One out of the four women who reads this article has been abused or assaulted by a spouse or significant other in their lifetime, or she will be according to the centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every nine seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted — that equals 400 women an hour. That’s enough to fill 10 Metro buses. Across the land of the free, home of the brave, many women live trapped by fear and remain in what is, sometimes, the deadly bondage of domestic abuse.
Some women make it out. Some do not.
Approximately 4,000 women die each year due to domestic violence. Another 182,500 women are raped or sexually assaulted each annually, enough to fill Yankees stadium more than 3.5 times.
One Monday morning in 2010, soon after her live-in finance left for work, Tamieka Smith packed all of her and her sons’ clothes along with a few other possessions, and threw everything into her car. She called her new job and resigned; they asked her to reconsider, but she told them she couldn’t. She wanted to but God had spared her life the preceding Friday and she didn’t want to take any more chances.
“I’m sorry. I can’t stay. My life is in danger,” Smith told the person on the other end of the phone. Read more Tamieka Smith made it out, but not before Charles, the father of her two children, and live-in fiancé of nearly five years, nearly killed her by suffocation one Friday afternoon.
Smith met her abuser through a mutual friend.
“I was in a rocky relationship at the time and he was my refuge from that drama. I ended that relationship when I found out he was cheating on me. Charles was like a breath of fresh of air. He made me laugh; we fell in love quickly,” Smith says.
Smith thought his jokes and charm were a refreshing highlight in the dark time that followed a painful break up. James provided an emotional respite with his kindness and humor, she says. He seemed different. Not only because he towered over her 4’11 frame at 5’7 and 220 pounds. There was something else.
The signs of abuse started just as quickly, and subtly, as their relationship did, too. He checked Smith’s cell phone, began to isolate her from her family and friends, spewed verbally abusive comments. Smith did not recognize the signs and eventually moved in with Charles, in a new town an hour away from her family and friends. After they moved in together, he would randomly appear unannounced on her job.
One Friday afternoon, Smith picked up the couple’s sons from daycare as usual. When she made it home, Charles was already there. “He began to ask me about my day and about the conversations [with men] I’d had. He always thought I was cheating on him, and he did not believe that I had not talked with any men.
He grabbed me and dragged me to our bedroom. He grabbed the back of my neck and slammed my head into the mirror. Then he threw me on the bed and tried to suffocate me,” Smith says. “All I could think about was my two boys and them not having a mother. I knew I had to live for them. In the back of my head I began to pray Psalm 23 in my thoughts. Then I said to him, ‘You’re raising boys. Do you know what you’re doing? Do want your boys to do what you’re doing?’ And he snapped out of it,” Smith remembers.
After Smith’s words jolted Charles back into reality, he was, Smith says, on his best behavior the remainder of the weekend. And it was the last time he beat her.
The Monday morning after he tried to suffocate her, as soon as he left for work, she threw as many of her boys’ clothes and toys as she could in her car, buckled them in their car seats, pulled her car onto I-95 and headed toward to Durham, North Carolina — to her parents, to home.
On the way to Durham, she called the Fayetteville Health Department to let them know she wouldn’t be returning to her temporary job. Her supervisor had been very impressed with Smith’s work, and planned to make her a permanent employee. “I explained that I had to leave for the safety of my life,” Smith says. She later learned that Charles went to her job that Monday morning with flowers.
The Longest Drive of Her Life
The drive from Fayetteville to Durham is only an hour or so, but it “seemed like two,” Smith says. That Smith escaped her abuser safely, and without an exit plan counters numbing data: On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good. She is 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship. And Among African American women killed by their partner, almost half were killed while in the process of leaving the relationship (Proceedings of the 2004 Homicide Research Working Group Annual symposium).
Not long after arriving at her parent’s home, Charles showed up with a friend and took Smith’s car. She had not had time to unpack her boys’ clothes. “Everything I had was in that car, including my boys’ car seats,” Smith says.
Then Charles began to make threatening phone calls to Smith and her family; he even threatened her grandmother. Fearing for her life, and that of her family, she eventually found help from a local church that placed her in a women’s shelter, helped her find employment, and later helped her transition to a home.
On this Rock
“My faith was strong growing up. We went to Sunday School and church every Sunday. The family was and still is very strong in its faith. My and siblings I would also go to church with my grandmother,” Smith says.
“During my relationship with Charles I didn’t go to church a lot. When I went, he would get upset. We went together only once and it was because of an event that his stepfather was preaching at; his stepfather is a pastor. I don’t know if he’s saved or not; we never had a lot of conversations about religion and faith.”
During the time Smith lived with Charles right outside of Fayetteville (in Rayford), they lived across the street from his mom and stepfather, who is a pastor. Neither of them ever tried to intervene to help Smith, even when she reached out for help.
Charles’s mom once said to Smith, “That’s just how Charles is, he has a bad temper, just pray about it.”
Still, Smith never forgot her roots in faith. She says that even though she did not attend church regularly during her relationship with Charles, she always prayed and read her Bible. “My faith remained strong. It’s always been with me. My faith got stronger as I left and survived that situation. I do a lot of meditating and praying. Peace of mind is something you cannot pay for. So I appreciate that every day,” Smith says.
Shame Is Sinking Sand
In addition to the physical and verbal abuse, there were times when Charles tortured Smith. More than once he placed a hot iron near her face. Once he tied her up to a wooden post outdoors, and rubbed oatmeal cake crumbs on her legs and placed other food near here to attract ants. He left her there, in the dark, for approximately 20 minutes.
Says Smith, “He tried to devalue me and isolate me. Even though I came from a loving family, I began to believe him. I changed the way I dressed so that I didn’t bring attention to myself so that he would feel comfortable. I didn’t see my family as much because he had me thinking that they didn’t love me.”
Charles even accused Smith of sleeping with her family members, including her stepfather. Out of shame and embarrassment, she cut off friendships with her family and girlfriends. She says she was embarrassed and ashamed to face them because she knew she was smarter than that and felt ashamed for putting on a façade — even though everyone knew. They witnessed some of his quick temper.
Though Smith found a way out through the help of a church, not all abused Christian women have the same story. For those who are in a quandary as to whether they should even consider leaving, the Church is a natural source for counsel. People of faith commonly seek pastoral advice or Christian counseling to help navigate challenging waters, but the response of the faith community to domestic/intimate partner violence can sometimes be gray an area that needs precision clarity.
When Kathy Petersen sought her pastor’s counsel about her abusive husband, he advised her to stay. He told her the Bible says so. That was nearly 20 years ago and she still feels animus about how that pastor handled the situation.
In “A Commentary on Religion and Domestic Violence” author Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune writes, “Misinterpretation and misuse of religious texts and traditions have often had a detrimental effect on individuals and families dealing with domestic violence. Misinterpretation or misuse can contribute substantially to guilt, self-blame, and suffering among victims. Likewise, they can contribute to rationalizations used by those who abuse. For example, ‘But the Bible says …’ is frequently used to explain, excuse, or justify abuse by one family member to another.”
Fortune continues that upholding sacred texts “can result in reclaiming the traditions in ways that support victims and abusers, while confronting and challenging abuse in the family.”
When Rayshel Stewart’s husband of 11 days abused her, he—who is a pastor— asked her where her faith was. Another time during the marriage, he beat her in the head and face repeatedly with the heel of his shoe. Her injuries led to an emergency room visit, and assault charges against her husband that she later dropped. Stewart says she and her husband met with their pastor to talk about the abuse. One week later, her husband was promoted in the ministry at their church.
“Others in the church were advising me not to go to the courts. The church’s response was no response. Then I left the church. It was only God’s grace that got me through. It was horrible,” Stewart says. Stewart also eventually left the marriage. She began to tell her story, and started the Women of Freedom Foundation, a safe-place for women in crisis.
“I started Women of Freedom Foundation so that other women can understand what domestic abuse is. It is a place where women can support one another, a safe place for women to come and share their stories about what they are experiencing. If a woman has not left the situation yet, she can come and have tea before going home. She can get referrals, resources, etc. And also clothes closet, food, or temporary shelter,” Stewart says.
In retrospect Stewart says she had been in abusive relationships many times in my life before marrying but just didn’t realize it was abuse, because it was so subtle. And she says there were signs, but she thinks she ignored them because she was excited about being married and overlooked them.
Despite Smith not initially receiving help from a member of the faith community when she needed it, and despite Petersen and Stewart not getting the help they expected or needed from their respective churches, there are churches and faith communities that are working to ensure they can respond properly to domestic/intimate partner violence.
One organization, the FaithTrust Institute is a national multi-faith education organization. The organization’s website states, “Faith communities are becoming increasingly aware of the need to create an awareness of domestic violence within faith communities, as well as the need for training and education about the dynamics of domestic violence and the role that faith plays in individuals’ lives.”
The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community produces resources and data about the impact of domestic violence in African-American families.
He Restoreth My Soul
Today, Smith is working full time and studying for her MBA. She is still healing from the abuse, but she “has peace” she says. She is also working on a memoir about the abuse she endured and overcame. “Shattering the Glass House,” will be published by WordSmith Books. She has no contact with Charles. Smith has overcome depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and is healthy. She advises women who are in an abusive relationship to, “Pay attention to the signs. Jealousy, control and it’s not always physical. It’s verbal and emotional but that’s how it starts. Pay attention. It doesn’t matter your walk life. It does not have a face. It is a community issue.”
Recommendations for the Faith Community
- Recognize that the victim, no less than the victimizer, is in need of aid, comfort, and spiritual ministry, and faith-based congregations and organizations should provide assistance to victims whenever possible
- Courses on crime victimization and crime victim assistance should be established in clergy educational institutions and theological seminaries, including both worship and pastoral counseling courses
- Continuing education on crime victimization an crime victim assistance should be provided for all clergy and religious leaders, including chaplains in hospitals, police departments, and the military and other individuals within the faith community who may come into contact with victims
- Religious institutions at all levels should cooperate with victim assistance agencies and organizations to offer joint services to victims of crime and to disseminate publications on crime victim assistance
- The clergy should provide training for victim assistance providers, criminal justice officials, state victim assistance administrators, compensation program directors, and other public officials about the important role they can play in assisting victims
- Requiring clergy to report suspected cases of child abuse should be seriously considered by religious institutions and governmental agencies, and appropriate policies should be developed to ensure the protection of children. Even in cases involving confidential communications, the clergy should hold the needs of children paramount and recognize their moral responsibility to help and protect children
- Communities of faith should hold clergy and other religious leaders in positions of trust within their congregations accountable for crimes they commit, including sexual acts against adults and children. Policies and procedures should be developed to ensure that appropriate cases of clergy misconduct are referred to law enforcement agencies
- Religious and spiritual leaders should be encouraged to use their pulpits to educate and sensitize their congregations about crime and victimization issues
- Religious and spiritual leaders should be willing to serve in leadership roles on community crisis response teams providing services in the aftermath of mass violence and other crimes that have significant impact upon entire communities
Excerpted from: Office for Victims of Crime: New Directions from the Field: Faith Community and Victim’s Rights and Services
Resources on Domestic/Intimate Partner Violence Domestic Violence and the Church An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection National Online Resource Center on Violence against Women Domestic Violence and Communities of Faith: An Information Packet National Network to End Domestic Violence Nomore.org