“Pastors don’t have all the answers:” Safe Haven helps pastors recognize, respond to abuse

Posted at 9:12 AM, Jan 31, 2017

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Nina Vanharn is as strong as the coffee she drinks.

"[My] coffee machine is what got me through half of my abusive lifestyle." Vanharn said. The abuse she speaks of is from her marriage. But when she went to her church for help, she says the response she got was that what she was experiencing was normal.

That's why Safe Haven Ministries is working with pastors to better recognize abuse.

"I think part of it is a denial that this is happening," said Vanharn.

She was forced into an an arranged marriage when she was 19. "Growing up in a really conservative Christian household, we believed that fathers would pick the spouses for their daughters," Vanharn said.

Nina Vanharn

Nina Vanharn

Her marriage eventually turned sour from both emotional and sexual abuse. "It was a lot of demeaning and putting down and criticizing," Vanharn said. "I was told how I was supposed to respond to things. I'd have to repeat it continuously until I got it right. It was my fault if he would get angry at me. That was my fault for making him angry, for not obeying well enough, or not speaking in the just the right tone of voice when making my requests."

One out of four women will experience domestic violence in her life. Safe Haven, a non-profit that provides shelter and services to abused women and children, is hoping to turn those numbers around by partnering with 100 local churches.

"Often times, domestic violence is silent in the churches," said Cindy Sielawa, executive director of Safe Haven Ministries. "Our victims will disclose to the clergy, and then where does it go from there?"

Pastor Hopkins, Shawnee Park CRC

Pastor Hopkins, Shawnee Park CRC

Pastor Nicholas Hopkins of Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church admits there's a certain denial when it comes to domestic violence. "We don’t like to think that domestic violence has a place in our faith community," he said. "We like to think that this would generally be a pretty safe place and for us to then look around and acknowledge the need because of the abuse. It’s really a hard thing for us to admit."

Now, Hopkins and Kenneth Elliott, pastor at Bethel Seventh Day Adventist Church, are hoping to stop violence before it starts.

Elliot says churches have been silent for far too long.

Pastor Elliott, Bethel

Pastor Elliott, Bethel

"Domestic violence is something that you know too often we want to sort of brush under or soften it down, but the reality is, it is real," Elliot said.

Hopkins still remembers the first time a woman came to him about the trauma she was experiencing. Unaware of how to handle the situation, Hopkins turned to Safe Haven for help. "I was thankful to have them as a resource," Hopkins said.

"The reality of life is that the pastors don’t have all the answers," Elliott said.

That's why Safe Haven is teaching pastors to recognize, respond and refer if violence is present.

It's an effort Vanharn is supporting, hoping others will be able to find their peaceful moment, maybe with a cup of coffee or good book.

It's important to note that Safe Haven serves all religions, not just Christians.

Plus, they're expanding, bringing their residential and non-residential programs under one roof. They've raised $2 million of the $4 million they need. They're hoping to break ground by March.

If you want to donate or want more information, click here.