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Combatting abuse: Victims’ advocates save lives

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP) — Domestic violence suffered by the wives of a police officer and a disc jockey became Beck Dunn’s first foray into summoning churches for a response.

At age 27, Dunn had taken a job to open the third domestic violence shelter certified by the state of Florida in 1981.

To flee a cycle of abuse, one of the women needed bus fare and food money to take her three children to Minnesota; the other needed a tank of gas and money for food as she and her two children began a trip to Texas for refuge.

Dunn had served in Japan as a two-year Journeyman, a post-college missions track through the International Mission Board. At an English-speaking church in Yokohama, she had worked with women and children and led the choir.

“I thought if I told them I had been a Journeyman, it would help in introducing myself,” Dunn said of her calls to several Baptist churches in the city where the new shelter was located.

Someone at the first church, however, told Dunn they only gave to Southern Baptists’ home and overseas missions offerings. From the second church she learned that help was only provided when an emergency need is reported by one of the members.

It steeled Dunn’s resolve in a career of 30-plus years combating domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Initial help for the two wives in 1981 came from an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Later needs often were met by Catholic Charities and various community agencies.

Dunn was among 53 Journeymen, who served from 1978 to 1980, at an Oct. 11-13 reunion at the Garaywa Camp and Conference Center, a Woman’s Missionary Union assembly in Clinton, Miss. Nearly 100 Journeymen were commissioned in 1978, serving in 43 countries.

“There’s hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of something that happened to me or I learned as a Journeyman living in another country,” Dunn said in an interview.

She had been “low on adrenaline” and lacked self-confidence growing up in Florala, Ala., near the Florida state line, and earning a social work degree at Troy University, nearly 70 miles north.

But in Japan she faced a reality beyond normal church work.

Many of the Navy wives in the church had been married a short time to enlisted men and began to open up to Dunn about struggles stemming from their husbands’ deployments of three to nine months.

“They felt lonely, like they were stuck,” Dunn recounted. Their finances were on a shoestring and they typically had to get a ride from their military housing to buy groceries.

When their husbands returned, conflict often ensued, often entailing “emotional and psychological and sometimes physical abuse.”

Protocols for dealing with such domestic issues “were years away,” Dunn said. As a young 20-something, she listened and sought to be a source of compassion.

In Florida, Dunn’s experience intensified. Initially serving as the center’s live-in director for two years, “I saw women at the end of their ropes, heard them talking to their children and to other women, dealing with their problems 24/7.

“We had to learn as we went.”

Domestic abuse victims, she learned, typically were not mentally ill but were isolated from family and friends. Abusers often held legalistic views of what a husband-wife relationship should be, blaming their wives for the upheaval in the home. Even authorities would hold the mothers responsible for conflict with their children, not giving consideration to the tumult they were enduring with their husbands. The escalating tensions made physical violence a looming threat. Intervention, optimally, was the first step in restoring a marriage.

Dunn also helped develop the first rape crisis program locally in 1984, staying at the center for 10 years, then giving leadership to another center for seven years.

Among her subsequent roles: director of rural services for the Governor’s Task Force on Domestic and Sexual Violence under Florida’s then-Gov. Lawton Chiles; consultant to Florida State University’s criminal justice department for a State Department project in Kazakhstan to train judges, lawyers, police and victims’ advocates; and executive director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Today she leads Diverse Services and Technical Resources, LLC, specializing in facilities management, and does training on workplace violence for the city of Orlando.

Dunn, who calls First Baptist Church in Orlando her church home, never gave up on the Christian community despite her initial calls for help that went unanswered.

She joined with other victims’ advocates in seeking opportunities to address Baptist associational and interdenominational clergy meetings, regularly sensing “there wasn’t one minister who believed they had victims in their church.”

In the last 10 years, she said such groups have increasingly sought to educate themselves on domestic violence and sexual abuse. And she’s gratified to know of initiatives such as the Caring Well Challenge within the Southern Baptist Convention to call churches to a commitment to prevent sexual abuse and to care for abuse survivors.

Victims’ advocates, Dunn said, “have literally saved lives. We’re not seen as first responders but it sure has had that feeling.”