Awareness: The First Step

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“To speak tender truths we need to hear and be honest with our need for the gospel.”

It’s difficult to have a mandate that includes raising awareness about something that no one wants to hear about and everyone would prefer didn’t exist—abuse.

Yet without the awareness that abuse does exist in congregations of the Christian Reformed Church, and without insight into its dynamics and impacts, we can never hope to prevent it or respond well when it comes to light.

Many congregations participate in Abuse Awareness Sunday, the fourth Sunday in September. That is a good first step.

“It’s hard to put flesh on things while respecting confidentiality,” said Pastor John Lee of Bethel CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa. “But I can say that the family of God at Bethel has not been immune to abuse in all its ugly forms.

“Like many Christian communities, we are pretty good at keeping it hidden. Abuse Awareness Sunday gives us permission to bring some of those shadows into the light of God's grace.

“To speak tender truths we need to hear and be honest with our need for the gospel. It is also a reminder to pray for all whose hearts have been broken by abuse and to ask God to make us a community of both healing and safety.”

Pastor Jim Poelman of Redeemer CRC in Sarnia, Ontario, used bullying as the theme for a Sunday morning worship service.

“We used the Safe Church bulletin insert on the topic,” Poelman said. “A video on bullying from the Skit Guys was shown for our call to live our new life in Christ.

“In the children’s message, our storyteller told of her own childhood experience of being bullied and how, finally, asking for help put an end to the bullying.

“As I considered the characteristics of bullying in preparation for my preaching,” Poelman said, “a phrase from my past kept coming to mind: ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.’

“Anyone who has been bullied knows this is a cruel lie. Words, texted or spoken, never fall off of us like rain falling from a duck’s back. They cut deep.”

Pastor Hector Garcia of Iglesia Buenas Nuevas (Good News CRC) in Miami, Florida, had the domestic violence bulletin insert translated into Spanish for his congregation.

“We inserted that as a flyer in our bulletin and the preaching was on the topic,” Garcia said. “We hope to incorporate more elements in the future, but for being the first time our congregation had an Abuse Prevention Sunday, we are pleased that people responded very positively. It helped some people to open up about abuse issues they are struggling with.”

Creating awareness about abuse is one of the mandates of Safe Church teams active throughout the United States and Canada. Safe Church Ministry works to make available a variety of resources to fit different ministry contexts (crcna.org/SafeChurch/resources-abuse-awareness).

Awareness: it’s a good first step.

Beyond Awareness into Ministry in Red Mesa
There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. —1 John 4:18 

Not too long ago, my church, Bethany Christian Reformed Church in Gallup, New Mexico, formed a Safe Church committee and developed a Safe Church policy. As a church, we felt a calling to the responsibility of keeping all who participate in worship and the activities of the church safe from abuse. Safe Church Ministry has a mission to raise awareness about abuse, to prevent abuse, and to deal with abuse in a biblical way when it does occur.

Our small but determined committee was eager to spread the word to Classis Red Mesa as we found that only one other church in the classis (a regional group of churches) had a Safe Church policy, and many churches had never heard of Safe Church Ministry. Even though it was so new to us, we decided that we needed to share what we were learning with area churches. A date was set for a Safe Church Forum at Bethany.

As we reached out to area churches, the response was somewhat baffling. Many people expressed how great the need for Safe Church is here in the Southwest, but their enthusiasm was tempered by fear and shame.
As we know, abuse thrives in dark environments. In order to address these issues, it is critical that we become educated about abuse and begin to talk about things that have happened within the church. In bringing these issues into the light, we are able to address them, heal from them, and prevent abuse from happening again.

Over 40 pastors and members from Classis Red Mesa churches attended the forum, some traveling over three hours. Bonnie Nicholas and Carol Vander Ark-Champion, the Safe Church Ministry staff, instructed us in creating and implementing a Safe Church policy, introduced the Circle of Grace abuse prevention program, and taught us how the church can respond to domestic violence as well as the historical trauma and its impact on Native Americans. It was a weekend packed full of worship, learning, and interaction. I’m excited about the new relationships sparked on that day.

We are now forming a classis Safe Church team with members from several churches. There is much work to be done, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But we know that God goes before us. We benefit from the resources offered by Safe Church Ministry.  

Our weekend ended with small groups in prayer for healing, safety, and guidance as we step into this important ministry. As small groups circled up in prayer, the soft murmur of many voices rose in English and Navajo to seek God's blessing. It was music to my ears.

—by Sara Pikaart

Beyond Awareness into Ministry in Grand Rapids
LaGrave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has been addressing issues of abuse by developing a safe environment for children.

An ongoing step is to develop a safe environment for those who have been impacted by domestic violence. To that end, the LaGrave LiveSafe team was formed in 2012 to raise awareness about domestic violence, to offer a listening ear, and to access resources that can help individuals find their way out of an abusive situation.

The LiveSafe team has developed a set of guidelines to be followed. Often abuse is not disclosed by the one being victimized but by someone close to that person. Therefore, it is imperative that resources are available to all members of the congregation to educate them about abuse and about where someone trapped in an abusive relationship can get help.

Members of this team work to gather and distribute resources from various organizations that offer assistance (the Power & Control Wheel, a useful tool to define and understand abuse, is one such resource).

The LaGrave LiveSafe team consists of seven members who have been trained by Safe Church Ministry. Our mission is to offer information through bulletin notes, tables with resource information, and Q&A presentations.

We encourage pastors to reference the problem of domestic violence from the pulpit, especially addressing the cloak of secrecy that prevents abused persons from coming forward. We are also available to confidentially help someone find a place of safety if needed.

Another area of ministry has been to women abused many years ago. Women in their 60s and 70s have a need to reveal the abuse they’ve experienced and break the silence they have held for so long. It is never too late to experience healing.

—by Irene Fridsma

Please pray . . .

  1. for congregations like Bethany CRC that are making new efforts to prevent abuse and to protect children and those who are most vulnerable.
  2. for congregations like LaGrave CRC that have discovered creative ministry opportunities to offer support to those impacted by abuse.
  3. for successful Safe Church events that lead to greater awareness that abuse has impacted many people in our congregations.
  4. for boldness to stand up against abuse, even amid the fear that can keep people from becoming involved. The dynamics of abuse stand in direct opposition to the gospel and the way of Jesus; therefore, we must take a stand.
  5. for the Lord to bless volunteer safe church team members like Sara Pikaart and Irene Fridsma, who provide leadership in equipping congregations for abuse awareness, prevention, and response.

Shamed into Staying

how could I leave with children
where would I go
who would hear my cry?

when jake and sarah divorced
buzzards pecked at the carcass
of their twenty-year union

they clucked for her
what is the matter with her
women don’t know their place
why does she want to embarrass
her family and hang out dirty laundry

they will cluck for me
she must be having a breakdown
I hope he gets professional help for her
her poor husband has so much stress at work
she should make a happy home
if this really was a problem
she should have called the police
shame on you for speaking out against your husband
shame on you for exaggerating
shame on you for being so thoughtless

—by Irene Fridsma

About the Author

Bonnie Nicholas is the director of Safe Church Ministry for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

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