In 2016, a new handbook, Domestic Violence and Faith Communities: Guidelines for Leaders, was published as a cooperative venture between New York state and New York Theological Seminary (NYTS).
The document was more than a year in the making. It came about as a result of conversations between the heads of two state bureaus — Gwen Wright, executive director of the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (OPDV), and Karim Camara, executive director and deputy commissioner of the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based Community Development Services.
Years earlier, the OPDV had compiled information about domestic violence and faith communities. The new document uses that data and also includes input from individuals of various faiths throughout New York state.
A graduate of NYTS, Camara turned to the school’s president, Dale Irvin, to see if the seminary could assist in setting up conversations with church leaders. The school’s embrace of diverse constituencies made it a good partner.
“NYTS realizes that domestic violence is a big issue among our constituencies,” says Irvin. “The materials we use in our classrooms are specifically Christian, and for this topic we needed to reach the Islamic community, the Buddhist community, the Jewish community — as many faith leaders as possible. The guidelines document is for more than just Protestant pastors and Catholic priests.”
The document’s reviewers included T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki of the Buddhist Council of New York, Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis, and Rachelle Sat’chell Robinson of Deep Well Ministry and First Shiloh Baptist Church of Buffalo. Leaders from Catholic Charities of New York also reviewed the document. NYTS graduate T. A. Bashir, a psychologist who directs the House of Peace in New York and who has made it his mission to help victims of domestic violence in the Muslim community, provided much of the information for Muslim leaders.
In November 2016, a one-day interfaith event on the connections between domestic violence and spiritual abuse was convened in Albany. The response to the event and to the guidelines was overwhelmingly positive.
“Some faith leaders, even with advanced degrees, had no idea how to deal with domestic violence issues,” says Camara. “For example, religious curricula may address the religious aspect of violence, but often don’t touch on the legal issues.”
“The fact that Karim’s office exists allowed us to move forward on this project with tremendous support,” says Wright, while noting that this type of collaboration can be difficult because of church-state issues. “Working with an office created to deal with faith-based community services was a huge help in allowing us to navigate that territory.”
Irvin would like to see similar efforts in other states. “Theological schools or clusters of schools could reach out to whatever government agencies are available. A particular state may not have a governmental faith-based office or an office of domestic violence, but many do have some entity with a focus on preventing domestic violence,” he says. “Tell them you want to help adapt this document for faith leaders in your state. Laws about clergy reporting and confidentiality, as well as domestic violence, differ from state to state.”
Wright says that schools in other states who want to work on a similar project are welcome to contact her office. “Don’t reinvent the wheel. We learned a lot through this process, and we can talk about any challenges. We are happy to share what we know with anyone who wants to produce a similar document.”
For Irvin, NYTS involvement in this project was gratifying. “You hear about religious leaders instructing a couple to stay in an abusive relationship because marriage is sacred. But we found that leaders wanted permission to say something different, and we created materials that say that no religious tradition supports violence, across the board. When people read the guidelines, their response is ‘Thank you. This is what we are looking for.’”