Standing up for Survivors of Domestic Violence

Sally Steenland interviews Rev. Victoria Ferguson about her work to protect women’s rights and her specific thoughts on faith, domestic violence, and reproductive justice.

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.

Rev. Victoria Ferguson is a chaplain and advocate of women’s rights who works as a family violence protective order compliance officer for DeKalb County, Georgia. She previously worked as a family violence counselor at a women’s prison in Atlanta and as a chaplain at Emory University Hospital. Through her work at the Women’s Resource Center, Victoria strives to enhance community education and engagement within communities of faith and organizations that serve women of color.

Victoria is an ordained Baptist minister and a member of the Minister’s Council at First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia. She has also started an initiative, Kindred Moxie, which works with faith communities, helping equip them to more effectively respond to, address, and prevent intimate-partner and domestic violence.

Sally Steenland: Welcome, Victoria, and thanks for being with us. As you know, October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Let’s start with the comments of Richard Mourdock, who’s running for Senate from Indiana and said in a debate recently that pregnancies resulting from rape are a gift from God and that victims should be denied abortion care. You issued a response that said, “This type of theology further victimizes women who’ve had to endure a horrendous act. Mourdock’s views have nothing to do with God but everything to do with acquiring a dangerous, controlling grip on the lives and decisions of women.”

How rare do you think Mourdock’s views are? Are there variations—like “she asked for it” or “he couldn’t help himself”—that might be more common?

Rev. Victoria Ferguson: The thing that’s shocking to me is if you say God intends [a rape pregnancy] to happen. That’s something I haven’t heard recently. Are there variations? Absolutely. The notion is watered down in many ways. One of the first things someone will say is, “Well, she shouldn’t have been there.” Or, “That’s just something that a man does, so watch yourself.” The variations have this notion that a woman’s body is a commodity and that she brings a violent act upon herself.

SS: These views don’t reflect reality, so I’m going to ask you what the reality is. You’ve worked in churches, prisons, and hospitals, and in advocacy centers with women who are survivors of rape and domestic violence. Tell us what’s really going on.

VF: The reality is about power and control. That’s really the basis of abuse and violence. It’s about one person or entity exerting power over another person or group. I’ve heard personal stories of violence, but I’ve also seen the ways our society has perpetrated violence against women. When I first started work as a chaplain in 2005, I served at a women’s prison called Metrostate Women’s Prison here in Atlanta, and I remember some of the first stories I heard.

Each woman I spoke with over that five-month period disclosed some kind of sexual abuse or violence she had faced as a child, teenager, or adult. It was amazing to hear the impact that sexual abuse has had on their lives.

At the Women’s Resource Center, I worked with a woman who had five children, each about a year apart. She faced so much criticism from peers, family members, and coworkers for these pregnancies. She told me she never wanted to have that many children in such a short time, but her husband had raped her repeatedly. When I hear these stories, I think about the impact of rape on a woman, but also about how our society can re-victimize her.

I also hear success stories from women who come to our safe house and connect with a support system of advocates who help them become independent and able to have a healthier life that does not involve the violent situation they came from. In faith communities the stories are no different. I hear stories of parishioners who come to church and don’t get the help they need.

SS: You are a leader in our faith and reproductive justice leadership here at CAP, and you bring that lens and identity to your work. What are the links for you between faith and domestic violence and reproductive justice?

VF: Faith communities are places that shape our understanding and beliefs about what we consider to be right and wrong. They are a strong part of a person’s consciousness, especially for those raised in churches or synagogues or mosques. Messages from a community of faith can be damaging around sexual violence or they can be liberating. What’s preached and taught in a community of faith helps shape what we believe. If more communities of faith preached more liberating messages of inclusion and gender equality and the importance of each person, it would help make a shift in domestic violence and abuse, and in denying access and reproductive justice to women.

SS: Faith communities in many ways are on the frontlines of these issues. They know the families and women in the congregation. I want to ask you about Kindred Moxie, an initiative you started that helps faith communities prevent and respond to domestic violence.

VF: I created Kindred Moxie to work directly with faith communities. The aim is to connect with each other and to face difficulty with spirit, courage, and love. As advocates working to end domestic violence, we want a coordinated community response, which means different entities and sectors working together to end domestic violence. There’s a collective response that will not tolerate domestic violence, and that’s what we work toward.

Kindred Moxie works to engage communities of faith to be part of this response. I’m a Baptist minister, but work with synagogues and have done a little bit of work with a masjid. Primarily, though, I work with Christian communities.

Initially I sit down with leaders and do an assessment to find out what they’ve done in response to domestic violence—if leaders talk or preach about it, how they’ve responded to instances of domestic violence or stalking in their community—to get a feel for where they are. I talk to them about training and education. It’s important that leaders know how to help and protect the person who’s been victimized, and also how to hold accountable the one who has used violence.

The training and education piece is huge, but the next part is creating a space for healing and support for those who have been victimized. That’s such an important piece—protecting the victim. The survivor of violence has got to be number one, and communities of faith can do a better job creating that space. Holding accountable those who use violence is a huge piece as well. Communities of faith have a responsibility to speak up on this issue.

There have to be partnerships where faith communities are connected to domestic violence agencies in their area; to family violence intervention programs; to their local criminal justice system; and to local law enforcement. Communities of faith need to know more about what help is available.

The message of ending violence can’t just come from a church or court system; it has to come from the collective community. When communities come together, take a stance, and act as a part of a movement, that’s when it ends. That’s what Kindred Moxie works to do—engage communities of faith to be more involved in coordinating a community response.

SS: It’s all connected—direct service and law enforcement, counseling, faith groups, and policy. I want to ask you about policy because sometimes people think it has nothing to do with their lives. The Affordable Care Act actually does make a difference in the lives of women. Its provisions include preventive health services like mammograms, contraceptives at no cost, and screenings for domestic violence.

For instance, a woman who’s been assaulted could be denied insurance if it’s seen as a preexisting condition. Starting in 2014 insurance companies won’t be able to do that. How many people know about this? How can we get the word out?

VF: I’ve found that most women who don’t have access to good health care don’t know about what’s available, so that’s a big problem. There has to be more education coming from faith communities. They need to be more informed about how policies impact the lives of their parishioners. Education can come from women’s organizations, from sororities and community centers, from health care facilities, schools, and places where there are working moms. Court systems too. I work in a local county court in Decatur, Georgia, and we see so many women who come in to prosecute their domestic violence cases and file protective orders. We have a tremendous amount of access.

I would love to see prominent leaders, celebrities, and activists use their platform to spread the word because that can make such a difference. I’ve found that one of the ultimate forms of healing for a survivor is when she becomes an advocate. Once she’s involved in doing the work, she’s in the process of healing and also making an impact. Organizations that do advocacy and policy work can engage survivors to be active when they’re ready.

SS: That’s an important point. It’s healing for the woman, and for the public it can change the face of who a survivor of domestic violence is. All too often there are notions and stereotypes that don’t bear much relation to reality. We have to break the silence, and for survivors to become advocates and speak out is an important way to do that.

VF: Definitely. There’s one other thing I wanted to say. I’ve attended two candlelight vigils for survivors and victims of violence in the past two weeks, and one of the most memorable parts is when survivors share their stories. I play an African drum and the group that I drum with went together. Most of the group members are men and it was one of the first times they heard stories of survivors. It had an impact on them, and that vigil has brought more men to be allies in this movement. As important as it is for survivors to have the space to share their stories, it’s also so important that men are allies and speaking up too, holding other men accountable for using violence.

SS: I have one last question and it is about the work that you do, which is really challenging. Every day you get up and you face your day, and I imagine many of those days are hard. What gives you the energy to get through the day? And if you have glimmers or shining beams of hope every now and then, what gives you that?

VF: Thank you for asking that. There are several things that give me energy. First and foremost I truly feel called by God, by the divine, to do this work. As a minister I feel that a huge part of the work I’ve been called to do is around healing. And that’s what this is—a way to create safer communities for women and girls, to end violence and have true equality and love in our communities. I’m also energized by the survivors I meet and talk to.

There’s a support group in the Women’s Resource Center safe house, and each week I hear stories from women who have endured, and it’s just amazing to me that they are able to share what they’ve experienced. So I get energized and feel very responsible to do the best work I can when I hear those stories and when I meet amazing survivors and their children. One of the other things that truly energizes me is engaging with other leaders involved with social change work. To hear and listen and strategize with others is very energizing to me. I get really motivated thinking about how we can make more of an impact, hearing what has been successful for you, and what things you have done, and what hasn’t worked. That provides emotional support for me and also intellectual stimulation. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, wondering if this is making a difference and thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’ve been doing this for so long.”

I work as a compliance officer with men who have used violence. Even seeing a shift in their lives is fulfilling—to meet someone who has to be part of a six-month intervention program, and to see where they start and where they finish, can be energizing. You think, “OK, I can see there’s an impact being made here.”

What gives me hope is to have the opportunity to plant seeds. I’ve learned in doing this work that you can’t really gauge success in numbers because you don’t always get to see the immediate impact. It takes time in social change work. I truly get hope from the opportunity to have a conversation with someone, engage them about their own experience and see how we can be allies and find ways to be more effective in this work.

SS: I like your phrase about planting seeds. If you go out the next day you can’t see the seeds above ground yet—it takes a while for them to grow. Not every seed you plant will grow, but you’ll never get a garden unless you plant the seeds.

VF: Definitely. And I thank you so much for the opportunity to do this work with the Center for American Progress as a part of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, where we can create a space to be more informed and think about how to be more effective.

For communities of faith, and with Kindred Moxie, it’s so important to speak out. What you preach about, what you talk about, what we say to others and put into the universe truly makes an impact. I hope that each of us, including those listening and reading, will recognize that our voice truly makes an impact, that when we speak up, when we are a true ally in a movement, we make a difference. I want each person interested in this work to know that you make a difference just by speaking up and being present.

SS: I say amen!

VF: Amen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page. 

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative