MCC photo/Paul Shetler Fast

A baobab tree stands in Mpango, Mozambique where MCC supports a water, sanitation and hygiene project with the Anglican Church in 2019.

An interview with MCC’s Jaymie Friesen on the importance of third-party support for victim-survivors of abuse, conducted and written by Mennonite Church Canada' writer Katie Doke Sawatzy.

 

In spring of 2020, Mennonite Central Committee’s Abuse Response and Prevention program launched its updated website, abuseresponseandprevention.ca, which offers resources for victim-survivors of abuse, those supporting victim-survivors and churches looking to address abuse in their congregation.

CommonWord Bookstore and Resource Centre, a collaboration of Mennonite Church Canada and Canadian Mennonite University, contributes resources to the website. One of these resources is a significant manuscript by Carol Penner. The website also highlights physical resources that CommonWord has to buy or borrow.

Jaymie Friesen is program coordinator for MCC Manitoba’s Abuse Response and Prevention program. She spoke with Mennonite Church Canada writer Katie Doke Sawatzky about the challenges of her work, the importance of seeking third-party support for victim-survivors of abuse, and the response to the website so far.

 

Jaymie Friesen is the Abuse Response and Prevention program coordinator for MCC Manitoba. (MCC photo)

What are the benefits of collaborating on a resource like this, like you have with CommonWord?

There are definitely certain resources that the regional churches, like Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, put out through CommonWord that our program likes to highlight and use. It’s great to share these and have CommonWord share our resources. It minimizes duplication and it's a smart way of going about things, rather than different groups creating their own resources. There's no need to reinvent the wheel.

Can you give me an example of a current resource on the website that users find helpful?

We recently put out a podcast-style interview with Karen McAndless-Davis about intimate-partner violence during COVID-19. It's kind of a new experiment. That's one of the most viewed pages right now. The other resources accessed frequently on the site are for congregations and churches, specifically around clergy sexual abuse or misconduct.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I've been in this role with MCC for just over three years. I came to it after a long journey working in different NGOs with vulnerable populations, specifically women impacted by abuse. Prior to working with MCC I was a healthy relationships educator with youth in different rural communities in Manitoba.

I come to this work not as a lived victim-survivor of abuse but from a Mennonite family that's been deeply impacted by sexual abuse. It's close to my heart to help shape and change Mennonite spaces that have historically caused harm.

What is the nature of your work?

I have three mandates in my work for MCC:

  • educate and raise awareness through workshops and training on various topics as they relate to abuse, response and prevention;
  • provide support to individuals and churches seeking assistance on how to respond to abuse (I don't do counselling but I make referrals and guide people towards options);
  • resource development, which means working on new resources for our MCC constituency.

What is the most challenging part of your work in this program?

Ambivalence around the topic and denial that people in churches experience abuse or have been impacted by abuse. Often the assumption is, “If I'm not hearing about it, then it must not be an issue.” That's just not the case. If you're not hearing about the impacts of abuse on people's lives, what that actually says is that the church isn't a safe place to talk about abuse. Sometimes it's hard to get churches invested in this topic until they learn about it. If you start talking about it, you will start hearing about experiences. People will start reaching out for support.

The second challenge is that there's a real hesitancy around reaching out for outside support and help. This is so unfortunate because when traumatic events come to light in a community, you need a third party to guide people in how to be trauma-sensitive and victim-centred. Often churches reach out to me when it's too late, when they've already made a whole bunch of mistakes. Communities need to reach out for support early on. There's no shame in that, in people being supported well.

Often the assumption is, 'If I'm not hearing about it, then it must not be an issue.' That's just not the case. If you're not hearing about the impacts of abuse on people's lives, what that actually says is that the church isn't a safe place to talk about abuse.

What are the consequences of a church reaching out too late?

When a harm is perpetrated against an individual certain things are crucial in terms of how people respond to that person. If church members trying to support the individual are thrown off, triggered or overwhelmed by the process then they often don't respond in the most helpful and healing way for the individual. Churches can go into their own trauma response of 'fight, flight, freeze,' which impairs their ability to tend to the needs of the person harmed. This re-traumatizes victim-survivors. The response becomes far more about how to save the reputation of the church than about responding to the needs of the person harmed.

You can't undo mistakes. It's so critical to get outside support because no one in the church is an expert in dealing with these types of crises and nor should they be. That's why our program exists, to come alongside and help guide processes that can be healing for those harmed.

Does that make it even harder for victim-survivors to get the help that they need?

It really does. Sometimes people reach out to this program because they haven't received support or safety. This program walks with a victim-survivor when they address a harm, whether that's happened in the church or in their personal life – it’s about equal these days.

Why doesn’t the church feel like a safe place for victim-survivors to speak about abuse?

Stigmatization and shame. In general, there's a lot of stigma around family violence: what does it mean if I'm the kind of person that's a victim-survivor of abuse in my own home? There's a feeling of aloneness in that and isolation. It's so sad but I can guarantee that within every church there are those who have experienced intimate-partner violence. We just don't know about it.

Also, often people don't know they are experiencing abuse, either. A lot of the conversations I have with people in my office are individuals trying to figure out if their relationships are abusive. By the time they come to talk to me, it's been going on for years. No one's ever highlighted or helped them see that what was going on was abusive. Or, their partner is someone who is very well liked in the church, so who is going to believe them? There are lots of barriers to speaking about abuse or violence.

You can't undo mistakes. It's so critical to get outside support because no one in the church is an expert in dealing with these types of crises and nor should they be. That's why our program exists, to come alongside and help guide processes that can be healing for those harmed.

What resources are you planning for the near future?

We hope to offer more online audio and video resources. We’re going to re-write and re-design an advocacy training manual from the 90s into an interactive PDF. MCC is also working with Mennonite Church Canada on a written, congregational sexual-harrassment policy template. That will be available on the website.

What's most rewarding for you in this work, Jaymie?

When I get an e-mail or phone call from somebody who is looking for resources or wants to have a conversation with me about responding to abuse in a good way, because someone in their life has experienced it or because their church is addressing it. To me it’s encouraging and life-giving to help equip individuals to walk with a loved one or church member in a way that centres the survivor’s healing. It’s weird to say this is rewarding because it implies that someone's been harmed, but it’s encouraging to me that there is this person, this family, this community, who wants to walk with them in a way that is restorative. We're not at a place where abuse is decreasing in society, but more people are learning about the prevalence of abuse and want to be trauma-sensitive and empowering.


The above was originally published by Mennonite Church Canada and has been republished with permission.