Adventists Must Emphasize Abuse
Prevention Year Round, Leader Says
Small advocates community, government partnerships against abuse
BY ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Adventist News Network
xcuses cannot be part of the church’s message against abuse. So says Heather-Dawn Small, the Trinidadian who helps craft the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s approach to abuse prevention.
Since she began directing Women’s Ministries for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in 2001, Small, 50, has dealt with reluctance by some members and leaders to admit the reality of abuse. She applauded the church when it voted to add an Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day to its calendar of special Sabbaths; it is now held the fourth Sabbath of every August. But with local pastors telling her that 70 to 80 percent of their home counseling focuses on domestic abuse, she says the remaining 364 days are just as vital.
Given her ambitious travel schedule, it’s fortunate that the former director of Children’s and Women’s Ministries for the Caribbean Union is fond of flying. But helping church members respect each other and become partners in the church’s ministry is what propels her.
NO EXCUSES: The Adventist Church's annual Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day, held in August, is part of a wide-ranging effort to curtail abuse within and outside of the church by changing attitudes, says Heather-Dawn Small, Woman's Ministries director for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. [Photo: Megan Brauner/ANN]
Small recently spoke about the church’s responsibility to convince every member that abuse is unconscionable, regardless of culture or upbringing. And, she explained that while the church is not equipped to comprehensively handle abuse, it can and should serve as a conduit, connecting abused women to local legal and counseling agencies. Excerpts:
Adventist News Network: Since the Adventist Church established Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day, what specifically has been addressed?
Heather-Dawn Small: We’ve focused on child abuse and domestic violence, particularly spousal abuse, which is a big problem. During the first couple of years, most of what we emphasized was creating an awareness of abuse in general. It’s only in recent years that we’ve begun to deal very specifically with topics, such as Abuse of Power, which is this year’s theme.
ANN: Are your efforts well received?
Small: We’ve generally gotten very good feedback. There are those people who still think, ‘Well, do we really need to handle this in the church?’ or ‘Do we have to bring this up on Sabbath?’ But that attitude is getting rarer. It’s more like it was long overdue that the church would actually have an Abuse Prevention Day and that materials would be provided.
ANN: You travel extensively. Where do you find that the church’s anti-abuse message is best latching on and what tactics seem to be most effective?
Small: I just got back from Uganda and Kenya. In Africa, there is definitely a lot of progress being made. Because of the culture in some of these countries, abuse to some extent is almost regarded as a “right” of the husband. I know in the Caribbean, where I come from, that was a longstanding problem. It isn’t now, but it took years and years to reverse that thinking. In countries where that mindset is still pervasive, the church is partnering with governments and other churches to speak out against it and launch programs that will sweep through the community, not just within the church. It’s more effective than for us to try to do it on our own. If there is a community-based program or government initiative against domestic violence already there, why shouldn’t we join them?
ANN: What would you single out as one of the biggest challenges the church faces in working to end abuse?
Small: There’s very little we can do to immediately change the mindset of the man, and sometimes even the woman. As we keep talking about [abuse prevention], attitudes slowly change. You see, it doesn’t happen overnight. Some people may think, ‘OK, fine, we’ve talked about abuse,’ and then forget about it, but it’s only as we reiterate our message and keep it at the forefront that things begin to change.
ANN: How far-reaching is the church’s message against abuse? Are there limits to what the church can accomplish?
Small: Our goal is to create environments where women feel safe opening up. I think that’s one of the roles that a Women’s Ministries department fills -- it’s a place where women can feel safe approaching a leader or another woman and saying, ‘Listen, I have a problem.’ This has happened to me countless times as I’ve traveled and I always try to connect these women with a social worker through the local Women’s Ministries director. As a church, we are not equipped to properly handle addressing the abuse itself, even though we are creating an awareness of the problem. That’s why we have to partner with legal and counseling agencies that are already in the community.
ANN: You’ve said that it’s difficult to change ingrained attitudes toward abuse. At what age can children begin to learn appropriate behavior patterns so that new generations can hopefully reverse old thinking?
Small: In South America, the church has a program targeting elementary children. They create characters and stories with pictures that teach kids about child abuse and domestic violence. There are materials available, people go into the schools dressed up as these characters -- they sing, they act, and the kids learn how to respect others and how to respect themselves. Their theme right now is Abuse of the Elderly. I visited Brazil earlier this year and was amazed by how well thought-out the program is. And when we start with the children, we’re looking at the next generation coming up. When we put into their minds the importance of respect for others and themselves, I think that message is going to stay with them, and it’s having an impact on their parents as well.
ANN: Have you noticed any factors that seem to influence attitudes toward abuse?
Small: Social standing and education levels, unfortunately, mean nothing, whether we’re talking about the abuser or the abused. This is such a big challenge. We’d like to be able to say education level changes things, that people begin to see that this is wrong, but we don’t see that happening.