Do you ever get a bad feeling when the phone rings? As a domestic violence victim advocate for the City of Miami Beach Police Department, I got that feeling often.
"Lou, there's a lady down here who needs to see you."
It had become hauntingly easy for me to spot an abused woman in our busy department lobby. As I introduced myself to this visitor, she looked up at me sheepishly, and the bruises on her face spoke volumes.
Jackie (not her real name) came to our department seeking help with a domestic conflict. Her story was typical. She and her husband had gotten into a verbal altercation that escalated to physical violence. She'd called 911. Responding officers determined that he was the "primary aggressor," having struck Jackie with his fist and leaving visible bruises. Having probable cause, our officers arrested him for misdemeanor battery, and he was taken into custody immediately to await a hearing.
Before I could begin my usual inquiries, Jackie cut in. "Mr. Reed, is there any way that we can stop this process and let my husband out of jail?"
I was somewhat taken aback, although this kind of "victim's remorse" is common. "Why do you ask, Jackie?"
"You see, he's an elder in our church," she said nervously. "If this ever got out, he could lose his position. I'm really afraid that he would blame me, and that would just make matters worse. I'd rather just forget the whole thing."
"Has he ever physically struck you before?" I asked.
"Yes sir, many times. But this is the first time that I've called the police. I was angry and scared. But I wouldn't have done it if I'd known he would end up in jail."
"Jackie, have you ever talked to your pastor about this situation?" Her eyes and mouth stretched wide open in disbelief. "I could never do that. My husband would kill me!"
Her response cut me—especially because, though Jackie didn't know it, I wasn't just a professional victim advocate for the City of Miami Beach. I was also a pastor. So I started to think about my own church. Did I have a "Jackie" in my congregation? What would I say to her if she did muster up the courage to come to me with her domestic situation?
I started looking for materials within my denomination that could help me. I was surprised by how much there was. In fact, there are many ministries and organizations throughout the country that are already active in victim advocacy (see sidebar).
But as important as this kind of education is, it will still leave any pastor with questions about handling a specific domestic situation. Plus, it's a learning process that takes years. And if a victim walks into your office tomorrow, she can't wait that long. How will you interact with her? Will you confront the abuser? When and how do you get the authorities involved? Here, then, are some essential ground rules for pastoring in the wake of domestic violence.
What to listen for
Although as a victim advocate I was the professional, I realized that victims understood domestic violence in a way that, without personally experiencing it, I never could. So I tried to listen as if they were the experts. In addition to first-hand information about the domestic incident, victims know the history of the relationship. As I asked questions and listened to victims, I actively pinpointed areas where I needed to gain more wisdom and knowledge.