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Online Training Lesson #1: Religious leaders are chosen by victims

Building Bridges Series

I am often asked the question by those working within the criminal justice system why they should consider adding religious leaders to the collaborative community response to domestic violence. For many police investigators, parole or probation officers, lawyers, victim advocates and judges, the ordained representatives of religious institutions—such as clergy, rabbis, pastors and spiritual elders—contribute to the problem rather than the solution.  Can that be changed?

Those who work in the anti-violence community—in shelters, or transition houses, or even community-based counseling agencies—often report negative experiences related to religious leaders. Perhaps a pastor or priest has called a shelter and asked to speak to a woman resident, and by his words or tone, encouraged her to leave the transition house and return home. Perhaps a woman seeking shelter has already consulted with her religious leader (maybe many times) and through such counseling has been advised not to “break up the marriage.” Could working together with religious leaders really increase safety for a victimized woman and her children?

You will find my top-ten reasons for inviting religious leaders to the collaborative community table to address domestic violence placed in the Community Resources section of our website . In these lessons, I focus on one or two reasons per lesson and suggest ways that bridges might be built or reinforced between religious and secular service providers.

Religious leaders are chosen by many victims.

Over the last 15 years, my research program has tried to understand what happens when an abused religious victim looks to a faith community for help in the aftermath of domestic violence. For many women who are religious, a first response to abuse by an intimate partner is to seek out help from their pastor or other faith leader. The advice that is received will in large measure determine her next steps. Is she believed? Is she offered referral suggestions? Is she told to pursue only a spiritual response to her pain? Is safety held as a first priority? Since religious leaders are often chosen by victims, a community response must include input from various faith traditions in order to meet the needs of all people who live in our neighbourhoods. Religious women can be especially vulnerable when abused for they are very likely to hold the intact family in high esteem and to consider separation and divorce as unsatisfactory options.

Principles to help build bridges:

  • Focus on your agreement to condemn domestic violence;
  • Focus on resources that can be shared;
  • Focus on the desire to help a victim become a survivor.

Strategies to help build bridges:

  1. Invite several religious leaders to an event held in support of the local transition house. Introduce the leaders to the executive director of the shelter and any other staff from the house that are present. An initial step in bridge building is to identify and introduce those working in the local community to one another.
  2. Invite several staff of the local transition house to an event hosted by the church where the issue of domestic violence is highlighted. Ask them to bring pamphlets from the shelter or to staff a resource booth if the event will have several participants from various community-based resources. An initial step in bridge building is to ask lots of questions directly from those working in the field.
  3. Select a time of the year when you re-acquaint yourself (as a religious leader, or shelter director, or community resource person) with others in your local area who are working to end domestic violence. Host a morning coffee break or have an open house at the church or the shelter where you invite other community resources. Someone needs to open the dialogue and pave the way for bridge building: be the one to take the first step.

Questions to ask yourself:
(if you work in a community-based agency)

  1. Is my office a safe place for someone to disclose that their faith is very important to them?
  2. What resources of a spiritual nature am I familiar with that speak about the impact of domestic violence?
  3. How many religious leaders in the community where I live do I know by name?

Questions to ask yourself:
(if you are a religious leader)

  1. Is my office a safe place for someone to disclose that they have been abused by an intimate partner?
  2. What resources of a practical, financial or legal nature am I familiar with that help a family dealing with the impact of domestic violence?
  3. How many shelter workers at the local transition house do I know by name?