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Clergywoman shares domestic violence story

 October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. A United Methodist clergywoman shares her story so others can be spared from domestic violence.
A UMNS photo illustration by Ronny Perry.

A UMNS Report
By Annette Spence*
Oct. 23, 2007

She is attractive. Some say she's aloof. Others say she is strong and confident.

She is a United Methodist clergywoman who tells her story with relatively little emotion — except when she speaks of her children, which makes her cry, or when she remembers the clock.

The sound of a chiming clock triggers frightening memories.

"I’m OK today, but if I hear a clock chime, it can bring it all back," she says.

The clock was in the house where she lived for six months. It was the house she left in the middle of the night, in fear for her life, never to return or to speak to her husband again.

The clock chimed the hours of her abuse.

She wants to share her story so that others can be saved from domestic violence. But she requests anonymity because of the nature of the details, so we’ll call her Elaine.

Charismatic and charming

Elaine was in her early 40s, recently divorced, when she met the man she would date for years before marrying him. He was charismatic and charming. "He could talk the birds out of the trees. He could get you to like him in two minutes," she recalls.

He was also a preacher, whose skills greatly impressed a woman who had just left a long marriage with low self-esteem. "He was a powerful preacher, good on his feet," Elaine remembers. "He was a master at pulling people in."

During their engagement, she saw disturbing patterns of behavior, "but I was in love," she says. "I had seen his anger, and I knew he drank some, but I had never experienced alcoholism in my life."

"I honestly think, if I hadn’t had my kids, I would have found a way to kill myself."

Elaine sold all that she had, married the preacher and she and her children moved with him to a parsonage in a new town. "I gave up a great job at another church, so obviously I loved him dearly."

Within a few weeks, the newlyweds were attending an out-of-town conference when Elaine saw a horrifying side of her new husband. He woke her in the middle of the night, throwing objects at the bed, accusing her of infidelity, screaming obscenities and threatening her life.

The incident was "completely out of the blue," Elaine says. The next day, the preacher was fine, but his wife was not. She was "devastated," thinking that she had made a colossal mistake.

"It was the first time I had ever considered suicide," she says of her experience a decade earlier. "I honestly think, if I hadn’t had my kids, I would have found a way to kill myself."

Elaine stumbled through her depression until two weeks later, her husband exhibited his violent temper during a cookout with clergy friends. Her friends expressed fear and concern, while Elaine tried to rationalize that her husband was under stress in his new appointment.

More time went by, with her husband waking her in terror almost every night. He threw things at her and "ranted and raved," but he didn’t hit her … until the night that her young son had a friend stay over.

Drunk and abusive

On that night, her husband lined up five glasses of scotch and announced that he was going to get drunk.

Her husband became drunk and abusive, so she steered him to the outdoor deck to keep the children from hearing. When he threw a glass of scotch and ice cubes in her face, she tried to make her way to the bedroom.

The preacher followed her to the bedroom, his fury escalating. He slammed the closet door on Elaine’s hand, leaving a gouge and a scar that exists today.

When he slapped and punched her in the face and head, the children heard it all. "He could have hit me all day without doing that," Elaine says tearfully.

Weeks later, Elaine discovered empty bottles of liquor and prescription medications. She came to accept that her husband had substance abuse and mental issues. She panicked and searched for a way out. She worried that no one would believe her because her husband was a pastor.

Although he constantly accused her of infidelity, Elaine didn’t understand why. All she wanted was to be happily married to him. She drove by a mental hospital one day and fantasized about checking herself in so she could get a good night’s sleep.

One night, her husband cornered her in the bathroom and spat in her face 15 times. "I remember, because all I could do to keep from killing him was to count the number of times."

The clock chimed.

Her last night

On her last night in the parsonage, the couple had watched a movie together and Elaine was on her way to bed when her husband suddenly blocked her way. "You’re shaking like a yellow dog," he said, before punching her in the face.

Elaine barricaded herself in the guest bedroom while her husband angrily went to get an ax to chop open the door.

"I was forever looking over my shoulder, afraid that one day my husband would find me and hurt me or hurt my children."

Then he did something that made Elaine leave him forever. He opened the door to her elementary age-daughter’s bedroom. When Elaine heard him scream at her daughter, she flew out of the bedroom and pushed past him. She swept up her terrified child and ran to the car.
They fled to the home of church friends where they lived and recuperated for several weeks.

Elaine returned to her old job, where she was embraced by the church community. Money showed up unexpectedly in envelopes. Furniture was bought. At church one day, a friend said, "I have a pink twin-sized bed frame for your daughter, but I don’t have a mattress." Within five minutes, another friend said, "I don’t have a bed frame for it, but I have a twin mattress that you can have."

Elaine and her children still suffered, of course. Besides losing 40 pounds from stress-related ailments, Elaine continued to live in "paralyzing fear."

"I was forever looking over my shoulder, afraid that one day my husband would find me and hurt me or hurt my children," she says. "I read myself to sleep at night so I wouldn’t have to think. I always had to face the door in a restaurant so I could see who came and went."

The bishop and Elaine’s clergy friends were very supportive. Her husband also received support and counseling, although the couple eventually divorced and he lost his ministerial credentials.

A healing moment

Elaine believes that she was healed one day during a reflective time as she sat on a bench outside her church. She sensed God saying to her, "At the end of your life, it’s only going to be you and me. This is the only relationship that you’re going to be involved in."

"My story has a happy ending. My church helped me get back on my feet …"

Suddenly, "it didn’t matter where I was, who I was with, or what happened to me," Elaine says. "Even if I’m out on the street, I’ll be OK. It was a moment of total surrender, and my fear left me."

In the years since her marriage, Elaine’s experience and compassion have quietly led to ministries that help many people in crisis.

"This is definitely a time when I can see that everything in my life was pointing to where I am today," she says, on a busy weekday morning in her church office. "My story has a happy ending. My church helped me get back on my feet with furniture and household goods to help me with a new start. … They had not only read Matthew 25:35-36, but were living it."

*Spence is the editor of The Call, the newspaper of the Holston Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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