This is Part 2 of a two part series on why the issue of domestic abuse is relevant to all people. Check out Part 1.
I used to think that women experiencing domestic violence who really needed help should and would seek it out. But when I met Rachel, this perception of domestic abuse in intimate relationships was challenged.
Rachel is a twenty-one year-old woman working toward a college degree. She has a beautiful little girl. Rachel is divorced, and for good reason.
“When he hit me, I knew it was bad,” she said. “He would take the car keys, so I couldn’t leave. He’d take my phone, so I couldn’t call for help. He was verbally abusive. He took all of the money I made. He stripped me of everything I had. I was completely at his mercy.”
Their marriage hadn’t always been that way. Much like Stephanie, whose story I shared in Part 1, Rachel honestly believed things would get better. She hoped for an entire year that her relationship with her abusive husband would return to how it was when they were dating. She remembered a time when the world shone a bit brighter and her husband treated her the way all women deserve to be treated—with respect and thankfulness. And she wished desperately for that time.
“People say the first year of marriage is the hardest, so I kept thinking it would get better,” she said. “I honestly thought we’d hit the wedding date and suddenly and magically, we’d know how to do it. He’d be nice, we’d be fine, and I’d be okay. I just had to stick it out. I had no idea at the time how bad it really was. I don’t know how many times I thought to myself—it’s just the first year.”
I asked Rachel why she chose live with that abuse: “Why didn’t you ask for help?”
We can no longer pretend that our sanctuaries are beyond the reach of violence. We must acknowledge the truth—women in our Christian communities do face abuse. Domestic abuse is our business, because violence in the church is inexcusable.
After all, I thought, she was very involved in her church at the time. She even had a small group of friends there that she spent significant time with. I didn’t understand why she hadn’t reached out to the church.
Rachel told me that it was extremely difficult for her to feel truly involved at that church. It was a small church of about three hundred people, mostly populated with people who had grown up in the surrounding area, attending that church. Her husband fit that description and it was always his church to Rachel. It was never truly hers and she never felt welcome.
Rachel would later find out that there was one other factor keeping her from being fully accepted into that group of church friends.
“They knew he had dealt drugs, knew he had had at least one affair,” she said. “One of the guys and his girlfriend actually caught my husband cheating. My friend’s boyfriend said, ‘Don’t tell Rachel. It’s none of our business.'”
Rachel now knows that those people were toxic and deceptive. She recalls hoping, on the other hand, that her trust in her pastor was not misplaced—only to find out that he was aware of her husband’s destructive behavior.
“The pastor, he knew. And after it was all over, I emailed him and his wife and got no response. None at all.”
The silence was very confusing for Rachel, but she now believes that many of those people simply had no idea how to confront the issue of abuse in a Christian home.
“It was almost like they were choosing sides and they chose the wrong side,” she explained. “A big part of it is not knowing how to deal with it. They all knew what was happening. But the worse it got, the less likely they were to speak up, because they were embarrassed that they hadn’t before.”
If we truly believe that domestic violence is not an issue that affects Christians, we must face the fact that we, the church, are genuinely ignorant of the reality and extent of domestic violence in our pews and worse, we do not know our sisters in Christ.
These stories are painful to hear. But, we can’t cover our ears anymore. We can no longer turn away from the issue of domestic abuse. We can no longer pretend that our sanctuaries are beyond the reach of violence. We must acknowledge the truth—women in our Christian communities do face abuse. Domestic abuse is our business, because violence in the church is inexcusable.
Why do women like Rachel and Stephanie endure abuse and not speak up? Both of these women feared the judgment of the Christian community. But even more simply, no one was asking.
We, the church, are genuinely ignorant of the reality and extent of domestic violence in our pews and worse, we do not know our sisters in Christ.
I mentioned in Part 1 of this series the moment when I first became aware of my own privilege, when I realized that there is pain and suffering in this world. My moment came in my fifth grade English class on the day we were assigned The Diary of Anne Frank. It was then that I became aware of the heaviness of our world. But, the reason Anne Frank’s story affected me so much was because I opened the cover and read each heartbreaking, painful, and powerful chapter of her story.
So here’s my question:
Are we providing space in the church for women to share their chapters? And not just the nice ones. I’m talking about what is written in their hearts, behind closed doors, when no one else is watching.
If someone in that church choir had just asked Stephanie why she lived with her boyfriend, she could have told them about her past marriage trauma. She could have offered others the gift of reading her story cover to cover. She could have shared that the fear of her abusers still lives inside of her every single day, fifteen years later. She could have explained that the bonds of matrimony still remind her all too vividly of the literal bonds once used to cause her so much harm.
If someone had just asked, Rachel might have had the chance to open up to someone. She could have become aware that her troubles—being hit, controlled, and diminished—were not first-year-marriage growing pains. She might have realized sooner that she was being abused.
Church, may we begin listening to difficult, uncomfortable stories. May we start the terrifying but healthy process of seeing people for who they are—not something to be judged and categorized, but as living, breathing, images of God. May we acknowledge the heartbreaking reality of domestic abuse in our congregations and reach out in solidarity and support to those who have suffered abuse.
If you’ve read this series and want to do something about domestic abuse in Christian communities, that’s awesome! There are many ways you can help with this issue and I encourage you to get involved. But the simplest piece of advice I can give in dealing with domestic abuse is this: make a friend. Give the woman next to you a chance to tell her story, each and every chapter, good, bad, painful, and powerful. Get to know the sister sitting next to you in the pew. Make her feel welcome and safe. Become her ally.
If you or someone you know needs help with a domestic violence issue, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
This is a forum for conversation and learning. Please keep dialogue constructive and engage respectfully with those who have different perspectives. We also encourage you to share our articles on Facebook and Twitter. We need your help to spread the message of gender equality.
The CBE Scroll accepts submissions. We encourage you to submit your work to the CBE Scroll at firstname.lastname@example.org.