I clearly remember one specific portion of my very first convocation in seminary.

There was a generalized feeling of awe upon me as I entered Truett Seminary’s chapel in the fall of 2018.

I felt what probably could best be described as that “cloud of witnesses” in the students and professors who surrounded me in the many pews, and the thought of those who had come before me and worshipped in that holy place. I felt the goodness of God in that I was even there, soaking in the splendor of the moment.

Like a parched sponge, I soaked in and savored every drop of the hour – the professors’ formal regalia, the music from the pipe organ and grand piano, the vivid colors of the stained glass against the light, and the lofty vaulted ceilings. I felt the blessedness of that morning.

But aside from my awe of the general splendor, I only remember one specific portion of the service. As he prayed, Joel Gregory’s deep voice resonated across the chapel (If you have ever been blessed to hear him preach, you know what I mean.)

In his prayer, along with a list of others, he mentioned the single mom who struggles. The wonder of my morning melted into tears that leaked out from under my closed eyelashes and slowly trickled down my cheeks.

In that moment, I felt seen. To be acknowledged like that, from the pulpit, in a Baptist seminary, was life-altering.

A difficulty for those who are marginalized is that they are often invisible in society; but in that moment, my cloak of invisibility fell to the floor with the phrase, “the single mom who struggles.”

I entered Truett Seminary that week as a single mom with seven kids still at home.

A single mom who had escaped more than two decades of abuse. A single mom who never thought she would be able to finish her college education, much less enter seminary with the goal of completing a dual master’s degree program. A single mom who, until the moment of God’s deliverance, thought she was going to die in the abuse.

Much of the time, the church does not know what to do with survivors of abuse.

In what could be an effort to decrease divorce, the church tends to minimize or deny the seriousness of the abuse that many endure. Instead of labeling the ongoing pattern of controlling behaviors as abusive, they are labeled as harsh.

Abused wives are instructed to return kindness for anger and are told that prayer and submission are the antidotes to the horrific acts they are subjected to. I promise you that victims of abuse who are active in their faith have prayed incessantly for their abusive marriages to be healed. They have submitted and been kind, but often the abuse got worse.

If the survivor does manage to escape the abuse, as I did, the church often does not know how to handle that either.

Some victims of abuse are told that God expects them to return to the destructive marriage. Others may not be told to return to the abuse, but they are not supported in tangible ways.

Survivors of abuse and their children may need months or years of support as they attempt to create a new life from the chaos of their past. It would be very helpful to them if their faith community supported them for the long haul. A supportive community enhances resiliency.

There are several ways that a faith community can support victims and survivors of abuse.

First, know where the local resources are.

Do you have the number for the domestic violence hotline? Is there a family violence shelter nearby? Where are the food pantries? Where are there local sources of financial assistance?

Resources for the whole congregation would include training in trauma-informed care and domestic violence.

Second, grieve with those who have been oppressed by abuse.

This is not the life they were expecting. People do not get married thinking the next several years (or decades, as in my case) will be filled with hatred and destructive behavior from the very person who vowed to love and honor them at the altar.

When speaking with, and praying for, those who have been oppressed by abuse, consider sharing psalms of comfort (Psalms 9:9, 10:14, 82:3-4, 103:6 and 147:3 are a few of them.).

Third, explore Jesus’ compassion for the marginalized and oppressed in your sermons, Sunday School lessons, small group activities and pastoral care.

This should not just be a single mention of compassion, but rather an ongoing message from those in leadership.

There will be those in your church who have been oppressed in many ways, even if not in an abusive marriage, so the message of compassion is one that is relevant to others in your church as well.

Fourth, discuss abuse and toxic relationships in your sermons, Sunday School lessons, small group activities, pastoral care and prayers.

By doing this, you will be sending two distinct messages. One is that abusive behavior is not to be tolerated. The other message – to victims and survivors of abuse – is an acknowledgment of their existence in your congregation. They will feel seen, just as I did in that first convocation in seminary.

In feeling seen, victims and survivors will know that your congregation is likely a safer place for them to disclose what they have lived with. You can follow that up by creating policy to be sure your congregation is a safe place for those who have experienced abuse.

Nine months after first hearing Joel Gregory mention the single mom who struggles in his prayer, I enrolled in his Preaching 1 course where I learned the art of crafting a sermon.

I entered that class with trepidation over speaking publicly and left that course with a newfound love for preaching. When I spoke to him about that toward the end of the course, he said that some of his students most surprised by a love for preaching were women who had found their voice.

I have found my voice, and it is in being an advocate for victims and survivors of domestic violence. It is also in bringing education and awareness to faith leaders and congregations about how to become a safe and supportive place for those who have experienced abuse.

I want to bring hope to survivors, and I want faith communities to rise and answer the call to get involved. Together, we can make a difference so that survivors can thrive.

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