The date was 1960. A few women met together in the basement of St. Phillip's Church. Not to do volunteer work. Not to plan a holiday banquet. Not to choose a theme for vacation bible school. The true purpose was clandestine. Hidden. Shrouded in silence to the outside world. Incomprehensible.
Martha tightly closed the door. Six o'clock. A tranquil quiet hovered over the small band of renegade soldiers. Each month they traveled from different cities. Soundless greetings. Knowing expressions. Misty eyes met and held. Camaraderie filled the damp and dusty room. The women sat in silence for several minutes. Sighs of relief escaped. Masks dropped. Courage dissipated. Frozen feelings thawed. Plastic smiles faded.
Martha usually spoke first and today was no different. "Another member has joined our support group. I want to introduce Kate." Last names were not mentioned and some used an alias.
Martha introduced Emma, Sue, Judy, Betty, Jane, and Golda.
"Welcome Kate," they chanted in unison.
Emma wore a blond wig and clothes purchased from thrift stores. Her disguises were laughable, but her reasons were not.
Emma lowered her sunglasses and remarked, "Your secret is safe with us."
Kate gasped. Emma's eye gleamed purple and blue. Tears rolled down Emma's face and quickly turned into hysterical sobbing. The group understood.
"I just want to die!" Emma's voice quivered. Sue tried to comfort her.
Emma continued, "Both of my eyes were swollen last month. I arrived late from the doctor's office and he accused me of having an affair. Then for the next two weeks he told the congregation that I had contracted a foreign flu." The group chuckled at the excuse used to hide the physical abuse.
"I guess he thinks he's fooling God too!" Judy exclaimed. Judy's husband, the pastor of a large church, often beat her into submission. "If I die mysteriously, call the police," she often joked. Martha knew humor masked her fear. Judy called the police once after a severe beating, but they only recommended that her husband spend the night at a local hotel. When he returned the next morning, he destroyed her good China dishes and threatened to leave her penniless and homeless in a divorce settlement.
'Kate, we're all ministers' wives." Betty hung her head in shame as she commented. Sweet Betty. It took the group several months to convince her that the abuse from her husband was undeserved. The verbal wounds hurled by her spouse murdered her self-confidence long ago. Her weight ballooned out of control but it kept her husband from being so jealous of other men in the church. With her gray hair pinned up in a bun, long dresses, and no make-up, Betty looked older than her fifty-five years. Her two sons were in college and rarely came home for a visit. Betty knew why.
Martha pulled the well-worn paperback book from her oversized purse. She began to read. Hope jumped into their shattered souls for a few short hours. The darkness seemed less ominous. The book, written by a pastor and author, discussed domestic violence in the church.
Judy remarked, "The book says we need to tell the deacons and the church board."
Emma cried, "Sue tried that and now everyone thinks she's crazy!" Sue's husband admitted her to a psychiatric hospital when she told the secret. The doctor prescribed medication and bed-rest.
"Just call me crazy Sue!" The group chuckled. If they didn't laugh, they would cry.
Jane tapped her manicured nails as she listened. With her exquisite hair and designer clothes, she looked like a movie star. Her husband, a well-known television evangelist, traveled a lot. Jane was the only woman in the group who used her power. She threatened to go public if her husband did not stop the abuse. He stopped. He had too much to lose.
"I tried to leave my husband once, but he took the children and hired a fancy attorney, so I went back," Jane fumed and continued, "But if he ever has another affair, I'm gone for good!" The group knew Jane would never leave. She liked her luxurious lifestyle. Besides, her afternoon martinis' deadened her depression.
"Why do you stay?" Kate boldly questioned the group. Kate visited a counselor weekly. "If Mark doesn't go to counseling with me then I'm leaving him." Kate married only one year, epitomized the younger generation.
The group admired her courage. "Where do we go and how do we support ourselves?" Betty questioned, "Who would believe that a pastor would point a gun at his wife and dare her to tell anyone?"
Golda, married to a rabbi, was the only Jewish woman in the group. "Where am I to go with my six children?" she asked Kate. "I have no job, no education, and no money."
Kate offered the name of her counselor to the group. They declined.
Martha reminded the women about the list of covert private residences where they could find temporary safety. There were no domestic violence shelters and the legal system did not like to intervene in family disputes.
"It's time to take a closer look at the scriptures." Martha was determined to prove the Bible did not condone violence in a marriage or in any relationship. Her abusive husband died of a heart attack four years ago. Emma envied Martha and wished her spouse would die, but this desire brought guilt and shame.
Martha explained the popular verses some pastors misused to control their wives: Genesis 3:16, Ephesians 5:22 & 24, 1st Peter 3:1, Malachi 2:16, and 1st Timothy 2:11.
"Read on," Sue urged.
Martha turned to 1st Samuel 25:1, and read the story about Abigail and Nabal. "God released Abigail from a nasty and violent husband." The women found comfort in the story. The words gave them strength, comfort, and hope. The sanative words soothed their spirits.
"If I kill myself would I go to heaven?" Betty asked Martha.
"Betty, please move in with me. I'll help you! Death is not the solution!" Martha hugged Betty tightly. Martha's house was a haven for abused women and children.
"Kate, I stay because of my children and because I love him. He's a good father and provider. He doesn't abuse our kids. He only hits me after he's drank too much communion wine." Mary blamed the violence on the alcohol. "God hates divorce and so do I. My marriage vows said for better or for worse."
"Good fathers don't abuse the mothers of their children." Kate replied firmly.
"You don't have kids and you don't understand!" Mary shouted as the tears flowed.
"It's almost time to go. Let's end in prayer." Martha listed each person by name with heartfelt words of encouragement and safety.
The women put on their plastic smiles again. "See you next month," echoed from trembling lips.
Martha stood by the door and hugged each person as they exited the dreary basement.
Three weeks later Martha and Kate stood beside the casket at the funeral home. It was too risky for the other group members to attend. Rain poured from the opaque sky.
The group was solemn at the next meeting. Betty's suicide traumatized the group. Words stuck in their throats. Martha broke the silence with uncontrollable sobbing. The group looked shocked. Martha, their anchor and rock, was not supposed to give up hope. Golda and Sue tried to comfort Martha.
"You did all you could," Emma gently stated.
At the next meeting, Kate made an astounding announcement. "My husband resigned from the church. He told the church board about our problems. He confessed that he abuses me and promised to stop." A small ray of hope began to shine in their souls. Sue asked for the name of Kate's counselor.
"I've made a decision too," Judy commented, "I'm divorcing my husband. I'm tired of being a victim."
Martha replied, "Judy, I'll help you make a safety plan."
"I'm ready for you to take pictures of my bruises in case I want to show the district superintendent of our church or find an attorney," Judy firmly stated.
"Judy, what if your husband finds you and kills you?" Emma cried.
All eyes turned toward Judy. "I guess I'll buy a gun or move to another state."
Martha shared her news. "I'm going to begin speaking to faith based groups about domestic violence in Christian homes, churches, and synagogues. "The time is ripe for change. It's time to help victims become survivors. It won't be easy but I have to try!" The women clapped.
Martha ended the group with prayer. Leaving the musty basement, they strolled into the fresh air.
Melissa writes about the God and human connection and condition.