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Adding spirituality to fight against abuse ; Tamar's Heart Outreach emphasizes training pastors to counsel victims of domestic violence

Adia Tyson's mother would sit in the church's pews, decked out in her Sunday best, and -- on some occasions -- sporting a black eye.

The faithful churchgoer's pastor expressed heartfelt sympathy and offered prayers to end the beatings from her alcoholic husband. But the attacks continued for years.

Some of Tyson's friends also were victims of domestic violence, or were being molested, she said, and after counseling sessions with their religious leaders, they, too, languished in their abusive relationships.

"A lot of people around me were suffering and feeling like they had no voice," Tyson said. "Their pastors would tell them to keep praying for their spouses and go back home. However, they had no practical application or knowledge of what to tell victims from the Christian position."

But after her stint as a case coordinator with the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara, where she encountered younger victims of abuse, the Lockport resident was galvanized to start an organization to blend spirituality with secular social services in an effort to offer help -- and hope.

Tamar's Heart Outreach will train pastors to give victims in their congregations guidance to contact the appropriate authorities, and direct them to various agencies, shelters and other free and confidential community programs to ensure their safety.

"They'll be able to give their members more lifesaving information that will still be spiritual, instead of sending them home to more abuse," Tyson said.

The organization also plans to start a support group for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and steer members toward counseling programs.

"Christians usually say they are going to pray about it and put it in God's hands; they [rarely] seek mental health counseling," Tyson said. "But the residual effects of abuse can affect your future relationships, health, intimacy, all areas of your life. The psychological scars can last a lifetime."

Tamar's Heart Outreach is currently operated out of Covenant of Grace Ministries in Niagara Falls, where Tyson is a member, but intends to serve all of Western New York.

The organization's name comes from the biblical story of Princess Tamar, King David's daughter who was raped and assaulted by her half brother.

"It was going on then in biblical times, and it's going on now," Tyson said. "Tamar's Heart Outreach will work to heal the natural body, as well as the spiritual."

The organization will hold a free conference from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Friday at the church, 1509 Main St., in which experts and religious leaders will speak about sexual and domestic abuse. For information, call Tyson at 990-2532.

"This is a must to reach out to hurting women," said the Covenant of Grace pastor, Bishop Joseph Brinson Jr.

The rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse are higher among blacks and -- coupled with the African-American community's tendency to distrust the justice system -- result in a majority of incidents not being reported to police, Tyson said.

"The prevalence in the black community is startling," she said.

Consequently, the black church -- the community's most viable institution, where pastors show concern for preserving marriages -- becomes the place to seek help.

Brinson said that many pastors have not become knowledgeable about the needs of victims and related community programs.

"Prayer is a powerful weapon, but we have to be more hands-on, bringing in outside agencies to help the ministry," he said.

Mary Brennan-Taylor, vice president of programs at the YWCA of Niagara, said, "It's not just African-American women; it's Roman Catholics" and women from different denominations and ethnicities.

"We have seen women who tried the route recommended by their priest or pastor, and it has not gone well, leading to an elevated level of abuse," Brennan-Taylor said.

She applauds the mission of Tamar's Heart as a service that is needed because religious leaders who don't offer practical solutions could put their members in harm's way.

"Perhaps these clergy members are not familiar with the dynamics of power and control, which is what domestic violence is about," Brennan-Taylor said. "It is a very dangerous practice to counsel a woman who has been abused to go back to her abuser without providing her with a safety plan."

Tyson, 35, has a bachelor's degree in criminology and psychology from Niagara University, and is a certified instructor of the nationally accredited Darkness to Light's Stewards of Children program, which teaches prevention and intervention techniques.

That curriculum will be used to impart knowledge on religious leaders and community organizations that work with children. The curriculum, along with domestic violence-related workshops for pastors and community leaders, will be led by Tyson and cost $20 per class. Tamar's Heart Outreach's other services, including the support group, will be free.

Deborah Myles, Tyson's mother, is one of five women working with Tyson to carry out the goals of the organization, and she plans to share her experience with other victims.

"How many members are sitting in the pews still dealing with this?" the 54-year-old Lockport resident said. "It's only when you begin to tell your story that you realize others have dealt with it, too."

Myles said her 5-year marriage commenced with the assaults and became besieged with beatings.

"It was every weekend when he got drunk; it happened so often, the police knew our home," she said. Myles, an evangelist missionary at the Latter Rain Cathedral in Lockport, said she suffered a contusion to the skull and other serious injuries but didn't believe in divorce.

After her pastor at the time recommended prayer, she talked to three other pastors at different churches; only one said she should leave the relationship.

Her divorce was finalized in 2001.

"It's a terrible feeling to be abused by someone you love," she said.

Tyson said that she has never been abused but that her stepfather's treatment of her mother, the painful stories of close friends and other relatives, and the continuation of the cycle with the younger Christian victims with whom she has worked necessitates the presence of Tamar's Heart.

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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