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Church tackles domestic abuse head-on

Rev. Pamela Hill, a formerly battered and beaten wife, stood tall and triumphantly before several hundred congregants at a packed New Greater Bethel Ministries in Queens Village Saturday.

With a soul-shaking voice that drew tears and hollers from her audience she proclaimed, “I’m not a survivor. I’m a conqueror. And I don’t need a husband. I don’t need a man. I’ve got Jesus.”

The hundreds before her raised a collective voice in song, in prayer and in staunch protest against domestic abuse during a four-hour revival-style meeting called “The Silent Cry.”

The program boldly exposed violence against women in a place many least expect it — the church.

Among those who spoke were the Ministries’ senior pastor, John Boyd, City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Alan Hevesi, and Jacqueline McCullough, keynote speaker and president of Daughters of Rizpah. Rabbi Abigail Sosland of Manhattan’s Town and Village Synagogue and Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Vallone), another mayoral candidate, addressed the crowd through previously recorded video interviews.

Maria Hubbard, executive director of the Ministries’ Joseph Community Development Corporation and an organizer of the long-anticipated event, said abused religious women were generally the last to seek help. But it was not just the congregants who suffered, she said.

“It’s women who have historically held positions in the church,” said Hubbard. “Wives of pastors, of evangelists, of music directors. You keep up the image.”

Hubbard attributed their reticence in large degree to church doctrine, which has taught them as good wives to remain silent. Often, she said, these women sit in church and listen to the Scriptures - Scriptures that tell one to be humble, to be loving, to be forgiving. But those Scriptures have been taken out of context, she said.

“They never get to hear the other part of it,” Hubbard said, pointing out that the clergy is male-driven and often does not realize the dangers of imparting abbreviated text.

During the seminar biblical passages condemning violence, abuse and lust from the book of Genesis and II Samuel were cited as an initial antidote to a long history of misinterpretation.

The Silent Cry program coincides with a new faith-based initiative from Gov. Pataki’s Office for Prevention of Domestic Violence. The initiative evolved after organizers heard repeatedly that their community outreach efforts overlooked the one outlet to which many women turned, their house of worship.

“We kept hearing from the community the desire to work more closely with them,” said Gwen Wright, director of the Bureau of Human Services in the governor’s office. “After a year we decided it was probably time to foray into that arena.”

But the initiative is starting slowly, Wright said, ever conscious of the separation of church and state.

Keynote speaker Jacqueline McCullough, a former nurse who was all too familiar with the cycle of abuse, said the church was also greatly to blame for not holding batterers accountable.

“She’s not your whipping post. She’s not the reason you can’t get a job. She’s not the reason for your low self-esteem,” McCullough said. “But how many churches call in the men? Somebody’s got to call him to counsel.”

Throughout McCullough’s address members of the audience stood in their pews, raised their arms into the air with palms extended and sang songs of praise. “Hallelujah” and “Thank you, Jesus” were shouted from the seats.

National figures reveal that 49 percent of all murders of women result from domestic violence, Hevesi said. And in 1999 after the city established a domestic violence hotline, more than 95,000 phone calls were received in one year, he said. Of those calls 4,000 were placed by teenagers. And an estimated 3.3 million children witness the abuse of women by men annually according to figures from the American Bar Association.

Hill delivered her own harrowing account of being a pregnant 17-year-old bride forced to marry her rapist to justify her pregnancy in the eyes of the church.

During her first year of marriage, she recalled, she was lying on the floor of her kitchen, her husband kicking her in the face as she drifted from consciousness. She asked him repeatedly why he was doing this. His answer: “I don’t even know why. Because I just don’t like you,” he told her.

Other formerly abused women spontaneously shared their stories with unabashed voices, thanking God for giving them the strength to survive and to heal.

Hill referred to a photo of herself taken after a beating in which one eye was completely obscured by bandages.

“It’s not about the patch on the eye,” she bellowed in a preacher’s voice, “because everything that is behind that patch is behind me.”

The event was part of the ministries’ program to combat abuse. In May, a domestic violence workshop will take place. In June, a special domestic violence training for clergy and leaders will occur. And a video of the day’s event will be edited and distributed to public libraries and religious cable stations throughout the city.

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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