COLUMBIA — Forty members from 10 Columbia churches met Saturday at Broadway Christian Church to discuss sexual, physical and verbal abuse in teen relationships.
The meeting was facilitated by members of the Teen Relationship Education and Empowerment, or TREE, program and Comprehensive Human Services Inc., and sought to designate sexual abuse awareness programs for the teenagers and young adults in each of the church's communities.
The TREE program was established in November by a $50,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health.
The focus on teen relationship abuse comes not only from a lagging emphasis of the issue in homes and schools, according to the groups, but also from recent studies that show nearly 60 percent of rape victims are under the age of 18.
"We've got to be talking about this and we've got to be talking about it earlier," said Kim Ryan, associate pastor at Broadway Christian Church. "You as an individual have a story, and you as a faith community have a chance to break the silence."
Leigh Voltmer, executive director of Comprehensive Human Services Inc., told the attendees Saturday that they were in a unique position as faith establishments to communicate the subject through conversation and relationships.
"If you're living in a home where you're witnessing abuse, are they talking about this (the issue of teen dating violence)? No. If you're living in a home where you're not witnessing abuse, are they talking about this? No. So where are they talking about this? It could be in the faith communities, no matter what faith, Christian or non-Christian," Voltmer said.
Voltmer said that because the faith community centers on relationships, whether with a creator, one another or the community, she believes it is a rich environment to combat abuse in relationships.
"It's relationships, the church and faith communities, their whole gig is relation," Voltmer said. "You can teach biblical Scriptures, you can teach Zen philosophy, you can teach all these other things, and they still all come back to relationships."
Local Muslims who gathered Friday at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri also focused attention on ways of combating domestic violence. Imam Abdullah Smith addressed the subject in his sermon to a crowd he estimated to be between 200 to 300 people. Smith said that his sermon was in direct response to the beheading of a Muslim woman in Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this week. Smith called the murder "completely barbaric."
"I personally know women who get abused every day, and it's sad; it's so sad," Smith said. "Sometimes it's not physical, sometimes it's emotional. The emotional abuse that takes place in these homes sometimes is a lot worse than the physical abuse."
The TREE program also stressed the importance of understanding what constitutes abuse so that it can be recognized as well as prevented and handed out binders to the church members and leaders with pie charts, statistics, local contacts, as well as resources for the congregations and faith communities to develop their own approaches to addressing healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships.