That’s the question we asked Reverend Al Miles, Chief Chaplain of the Queen’s Medical Centre in Honolulu, Hawaii.
We were excited to recently host Rev. Miles here in Edmonton, along with a roomful of people from a variety of faiths (a couple of short weeks before COVID-19 social distancing kept us all at home). Rev. Miles shared stories from his past and assured faith leaders that love and compassion can make all the difference for those struggling in abusive relationships.
One of the fears that many faith leaders have is that they feel ill-equipped to deal with domestic violence because the issue feels beyond their area of expertise, and that they don’t have the necessary qualifications or experience. But Rev. Miles assured them that their job as faith leaders is to be present for people, they don’t need to be experts. They need to listen, and provide care and support, rather than subject-matter expertise. A faith leader’s role is to offer compassion and empathy, to learn about the local resources available to survivors, how to recognize the signs of abuse and to offer and provide appropriate support and care through community resources. In this way, faith leaders can be guides, can offer a path to escaping violence, but do not have to become subject-matter experts themselves.
Indeed, Rev. Miles focused on faith leaders’ ability to sit with people in a space of care and compassion. To really focus on listening, and be present with people in their pain. He shared that though some people’s stories will be shocking and disturbing, listening and believing the survivor is paramount, and extremely helpful.
Rev. Miles also reinforced how important it is to connect with men and boys, as they play a vital role in changing abusive behaviours. Domestic violence is gender-based, with men and boys making up a significant percentage of offenders, and women and girls experiencing the majority of the violence [research by Statistics Canada, and many other organizations, backs up this statement.] Of course, women do also offend, and men and boys can be victimized, and Rev. Miles made mention that it is crucial to continue listening with an open mind and heart to men who come to them as well.
The day was a hard one for many, but essential in shining a light on the realities of domestic violence, and how faith leaders can help. Thank you to Edmonton’s faith leaders for attending and learning more about how to create safe pathways for victims to reach out and get help.
Given that so much has changed in the few short weeks since our session with Rev. Miles, we wanted his ideas about how faith leaders can continue to offer support during times of physical distancing. So we asked him a few questions about how faith leaders can stay connected to their communities. Here’s a quick Q&A:
It’s Time: During this time of social distancing, how can faith leaders still be present for their communities, and continue to play a role in preventing family violence?
Rev. Miles: We are fortunate to live in a time in history that people can connect with one another emotionally and spiritually, even though the current Covid-19 pandemic requires us to be mindful of close physical proximity. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom can keep spiritual leaders connected with their communities and parishioners. However, a word of caution, especially when ministering to victims and survivors of family violence: the streaming and sharing tools are not private. They can easily be tracked by family violence offenders.
It’s Time: Faith leaders, like all carers, are going to be mentally and emotionally taxed by this situation. What are some tactics you might recommend to care for the carers?
Rev. Miles: It is essential for carers to find tools of resilience. These can include, but are not limited to: biking, jogging, reading, writing and having trusted supporters such as friends, therapists, life coaches, spiritual directors; to name just a few.
It’s Time: What advice would you offer to people who are currently at home with an abuser? How might their faith community be able to help them?
Rev. Miles: The current widespread recommendation from experts dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic is for people to ‘shelter-in-place.’ This makes it very difficult for a victim-survivor to establish or maintain a place of safety for her/him/their/them-self. Members of faith communities can be a beacon of light in the midst of these extremely trying times for a victim-survivor. However, due to the fact that many abusers are also ‘sheltering-in-place,’ we must be very careful as we provide spiritual and emotional support. As best we can, always make sure it is a ‘safe time’ for a victim-survivor to engage in a phone conversation. And, as stated previous, be very mindful of the fact that social media platforms are not private or safe ways of communication.
Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to stay connected, and to continue to support friends, family and community members throughout this period of social distancing. We all need to be present to offer resources and support. If you know someone who needs help with an abusive situation, there are still many resources available, in spite of changes to in-person activities. Please reach out to any of these excellent local resources for help.
Rev. Miles left us with this prayer, which we love:
“To those who exhale anxiety and fear,
breathe in hope and peace.
To those who exhale uncertainty and the unknown, breathe in light and love.
And though it is uncomfortable,
we are growing our spiritual bond.”