This story about the work of the Philadelphia Baptist Association is part of a series focusing on how churches are creatively approaching seven priorities of American Baptist Churches USA. “Anti-Violence” is the focus for this piece.
Rev. Julia Bruton-Sheppard and the Domestic Violence Leadership Group are on a mission to persuade the 125 congregations of the Philadelphia Baptist Association (PBA) to become “Safe Congregations” by committing to welcome and support victims of domestic violence.
The PBA initiative is in keeping with an Anti-Violence Priority of American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA). The priority is one of seven ABC denominational priorities. The others focus on Ending Poverty, Gospel in a Rapidly Changing Society, Next Generation of Leaders, Discipleship, Women in Ministry, Innovative Models of Pastoral Ministry.
“We are in a worldwide epidemic of domestic violence reflected in each culture around the globe,” explains Bruton-Sheppard, who serves PBA as its program facilitator for communications and leadership development. Domestic violence, she explains, comes both in the form of active physical abuse and passive neglect, the latter meaning when vital needs go unmet. Children and elders are most vulnerable to neglect. Domestic violence is defined by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern or power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”
When Bruton-Sheppard and a Domestic Violence Team Member visit each church, they offer a brief presentation and leave a packet of resources with the pastor. If a congregation agrees they receive a laminated Safe Congregation Mission Statement from PBA suited for prominent display in the church. The statement notes in part that “our commitment to justice and compassion compels us to create a safe environment where victims and perpetrators can find acceptance, hope and courage, to be transformed,” Bruton-Sheppard says. The mission commits the congregation to have a point of contact within the church for those seeking help, and resources, including domestic violence hotlines, where victims and perpetrators can get help.
“Eighty-five out of 100 victims of domestic violence are women,” Bruton-Sheppard says. “In the United States an average of 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute. Based on reports from 10 countries, between 55 and 95 percent of women who had been physically abused by their partners had never contacted non-governmental organizations, shelters or the police for help.” The stigma and occurrences of domestic violence among parishioners and leaders often keep the issue from receiving attention in churches or in sermons. “Church pastors are among those who can be victims of domestic violence,” Bruton Sheppard notes.
Approximately 12,000 petitions for “Protection from Abuse” orders are filed each year in Philadelphia Family Court.
“What we’re emphasizing to our communities is that there is no need for anyone to live in this kind of pain. God does not want people to be suffering this way,” Bruton-Sheppard says. She notes that interpretation of a scriptural passage, “Women, submit to your husbands…” (Ephesians 5:21 and 1 Peter 3:1) can deflect from dealing squarely with domestic violence. “This is a problem that occurs everywhere. Churches are in a perfect position to respond to this epidemic. People who suffer from domestic violence are in spiritual bondage. For those who are courageous enough to seek help, churches are in the best position to accept and embrace them without judgement, and that includes victims and perpetrators.” Bruton-Sheppard notes that individuals who as children have witnessed domestic violence involving their parents are twice as likely to abuse their spouses as the sons and daughters of non-violent parents.
PBA has a Domestic Violence Learning Community comprised of five pastoral and lay leaders who have a passion for educating congregations about domestic violence and its prevalence “in our communities, congregations and pulpits.” Members are Rev. Dr. Helena Fontes, Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Germantown; Rev. Pamela Richardson-Smith, Second Baptist Church of Germantown; Margaret Langley and Kathryn Gaffney-Golden, Canaan Baptist Church, and Torrie Tompkins, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
A PBA Domestic Violence Ministry originated in 2012 under the leadership of Rev. Valerie Andrews, formerly PBA Adaptive Challenge Team Consultant, and Bruton-Sheppard’s predecessor in the outreach. Many forums on domestic violence have been held across the years and resource information has been sent to all PBA congregations.
What steps can your region or congregation take to confront the domestic violence epidemic?
Bruton-Sheppard suggests you can:
• Create a Domestic Violence Learning Community prompting discussions within your church. PBA and Bruton-Sheppard can support this effort.
• Agree to become a “Safe Congregation” embracing victims and perpetrators alike who seek to be transformed and connecting them to counseling and support. Develop a list of resource agencies. For example, Philadelphia has a range of agencies and shelters and hotlines including Laurel House, the Women’s Law Project, Women Against Abuse and Women in Transition. Check to see the resources available in your community.
• If you are a congregation, connect to your region for support.
• If you are a region, develop a campaign such as the one Bruton-Sheppard is initiating with PBA.
• Contact Bruton-Sheppard for advice and support at firstname.lastname@example.org.