Julie Owens: Protecting the Flock

“God hates divorce. But he hates abuse more.” One woman’s journey to educate local clergy about domestic violence


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Julie Owens has spent the past 25 years advocating on behalf of domestic violence victims, inside and outside of church.

LOGAN CYRUS

In 2010, Audrey’s* fiancée held her hostage in their Charlotte home. When she ran toward the door, he grabbed her and pulled her back. She bolted for the window; he slammed it shut. He had taken her phone, so her only link to the outside world was her laptop. She tried to send a message out, but before she could, he threw her computer across the room. For more than 12 hours, she tried to escape as he berated and threatened her.

In the three years they had been together, Audrey’s fiancée had never before displayed any signs of abuse. He was attentive, thoughtful, and loving, never so much as raising his voice. She was confused by the explosion, which was out of character for the man she knew and loved. She was troubled by it, but was able to rationalize it by “believing it was a fluke, rather than to accept that’s who he really was,” she says now.

She continued the relationship and went on to marry him. The couple joined Christ Central Church in NoDa. Audrey felt at home there, part of a larger community that she believed would support her. “Now I had a backup system,” she says. “I thought I’d have a whole church to counsel and help us.”

Over the course of the next several years, her husband continued to abuse her in a variety of ways. He withheld her medications, chased her in his car, confiscated her keys and phone, withheld food and gas from her, and lay down behind her car tires so she couldn’t leave. He would get in her face, intimidate her, verbally demean and degrade her, and even threaten to kill her and himself.

She knew the situation was escalating, but didn’t know what to do. There weren’t many options. Her family had its own troubles, and, like many abuse victims, she didn’t want her friends to find out what was happening. So she turned to the only place she had: her church.

She told her pastor, Howard Brown, and church elders that she was dealing with domestic abuse. At first, she was more restrained in her accounts of the situation. They urged her to work on her marriage. She agreed at first, but then realized her husband was not being held accountable for his actions. She wanted professional help, but because her husband controlled the finances, she didn’t have the resources to pay for outside counseling.

Church leaders offered prayers. A male elder attempted a “shepherding” plan for Audrey’s husband, studying the Bible with him and offering Christian guidance, rather than addressing the abuse. “It seemed as if his heart and my safety were two separate issues for them,” she says. “I felt abandoned by church leadership.”

Eventually, leaders from the church helped arrange an appointment with an outside marriage counselor. Audrey’s husband stopped going to the therapy sessions, but she returned. The therapist told her she needed to protect herself, and that her husband was a sociopath. Audrey knew she needed to end her marriage, but she didn’t know how.

***

Last year, there were 62 domestic violence-related homicides in the state of North Carolina, including four in Mecklenburg County, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Additionally, more than 9,300 incidents related to domestic violence—crimes such as assault, stalking, sexual offenses, and harassment—were reported to law enforcement agencies in Mecklenburg County. An untold number went unreported, since domestic violence is one of the nation’s most chronically under-reported crimes.

But knowing about these risks doesn’t mean it’s easy for victims such as Audrey to leave their abusers. Experts say a woman will leave—and return—approximately seven times before exiting an abusive relationship for good. Perhaps the abuser has threatened to find and kill her. Perhaps there are children involved. Perhaps these women hold out hope that their abusers will change. Perhaps, after years of being controlled and isolated by their abuser, these women don’t have the money or support from friends and family to help them move out.

In May 2013, Audrey heard about a seminar at Johnston Memorial Presbyterian Church where an expert on domestic violence would be speaking. Julie Owens has worked in the field for more than two decades. In addition to her day job helping victims at a shelter, she regularly gives speeches to church congregations, pastors, women’s ministries, and others in the faith community. She discusses many thorny issues surrounding domestic abuse: the misconception that certain scripture supports the abuse of women; the idea that victims must remain in an abusive marriage; the pressure on victims by the church to forgive their abusers; prioritizing the “saving” of a marriage over the safety of the victim. And she speaks from experience.

Owens grew up in a Christian home. During her teenage years, her father, the Rev. Bob Owens, was a pastor at Plaza Presbyterian Church in Plaza Midwood. By 1988, the family had moved to Hawaii. Bob Owens was the senior pastor at a large Presbyterian church in Honolulu when he came home one night to a terrifying scene.

Julie had recently filed for divorce from an abusive husband, and she and her infant son were staying with her parents. One night, she and her dad went out sailing with friends from church. While they were gone, her estranged husband broke into her parents’ house. Neighbors heard glass shattering as he snuck in through a window. He cut the phone lines, and turned off the lights. Then he waited in the dark to ambush her.

When Julie entered the house, he held a knife against her throat, threatening to kill her. He punched her in the face, over and over. Then he rammed the knife into the flesh of her neck and forced her into a bedroom to wait for her father to return. Blood poured from her neck.

When her father came home, Julie’s husband went after him. Julie ran up behind her husband and grabbed him, screaming, trying to prevent him from attacking her dad. That’s when he turned around and stabbed her in the stomach. With Julie incapacitated, he focused on Bob Owens, running toward him with the knife over his head. He slashed Bob in the face, cutting through his eyebrows. Bob fought back, pinning his son-in-law against a door.

Somehow, in the chaos, Julie managed to turn on the lights. Her husband saw the blood, saw what he had done, and fled.

When he recovered, Bob Owens stood in front of his congregation and did what many clergy do not. He spoke out. He told his parishioners that his daughter was a victim of domestic violence, and explained how deeply his family was hurt by it.

“I think a lot of pastors and pastors’ families would have been ashamed or embarrassed by having such personal and painful details disclosed, but neither Mom nor Dad ever hesitated to talk about what happened. They are so generous and caring,” Owens says.

When the Owens family shared their story, the congregation responded with an outpouring of support. As Julie healed, she received training to advocate on behalf of other victims. She and her dad began hosting domestic violence support groups at their church, and she ran secular groups as well. Victims from all over the island of O‘ahu came forward.

Julie began to hear stories about other clergy neglecting victims’ pleas for help.  These church leaders blamed the women for the abuse, ostracized them, and told them to “pray, stay, obey,” she says.

Over the next decade, she began running shelters for abused women, working on domestic violence legislation, conducting research at the National Center for PTSD, training others in the field, and speaking around the country. But to reach more people, she needed to move to the mainland. Her parents had moved back to Charlotte after her father retired in the mid-1990s, and she was traveling back and forth to the area visiting them. At the same time, she was making connections in the domestic violence community here. When the Mecklenburg County Area Mental Health Authority created a domestic violence coordinator position in 2001, she interviewed and was offered the job. Since then, she has become a well-known consultant, trainer, and international speaker.   

This is her life’s work. “It’s the reason I was put on this planet,” Owens says.

She educates clergy and church members about the need to focus on victims’ safety. She wants religious leaders to better understand abuse, hold abusers accountable, and screen for signs of abuse when they conduct premarital counseling.

At her speaking events, Owens finds that many women are “afraid to move outside of what they are traditionally taught.” But once they hear a different perspective, “It’s like they have been set free in a way, and can breathe a sigh of relief.”

When Audrey decided to attend the seminar at Johnston Memorial, she urged Pastor Howard, as parishioners call him, and other church leaders to join her. She wasn’t surprised when Howard didn’t respond and the elders said they couldn’t. Excuses, she thought. But she focused on moving forward in her quest for help.

About half an hour into the seminar, Audrey was shocked to see Pastor Howard arrive. “That was the first time I felt like he validated that my marriage was abusive, because he wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t,” she says.

Listening to Julie Owens, Audrey realized what she had endured was not representative of the God she knew. She felt as if someone had handed her back her faith.

***

By the time Audrey attended the seminar, she had already moved out of the house she shared with her husband and was staying with a friend. But it became clear over the next couple of months that she needed to do more to protect her safety. She reached out to Owens, who strongly urged her to take the MOSAIC Threat Assessment Systems, a free, online tool that evaluates the threat posed by a potentially abusive partner. It was something Owens had discussed at her seminar. When she first heard about it, Audrey was not ready for it. “I remember making a mental note not to take it,” she says.

Now she understood that she was in real danger, and agreed to do the assessment. Her husband scored an eight out of 10.

This indicated a strong possibility the abuse would turn deadly. There was no question: She had to flee.

The next couple of weeks were consumed with planning and fueled by adrenaline. Unable to drive her own car, in case her husband followed her, Audrey relied on a small group of trusted friends to drive her around, always making sure they weren’t being followed.

She modified her escape plan constantly, remaining in close contact with Owens, who helped arrange her placement at a safe house. The women checked for listening devices before each conversation and made sure Audrey was on a secure phone. The final action plan took place over a few hours. Audrey left Charlotte. In doing so, she left her friends, her job, and everything familiar to her.

***

Back at Christ Central, Pastor Howard was beginning to change his mind. “The first piece is the hardest,” he says. “To say you may not have the answer, that we don’t have the tools to deal with this.”

Both the Church of England (in 2006) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (in 1992 and 2002) have issued reports strongly condemning domestic violence. They assert that victims should not be expected to remain in abusive marriages. Other faiths have spoken out in similar fashion. But these beliefs don’t always filter down to local churches and ministers.

Many church leaders continue to regard abuse as a marital problem in need of resolution. They believe all marriages should be saved—and this supersedes the needs of the victim. Bob Owens has a different perspective. “Members of the clergy have, and should have, a very high view of marriage, as I do,” he says. “God hates divorce, yes. But he hates abuse more. God doesn’t want anyone to live in an abusive relationship. I’m convinced of that.”

A few months after the seminar at Johnston Memorial, leaders at Christ Central invited Owens to speak to them. “It was important that I wasn’t the only the one who had this information, so we brought Julie in to meet with church leadership,” Pastor Howard says.

That meeting put the pastor ahead of many of his peers. While Julie Owens says some local parishioners have organized seminars and events about domestic violence, Pastor Howard is the only church leader she knows of who has taken such a significant step. And he’s trying to spread the word.

He raised the issue of domestic violence during a recent committee meeting of the Presbyterian Church in America and plans to host an awareness event at Christ Central. He says he and his fellow church leaders did not intentionally fail to help one of their own. They simply didn’t know the best way to respond. “We don’t learn about this in seminary,” he says. But now, it’s clear. “We could never, based on scripture, support abuse. It’s not biblical,” he says. “It’s the opposite of what scripture teaches.”

Meanwhile, Audrey has built a new life outside of Charlotte. Meeting a reporter for coffee one day, the 30-year-old shows how she has regained her confidence. She carries a binder full of paperwork—dates, times, and emails—documenting her ordeal, and is determined that her story should be used to help others. She’s started writing, and she’s become interested in natural health, healing, and homeopathy.

She’s also divorced. And she misses her church, where many of the female members were kind and compassionate toward her.

After she fled, Christ Central leaders sent her a letter of apology, expressing remorse for not doing more. “We wanted to say we didn’t know any better, that we missed it,” Pastor Howard says.

But Audrey still feels hurt by some of the church elders, and that conflict hasn’t been resolved.  She moves forward now on the strength of her own faith.

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer in Charlotte. Reach her at aliwrites10@gmail.com.

*Name has been changed to protect the victim.

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