The high-profile case involving Bynum and her husband, Bishop Thomas W. Weeks, experts say, underscores that domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is no respecter of gender, social-economic status or even religious faith.
“When it happened that day in the parking lot it was happening all over the country with someone,” said the Rev. Aubra Love, executive director of the Atlanta-based Black Church and Domestic Violence Institute.
Anti-domestic violence advocates say they can use all the fire power they can get in their efforts to get religious communities to put their faith in action against what some consider a “silent epidemic.”
The Rev. Marie Fortune, founder of the Seattle-based FaithTrust Institute who has worked for decades to educate faith communities on the issue, praised Bynum’s involvement.
“I’m pleased to hear that Ms. Bynum is speaking out about it and her experience,” Fortune said. “Hopefully, she’ll join with others doing the work and bring her celebrity to the discussion.”
Fortune and others say faith communities are doing more than they have before but not as much as much as the problem demands. Denial and training are among the hurdles.
Said Fortune: “It’s not enough because we continue to see tragic situations like Ms. Bynum’s experience.”
The Bynum case is the second such high-profile domestic violence incident to make national news in the past year.
In 2006, Mary Winkler fatally shot her Church of Christ minister husband in Selmer, Tenn., claiming physical and sexual abuse. She later was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
Winkler was released last month from a mental health facility, where she served 67 days as part of her sentence. That was about a week before Bishop Thomas W. Weeks, Bynum’s husband, allegedly beat, kicked, choked and threatened to kill her in the parking lot of an Atlanta-area hotel.
The Aug. 21 incident has the couple headed for divorce. Weeks, pastor and co-founder of Global Destiny Ministries, also faces criminal charges.
Already, Bynum’s work is having an impact.
Regine Cordon, executive director of Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said calls are up from people who are members of faith communities and identify themselves as victims. Calls have also increased from people wanting to do something about the problem.
“When you have this kind of publicity, it makes them a little more comfortable,” Cordon said.
Bynum’s case helped spark a recent forum regarding violence against women and faith communities at Spelman College. The Rev. Lisa Rhodes, dean of the college’s Sisters Chapel, said it also became a women’s Bible study topic at the historic Ebenezer Baptist, where she attends.
“They had a lot to say,” Rhodes said. “It was amazing that this one incident could bring about such conversation.”
Susan Berryman Rodriguez, a Partnership Against Domestic Violence spokeswoman, said the faith community has yet to realize its important role in the fight. That can have grave consequences for victims.
“For many women, it’s really their only source of support on this issue,” said Berryman Rodriguez.
That message hasn’t been lost on popular Dallas-based televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, who considers himself a “long-time advocate and tireless fighter” against domestic abuse. What’s allegedly happened with Bynum and Weeks prompted him to publicly speak out on the subject and suggest ways churches can help families in crisis.
“Prayer is a good starting point, but this is a problem where wise and fair action steps are needed,” wrote Jakes, pastor of the independent Potter’s House church, in both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on his ministry’s website.
Sulaiman Nuriddin, a program manager with Men Stopping Violence, said it’s been tough to get faith groups to acknowledge the problem exist.
“We’re in a place of denial,” said Nuriddin, whose Decatur-based organization works to end physical and sexual violence against women. “It’s not until someone shows up on Sunday morning battered and bruised that we recognize we do have it in our community.”
The reasons, experts agree, have to do with culture, indifference, misinterpretation of religious text and perceptions of domestic violence is a private family matter or a taboo subject. Rev. Love of the Black Church and Domestic Violence Institute offered an additional explanation.
“Until very recently, our seminaries and schools of theology didn’t offer training on dealing with domestic violence, so you find that a great many religious leaders don’t have the tools,” said Love, whose organization educates African-American church leaders on how to best handle the problem in their congregations. “They didn’t learn it in seminary or pick it up through their pastoral lineage.”
Gender issues, Love added, have been overshadowed in the black church, which is overwhelmed with addressing the issues of racism.
“It’s not an excuse, she said, “That’s just what’s particular to the black church. Many congregations in our communities of faith have never done any work specifically on women’s reality out side of annual women’s day [activities].”
Some faith groups, however, have taken on the responsibility and in varied ways.
Examples of local activity include Norcross’s Hopewell Baptist Church, which offers Hope at the Well domestic violence ministry led by survivor members.
Hopewell member Georgette McLaurin, 46, hopes her work with the ministry will give other victims what she didn’t have during her 12 years of abuse by a former boyfriend.
“I was one of those who didn’t have any resources or know where to go,” said McLaurin. “I was suffering silently.”
Jonesboro’s New Birth Baptist Church South is gearing up for its second-annual domestic violence workshop later this month, just before the start of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October.
The Interdenominational Theological Center addressed the issue during its annual forum on violence against women, including those on historically black college campuses.
Jewish Family & Career Services, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, works to combat violence in Jewish homes, provide services to abuse survivors, and offer prevention and education programs through its Shalom Bayit Program.
“I do see a big change and there’s a lot that needs to happen,” said Wendy Lipshutz, program director. “I think the issue is still too hidden.”
HOW FAITH CAN HELP
Experts offer these tips on the role of spiritual organizations in fighting domestic violence
What faith-based communities should recognize:
• Domestic violence is not a ‘marital problem,’ or a ‘private family matter between a husband and wife.’
• Men batter to gain and maintain power and control over their partners.
• Women who leave or say they are leaving an abusive relationship are at a heightened risk and may need a safety plan.
What faith-based communities can do:
• Spiritual leaders should recognize male violence against women and children as an important issue.
• Assure victims they are not alone and help is available.
• Seek expert assistance from advocacy organizations.
• Offer training on the dynamics of intimate partner violence and make information readily available
• Include domestic violence education in youth classes.
• Refer victims to certified domestic violence advocacy programs, not to couples counseling.
• Hold abusers accountable. Help them connect with certified batterers’ intervention programs.
• Become part of a coordinated community response to domestic violence.
• Seek donations of time and money for local shelters.
Where to get help
• Georgia Coalition for Domestic Violence: 1-800-33Haven or 1-800-334-2836
• National Resource Center on Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-799-7233
• Black Church and Domestic Violence Institute, 770-909-0715 or www.bcdvi.org
• Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 404-209-0280 or email@example.com
• Jewish Family & Career Services, 770-677-9322 or 770-677-9349
• Men Stopping Violence, 404-270-9894 or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Partnership Against Domestic Violence, 404-870-9600 or www.padv.org
Sources: Men Stopping Violence, Black Church and Domestic Violence Institute, Partnership Against Domestic Violence
Original Title: Prophetess’ case highlights domestic violence in faith communities