Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shelter: The Church that Never Stops Talking

Sermon October 18, 2009
by Katie Mulligan

Places to get help and resources:

     (Burlington County, NJ) 
     (Mercer County, NJ) 
Domestic Violence Solutions
     (Santa Barbara County, CA)
(If you're looking for the Gomer sermon, go here)

"A Reverie"
Once when I was small,
I stumbled home broken and bruised and weeping.
It was not the first time nor the last.
At a moment, perfectly balanced between him and home,
I stopped and began to laugh.
At that moment, perfectly balanced,
I perceived with my six-year-old mind that I could think.
A space big enough for me, but too small for him,
opened in my body and I crawled in.
I stayed there for twenty years
until I was sure he was gone.

--For a girl I once knew

First Scripture Reading: Psalm 91
Second Scripture Reading: Luke 18:1-8

I am so relieved to be with you this morning! For I have spent much of this week thinking and praying about this sermon. Thinking and praying, and wondering, as all pastors do, what to say and how much of myself to reveal. What stories shall I share with you and what stories will they bring to your own hearts—those stories of your lives that perhaps you wonder whether to reveal also.

Today has been designated by the PCUSA as Domestic Violence Awareness Day. I don’t always follow the lectionary, and I often miss major holidays; folks often have to remind me of memorials and anniversaries of events. But I am acutely aware of this day as a time to think carefully about violence in our lives, for as long as I can remember I have been aware of the potential for our most intimate and safe spaces to be violated by those we love and trust.

I felt a bit uncomfortable preaching on this subject here at our small church. After all, I’m still sort of new here. I’ve heard many of your stories, but certainly not all of them—it will take a lifetime for me to get to know you all. A lifetime for us to get comfortable enough to share the stories that cause us grief and shame, loneliness and fear. And this is a small church—small enough that anything I say might seem like I’m pointing fingers. So I take this moment to say that I am preaching this morning out of my own experiences, not yours. I bring this subject of intimate violence to you because it is something we don’t like to talk about. It is a subject that the church does not like to talk about, because the church is supposed to be a safe and intimate space of love and trust; and sometimes the church violates that trust, doing violence to the most vulnerable among us.

Several years ago I was invited by an agency in California to a workshop for clergy. Domestic Violence Solutions had recently changed its name from Shelter Services for Women, in recognition that domestic violence occurs between men, women, and children in many different configurations, and that any solution must include shelter for the victims, but also healing and reconciliation for those who hurt others. In that process, they turned their gaze upon churches. After listening to story after story of churches and pastors who advised individuals to stay in violent marriages because it was God’s will, they decided that some education was in order for pastors. They put together a workshop and sent out flyers. A flyer came to my church where I was working as the director of youth ministry. For eight years before that I had worked with families and children at the YMCA. And before that, and during that time, I had lived life and seen things; I’d heard stories; violence in our safe spaces is a real thing. The church, we have trouble talking about that.

So I went to the workshop and participated—there were perhaps 10 or 12 other clergy there. The workshop organizers had hoped for more. They wondered aloud if any of us had any ideas how to redeem scripture (of any religion) so that it might provide hope for their clients and our congregants instead of oppression. They wondered, I think, how we might redeem ourselves as pastors and our churches as safe spaces. They told us stories they’d heard of people who had gone to church with their stories of violence and fear; they told us how those people had been told that divorce is a sin, that their situation was a cross like Jesus’ and it was holy and redemptive to bear that cross. They told us stories of people who had sat in the pews for years who finally found the courage to speak up about what was happening in their homes. And the churches neglected their safety by focusing first on reconciliation and forgiveness instead of offering shelter and support for the victims. They asked us clergy who were present that day how we would handle domestic violence in our congregations. And we had righteous answers and proper indignation, but inwardly we were all squirming—you could see it in our faces. Because domestic violence occurs in the midst of love and family—in the middle of churches and safe spaces. And that means that many of us have friendships with and love for the perpetrators too, and not just the victims. There are no easy answers, and I think we all knew that at one time or another we had failed someone in our faith community.

The workshop was on a Saturday. Monday afternoon, while working in my office, I got a call from the local paper. They had tracked down the names of those clergy who had attended the domestic violence workshop. Since I wasn’t ordained anything, I believe I was last on the reporters list. But it was Monday afternoon, see, and the clergy she called were either out or ducking her calls. “I have just a few questions,” she said. I had never been interviewed by a reporter before, so I was kind of flattered. “Sure,” I answered, “What’s your questions?”
“Do you think domestic violence is a problem in your congregation? Is that why you attended the workshop?”
 I came close to hanging up the phone—what kind of answer could I give to this woman? If I said “No,” then I looked like a naive fool or worse like a person willing to ignore the issue of intimate violence—willing to sacrifice the safety of others for my own peace of mind and for everyone to get along. But if I said, “Yes,” then I was revealing secrets—making it seem like domestic violence was rampant in our congregation. I knew some families who might not appreciate that characterization. I could see the headline in my mind: "Domestic Violence Wreaks Havoc in Congregation: Youth Pastor Attends Workshop." My boss, the pastor, was probably not going to appreciate that characterization. I got through the interview without getting fired and without pretending that domestic violence wasn’t an issue in OUR church. And when I hung up the phone I promised myself that I would never ask myself that question, “Do you think domestic violence is a problem in this congregation?” I would simply acknowledge the fact that it is a problem in most places, keep my ears and eyes open, and that I would speak about it openly—hoping that this might help the church to become that shelter so desperately needed.

Last spring I preached a sermon about intimate violence in the chapel at the seminary. I thought perhaps I might recycle that sermon (yes, we do that), but as I read through it again it seemed too big—too big for this church building, too big for our small congregation, too big for not knowing your stories well enough yet. So I set it aside—I’ll post it on the blog if you want to read it (here). But I found myself wondering (even though I’d promised not to), “Do you think domestic violence is a problem in this congregation?” How on earth does one go about asking and answering that question in a place where one is new?

Then a few weeks ago we had one of our covered dish suppers. I tell you that those potlucks are becoming one of my favorite activities with you all—these small gatherings over food and conversation. That night the conversation turned to nursing homes and elder care. Some of the stories were funny and full of joy, even with illness and death as the topic. But then the stories turned quieter and people began to talk about their concerns about how their loved ones were treated. I heard stories of relatives and friends of friends who had been mistreated. Stories of people’s personal belongings being stolen. These spaces that were supposed to be safe spaces for their loved ones turned into nightmares. And somebody said, “Can you imagine what it would be like to wake into consciousness and know that somebody was taking your watch or your ring off you, but you are helpless to stop it?” And so, it wasn’t about the unkindness of theft but the terror of the violation of one’s intimate and safe space. Our beds are supposed to be safe places.

There are so many ways we humans are capable of hurting one another. In our fragility we are subjected to physical, spiritual, emotional and spiritual abuse. Our words and bodies lash out, we neglect the needs of others. Betrayal takes many forms, and so yes, here in this church, intimate violence is a problem.

During the clergy workshop, the program volunteers enacted a story for us. A woman sat in a chair at the front of the room while a narrator told us her story. The woman was in an abusive relationship. At different points she had sought help from family, friends, schools, co-workers, even the church. At each juncture the person was unable or unwilling to help or listen. The woman became more and more isolated. As each person turned away from her, a blanket was place over the woman until she was so weighted down with blankets she was unable to move or to be heard. Trapped under the weight of intimate violence, the only place she could turn was inward.

Sometimes the only place we can turn in such situations is inward, and in the depths of our souls we find God. While the rest of the world is busy smothering us with blankets, we find refuge under the wings of God—just as the psalmist promised. The tricky thing is that when a person turns inward and finds God, sometimes they come to church, for we are supposed to be intimate space where a soul can reach out for God in safety. And yet too often our churches are places of silence, where such things as physical and sexual abuse are not spoken of openly. We are not God, and our human failures are real. But according to our Presbyterian Book of Order, we are supposed to be “the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ.” We cannot be all things to all people—we will fail one another. There are times when we simply do not know what to do or what not to do—times when people come to us and they do not want us to do anything. Sometimes people in violent situations are not ready to get out yet or their needs are beyond our capabilities. So how do we go about being the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humanity?

Let us look again at the story about the widow and the judge from the gospel of Luke. This story, I think, tells us that at least part of the answer is to keep talking, to never shut up about this subject. Until we are able to bring about justice and peace, we must keep talking and bothering people about it, just like the widow kept bothering the judge. More than anything else, a church ought to be a place where we can talk about this stuff—where we can talk about anything, no matter how uncomfortable it gets. Because by talking about things we expose them to the light of day. By talking about intimate violence we help take off the blankets, we give breathing room, we help people find their voices. By putting it all out there we create safe space and make it known that this is a place where a person could speak those stories that bring grief and shame, loneliness and fear. The church that never stops talking becomes a place where stories are shared and we discover that we are not alone. For a woman or a man or a child, who is trapped under layers of blankets, the church that never stops talking and listening to stories becomes a refuge and a source of strength and healing. The church that speaks openly of intimate violence is a place where victims come to know that they aren’t crazy and that they are loved. Such a place becomes a witness—fair warning to those who would perpetrate violence against loved ones.

So like the widow commended to us by Jesus, let us simply be the church that never stops talking. And with our words and witness we will create a safe space for the stories of our hearts.


  1. Katie,

    This sermon is very powerful. I love the idea of the church "that never stops talking." I am Godly glad to have you,not only as a sister in the Word but also as one in the struggle in making the church safe space.

  2. Thank you! Peace also to you, friend :-)

  3. Thank you Katie. I'm weeping. This sermon gives voice to so much.

  4. Ann Renee, you're in my thoughts. I love that you and I are both yakkers of the first order!

  5. While the subject is unpleasant (to say the least), I am glad that you are addressing it.

  6. It is unpleasant for the victims who need people like you to help them find their way. Good on you, Katie.

  7. Thanks all! It was a hard two weeks of writing and reflecting. Appreciate your support!

  8. Very well done. Very powerful. You have a powerful soul. Your group is lucky to have you.