intervene in the immediate crisis and prevent abuse in the next generation by working with our young people to develop health relationships. We are called to use our prophetic voices and our pulpits and whatever public space we can find and fill to push back.”
Dr. Hunter said research with victim/survivors of domestic abuse shows the impact one person can have in helping them survive, get past it, and thrive.
“Most of these people said it was one human being. It was one person who believed in them; one person who didn’t think they were defined by what had happened to them, who said ‘you don’t deserve this,’ who advocated for them,” she said.
“To me that’s a clarion call for who we are as faith communities – because we have these people in our congregations. We can be listening, we can be supporting, and we can be advocating. We can be that one person, one community where someone is able to survive because of the support around them.”
While one person can have tremendous impact, Dr. Hunter urged pastors not to take on the issue of domestic violence on their own.
She used the
analogy of a knight’s chainmail – which is made up of tens of thousands of links.
“Connected together, it’s armor,” Dr. Hunter said. “We all have to be connected: to each other, to the domestic violence service providers, rape counseling centers, law enforcement … Don’t do this alone. Be connected. Be the armor and keep people safe.”