What Role Can the Faith Community Play in Solving Missouri’s Domestic Violence Crisis?
28-year-old Brandi is flipping through children’s books at Christos House, the domestic violence shelter north of West Plains. We’re using only her first name to ensure her safety.
“Let’s see, we’ve got ‘Star Wars: the Clone Wars.’ And we’ve got ‘Jackrabbit Goalie,’ ‘At Daddy’s on Saturdays,’ ‘March of the Penguins,” she says, reading some of the book titles.
Just over a year ago, Brandi went into labor with her third child. Throughout the pregnancy, her husband had choked her, knocked her unconscious, and bruised her ribs. He refused to take her to the hospital in labor until it was almost too late; she needed an emergency C-section.
-Brandi, abuse survivor
“The worst was right after I had the child, because then, he was just basically [like], ‘Hey, there’s no baby in you, so I can go hog wild completely.’ I mean, ripping open my C-section stitches, and not letting me go back to the doctor to get them removed. He actually removed them,” she said.
His efforts to control her movement and communications gradually became extreme.
“We were not allowed to leave our house for a month…the door was nailed shut, and the windows,” she said.
They were living in Harrisonville, near Kansas City, when she began secretly attending a domestic violence support group last year.
“I kind of had to lie to him and tell him that what I was going to was not a domestic violence support group, [but rather] that it was a place where they gave you free clothes and diapers—which they did as well. But I couldn’t say the full story,” she said.
Finally, she found the courage to leave. But the shelter there was full. She had to wait, and eventually got in—but he found her, so she took their three small kids and fled to another one. The nearest shelter with an opening was three hours away, in Doniphan, southern Missouri. She maxed out on the time allowed to stay there—60 days—which sent her back to the phone.
Brandi: “I tried, probably 10 or 15 shelters, and I kept calling them each day.”
Davidson: “10 or 15 shelters you tried calling, and they were all full—in the Missouri Ozarks area?”
As we report on the shortage of room in Missouri’s domestic violence shelters, we’re also looking at potential solutions to the crisis. There are several buildings in each town throughout Missouri that are vacant for most days of the week: churches.
Many churches do mission projects in domestic violence shelters, like painting the walls or planting flowers there. But in general, neither the church buildings nor the congregation members play a role in providing safe haven for these most vulnerable members of society.
To learn more, I contacted one of the largest congregations in Missouri, James River Church near Springfield, which sees, on average, more than 8,000 people in services each Sunday. Becky Davis leads a ministry there that serves women in crisis.
“Some examples would be physical abuse or eating disorders, maybe an unplanned pregnancy or sexual abuse trafficking victims,” Davis said.
Her ministry just visited the domestic violence shelter in Springfield, where church members gave free pedicures and haircuts to residents, and donated paper products. She tells me James River does not generally provide shelter to victims of abuse.
Davis: “There may be, you know, Jennifer, a situation where someone has come to me and says, ‘I need out right now.’ And should the situation prove itself to be where this was needed, it could be one of those things where I could find her a home to stay in for a temporary time."
Davidson: “And I’m just looking at these statistics—21,000 women and children were turned away last year because our shelters are full. Do you think churches, including James River Church, but not limited to it, could or even should be doing more to house, or serve these women in our greater community—not just those in our churches?”
Davis: “That’s an awesome question. It’s a great question—I would say that each church has to evaluate for themselves what they can and cannot do. Maybe they have a great resource—maybe they have a building that is unused that is just sitting and could be used for something like that. Maybe that church could do something like that.”
But for many churches, community service is simply not part of the core mission statement. Even so, experts in domestic violence say churches can still be vocal about the issue by clarifying that violence against women is a sin. According to the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, one of the common tactics abusers use is called “spiritual abuse.”
-Brandi, abuse survivor
That’s when an abuser misuses religious passages or beliefs to reinforce the abuse, like insisting that the victim forgive him, while refusing to repent himself.
Back at Christos House domestic violence shelter, Brandi appears surprised when I ask if her husband ever used this tactic.
“Definitely, which is actually…really wrong. He definitely used the whole [excuse], ‘A woman needs to submit to her man,’ and that he was a ‘godly man,’ and I needed to do what he said,” she said.
The United States Conference on Catholic Bishops urges its churches to take several steps regarding domestic violence, which could also be implemented by other denominations. A few of those tips include:
- Describe what abuse is in sermons.
- Include information about domestic violence in church bulletins, newsletters and websites.
- Keep an updated list of resources for abuse victims.
- Have an action plan in place in case an abuse victim calls on you for help.
And given the situation in Missouri right now, that plan may need to include details for when the local shelter is full.