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Adventist anti-abuse message faces mixed results in reaching local churches

ANN correspondents report from local churches worldwide August 22, church's Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day

Adventist anti-abuse message faces mixed results in reaching local churches

The Seventh-day Adventist Church's Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day is a church-wide initiative, not just a Women's Ministries event says Raquel Arrais, associate director of Women's Ministries for the Adventist world church. Above, Arrais in Argentina in April. [photo: Wiliane Marroni/ANN]

A survey of dozens of Seventh-day Adventist congregations worldwide reveals that the denomination's anti-abuse initiative is reaching local churches with varying degrees of success.

Adventist News Network (ANN) sent dozens of correspondents to Adventist congregations worldwide on August 22, the day of this year's annual Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day, an event on the world church's calendar.

Survey results at local churches varied widely, even within countries. Some churches featured an entire sermon on abuse from a pastor with counseling experience. Other congregations noted the day with an announcement delivered from the platform or printed in the bulletin. At some churches, leadership seemed unaware that the Adventist world church promoted such a program.

ANN editors note that their survey is not scientific and does not accurately reflect the implementation of the program in any part of the world.

Church leaders from several departments have said the success of any international initiative relies on the communication between departments and across world regions. Some have suggested the abuse-prevention message is more difficult to implement in some regions because of the cultural taboo of talking about abuse in public.

"This is not a topic that's easy," said Ron Flowers, co-director of the church's Family Ministries at the Adventist world church. "I remember when we started this, my local pastor at the time was really resistant."

The Adventist Church holds its Abuse Prevention Emphasis Sabbath annually on the fourth Sabbath, or Saturday, of each August. Church leaders launched the initiative in 2001, noting that occurrences such as domestic violence and sexual abuse happen in Christian homes at rates similar to the general population. The first steps to fight abuse, they said, are awareness and education.

Last Sabbath, ANN correspondents in numerous countries were asked to attend any local Adventist congregation and observe the service for anti-abuse messages and then interview the pastor or another spokesperson following the service.

While many church services didn't mention anything about abuse, some spokespeople said they hold the day another time during the year. Other churches didn't mark the day but feature ongoing help for victims, ranging from a prominent link on their Web site to signs and brochures in the women's restrooms.

In one country, only one out of nine surveyed congregations did anything to mark the day. Follow-up interviews suggested that leaders at those congregations weren't aware of the anti-abuse initiative.

The abuse prevention initiative is sponsored jointly by the church's Children's Ministries, Family Ministries, Health Ministries, Women's Ministries, Youth department, Education department and Ministerial Association.

"I have to say I'm disappointed," Flowers said after learning of some survey results. "I'm very thankful for the positive responses, but my sympathies lie with the one who said, 'We didn't know,' and 'We missed a grand opportunity this past Sabbath in our country.'"

"I realize that in a lot of places the communication pipeline is broken or it's not very well staffed," Flowers said.

Correspondents didn't have to travel far to find people who hadn't heard of the initiative. An associate director of the church's Education department on Monday at the church's world headquarters said he had never heard of the special day of emphasis.

The pattern of leaders not knowing of the initiative was repeated in many churches across several countries. But many churches did promote the initiative, either by using resources provided by the world church headquarters or produced in their own regions.

One church in Australia featured a bulletin announcement provided by the church region's Domestic Violence Taskforce. The announcement encouraged church members to use a provided notecard to send a message to "someone who has loved and respected you as a unique person and child of God." National church publications in Australia and New Zealand also featured the initiative in this month's issues.

The initiative played out differently throughout the world. The Women's Ministries department of a church in Nigeria featured a 10-minute program about abuse during Saturday's service, which was also promoted in the previous week's bulletin. In Peru, a pastor preached a sermon about abuse, drawing illustrations from his book on the issue.

In South Korea, a church service focused on why some people choose to remain in violent relationships and what can be done to help them.

"In Korea, this is a very uncomfortable topic to address, especially in public," one correspondent reported.

Many church regions hold an abuse prevention day during another time of the year, including parts of Europe, the Philippines and parts of Argentina.

In some parts of the world, the topic of abuse is rarely discussed. One correspondent said that women in her country are sometimes told that their husbands don't love them unless they beat them.

"Maybe it's not a high priority," the correspondent said. "There are so many other [things to take care of], like how to feed the 48 orphans this church has adopted."

In the United States, one church featured a sermon that used PowerPoint slides from the initiative's Web page. In Sierra Leone, a sermon was preached on this issue -- not by the regular pastor but by a "respected woman" in the congregation, an ANN correspondent reported.

While church leaders are grateful for promotion from local church Women's Ministries departments, some say the success of the worldwide program might hinge on the degree of participation from other ministries in the church.

"Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day is not a Women's Ministries program, it's a church event where all are called to be involved," said Raquel Arrais, associate Women's Ministries director at the Adventist world church headquarters. "We need help from leaders who are pastors, heads of departments. This is a team effort."

Despite what she called "sad" results, Arrais said she refused to be negative. Many world regions, she said, have taken the initiative and turned it into one of their most effective days of community outreach. Adventist leaders in some countries partner with other churches and governments to speak out against abuse.

"We've been growing this year by year in terms of putting the word out and telling church leaders that we have a church that cares about abuse and is doing something about it," she said.

"We have a ways to go," Arrais said. "But I'm not looking back, I'm looking forward. Maybe next year your [survey results] will be better."

--Additional reporting by Banwo Adebayo, Oyin Adediran, Oyetunji Akinola, Paul Simba Arati, Lauri Beekmann, Aditi Bhaduri, S. Bindas, Rajmund Dabrowski, Joe Dangana, Malou Escasa, Jessica Escoto, Mayowa Fadele, Jennifer Frehn, Ivette Hernandez, Akin Jegede, Katharina Künzel, Harwood Lockton, Alexandra E. Marek, Pablo Moisés, Beryl A. Nyamwange, Paul Ogaga, Israel Oyinloye, Orville Parchment, Rebecca Reye, Maike Stepanek, Armon Perez Tolentino and other contributors