As COVID-19 spreads in our families, congregations and communities, we are all reaching out to those we know and love — even to complete strangers. During this difficult time, I invite your prayers for them and for us all.
On that prayer list, please include those facing domestic and sexual violence and elder abuse. While social distancing will slow the virus, isolation is both a risk factor and a weapon of abuse. “Sheltering in place” with someone who is abusive is at best dangerous and at worst a death sentence.
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, described how social isolation impacts abuse survivors: “Their ability to seek help or guidance is significantly limited ... many of the tools in a survivor’s toolbox feel like they’re disappearing rapidly,” she said in an interview that aired March 27 on “PBS NewsHour.”
Adding to this concern is the fact that, since the beginning of the pandemic, gun sales around the U.S. have soared. We know that the presence of a gun in a home where there is domestic violence makes it five times more likely that someone will be killed. This is a nightmare scenario.
While survivors of abuse are at greater risk and have fewer opportunities to reach out for help, we need extraordinary, community-based efforts to provide access to safety and services. For example, in France and Spain, a code word has been established that survivors can use to ask a pharmacist to call the police.
Many countries that are experiencing “lockdown” have realized that this is the time for extraordinary measures to reach out to and provide support for victims of abuse. During this emergency, Safe Havens is calling on all United Methodists and all United Methodist congregations because we need your help! There are several important, concrete steps you can take to support survivors.
Many United Methodist churches have posters in restrooms with state hotline numbers and local domestic and sexual violence services. Now that congregations have gone virtual, make sure this information (which you can get by calling the national hotline: 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 TTY) is readily available on your congregation’s website. Put it in the footer of every newsletter, under your email signature, and on your congregation’s Facebook page. Get the word out that sexual and domestic violence services are still open to provide free and confidential support and safety planning.
Most faithful people aren’t experts on domestic and sexual violence and elder abuse, but we don’t have to be. We just need to know how to call the experts on the hotline for help. The hotline is free, anonymous and anyone can call. They have language translation capability.
For a victim who can’t reach out for themselves, your ability to call the hotline and get information that you can share with the victim could make a life-changing difference. In this time of crisis, it’s important that we leverage the hotline to help connect survivors to services and safety.
Also, use your prophetic voice to speak out against abuse in newsletters, in corporate prayers and in other communications. Include survivors of abuse in homilies and sermons. Break the taboo, and make this something people of faith can talk about.
Reach out to family members, friends and fellow congregants. Ask how they are doing, and listen carefully to their answer, keeping the “red flags” of abuse firmly in mind. Ask questions privately when you are concerned and make referrals to services. Stay in touch.
Victims of abuse also need material support. You can mail gift cards for groceries, gas or pharmacies to the office address of your local domestic and sexual violence service agency. The advocates there will make sure those gift cards are put in the hands of people experiencing abuse.
Now more than ever, United Methodist faith leaders and congregations have a critical role to play in helping to keep those who are experiencing abuse safer. We can and should be the sign in the window: “Call me if you need help.”
Hunter is an elder in the New England Conference and the founder and director of Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse. Safe Havens was started with seed funding from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in 1991.