Excuses cannot be part of the church’s message against abuse. So says Heather-Dawn Small, the no-nonsense Trinidadian who helps craft the world Seventh-day Adventist Church’s formidable yet sensitive approach to abuse prevention.
Since she began directing Women’s Ministries for the world church in 2001, Small, 50, has fought reluctance by some within the church to admit the reality of abuse. She applauded the church when it voted to add an Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day to its calendar of special Sabbaths, now held the fourth Sabbath of every August. But with local pastors telling her that 70 to 80 percent of their home counseling focuses on domestic abuse, she says the remaining 364 days are just as vital.
Given her ambitious travel schedule, luckily the former director of Children’s and Women’s Ministries for the church in the Caribbean is fond of flying. But helping church members respect each other and become partners in the church’s ministry is what propels her.
In the run-up to the church’s seventh annual Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day, August 23, Small spoke to ANN about the church’s responsibility to convince every member that abuse is unconscionable, regardless of culture or upbringing. And, she explained that while the church is not equipped to comprehensively handle abuse, it can and should serve as a conduit, connecting abused women to local legal and counseling agencies. Excerpts:
Adventist News Network: Since the Adventist Church established Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day, what specifically has been addressed?
Heather-Dawn Small: We’ve focused on child abuse and domestic violence, particularly spousal abuse, which is a big problem in the church. During the first couple of years, most of what we emphasized was creating an awareness of abuse in general. It’s only in recent years that we’ve begun to deal very specifically with topics, such as Abuse of Power, which is this year’s theme.
ANN: Are your efforts well received?
Small: We’ve generally gotten very good feedback. There are those people who still think, ‘Well, do we really need to handle this in the church?’ or ‘Do we have to bring this up on Sabbath?’ But that attitude is getting rarer. It’s more like it was long overdue that the church would actually have an abuse prevention day and that materials would be provided.
ANN: You travel extensively. Where do you find that the church’s anti-abuse message is best latching on and what tactics seem to be most effective?
Small: I just got back from Uganda and Kenya. In Africa, there is definitely a lot of progress being made. Because of the culture in some of these countries, abuse to some extent is almost regarded as a “right” of the husband. I know in the Caribbean, where I come from, that was a longstanding problem. It isn’t now, but it took years and years to reverse that thinking. In countries where that mindset is still pervasive, the church is partnering with governments and other churches to speak out against it and launch programs that will sweep through the community, not just within the church. It’s more effective than for us to try to do it on our own. If there is a community-based program or government initiative against domestic violence already there, why shouldn’t we join them?
ANN: What would you single out as one of the biggest challenges the church faces in working to end abuse?
Small: There’s very little we can do to immediately change the mindset of the man, and sometimes even the woman. As we keep talking about [abuse prevention], attitudes slowly change. You see, it doesn’t happen overnight. Some people may think, ‘OK, fine, we’ve talked about abuse,’ and then forget about it, but it’s only as we reiterate our message and keep it at the forefront that things begin to change.
ANN: How far-reaching is the church’s message against abuse? Are there limits to what the church can accomplish?
Small: Our goal is to create environments where women feel safe opening up. I think that’s one of the roles that a Women’s Ministries department fills—it’s a place where women can feel safe approaching a leader or another woman and saying, ‘Listen, I have a problem.’ This has happened to me countless times as I’ve traveled and I always try to connect these women with a social worker through the local Women’s Ministries director. As a church, we are not equipped to properly handle addressing the abuse itself, even though we are creating an awareness of the problem. That’s why we have to partner with legal and counseling agencies that are already in the community.
ANN: The church doesn’t cite abuse as a valid reason for divorce. How do you advise women who are in dangerous and unworkable situations?
Small: Being a pastor’s wife for many years, and now directing Women’s Ministries, the immediate concern is for the wellbeing of the woman and her children. In many cases, the woman has to escape. Of course the challenge is that if there are no shelters, where does she escape to? Church members are sometimes afraid to open up their own homes in case the husband comes and harms them as well. Sometimes the church will help the woman relocate. I know the question of divorce can get quite complicated, and while I don’t see it being an immediate option, I’m not going to rule it out because there are women who have resorted to divorce when their husbands refuse to get help. But our immediate concern is that the women get out of the environment if it is harmful or hurtful.
ANN: You’ve said that it’s difficult to change ingrained attitudes toward abuse. At what age can children begin to learn appropriate behavior patterns so that new generations can hopefully reverse old thinking?
Small: In South America, the church has a program targeting elementary children. They create characters and stories with pictures that teach kids about child abuse and domestic violence. There are materials available, people go into the schools dressed up as these characters—they sing, they act, they dance and the kids learn how to respect others and how to respect themselves. Their theme right now is Abuse of the Elderly. I visited Brazil earlier this year and was amazed by how well thought-out the program is. And when we start with the children, we’re looking at the next generation coming up. When we put into their minds the importance of respect for others and themselves, I think that message is going to stay with them, and it’s impacting their parents as well.
ANN: Have you noticed any factors that seem to influence attitudes toward abuse?
Small: Social standing and education levels, unfortunately, mean nothing, whether we’re talking about the abuser or the abused. This is such a big challenge. We’d like to be able to say education level changes things, that people begin to see that this is wrong, but we don’t see that happening.
ANN: For Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day resource materials, you’ve said that you’re now honing in on specific abuse topics rather than the more umbrella-like treatment of previous years. What themes have yet to be addressed?
Small: While we’ve talked about child abuse, we’ve not specifically targeted child sexual abuse, but I think that—as you can see from the news—this is a huge problem. Similarly, when we’ve talked about spousal abuse, we’ve not talked about the abuser. I think that’s something we’re going to have to deal with. Do we just condemn these people, or do we still consider them children of God? After the abuse itself has been addressed, after the law and social workers have gotten involved, do we seek to rehabilitate the abuser? We also need to find what it is that causes young women to stay with a man who is abusive, even before they’re in a marriage. We’re discovering that quite a lot of domestic violence begins long before the vows are said. We need to ask how we can help young women make the right choices and see themselves as being worthy of something better.