The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


1 in 3 is harmed by domestic abuse

How churches can create a point of grace

I saw a faint purplish tint on the hollow above Margaret's cheek. Startled, I looked closer — was it a black eye?

Margaret (name changed for her protection) had stopped by my office at the church to ask about a baptism for a family member. Internally I argued with myself: "Say something. No, don't embarrass her. You can barely see the mark. It's probably nothing."

As Margaret prepared to go, I ventured: "You know, I was wondering if everything is going OK at home."

She looked at me blankly.

Fumbling, I added: "I see you might have a little mark by your eye."

The pause seemed eternal. Then Margaret's poker face broke. She and her children were living in an abusive situation.

One general way to define domestic abuse is a pattern of behaviors used to control and intimidate a person. It is deeply personal, often private and shameful, and frequently hidden behind closed doors.

And such abuse has long been a taboo issue in society, especially in churches. When Antonia Clemente, executive director of The Healing Center, Brooklyn, N.Y., first proposed a ministry 12 years ago that would help women living in situations of abuse, she was met with a lot of resistance.

"There were those [who] felt that the issue didn't belong in the church, that it belonged in the field of social work," Clemente said. "People felt it was very taboo for the church to be dealing with domestic violence."

ELCA member and domestic violence activist
ELCA member and domestic violence activist Teri Jendusa-Nicolai got help from her congregation, Norway Evangelical Lutheran, Wind Lake, Wis., to escape and later heal from domestic violence. "A good friend from church, Janine, took me to the shelter," she says. "Her family and many other church members helped us with funds, clothing, furniture and so much more."

Confronting domestic abuse

The reality is that domestic abuse is much more common than people think.

"On Sunday morning, any 1 of 3 women sitting in the pew has been touched by domestic violence," said Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute, which works with faith communities to end sexual and domestic violence.

According to a 2012 fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men have reported intimate partner violence, but "these numbers underestimate the problem. Many victims do not report [intimate partner violence] to police, friends or family."

For ELCA member Teri Jendusa-Nicolai, the abuse began subtly. "It was little by little," she said. "Every day it was something: 'No, you can't go to the movies with your sister.' 'You can't call your parents because it costs money to talk long distance on the phone.'"

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Embracing diversity