As I write this article, I’m looking through the window in my office, observing a rain storm that began quite suddenly: within 10 minutes of having looked outside to see sunshine, I witnessed swirling tree branches, a rapidly darkening sky, and a heavy downpour of rain. This morning when I left my home, the weather was predictably sunny and warm, conditions that told me the day ahead would be bright and calm. How many days do we step outside with a general sense that our day will progress without a storm, without giving much thought to how things could change over time? Unless we see or can predict inclement weather when we begin our day, we often feel there is no reason to expect a major change.
But what if we think we’re equipped, we think we have a good sense of how our environment will shape up, but suddenly things shift, our surroundings become dark, frightening, and dangerous? We would, understandably, be fearful and might feel quite stuck. What would we find most comforting? I suspect it would not help us to hear someone from outside of our storm say, “Just leave, get out!” or “I saw this coming, why didn’t you?” In fact such a response might lead us to feel quite alone in our darkness. What if, on the other hand, a friend or family member reached out and told us, “I’m concerned for your safety, and I’m here for you whenever you need me.” Then, even if we weren’t prepared or able to find our way out of the storm at that moment, we’d know someone cared enough to take the journey with us when we’re ready.
Perhaps by now you’ve guessed I’m not speaking only about weather. Since October of 2016, I’ve had the privilege to volunteer at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) in Madison, holding one-on-one appointments and safety planning with clients who want to learn how DAIS and other community service providers can empower them as they live through, or as they decide to leave, an abusive relationship. Through my training and conversations with victims, I’ve learned that an abusive relationship never begins as abusive - there is a cycle of behavior on the part of the abuser (only some of which is abusive), which the victim may not recognize for some time. It’s so important to recognize that no one chooses to be abused, and an abuse victim never holds culpability for that abuse, regardless of when or how it occurs.
Each victim has a unique perspective, one that not even those of us trained to recognize and respond to abuse can ever fully experience. Acknowledging this is the first, crucial step for those of us who want to help a victim of abuse. We may have ideas about how or why abuse is occurring, we may feel we know how best to respond to that abuse, and we may think that if someone doesn’t leave an abusive relationship they are somehow responsible for their situation. All of these assumptions are faulty, and they can be extremely detrimental if we allow them to color our interactions with victims of abuse. Instead, if a victim discloses their abuse to us, or if we only suspect it, we can show up in a way that will empower and support them. Here are three ways to do that:
Take the time to listen, and offer a safe, comforting environment. Reassure them that you will keep their words confidential, that they are their own best decision maker, and that you are there to help if needed.
Let the survivor guide the conversation and be the decision maker. Practice active listening. Whether a victim discloses or only implies abuse, let them know you’re concerned for their safety, and that you support them regardless of their decisions. Do not urge or push them into making a decision they may not be ready to make - doing so could put them in more danger.
Provide DAIS resources. Provide a blue wallet card - available outside my office or on the bulletin board in the church kitchen (Fitchburg) - or recommend the DAIS Help Line (608-251-4445 or 800-747-4045), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Consider calling the Help Line yourself with any questions or fears you may be experiencing.
In an article entitled, “Preaching About Domestic Violence Is Hard - But We Must,” Pastor Phil Haslanger (Memorial UCC, Fitchburg), provides important context for the call to faith leaders - and we are all faith leaders, church family - to respond to domestic abuse:
We say that while we take the commitments of marriage very seriously, those commitments may not be used as leverage to keep someone in an unsafe relationship. We say that while we value forgiveness, that does not free anyone from the consequences of mistreating another. We say that whatever understanding one has of the roles of spouses in a marriage, that does not give permission for one spouse to engage in violent or abusive behavior toward the other. We preach because if we keep silent, if we ignore the human cost and spiritual degradation of domestic violence, then we are failing the people we are called to serve.
As I finish writing, the sky has already begun to clear of clouds, not an hour after the storm began. How quickly my outlook turns sunny again. How quickly I forget that, for those whose lives are marked by frequent, unpredictable, violent storms, the sun grows ever dimmer despite its brightness for others, and fear of a storm dictates so many of their decisions. How vital it is for me to recall I can and ought to walk with those experiencing storms, without attempting to drag them along into my sunny perspective. Today I pray, “Jesus, help me to recognize that people struggling in abusive relationships have the ability and dignity to discern when and how to move toward the brightness of an environment where the storms of abuse aren’t as likely to occur. Grant me your strength and lens of unconditional love so that I might lend my ears to listen and my hands for support.”