by Cynthia Taggart & r & A few years ago, the Rev. Mark Nelson sermonized about domestic violence from his Lutheran pulpit for three consecutive Sundays and drew parishioners to his office door. They had no complaints about his sermons. They had abuse problems they needed to share.

"People learned they could come to their church with these problems," says Nelson, now assistant to the Lutheran bishop in Spokane. "You never know -- you could save lives."

For centuries, churches ignored domestic violence. A male-dominated clergy either turned a blind eye to spousal-abuse problems or did its utmost to preserve marriages by counseling abused women to stand by their men.

Some churches still stick with those practices. But a growing number, representing a variety of faiths, is recognizing that churches have the power to reduce the violence. Like Nelson, pastors are starting to acknowledge from their pulpits that domestic violence haunts their congregations, neighbors and communities.

"We've moved beyond the 'not in my church' problem," says Linda Kincaid, executive director of the Coeur d'Alene Women's Center. "That's not an issue anymore. They're aware it's in all walks of life."

At the invitation of Coeur d'Alene Bible Church, Kincaid offered crisis intervention training for clergy in Idaho's Panhandle this summer.

"They approached us and said, "We need to have a better idea how to handle this,'" Kincaid says. "They really wanted to understand."

A dozen people from 10 churches participated. Their concern was justified. According to national statistics, one in three women lives with domestic violence. When Kateri Caron of Spokane's Interfaith Council heard those statistics, she knew churches needed to address the problem.

"We need to get churches and faith communities to admit the problem and take it on," Caron says. "It's time to stop using religion as a weapon to aid perpetrators."

Breaking the Taboo & r & About two dozen Spokane-area churches belong to the two-year-old Interfaith Council. Pastors and ministers from those churches decided to pray for victims and address domestic violence during sermons this October, a month dedicated nationwide to reducing domestic violence.

"When people go into crisis, they turn to their faith community," Caron says. "The faith community needs to rally spiritual support, stress that violence is always wrong and criminal, and that it's certainly not a solution in a marriage contract where mutual respect is the bottom line."

Caron says the Council believes the religious community has returned women to violent homes for too long. Pastors have told abused women to pray harder or asked what they did to provoke the violence. Clergy members have pulled couples into counseling after complaints of abuse, which typically only triggers more domestic violence.

The council wants clergy to use the pulpit to start a conversation with parishioners about the issue long considered taboo, Caron says.

"We recognize churches don't have to do it all. We work closely with the YWCA domestic violence shelter programs," she says. "But we could let the community know that victims could find a safe place in churches."

Groups throughout the Spokane area are supporting the Interfaith Council's call to action. Ophelia Araujo-Islas is the associate director of northeast Washington's Abuse Recovery and Ministry Services (ARMS). She started a local program out of Hillyard Baptist in March.

The Christian program teaches women that Scripture is sometimes misinterpreted to continue their submission. Araujo-Islas says she shows women that the Bible promotes "abundant living" and healing.

"The word of God can be a roadblock or a resource," Araujo-Islas says. "There's nothing in Christian or Jewish teaching that can justify abuse."

About 40 women, including pastors' wives and daughters, have participated in ARMS' 15-week program at Hillyard. Many don't finish, but Araujo-Islas is not surprised, considering that some women are still in violent marriages and others are trying independence for the first time ever.

Araujo-Islas now is offering training to church members willing to serve as safe contacts for domestic violence victims. She also trains people to teach their Christian communities to stamp out domestic abuse.

Taking steps similar to the Interfaith Council's to curb domestic violence are Spokane's Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutheran Community Services, Temple Beth Shalom and the Muslim community, Caron says.

A Safe Place & r & Parishioners at Coeur d'Alene's First Presbyterian Church know the Rev. Mike Bullard hears their domestic violence stories with compassion. Bullard lifted the shroud off domestic abuse for his congregation more than a decade ago by opening the church doors to a family violence workshop.

Since then, he and parishioners have reached out to the Coeur d'Alene Women's Center, offering support during crises, emergency response, even helping remodel center offices. During his 13 years at First Presbyterian, Bullard has heard from several parishioners living in violence.

"We very much need to speak about it, enough so people know it's not a deep, dark secret," Bullard says. "We have to be open about it, do away with the shame, do away with the blame of the victim."

Kincaid is heartened that clergy members in North Idaho are beginning to open their arms to abused women. She needs help. Women need help. From 2000 to 2004, the number of women who walked in the Women's Center door seeking immediate help from violence increased 58 percent, Kincaid says.

In 2001, police took 1,417 calls about domestic violence in Kootenai County. Last year, that number had climbed to 1,847 -- a 23 percent increase.

"Of the eight most populated cities in Idaho, Coeur d'Alene has held the first- or second-highest crime rate for the past six years," Kincaid says. "I find that really significant."

She believes domestic violence flourishes in Idaho's rural environment and that churches are one key to corralling it.

"Rural churches may be the only place a woman ever gets to go alone," she says. "She might be able to open up there."

At her summer training for clergy, Kincaid stressed safety. She taught participants that encouraging women to return to abusive homes could get those women killed. Instead, pastors could help women and children find safe lodging then find outside counseling for the abusers.

"Praying harder is not going to make it go away," Kincaid says. "They need intervention, and the woman needs to be safe during intervention."

Domestic violence is a complicated issue for the faith community. Caron understands that the clergy won't change overnight. But recognizing from the pulpit that domestic violence is unacceptable is a good step.

"Churches need to hear women and believe them. That's the primary thing we can do," Caron says. "We have to recognize that they're confiding in us because they trust us. We need to believe them, express our concern for their safety and know the way they can get help."

For information on Abuse Recovery and Ministry Services (ARMS), call Ophelia Araujo-Islas at (509) 484-0600.

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