Three and a half minutes. That’s how much of Matt Mason’s 45-minute sermon addressed domestic violence.
But after he preached that Sunday in July 2019, his inbox was full.
“No three and a half minutes in my four years of preaching here regularly has generated more emails, more painful stories than that segment,” said Mason, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills, Birmingham.
And it didn’t stop there. The next day, he shared an article on Facebook addressing the topic, and he got a private message from a church member letting him know that she personally knew of some women who didn’t “like” or comment on his post because they were afraid they might face backlash from abusers.
“You look at the statistics and even if you go conservative … we would be naive to think there’s not deep pain in our church family,” Mason said.
Domestic violence — when one spouse or partner tries to dominate the other with controlling and punishing behaviors — is an ever-present issue, according to the numbers. Most victims are women. And though not all abuse is physical, on average nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S., according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Experts say that reality is only escalating with the isolation caused by the coronavirus. In China, domestic violence cases have risen dramatically as people there have been quarantined, according to news reports. And France saw something similar happen — the government has begun putting domestic violence victims in hotels and opening pop-up counseling shelters after a 32% rise in incident reports the first week of lockdown.
The U.S. is already seeing the signs of a similar trend. KLFY, a Louisiana news station, reported that the population in domestic violence safe houses in Shreveport was on the rise and nearing capacity in late March. Crisis Services of North Alabama reported a 25% increase in domestic-related calls in recent days.
Darby Strickland, an instructor and counselor with the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, said the current reality is a perfect storm for abuse victims.
The COVID-19 crisis is amplifying stress for everyone, and for people in domestic abuse situations, “suddenly you’re interacting with your abuser all day,” she said. “It just sets up a really difficult environment.”
Strickland — who was part of the team who developed Southern Baptists’ Caring Well study and Church Cares curriculum — said the current climate has a lot of unique challenges. Many shelters are full, and many victims who might choose to flee to an aging parent’s house are unable to do so for fear of infecting them with the coronavirus.
If victims “need a break or have to leave, their usual resources aren’t always available,” Strickland said. “And they are often not free to speak in their homes, as they tend to be monitored, so they can’t reach out for help as regularly or talk to their support people as easily.”
For people who have friends or neighbors in a potentially dangerous home situation, Strickland recommends staying in touch with them even if they can’t answer questions about their well-being. That helps them feel loved and valued, which is vital, she said.
She also recommends that churches help in the short term when possible by providing hotel rooms for victims if needed.
Church leaders also can invest in long-term ministry to victims by spending some of their quarantine time going through the Church Cares curriculum online.
The curriculum, offered free at churchcares.com, is made up of 12 20-minute lessons on how to respond to abuse. A companion handbook, “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused,” also addresses the question of how caring for abuse victims is a gospel issue.
Both resources were developed as part of the Caring Well challenge issued to churches following the report of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Sexual Abuse Advisory Group at the SBC annual meeting in June 2019.
J.D. Greear, SBC president, said the challenge is designed by the advisory group and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission to “walk with church leaders step by step toward becoming a church that is safe for survivors and safe from abuse.”
It’s designed to “provide churches with a pathway to start engaging the problem of abuse,” he said.
The process guides them through building a Caring Well team, explaining the effort to their church, developing policies to address the issue of abuse and preparing to care well for victims.
Mason said it’s been an important process for his church staff and members to walk through.
“Why are we committed to protect the vulnerable from sexual predators and violent abusers? Because we are called to display to the world the character of God, and God rescues the oppressed,” he said.
That can start simply by being a listening ear when a friend or neighbor confides in us, Mason said, noting that even when you don’t know what to say, starting with responses like “I’m sorry this happened to you” or “It wasn’t your fault” can go a long way.
“We want to move toward others and listen well,” he said.
Strickland said walking with a domestic abuse victim can be a long process, but churches must be committed.
‘Bringing truth and hope’
“Just like freeing a tree from brambles, disentangling an oppressed wife from an abuser will take time, will be painful and will need tending to over and over again,” she said. “Never tire of bringing her truth and hope.”
Strickland — who also wrote the booklets “Domestic Abuse: Recognize, Respond and Rescue” and “Domestic Abuse: Help for the Sufferer” — said it’s important to offer help but move at the victim’s pace. The goals are twofold, she said.
“The first is to protect her from further abuse while you comfort her and draw her out of the shadows,” Strickland said. “The second goal is to help her understand Jesus’ heart for her. We want her to experience that the Lord is both near and active in her suffering and rescue.”
If you yourself are in a dangerous home situation or know someone who is, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or thehotline.org.
If you are a victim in a dangerous situation:
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or thehotline.org.
- If you aren’t ready to leave yet, make a safety plan. Figure out the safest room in your house (for example, not the kitchen — there are knives — and not the garage — there are makeshift weapons), and if there is an argument, try to move it to that room. This should be a room with two exits, if possible. Remember in an argument to also move away from your children, not toward them.
- Train your children to know a safe room where they can go if there’s an argument. Phrase it that way, not “where you can go if Daddy explodes.” Children are truth tellers and might repeat that to the abuser. Make sure your children know your address and how to call 911 if there is an emergency.
- Make time for self-care when you can. Take a 10-minute-longer shower, take time to read or play worship music in the background. Invest in things that give you space and spiritual fortitude. And stay connected to people, even if it’s not safe to talk about your situation.
Source: Darby Strickland
How to help victims of domestic abuse during COVID-19
On a normal day, it can be difficult to know how to help victims of domestic abuse. But what about in the middle of coronavirus self-isolation? During this time, victims are often trapped with their abuser all day long and unable to reach out for help.
Darby Strickland, an instructor and counselor with the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, offers these ways to help friends and neighbors who you believe may be in a dangerous home environment:
Start with prayer first, asking God to protect your friends and neighbors and give them — and you — wisdom.
“We can be in prayer for people when we know or suspect that their home is not safe,” Strickland said. “We cannot underestimate what God is doing. When we find ourselves powerless, His mercy is on display.”
- Check on victims regularly.
In COVID-19 isolation, domestic abuse victims may be cut off from their support systems. Check in on them. You may not be able to help them, but you can keep the communication open, Strickland said.
“Keep them connected to someone who values them — that’s hugely important. And when you call, stay on safe topics,” she said, noting that often the abusive partner is monitoring their phone calls and messages.
Just showing them that they are loved can make a big difference, Strickland said. “When somebody experiences true love, it’s orienting and helpful. They won’t feel alone in the world.”
You can also cue them to call you at a safer time by saying something like, “Next time you go for a walk or a grocery store run, why don’t you give me a call?” That might give them an open door to call you at a time when they can talk more privately.
Another way to get a read on how they are is to suggest a FaceTime or Zoom call. Even if you can’t talk about their situation, you can get a sense of how they’re doing and see if they might have visible bruises or other signs of abuse, Strickland said.
- If needed, provide a hotel room.
As shelter-in-place orders continue, shelters for domestic abuse victims are filling up, and victims may not want to flee to an aging parent’s house if they are afraid of giving them the virus.
But churches can step in and offer a safe place to stay by providing a hotel room if needed, Strickland said. “Churches have the creativity and ability to provide resources that victims may not have.”
- Contact the domestic violence hotline.
It’s possible that during coronavirus, your friend or neighbor might not be able to safely call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH). If you are worried that someone you know might be in a dangerous situation, contact the NDVH at 800-799-7233 or thehotline.org.