Faith leaders encourage victims of abuse to seek help—and to find empowerment
Domestic violence isn’t limited to the domain of drunken brutes sporting wife-beaters and swinging tattooed fists to the tune of “Bad Boys.” One look at Mark Throckmorton is instant proof.
The sensitive and forthright director of violence-cessation program Manalive-Sacramento was once on the other end of the training. In 1998, while attending seminary in the Bay Area, he was physically violent toward his then-wife. After his subsequent arrest and suspension from seminary, Throckmorton enrolled in Manalive’s Marin County program, where he found a new calling, bringing the work of the church together with helping men stop their violence.
“Sadly, churches can be places of tremendous violence,” he said. “Not just physical violence, but emotional and verbal violence, of labeling, of not telling the truth, of assumptions.” In Manalive, which is not affiliated with any religion, but draws from a variety of faith traditions, he found “the most valuable training I have ever had in my ministry to congregations.”
Throckmorton went on to graduate from seminary, and became director of Manalive-Sacramento in 2005.
“The No. 1 reason that women in the state of California visit the emergency room is because a man who said he loves her put her there,” Throckmorton said vehemently. In other words, 30 percent of women’s emergency-room visits are due to partner abuse.
Together with Jim Truesdell, pastor at Pioneer Congregational United Church of Christ, and Rabbi Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law Congregation, Throckmorton took arms against one abused woman’s sea of troubles.
I am a woman in my early 30s and have been trying to leave an abusive relationship for the past year. My boyfriend has beaten me up and threatened to kill me every time I find the strength to get away. I just found out I’m pregnant and haven’t told him. My sister says that I can stay with her until I figure out how to live on my own, but I don’t want to put her—or my baby’s—life in danger, and the police have been no help. What do I do?
“My concern would be for her—and her baby’s—safety,” said Rabbi Taff, adding that “a restraining order may not even be the solution—it could exacerbate the problem.”
Taff, who was born and raised in Albany, N.Y., has encountered his own challenges in addressing the widespread problem of domestic violence. After giving a sermon on the subject, specifically as it pertains to the Jewish community, on a high holy day, a prominent member of his congregation approached him to ask, “Why did you choose that topic, of all topics, to speak about on the holiest of days?” Taff’s answer: “If I could help one person—if one person could hear the message and get help—then it was worth speaking on that topic.” Sure enough, within four weeks of giving the sermon, five people made appointments to see him: four were victims of abuse, and one was an abuser. Mosaic Law, which is the only synagogue affiliated with the conservative movement of Judaism in the metropolitan area, now provides resource materials for domestic violence in all its women’s restrooms.
Throckmorton emphasized the necessity of a safety plan—having clothes, documents and money in a safe place so that the woman can make a quick exit. And likewise, he encourages men in the program to do the same, so that “when you’re at a point where you don’t know what to do other than the violence that got you into this program, you have the ability to leave nonviolently and easily and get to a safe place where you can focus or give me a call.”
What looks like an extreme issue actually becomes “a simpler matter,” Throckmorton went on, “as long as I can get out of my desire to rescue—which unfortunately is a dynamic in a lot of pastors.”
His training in pastoral ethics taught him that asking “Why doesn’t she leave?” is the wrong question. The question to ask is, “Why does she stay?” The woman’s reasoning can illuminate what Throckmorton calls “a wonderful acronym for FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real.”
“I’m there to empower her rather than make the decision for her,” he said.
“You’re right on,” agreed Truesdell. “People can offer her 15 solutions, and she can say, ‘I’ve tried that’ to every one of them. … She’s built the perfect box for herself.”
Truesdell himself has spent a lifetime living outside the box. As a Lutheran pastor full of idealisms in the 1960s, he became heavily involved in the civil rights movement, much to the chagrin of his Southern California congregation. After he performed a wedding between an African-American attorney and a white schoolteacher, 30 of his 250 congregants stood up in the middle of his sermon and walked out. Disillusioned by the ministry, he excelled in corporate life for nearly two decades before returning in 1989 as a Congregationalist. He still had a knack, however, for stirring up controversy: he performed the first same-sex marriage in the state of Oregon and consequently lost a third of his congregation. Finally, in 2000, Truesdell sought out one of the 600 UCC churches that label themselves “open and affirming.” He landed at Pioneer, one of the oldest churches in Sacramento, where the incredibly diverse congregation breaks down to “about 40 percent gay and lesbian, about 50 percent straight, and about 10 percent I have no idea—I don’t even ask.” These are, he said, “the first happy years I’ve had in ministry.”
Rabbi Taff posed a sobering question on the possible necessity of legislative change in order to protect people in relationships.
“If the person who is suffering from spousal abuse is so fearful that she refuses to seek the help that she needs, and there are other people in her life who suspect that she is being abused, shouldn’t there be a way in which a family member or a friend could assist this person by being able to report to the authorities?”
“I agree with you—to a point,” conceded Throckmorton. He noted, however, that if a person has chosen to disclose his or her situation in confidentiality to him, rather than to a person who does have domestic-violence mandated reporting (such as a counselor or doctor), “it seems to me there’s probably a reason for that … I’m at least a safe place for women to come and talk. Unfortunately, so few clergy are safe people for women who have been abused to talk to because they say, ‘Well, just go home and pray about it.’”
“Right—‘Submit to your husband,’” Truesdell said disgustedly.
But just as clergy are mandated reporters for child abuse, Taff went on, “Isn’t it our obligation? It says in the Talmud [the record of Jewish law]: if you save one life, it’s as if you’ve saved the entire world.”