COVID-19 / Leadership Scholars

Churches as “First Responders” to those in need

By Laura Ellis

I recently hosted a vigil remembering the 19 people killed by domestic violence in Massachusetts within the last year.

Laura Ellis

The virtual service was accompanied by prayers of confession, moments of remembrance, and blessings for future hope. During the vigil we took a moment to speak about the uptick of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of all the devastating loss of life, health, livelihood, and personal connections, the pandemic also has devastating effects in situations of domestic violence.

Quarantine, loss of employment, and heightened stress increase the risk of violence in many peoples’ homes. The needed safety precautions to socially distance from others in order to stay safe from disease often make it more difficult for victims of abuse to reach out for help. Therefore, it can be nearly impossible for people to escape from an unsafe situation, which leaves victims trapped at home with their abuser.

I helped organize this vigil as a part of my work with a nonprofit organization that raises awareness in faith communities about domestic and sexual violence and elder abuse. Some victims of abuse never reach out for help, but those who do often disclose their abuse to people they trust.

For people of faith, victims often reach out to ministers and congregants, hoping to be believed. As such, the Church is a vital component of victims’ journey to safety. Even before the pandemic, one in three women and one and four men experienced domestic violence. Since the pandemic began, as schools, offices, and community events are closed and cancelled, so are the opportunities for many victims to reach out for help. However, churches remain a place where people are still meeting, whether online or in person. Ministers and congregants alike are needed now more than ever to be a resource for people experiencing violence at home.

However, many well-meaning church goers fail to believe victims and may even blame them for the abuse. This dismissal is often the result of a misunderstanding about domestic violence. Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior repeated over time to establish power and control over someone in an intimate relationship using physical, verbal, emotional, spiritual, psychological, financial, and/or sexual abuse. There is no such thing a “type of person” who is a victim or a “type of person” who is an abuser because violence occurs regardless of race, education, gender identity, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or physical ability. However, people experiencing social inequalities are disproportionately affected.

Regardless of the person or situation, no one deserves to be abused. But people who experience violence deserve to be heard. For faith leaders, the most important first step is to listen and believe victims of abuse. Be a calm, compassionate, and non-judgmental presence by providing confidential emotional, physical, and spiritual support. And when possible, refer victims to local services in your area as well as the national domestic violence hotline (1.800.799.SAFE). They are the experts in helping victims find safety and can be an incredible resource. Above all, believe and trust the victim. Offer options and referrals and then support the victim in whatever way they decide to respond, even if you might respond in a different way.

The Church can be an incredible resource and “first-responder” to someone in need. And you can promote safety in your church by speaking out against abuse. Domestic violence is often cloaked by silence. But by breaking this silence, ministers can express that the Church is a safe space, that no one deserves to be abused, and that violence is never the will of God.

Laura Ellis is a CBF Leadership Scholar, a third year MDiv student at Boston University School of Theology, and an employee at Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse. She is originally from Abilene, Texas and was a past Student.Go fellow in Bali, Indonesia with Jonathan and Tina Bailey. 

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