Woolwich Community Services is partnering with Woodside Bible Fellowship to present the Not Alone Conference: an event to equip rural congregations to effectively address family violence.
Its purpose is to help members of rural congregations and their leaders recognize the signs of violence, and equip them with tools for what to do in these situations and how to care for congregants.
The one-day event takes place May 4 at Woodside Bible Fellowship (WBF) in Elmira.
A similar conference, called “Let there be Light,” took place in 2011 in honour of the memory of Valerie Ferguson, a member of Woodside Bible Fellowship who had been murdered by her husband.
Cairine Domzella, the director of care support at Woodside, spoke about the impact of Ferguson’s death, saying the event was catastrophic for the congregation.
“I think one of the first priorities [with this conference] is really about awareness and reminding people this really happens here. It’s a reality. Choosing to respond puts us in a better place than reacting,” she said.
In the fall of 2021, Virginia Logan, the director of the family violence prevention program of Woolwich and Wellesley with Woolwich Community Services, approached church leaders in Elmira to ask if anyone was interested in forming a working group for how to address family violence in churches. The Not Alone conference was the result.
The event will offer sessions for everyone to learn followed by smaller break-out sessions covering a range of topics. Lunch will be provided. There will also be time for networking. The session is open to members and church leaders of all denominations, said Domzella.
The conference is also open to social services professionals who might be interested in joining. Logan says the event will have representation from many of the social services sector such as police, family and children’s services, the St. Mary’s sexual assault and domestic violence program, and the John Howard Society.
Logan and Domzella say the conference will provide tools to help those in attendance identify family violence, learn where to go, and what to expect if certain social services do become involved.
Logan says she hopes to dispel misconceptions church-goers may have of the family violence prevention program at WCS.
“I have heard over the years that we might be seen as a program that’s breaking up families or advocating for divorce. That’s just not true. We are a program that assesses danger. We are a program that does safety planning. We are a program that speaks to individuals about options and choices. But it is not our job to tell somebody what to do,” she said.
“We would not be promoting divorce per se – that’s not something we would do. We would meet individuals where they’re at and we would respect their values and help them to see what’s healthy, what’s not healthy, and help them to see what their choices are and aren’t, and help connect them to other resources.
“But I think where we come together with churches, would be it’s about families being safe and healthy. That’s the bottom line, and that I think we can come together on.”
Domzella said churches are uniquely positioned to intervene in family violence. “I think churches have a unique perspective on families, because they see families, they see the whole family unit, often across generations. There’s no other organization that really has that.”
The break-out workshop sessions include topics such as family violence (what to look for, how to help), supporting women in your congregation, how men can help, and somewhere shared: what do I do now? There will be others about elder abuse or teen abuse, to name a few.
The day will include an audience of clergy, pastors, lay leaders, deacons, elders, small group leaders, youth ministers, children’s ministry leaders from across Waterloo Region.
The keynote speaker is Dr. Peter Jaffee, director of the centre for research and education on violence against women and children at Western University.
The schedule begins at 8:30 a.m. and runs until 4 p.m. Deadline for registration is April 28.
Logan and Domzella say the main goal of the conference is to promote healthier and safer families in Waterloo Region.
“So if I’m supporting, we’ll say a woman – although this program supports men as well – but if I’m supporting a woman, and she has a church circle, that could be such a beautiful resource in somebody’s life.
“I also know there have been times where that circle hasn’t been able to support a woman or maybe hear her or maybe understand what she’s truly living, surviving. So if we can get to the point of better working relationships, more trusting relationships.”
“And from a church perspective, we can feel out of our depths because we don’t know how to support someone in those ways,” said Domzella. “So the ‘not alone’ piece for a church is recognizing that there is help available.”