Many PC(USA) congregations will be preaching, teaching, praying or holding a service of healing during October to stop sexual violence. It’s part of the critical global initiative to work for reconciliation in cultures of violence, including our own.
Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network (PADVN), one of the 10 networks of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA), offers a packet of worship and awareness resources to assist Presbyterians as agents of healing from intimate violence. The church, bringing a faith perspective to this collaboration, has a unique voice in this effort.
Mayfield (N.Y.) Central Presbyterian Church is one of the congregations hosting Courageous Conversations this year, nearly five years after their historic church burned to the ground after lighting struck the church bell.
“On that tragic day in 2011, we realized more than any other day in our history that the people are the church,” says the Rev. Bonnie Orth, a founding member of PADVN. “In the years that have passed since the fire, we have continued to be a strong congregation and have not missed a single Sunday worship.”
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes—reborn, renewed and resilient—the 150-member congregation at Mayfield Central Presbyterian is courageously breaking the silence on the life-shattering topic of sexual violence. One of their congregants nearly died after a domestic violence incident last year. The perpetrator is now serving a jail sentence.
Mayfield Central Presbyterian will hold a worship service Oct. 11, Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday, with a sermon on the rape of Tamar, daughter of King David (2 Samuel 13:1-22). They will also host a service of healing and wholeness the following Wednesday evening, Oct. 14. In addition, the congregation is supporting violence prevention efforts abroad.
“We have a special fifth Sunday offering four times a year,” Orth says. “Our November offering will support Sandi Thompson-Royer and Leslie Vogel, PC(USA) mission co-workers dedicated to stopping violence against women in Guatemala.
“All churches have been silent on the subject of domestic and sexual violence,” Orth says. In fact, she says many pastors still tell her they do not have anyone who has experienced domestic or sexual violence in their congregations.
“This just tells me there is still so much work to do,” she says. “I know from experience if you talk about it, they will come. They will come seeking help, seeking support, seeking strength and a companion to help walk the journey,” Orth says. “If you do not talk about it, it will continue to remain the best kept dirty little secret of the church.”
As a denomination known for pioneering social justice issues, Orth says, it is time for PC(USA) to stand up and take the lead on this important topic.
“After the fire, our congregation learned what it is like to lose something very dear,” she says. “We experienced what it feels like to be in exile, and we now understand the Psalmist who wrote, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ We learned the importance of lament in the healing process and that lament takes time. We learned how necessary it is to grieve what has been lost, and that on many levels we still grieve.”
In her own words: The Rev. Bonnie Orth shares one woman’s domestic violence journey
Summer is a busy time at Mayfield Central Presbyterian Church. We always have a summer intern from Princeton Theological Seminary and a large part of that student’s internship involves leading Vacation Bible School. It was the first day of vacation Bible school and it was a sunny, hot day. The church was buzzing—with staff persons, parents, grandparents and children of all ages—registering children and getting everything set.
Suddenly a woman appeared, sweating, out of breath and extremely upset, looking to talk to the pastor. She was hysterical. I took her into my office, closed the door, and her story began to pour out in the midst of her hysteria. She has been living in an abusive relationship for the past 15 years and surviving day by day.
She said that today, at breakfast, her husband told her that he was going to kill her. He kept guns in the house and she knew this was a very real possibility. It was not the first time that he had threatened this. But somehow, she knew that, today, he really meant it and that she needed help.
She said that she had heard about the pastor that “works with domestic violence” and she decided to come to the church to find her. Because of an underlying medical condition requiring her to take medication, she does not drive. And so she left her home, when her husband left for work, and began the 6-mile walk to find the church where she believed she would find help.
As she was walking along the way on a busy highway, her husband found her, pulled up in his work truck and tried to get her into the truck. He had a gun with him and threatened her again. She ran into the bushes to hide. When she felt it was safe she returned to walking, only to be stopped by her husband again. She managed to get away a second time.
She flagged down a woman who brought her the remaining half-mile to the church.
After four bottles of water and the snack of the day for VBS, she had finally calmed down enough to listen. After agreeing that she could trust me, we called the local domestic violence agency and together we talked about her options.
Her husband knew where the agency was and she was terrified to go there. An advocate came to the church. We arranged for her to go to the local shelter and to, hopefully, be transferred to another shelter in another county when a bed opened up. She agreed to press charges and soon we had the local sheriff’s department and the state police in my office, because her husband was armed.
She was finally taken to the shelter about the time that VBS was ending. The children noticed the police cars, the staff knew that something was happening. What is the point of this story? We all have people in our congregations, and in our community, who live in, experience or witness domestic violence. At any time they may come to your church looking for help. Are you prepared to help them? Would you know what to do?
For more information on Courageous Conversations contact Shannon Beck, reconciliation catalyst for Presbyterian World Mission, at 800-728-7228 ext. 5041, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In February 2016, members of Mayfield Central Presbyterian will travel to Pachaj, Guatemala, where they will address domestic and sexual violence issues alongside PC(USA) mission co-worker Sandi Thompson-Royer.
In September 2016, Orth and the Rev. Kevin Frederick, pastor of Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, N.C., and moderator of PADVN, will hold couples workshops in Guatemala through the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA) to address violence against women and children. They will use the “Men in the Mirror” curriculum, created by Frederick. To download the curriculum and read the story behind the curriculum, visit pcusa.org/padvn.
To donate to the Presbyterian World Mission initiative to Speak Up! Stop Sexual Violence, visit presbyterianmission.org/donate/E052145.