Written by Connie Larkman
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but the topic is something that Community Church of Durham (N.H.), UCC thinks about year round. The congregation has supported A Safe Place, a Portsmouth-based organization that works to prevent and eliminate domestic violence, for more than 2 decades. Community Church of Durham started out as one of A Safe Place's temporary housing shelters, but the relationship has grown to where the organization is now part of the church's annual mission budget. A few times a year, the congregation likes to do a little something extra for the women and children who call A Safe Place their temporary home.
"We want to connect these women to being part of a bigger community," said the Rev. Dr. Mary Westfall. "But this is also for people in the congregation who have experienced domestic violence. We want to show that we care about that."
One of the extra initiatives is an annual Christmas Giving Tree, where congregation members fulfill a gift represented on a star hanging on the tree. Last year, the tree had 300-400 stars naming various items to be donated to A Safe Place and two other local shelters. While it's tempting to buy traditional Christmas gifts, Westfall notes that the most useful gifts are often the daily necessities.
"While we want to get that cute little toy, sometimes people's basic needs need to be met as well," Westfall said. "We donate some toys for the children, but also things like toothpaste and soap and gift cards for gas."
Going beyond the necessities are the Mother's Day gift bags arranged by congregation members and donated to the shelter. These contain items that are a bit more fun – scarves, nail polish, bath and body products, journals, novels and more. They are packaged in colorful wrapping a week before Mother's Day, and the congregation makes sure to pray over all the items.
"This has become a very meaningful ritual," Westfall said. "They are the kinds of gifts you'd want to give to your own mother."
This year, the Sunday school class got involved with each child creating a Mother's Day card to go with each gift bag. The colorful art work conveyed well wishes to the women, and the children helped assemble the bags. To make a connection to the younger members in a child-friendly way, the Sunday school class read a book about a puppy who had been lost and a family that took him in.
"We talked about how the pet was vulnerable and didn't have everything it needed and gently connected it to these mothers who also may not have everything they need," Westfall said. "Everyone may not understand what these women go through, but we try to educate while doing something tangible, giving people a place to put that care and concern."
Domestic Violence Awareness Month evolved from the first Day of Unity observed in 1981 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an organization that connects battered women advocates from across the nation who work to end violence against women and their children. The Day of Unity soon became a week-long event recognized by activities at the local, state and national levels. The first Domestic Violence Awareness Month was observed in October 1987.
Resources available on the issue include a powerful DVD 'I BELIEVE YOU: Faith Responses to Intimate Partner Violence,'which will air on NBC this fall, and can be ordered directly from Diva Communications. The program tells the stories of survivors and clergy who work with them. A discussion and resource guide comes with each order so it can be used in church groups interested in doing more to prevent and respond to domestic violence.
The UCC and the FaithTrust Institute (FTI) are also offering webinars dealing with issues of domestic violence, with a roundtable discussion next week entitled 'Men of Faith Working to End Violence Against Women.' For more information or to register.