New training program helps Korean-American pastors tackle domestic violence in their pews

For much of the past two decades, Joon Choi has worked on a training program that she believes can change harmful social norms regarding domestic violence in the Korean American community.

During her long career as a social worker, she has noticed that many immigrant women, burdened with the shame and stigma associated with abuse, first seek help from their pastors.

According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, more than two-thirds of Korean Americans, who make up 10% of the Asian diaspora, are Protestant Christians, and churches play a central role in the community life of Korean Americans. For many victims of domestic violence, especially more recent immigrants estranged from friends and family in Asia, the church can feel like a haven.

Jon Choi.Courtesy of Joon Choi

Yet few pastors know how to handle domestic violence situations, Choi said. And a deep-seated belief in the sanctity of marriage – and the power of “spiritual strength” to overcome difficulties – has often led them to brush off the danger that some of their followers face, or worse, to resort to the blame of the victim.

“That’s when I started to wonder, what’s going on with our religious leaders? Choi, an associate professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Georgia, told NBC Asian America. “How can we work with the religious community to solve this problem? »

In 2018, she began collaborating with colleagues on a virtual case simulation module to help faith leaders become empathetic survivor advocates. The online course challenges pastors to change their thinking about the nature of domestic violence and consider the danger faced by women in abusive relationships.

In one of the course’s simulated scenarios, pastors must choose between three responses to a congregant who confesses that she has been abused. They may encourage her to share her experience (“I’m so glad you came to me. Let’s talk about it”), reject her (“I don’t think your husband would do this to you”) or deflect responsibility (” You should talk to an advisor”). After selecting an answer, they will then learn why they should choose the first option, validating a survivor’s ordeal, rather than the other two.

“We want to impress on religious leaders that the goal should always be to promote safety,” Choi said.

Over the past three years, more than 100 pastors from Chicago and Washington, D.C., have participated in the program known as Korean Americans for Healthy Families, which was supported by a half-million dollar grant from the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women.

Late last year, the project received another round of funding from the agency to expand its ambitions. The goal of the second phase, Choi said, is to train a wider range of religious leaders, including lay leaders and pastors’ wives, and create a communications campaign that distributes language resources in communities. of Asian immigrants.

Choi said she became invested in gender issues growing up in South Korea in the 1980s, which was undergoing rapid modernization that ushered in unprecedented economic opportunities for women – but little progress in rights. at work or a reversal of the subordinate roles they were supposed to play at home.

“I wasn’t happy with the way the company was structured for us,” she said. “We didn’t have the same opportunities as men, but we still expected to excel in school, get jobs and become super moms.”

After moving to the United States in 1993, Choi channeled her passion for advancing women’s rights into helping victims of domestic violence, which she considers “the most extreme form of oppression against women.” For 25 years, she worked as a counselor and advocate at Womankind (then known as the New York Asian Women’s Center), which founded the nation’s second domestic violence program for Asian immigrants.

To recruit pastors for his training program, Choi turned to two prominent Korean-run social service organizations: the Virginia-based Korean Community Service Center and the Chicago-based KAN-WIN.

Ji-young Cho, executive director of the Korea Community Service Center, said Korean immigrant women face a host of cultural barriers to reporting and seeking treatment for domestic violence. (The center operates a 24-hour domestic violence helpline as well as language counseling, legal assistance and a range of other services for victims.)

“The first problem is that Korean culture is patriarchal, which means the wife has to defer to her husband,” Cho said. “There’s a lot of stigma around talking about the issue as it would be shameful to expose an incident on the outside.”

These obstacles can become more pronounced in times of crisis. When much of the country went into lockdown in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, calls for domestic violence grew in Asian immigrant communities.

Ji-hye Kim, executive director of KAN-WIN, said the group’s services are open to everyone, but clients who receive long-term treatment are mostly low-income immigrants who speak limited English and encounter immigration issues.

“In many ways,” she said, “this project has helped break the taboo of domestic violence and allowed us to begin to normalize talking about it in terms of prevention and education.” .

Kim and Cho of the Korean Community Service Center said they noticed a significant difference in how pastors now deal with the issue of domestic violence. Rather than pushing survivors to save their marriages at all costs, they said, faith leaders are now more likely to support separations and proactively connect worshipers to community resources. Some even feel comfortable enough to address the issue of domestic violence in sermons.

But education is only a first step, they said. Creating effective prevention and intervention methods on a large scale requires a paradigm shift.

“We need to focus on the fact that domestic violence is not a cultural thing or a private matter,” Cho said. “It’s a crime. Nobody deserves to be beaten.

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