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Raising Domestic Abuse Awareness

Domestic abuse survivor Bethzaida Garcia advocates that every church should offer safety and resources for victims.

Some topics are hard to talk about at church. As a domestic violence survivor, Bethzaida Garcia knows a victim may feel shame, and wonder how other Christians will respond. She also knows poor advice, even if well intentioned, can be dangerous or even deadly.

Garcia, 45, moved from Puerto Rico to Florida in 2001 to escape an abusive marriage. She joined Calvario City Church in Orlando and started a ministry for abused women. She also continued her education and started a nonprofit, Life in Your Hands, which helps victims and works to educate churches, law enforcement, school personnel, and other community leaders. She wants women who have been abused to be able to find support and resources at church.

God has opened doors toward that goal. In addition to advocacy work, Garcia is now employed by the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office as public relations coordinator, using her own experience and her psychology training to create social media and advertising campaigns. A recent horrific murder in the county brought domestic violence into public focus, and Garcia hopes the young mother’s tragic death will lead to tougher laws and increased support for the injured party.

As an advocate, Garcia risks danger if abusers find out victims have contacted her or attended a group.

“In my job with the county, I spend much of my day near armed law enforcement officers, and I know them well enough to call them directly,” Garcia says. “That’s extra protection for me, and it adds credibility to the stories of victims I work with.”

Garcia wants to equip church leaders to respond properly to those who have been harmed, both those suffering in silence and those who venture to ask for help.

“There’s so much bad advice from misinterpreting the Bible,” says Garcia. “Leaders absolutely must learn to ask the right questions.”

She says the first priority should be the safety of the maltreated adult and any children involved. Victims often minimize their situation for so long that their sense of right and wrong is skewed, and they may be in serious danger without realizing it, according to Garcia. Those who decide to seek help may feel safer calling a ministry than law enforcement, so pastors should be approachable and familiar with local resources, she says. Simple steps such as flyers in restrooms or a support group announcement in the bulletin can help the mistreated see church as a supportive place. (For safety, Garcia recommends meetings be held in conjunction with other church events and the actual location disclosed only to attendees.)

Garcia recently helped Calvario City Church organize Safe Family Sunday, involving the congregation in awareness and training. Area law enforcement attended, and lead pastor Saturnino Gonzalez addressed the topic in his sermon.

“It’s not just a women’s issue; some men are also victims,” Garcia says. “It’s really hard when the abuser is in the same church, skillfully hiding the behavior or even misusing the Bible to justify it.”

With an estimated one out of four women having experienced domestic abuse, few congregations have been untouched. The Florida Multicultural District — where Gonzalez is superintendent — is proactively addressing this and other family problems such as child abuse and pornography addiction.

“We realized families don’t look the same as they used to,” Gonzalez says. “There are more single parents and blended families, and more issues that create potential for problems.”

District leadership implemented the Family Network, directed by Luis De Jesús Ginestre and Claribel Hernández Colón, as an umbrella ministry providing an extra layer of training and accountability for men’s, women’s, children’s, and youth ministries. With assistance from Garcia, the goal is to identify or train a resource person for each of the district’s 10 sections. De Jesús says several sectional representatives are already in place.

Garcia hopes every local women’s ministry will include a unit about domestic violence study. Toward that end, National Women’s Ministries has partnered with Garcia to develop study materials, available for download on the website.

“Nobody should have to face the shame, fear, and danger of abuse alone,” Garcia says.

IMAGE: Beth Garcia (left) is assisted by volunteers Keishla Febres (center) and Millie Montijo at a Life in Your Hands outreach.

Cynthia J Thomas

Cynthia J. Thomas worked for Assemblies of God U.S. Missions for six years before becoming primary caregiver for her father, a World War II veteran. She has served as a counselor for victims of domestic violence and women facing crisis pregnancies. Cindy and her husband, Phil, a schoolteacher, volunteer in youth outreach and have three adult children and one granddaughter.