Condemning Violence From the Pulpit

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Rev. Unnia Pettus seemed to have it all. She was an ordained minister, a doctoral student, a Howard University adjunct professor and owner of a public relations firm.

Then there was the private side. For four years, she endured cursing and insults and sometimes pushing and shoving in a romantic relationship with a man who, like her, spent much time in church. "I was told that I was too skinny. I was told that I was too ugly," said Pettus, 39.

Pettus, associate minister at Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland, is among the many ministers in Prince George's County who are expected to discuss domestic violence from the pulpit Sunday as part of "Project Safe Sunday." The five-year-old initiative has been pushed fervently by State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivy as a way to involve one of the most influential institutions in people's lives in battling the problem.

Statistics show that Prince George's has more reported domestic violence cases than any jurisdiction in the state. During the first eight months of this year, there were more than 3,500 cases in District Court, Ivy said.

This year's effort comes in the wake of the highly publicized case of Juanita Bynum, a popular evangelist who was beaten in the parking lot of an Atlanta church by her husband, Bishop Thomas Weeks, with whom she shared a huge international ministry that at one time was based in Prince George's.

"Domestic violence can impact anybody. We all have to be vigilant," Ivy said. "There is no quick fix. I was under no illusion that with 'Project Safe Sunday' we could cure domestic violence in Prince George's County. We need a sustained effort that includes education, as well as enforcement."

This year, Ivy has asked ministers to focus at least some of their efforts on reaching out to those who are committing violence.

Ivy will worship Sunday at the Believers Worship Center in Forestville, where Elder Jeffrey Rustin has admitted that 17 years ago he was abusive in a relationship. "God changed my life around," Rustin said. Rustin said he now helps to teach men how to "love their wives how God loves them."

"The fact of the matter is what happens in the broader community can happen within the body of Christ," said the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church. "The church is not a haven for saints, but a hospital. For the longest time, talking about domestic violence has been off-limits, but it is a vexing problem plaguing our community."

Prince George's has only two shelters for victims of domestic violence, which is "woefully inadequate," Weaver said.

For victims inside the church, which traditionally has not talked about the issue, reaching out can be more difficult, said Pettus, who recently released a book titled "Nobody but God: A Journey of Faith From Tears to Triumph." In it, she talks about a suicide attempt that brought to the surface all of the problems she had kept hidden. "I hit an all-time low," she said. "I drove myself to a drugstore and purchased a bottle of sleeping pills. I wanted to die. I wanted the pain to end."

She said she was admitted to a hospital's psychiatric ward and diagnosed with clinical depression.

"No parent wants their child to suffer through anything," said Beverly Hudgens, Pettus's mother. "She was brought up in the church. I think the church should talk about this kind of stuff."

Today, Pettus ministers to domestic violence victims. She said she regrets trying to take her life and hopes her book will help the faith community deal with the issue.

"The way the church is set up now, it is hard for any churchgoer to talk about the issue," Pettus said. "As a minister, people come to you, but where does the minister go for help and healing?"

© 2007 The Washington Post Company