When We Google the Church – Guest preacher Naomi McDowell’s sermon for Sunday, May 26

We had a guest preacher! Here is the introduction that was given by Pastor Robert before she preached. “I just want to share a brief word of introduction about our guest preacher this morning, our daughter, Naomi McDowell. She and and husband, Aaron will be celebrating their 5th wedding anniversary next month. They live in Columbus where Naomi works at Capital Legal Clinic and is a domestic violence advocate. Aaron works at Battelle Research company. So why is my daughter preaching this morning? Well, she brings a perspective to the pulpit that is so important and she is passionate about social justice and issues related to domestic violence. It’s not just because this issue is connected with her job, but it also relates to her faith. As a preacher’s kid, Naomi was always the one who would say to me, ‘But dad, you need to preach about this. Dad, I haven’t heard you talk about this issue.’ This is why this fiery, passionate, loving millennial is our guest preacher this morning. She offers an important perspective that we need to hear. Naomi, may the Holy Spirit speak through you as you share with us today.

Good morning.  It’s so great to be here this morning!  As you know from that introduction, I am Pastor Robert’s daughter, also known as Naomi McDowell.  Usually this familial relation begs many questions from curious people about growing up as Pastor Robert’s daughter.  So let’s get the most popular question out of the way.  Yes, it was very hard for me to raise my dad into the man he is today, but every day was truly a joy.  
And while many of you already knew that Pastor Robert is my dad, you may or may not be aware of what my job is.  This is due to the fact that my dad may or may not be fully aware of what my job is.  And while I joke, it is a pretty complex field I’m in, so let me once and for all set the record straight.  I am a Domestic Violence Victims Advocate.  This is the part where I already lose some people but I know I still have you all following me.  Here’s where it gets bureaucratic.  
     Specifically, I work for a pro bono legal clinic through Capital Law School.  Due to a federal grant, we are able to represent clients, pro bono, to obtain a Civil Protection Order against his or her abuser.  A Civil Protection Order is what most people think of as a restraining order.  It means your abuser cannot come within 500 feet of you or contact you.  If he or she does, they could be arrested and charged criminally with a violation of protection order.   Our team consists of three attorneys and two advocates, including myself.  We have an office at the Franklin County Courthouse where we do intake from the Domestic Violence Prosecutor’s office.  Our intake office is for anyone screening for our representation for their Civil Protection Order.  From now on I’m going to refer to the Civil Protection Order as “CPO” because my dad mentioned several times, very emphatically, that this sermon cannot be over 18 minutes.  We have an office at the DV Prosecutor’s office because most victims with a criminal case against their abuser means they need a CPO for after the case.  DV is usually a misdemeanor charge, meaning the consequences are normally minimal jail time, usually just probation, if anything at all.  The CPO keeps the client protected after the case ends for anywhere from 1 month to 5 years (maximum).  So this is exactly why many of our referrals are from Prosecutors and their advocates.    
     My job is to interview that client on the 17th floor, explain to the attorney why I think that client does or does not qualify for our services, and then to do some hand holding when we go in front of the judge.  I also attend any further court dates for the CPO with that client and help the attorney prep the case.  Sometimes I am listening to 1-3 stories of domestic violence in one day, sometimes it can be as many as 6.  I never know what the day will bring.  I have some cases that go on for months (one even went over a year believe it or not), and some are over within weeks.  After the case is over and we (hopefully) obtain a 5 year CPO for our client, I then follow up with him or her for up to 5 years and make sure things are still going okay in general, and that their abuser is following the CPO.  We do have people dismiss their CPO, get back together with their abuser, and call us for help again.  We do help children being abused and even sometimes animals.  We also have clients who don’t show up to court despite long and desperate conversations trying to encourage them to.  We have clients who have used us more than once to file against multiple abusers throughout their lives.  I have experienced a client murdered by her husband.  We’ve seen it all, so to speak.  
     Are you guys starting to see why I would start to lose people explaining this at a cocktail party?  I think my title should actually be “Just runs around the entire courthouse in heels most days.”  Our team is small but it is mighty.  I go to work every day because I truly believe this is what God has called me to do.  When I hear my dad speak about when he felt called to be a minister it feels very similar to my calling into victim advocacy.  It’s always been there for me.  And it is my faith that I lean on when I have a dark day.  Some people have asked if my job makes it hard to keep my faith in God.  I actually feel the opposite.  
     Yes, the majority of my day is spent seeing the ugliest parts of humanity.  But with this has come immense gratitude in the smaller victories people experience such as paying their first bill without their abuser’s help, testifying in court in front of their abuser, and even just the look of relief on a client’s face, knowing the CPO has bought them some time to start a new life (which is still a journey in itself).  For me, my trust in God is what fuels me to keep going and believe that every hard day is worth it.  Besides, without God, my only self-care would be watching The Real Housewives and cute dog videos, and that’s just not enough. I was actually also going to say a glass of wine and left it out.  But I do watch the cute dog videos with a glass of wine.  Full disclosure.  It’s still not enough.
     A lot of advocates in my field are not religious.  It’s a widely liberal profession and I think a number of people in general have been slighted by their churches and religious communities.  So other advocates are often surprised when I choose to share my faith, or just that my father is a minister.  
     But to me, it’s only natural because I take my passion for domestic violence work directly from scripture.  On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
     I can’t think of a better metaphor for domestic violence than this.  And I have an important note; men are also victims of domestic violence.  So please don’t take this scripture as me discounting men in this issue.  We deal with shame and victim blaming with our male clients but in other ways, unique to their gender, than with our female clients.  And according to The National Coalition against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence.  We also have cases with same sex relationships.  This means the majority of our clients are women.   Just wanted to make sure I noted that.
     Jesus tells this woman “you are set free from your infirmity.”  Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, you’re a woman after all.  You should probably just stay in pain.  As a woman you don’t really want to experience a full life.  Yeah, that’s not really an issue I’m willing to take stance on.  It’s also the Sabbath so…good talk.”  No, and in fact, Jesus is so firm that this woman should stand straight and be released from this crippling spirit, that he does in fact heal her on the Sabbath, a day of religious observance and abstinence from work.  Jesus broke with religious tradition so that this woman would not be in pain.  
     And this brings me to a frustration I’ve been having.  What are we, as The Church known for vs what Jesus is known for?  If most of us if not all of us sitting in these pews are against domestic violence, then why do we not speak out more?  Why do we expect women and men experiencing abuse to come to us so that then we can speak out against it?  
When I google “The Church teaches…” I see a lot about controversial issues.  And I know as a Christian, that the way we are perceived is not always accurate.  Even just within The United Methodist Church there’s disagreement and differing views.  However, I believe we are missing the mark when it comes to Domestic Violence.  I googled “The Church and Domestic Violence” and what comes up first is obviously disappointing.  In fact this list mostly includes stories of trying to convince Christians and Churches that Domestic Violence is very real and actively happening in their communities.  The others were trying to convince readers that there’s even a case to be made that the Bible speaks out against abuse.  So that’s not much of a win for us on that one, guys.  Especially on a topic we can all get behind.  
Many of my clients reference not only their faith, but things their fellow church members and even pastors have said, encouraging them to stay in an unhealthy and abusive marriage.   Sometimes these clients have shared with their churches about the abuse, while other times they have implied or used more coded language for the physical violence they’re experiencing.  I don’t believe the majority of these people mean ill intent.  In fact, many people who say these things do so, with the belief they’re guiding someone in the best possible way.  And if you think a person will flat out say they’re being physically abused, that’s usually the last resort.   That’s the problem is the very intimate nature of domestic violence.  That’s why outside of legal advocacy, people are now referring to it as Intimate Partner Violence.  Even with this change in language, it’s still greatly misunderstood.  
But this is not only “family” issue.  Abuse is a community issue, a world issue, a religious issue, a human issue.  Earlier I used a statistic that said domestic violence will reach 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men.  I’m looking around this room and doing some quick math.  It makes it a bit more real to visualize that statistic in a familiar setting.  By choosing to take a more proactive stance, we can take the power from those who use religion to justify abuse. 
What if one of my clients sees a poster at her church against domestic violence?  What if she thinks her church will be supportive if she speaks up about what’s happening in her home?  What if a teenager in youth group looks on the internet about Christianity and abuse and sees countless of examples that what’s happening to him or her is wrong and not love.     I used the term google in this sermon because when it comes to domestic violence and abuse this is the resource people now go to first.  The internet is how The Church reaches people in their homes before they walk through the doors.  When the home is unsafe, we must provide safety.  We are The Church.  We must provide hope for the hopeless.  And trust me when I say that abuse victims/survivors are quick to feel blame, guilt, and dismissed.  We all want to be seen.  We all want to be heard.  This brings me back to Jesus helping the bent over woman.  So many passed by her while she was so obviously in pain.  They thought, “Who am I to help her?  I don’t know how to help her?  I’m no expert.”  “What if I do more harm than good?”   I’m sure some even thought that wasn’t their problem, so best to not get involved.  But Jesus saw her.  What if The Church could be more like Jesus?  What if we could see the bent over woman too?
We think of domestic violence as hiding behind walls and private.  How can we know for sure if it’s secretive and hidden?  But often times it’s hiding in plain sight.  We hear horrible fights that go beyond a normal bad fight.  We see a couple in a parking lot and something doesn’t feel right about their interaction.  We see a teenager whose significant other never leaves them alone.  We see someone wearing a scarf around their neck when it’s 85 degrees.
We can be that change.  As individuals, as a church, as The Church, we can start that change.  We need to ask if someone is okay.  We need also say, “this is not okay,” we need to report abuse, we need listen to people, we need reach out, we need be educated on this issue, we need to…preach…on this issue.  We need to understand this is happening all around us even when we don’t see it.  Because it is happening.  Millennials are leaving churches at high numbers and as an ahem older millennial, I choose to keep my faith and church family because Jesus was so radical in so many ways.  And Jesus would have a thing or 2 to say about Domestic Violence.  I need you all to be warriors for this cause with me.  Some of you in this room right now are survivors.  Some of you are surviving.  Share your stories if, and when safe.  You are powerful.  But it is not on the survivor.  It’s on us.                       8 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. 9 Speak up and judge fairly;   defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)
    Woman, you are set free.