Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly referred to Unnia Pettus as associate pastor of Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland. She is associate minister.

Abusers and Victims Told to Get Help

Yvette Cade, who nearly died when her estranged husband set her afire at her workplace, speaks at Believers Worship Center in Forestville.
Yvette Cade, who nearly died when her estranged husband set her afire at her workplace, speaks at Believers Worship Center in Forestville. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007

The Rev. Bucas Sterling III had a special message yesterday for his congregation at Kettering Baptist Church: If you are in an abusive relationship, you should get help, whether you are the victim or the victimizer.

Sterling was among dozens of Prince George's County ministers who made domestic violence the centerpiece of their sermons as part of the fifth annual observance of Project Safe Sunday, aimed at drawing the county's clergy and churchgoers into efforts to stem domestic violence.

"This is not something that only happens outside the church," Sterling told his members. "It is something that happens in the church. It happens in the pulpit. I have dealt with it in this congregation."

Statistics compiled by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence show that more domestic violence cases were filed in Prince George's than in any jurisdiction in the state in the past five years. In fiscal 2006, 5,225 cases were filed in Prince George's. The next closest jurisdiction was Baltimore, with 4,190 cases.

The District Court in Prince George's handled 3,500 domestic violence cases in the first eight months of this year, and there were 13 domestic violence killings in Prince George's last year, said State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D). The cases included the slaying of Reina Natasha Lynch, 26, of Bowie, who was fatally shot Nov. 11 at a FedEx facility in Beltsville, where she worked as a security guard, by Fabian A. Shim, 41, of Forestville after a child-support dispute.

Ivey said this year's observance focused on the perpetrators.

"If you don't deal with the batterers, they just find somebody else to batter, so we have to get ahead of that," Ivey said. "It's not enough to get help for the victims. We've got to focus more attention on the perpetrators."

The annual observance was started in 2003 by Ivey and Debra Williams, whose sister, Ernestine Bunn Dyson, was killed in a domestic violence murder-suicide.

The project has brought local programs designed to help victims and perpetrators, such as the nonprofit House of Ruth and the Family Crisis Center of Prince George's County, to county churches.

At Kettering and at the Believers Worship Center in Forestville yesterday, interns from the House of Ruth passed out literature and fielded questions. Kettering's printed weekly bulletin included a pull-out section with telephone numbers for police services, counseling programs and facilities that help substance abusers, among others.

Also on hand at Believers were Yvette Cade, who suffered near-fatal injuries in October 2005 when her estranged husband doused her with gasoline and set her afire, and Keymari Huggins, 16, whose mother, Diane Hawkins, was decapitated by her ex-boyfriend 14 years ago in the room where Keymari lay in her crib.

Yesterday's commemoration occurred as churches nationwide are still reeling from the domestic violence case of gospel evangelist and author Juanita Bynum, who said she was beaten in August in the parking lot of an Atlanta church by her husband, Bishop Thomas Weeks. Bynum and Weeks, who has been criminally charged in the case, share a well-known international ministry that had been based in Prince George's.

Unnia Pettus, 39, associate pastor of Galilee Baptist Church in Suitland, revealed in her recently published book, "Nobody but God: A Journey of Faith From Tears to Triumph," that she suffered years of domestic abuse.

"Domestic violence crosses all lines," Ivey said.

Speaking to the congregation at Believers Worship Center yesterday, Ivey described the difficulty he faced five years ago when he first called on local ministers to assist in the fight against domestic violence.

"I had some ministers tell me, 'Brother Ivey, I'm not touching that. That's too hot,' " Ivey said. He invited hundreds of clergy members to discuss strategies, but fewer than 10 showed.

One of the churches that responded, he said, was Believers. During the service yesterday, Jeffrey Rustin, a church elder, described his experience as a batterer and drug user 17 years ago.

"I was an abuser," he told the audience. "I did and said things because of the drugs. I wanted to say that so that other [abusers] will know there is help! God is a deliverer!"

Sterling compared victims of domestic violence to the biblical character Tamar, who was raped and then ostracized by her brother Amnon. Sterling described how the siblings' brother, Absalom, urged her to protect their family's reputation by holding her tongue.

Tamar, he said, responded by going into seclusion.

"She doesn't want anyone to see the pain," Sterling said. "She hides the bruises. She hides the emotional pain. She is distraught. She is shamed by her [rapist] brother. . . . She is separated from her family."

Sterling urged his congregants to seek help and admit their abuse to help others.

"We need to testify," he said. "We need to tell the story that 'I was in it, but I've been set free. I have been delivered from it, and I'm never going back again!' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company