Monday, December 22, 2014

Las Posadas and the Welcoming Innkeeper

David Gayes currently serves as an English Language teacher at the Tolton Center in Chicago. He also serves at Casa Juan Diego, an after school program.

I love the Mexican tradition during the fourth week of Advent called Las Posadas. “Las Posadas” literally means “the inns.” During the nine days leading up to Christmas, through music and song, communities reenact the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay. Two people dress up as Joseph and Mary, who often rides on a donkey, and look for an innkeeper to take them in for the night. Every member of the community takes a part in the story, singing the dialogue between Joseph and Mary and the innkeepers. The people who sing the part of Joseph and Mary remain outside, walking from house to house while the people who play the different innkeepers are inside, rejecting them. In the last of many exchanges between the groups, Mary and Joseph are finally given a place to stay for the night, and everyone enters the “inn” for a lively celebration.

Image of a traditional "Las Posadas" celebration. 
(Photo from

Here is a link to Las Posadas sung in Spanish, with Spanish subtitles: 

English Translation:

Mary and Joseph:
In the name of Heaven
I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.          
                                                       This is not an inn 
                                                       so keep going 
                                                       I cannot open 
                                                      you may be a rogue.
Mary and Joseph:
Don't be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
                                                       You can go on now 
                                                       and don't bother us, 
                                                       because if I become annoyed 
                                                       I'll give you a trashing.
Mary and Joseph:
We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
                                                       I don't care about your name: 
                                                       Let me sleep, 
                                                       because I already told you 
                                                       we shall not open up.
Mary and Joseph:
I'm asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
                                                       Well, if it's a queen 
                                                       who solicits it, 
                                                       why is it at night 
                                                       that she travels so alone?
Mary and Joseph:
My wife is Mary
She's the Queen of Heaven
and she's going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
                                                       Are you Joseph? 
                                                       Your wife is Mary? 
                                                       Enter, pilgrims; 
                                                       I did not recognize you.
Mary and Joseph:
May God pay, gentle folks,
your charity,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
                                                       Blessed is the house 
                                                       that shelters this day 
                                                       the pure Virgin, 
                                                       the beautiful Mary.

Everyone in unison:
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.                                       

Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.              

Humble pilgrims,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.              

Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.

I am moved by the joyful welcoming of Joseph and Mary in the Las Posadas tradition. After being rejected many times, Joseph and Mary finally encounter an innkeeper who accepts them and recognizes the beauty of their situation. The final innkeeper welcomes them unconditionally and commits to offer himself to help them.

“I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
Let us sing with joy”

He does not turn them away, but rather welcomes the strangers, offering a place to spend the night.

I can relate to this final innkeeper in my year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA. I teach English as a second language with the Tolton Center in Chicago. The people with whom I serve are strangers to the United States and to American culture. Many have been rejected—some having only recently arrived in the United States, while others have been here for a while. They have a desire to not just survive, but to thrive. They want to help their kids get into good high schools and colleges. They want to learn English, so they can understand their bosses’ directions and move forward in their place of employment. They seek to make American friends, understand American culture, and become full, active United States citizens.

David (center) with coworkers Ana and Peggy (left) and three English language students.

Our job at Tolton is to be welcoming innkeepers. We offer free classes and accept anyone who wants to learn, regardless of immigration status. We strive to create a warm, fun, nonthreatening environment with many games and activities. We try to respect every student as an individual with his or her own story and personal goals. We seek to create a place where no individual who wants to learn English will be turned away.

I am grateful for the people at Tolton for modeling for me the role of a hospitable innkeeper. I am thankful for my clients who openly and enthusiastically share their stories. I am appreciative of Dominican Volunteers USA for giving me this amazing opportunity.

In this Christmas Season may we learn to be welcoming innkeepers, giving our hearts and souls in service to the strangers in our midst. 

David's student shares pictures of her grandchildren. David helps her 
learn English so she can communicate with them. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Blessings in Upheaval

Sarah currently ministers with refugees with Catholic Charities Atlanta.

If you ever need to re-affirm your faith in humanity, stop by the Refugee Resettlement Office for Catholic Charities Atlanta.

When you walk in the door, it will likely be chaotic. In my office, people will be funneling in and out all day. Families from places like Afghanistan, Bhutan, Congo, Burma and Iraq will be talking to case managers, like myself, who are helping them become self sufficient. You will see every age group, and overhear dozens of languages. Many will want to practice their English and resettlement staff will be talking with them slowly. You will see people who are there because of war, persecution or natural disaster. 
Sarah's coworkers gather for a photo: Myint from Burma is a translator, Subba from Bhutan is resettlement manager, Frances from USA is Senior Director of Refugee Resettlement, and Sarah on the far right
Of the world's 50 million displaced persons, the refugees in this resettlement office are part of the .5 percent that have been invited by the U.S. government to rebuild their lives in the United States. Many have gone through years of waiting in camps or cities before being given permission to resettle in Atlanta, Georgia. There is a clear relationship between the refugee problem and the issue of human rights. Violations of human rights are not only among the major causes of mass exoduses, but also rule out the option of voluntary repatriation for as long as they persist. Violations of rights of minorities and ethnic conflicts are increasingly at the source of both mass exoduses and internal displacements. Respect for human rights is a necessary condition for both preventing and resolving today's refugee flows. In the words of previous United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, "the refugee issue must be put to all governments and peoples as a test of their commitment to human rights".

The Reception and Placement (R&P) Grant, is given by the State Department to various resettlement agencies, like Catholic Charities Atlanta, according to the number of refugees for which they are responsible during the given time period. In return for the grant, which is supplemented by private donations and other in-kind contributions, the resettlement agencies are expected to provide the following services to refugees approved for resettlement: 

  • sponsorship; 
  • pre-arrival resettlement planning (including placement); 
  • reception upon arrival; 
  • basic needs support for at least 30 days, including housing, furnishings, food, and clothing;
  • community orientation;
  • referral to social service providers (including health care, employment, etc.); 
  • and case management and tracking for 90-180 days. 
As a case manager I do all of the things listed above with each refugee case assigned to me. 

Sarah and Ashley, a current Dominican Volunteer, sort through clothes donations for incoming families.
One of my favorite parts of my job is reception upon arrival which includes airport reception. In August, I received my first case and made all the arrangements for them before I went to the airport to greet them. It was obviously a very exciting moment for me as a new case manager but significantly more exhilarating for the family members I was waiting with. Two adorable children and their parents anxiously stood next to me as we watched people from around the world come up the escalator at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. As we waited I was told by the children’s mother that her parents, my clients, last saw her little girl when she was one year old and that they hadn’t yet met her four month old baby boy. I knew it was going to be an extremely emotional reunion and I was not wrong! It was a moving moment to witness. I had tears well up in my eyes because everyone was crying and embracing their loved ones. The daughter ran up to her mother with her little girl and my clients just broke down in tears. When they finally saw their four month old grandson they cried harder and could not stop holding his face in their hands. They spoke rapidly in Arabic so I did not understand what was said but I could just imagine my clients saying, “my grandson is so precious and beautiful”. 

Moments like my first airport reception are a privilege to witness. I am so blessed to work as a case manager for Catholic Charities Atlanta as a Dominican Volunteer. The successes are there but so are the challenges. The longer you stay in my office, the more you will hear in the voices of the refugees that they are truly thankful but also scared and far from home. They are part of a resettlement program that makes a real difference but would be better with more funding and support. 

There is so much wrong in our world today. There have never been this many simultaneous conflicts or so many reasons for people to seek refuge away from home. There are more refugees since World War II and the number is only growing. Soon, Catholic Charities Atlanta may have Syrians in our office's waiting room. As I watch the news and see millions uprooted, I wonder which few I will work with in the coming year, and what will happen to the rest.

In a time where the world continues to be wrought with nonstop upheaval, there are not many moments to stop and give thanks. It is something though, to be with people directly affected by these issues. They have lost loved ones -- mostly to preventable conflicts or turmoil -- and will still find ways to see what is good. They are kind and resilient. They try again and again.

I challenge all of you who took the time to read this blog post to start learning about refugees. Or go bigger: support your local resettlement office throughout the year. You will never be prouder to be part of a country that has a history of offering refuge. You will never feel more human. And I promise, you will never feel more thankful.

The following are the external links from Sarah's post, as well as a few more resources for you:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Searching for the Source

Mary Clare Mazzocchi currently serves at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco. She takes on a variety of roles, including as chaperon for the Corporate Work Study Program and as a teacher and tutor in ICA’s Academy Plus after school study sessions.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation on BART, San Francisco’s subway system, with an Immaculate Conception Academy sophomore whom I will call Lexi. We were standing in the crowded train car, waiting for the masses to clear out at Embarcadero, the last stop in San Francisco, so we could sit for the long ride under the Bay to Lexi’s work-study job in Oakland. I know Lexi both as her commute chaperone and as her tutor in ICA’s Academy Plus afterschool program, a mandatory study skills session for students who have been targeted as needing extra help. 

It was a Monday, and I asked her about her weekend.

“It was really bad,” she said. She was smiling, and I wasn’t sure if she was trying to be funny. Lexi is always fun to interact with, because she is so open and willing to make a clown of herself.

“Oh no,” I said. “What was bad about it?”

“My mom was supposed to visit, but then she didn’t,” she said. Then she whispered, “She’s crazy,” and smiled like she had told a cute story.

“Oh.” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I knew it was important that she was telling me about this, but it was coming out so suddenly, I didn’t know how to respond.

“I know I’m alright,” she said. “I just worry about my little brother, you know?”

I nodded and made a face like I did know, even though I didn’t.

She went on. “You can’t talk to her, not even on the phone. She gets so mad at us for living with my dad, even though she’s the one that left us, you know?” I nodded. “And I used to be really upset about it, and it affected my grades. I was getting like D’s and F’s and stuff last year because I was thinking about it all the time. But now I’m better.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re doing really well.”

She smiled, and I could tell she really felt proud. Her grades this semester are very good, and she will probably no longer need to be in Academy Plus come spring. Our conversation turned to school, and then ended when we sat in separate rows.

This was a brief interaction, but it illustrates a struggle that I often encounter in my work at ICA. The school operates using a Cristo Rey model, meaning that the girls work in corporate work-study positions to earn the cost of their school tuition, and receive in return a college prep education and 100% college placement in their senior year. The school has a very welcoming atmosphere. It feels good to be there. On the whole, the girls are amazingly, even shockingly polite to their teachers, and kind to each other. They’re mature. They’re bright. They’re funny. It’s such a positive environment that it’s easy to forget what the school does, and that its work is fighting a very real injustice that has been dealt to its students. Because of the Cristo Rey model, the school can serve a population that would not typically have access to a college prep education and guaranteed college placement, namely, young women from backgrounds of poverty. And sometimes I forget what that actually means for girls and their families.

Mary Clare tutoring a student after school during Academy Plus.

In a recent meeting in the Admissions Department, where I sat taking minutes, a board member brought up an idea that she has long been advocating: the school should initiate a home visit to each girl’s family, to understand her situation and consider what her individual needs might be.

“These aren’t girls like you and me except they’re poor,” she said. “Their lives are very different, and we need to know what’s going on.”

So although the atmosphere of the school makes it easy to forget, the injustice of the students’ situation is a painful reality. Because of their socioeconomic condition, they are dealing with a set of stresses at home that has a very real effect on their schoolwork, which in turn affects their chances of success in college and in the workplace. We can be sure of the consequences of the injustice, if only by looking at the grades and scores of some of the brightest and best learners in the school.

So the problem is clear, but moments like my conversation with Lexi make me question whether the school as a whole and I personally can deal with some of the deeper effects of economic disparity. Most of the time, my experience with the students is tranquil and enjoyable, but every now and then something will happen, like Lexi’s sudden need to tell me about her family situation, that will open my eyes to what is going on under the surface, and to my inability to really change the situation from the position I’m in.

It comes out in flashes. A girl in Academy Plus will respond to my question of who at home can quiz her after she’s finished studying, saying, with genuine sadness, “No one,” then defensively, “They work.” A girl on one of my commutes will make an off-hand comment, trying to be funny, about the rotten food in her refrigerator the night before. When I see a girl dragging her feet in my commute group or sitting in the back of Academy Plus with her head on her desk and tears in her eyes, I know that when I ask how she’s doing and if I can help, the best it will do is communicate that I notice and care, which, although important, will not actually do anything to right the wrong.

It’s not just that I lack the tools or the ability to have helpful conversations with the girls; it’s also one of the fundamental limitations of working in a school ministry like ICA. On the one hand, the school is and should be a safe and separate environment, a place of order and certainty where any turbulence in a student’s home life can be left at the door. But in many instances, I feel as though my work, especially with my Academy Plus girls, is only making surface changes and failing to engage the deeper problem. I recently helped each girl in the class clean and organize her locker and get all of her materials in order, with papers in the right binders and separate notebooks for each class, etc., and I couldn’t help but feel that I was just treating the symptoms, helping her put the externals in order when the real disorder was somewhere deep and out of sight.

So what can we do to combat the deep and often hidden injustice of economic difference creating unfair barriers to success?

Mary Clare (far left) chaperoning students to their Corporate Work Study jobs.

It seems to me that ICA and other schools in the Cristo Rey Network have one of the best solutions that is practically possible, combating inequality of opportunity head-on by providing ample opportunity to students that would typically be inequality’s victims. The approach is effective, and should be extended even further, into school systems that provide direct attention to at-risk students from the beginning to prevent their falling so far behind, or systems that encourage or require active parent involvement in a student’s academic growth.

But that approach seems to run into the same problem. It is a symptomatic treatment. Schools can fill in what unjust inequality took away. But what can be done to eradicate the source of inequality?

I ran into one of ICA’s newer teachers in the BART station after school, and we had a conversation on the platform while waiting for the train. She expressed some skepticism about the idea of “breaking the cycle” of poverty.

She said, “It seems like it’s been years that we’ve been talking about ‘breaking the cycle.’ So when is the cycle really broken? I have friends my age who came from poor backgrounds, and now they’re working in professional jobs and making money. So you could say they ‘broke the cycle,’ but now here we are helping these girls, and they’re in a younger generation, but they’re still in ‘the cycle.’ So I guess the cycle wasn’t really broken.”

Maybe it is helpful to think of ICA as ministering in part to its students, and in part to the students’ families, to their children and to future generations. It’s true that a ministry like ICA cannot enact the kind of social change that happens all at once, for an entire generation of citizens. It serves a small group of girls, and even for them it cannot right some of the wrongs that have already been done. But for those girls, within their families, the “cycle” is broken, starting now, with her generation. If the school cannot directly deal with all of the ugly effects of injustice, it can put each girl on a track that leads to a different kind of life. And because of that, her children will not need a place like ICA to obtain the opportunity that they deserve. And perhaps her children’s children will have a childhood free of the stresses of economic precarity.

So even when I am faced with small moments that expose the depth of our students’ needs, and I feel where both I and the school are lacking, I believe in our mission and work, and I have hope for the girls and for their families. Everyone at ICA is working hard, and the effects might be slow to appear. But over time, for all of ICA’s families, the possible will be achievable, and the ideal will be real.

Freshman poses in the ICA Admissions Office, where she works on Fridays.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giving Thanks by Showing Thanks!

Kate Kirbie served as a Dominican Volunteer from 2012 to 2013 at the Racine Dominican Eco-Justice Center in Racine, WI. After serving she was hired as the Assistant to the Director of the Eco-Justice Center where she continues to minister, leading environmental education programs and helping to care for the farm.

Is it just me or has November gone by fast? Maybe it is the cold quickly confronting us, making the outdoors feel more like the frigid weather after Christmas, or maybe it is me overly occupying my days with fall events. Either way, Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Thanksgiving is a time to make a point to acknowledge the relationships we have, appreciate our health and the experiences we’ve had, and maybe even acknowledge the simple blessings, like food, water, and clean air. 

On Thanksgiving, no matter if you have a large turkey for twenty family members, or spend a small meal together with few, we can easily recognize our thanks for food. Living and working at the Eco-Justice Center, I’ve grown accustomed to praying in thanksgiving for “the hands that worked to prepare and grow the food we eat.” For Thanksgiving on the farm, we gather the squash and potatoes from the root cellar, defrost beans and fruit from the freezer, open cans jarred last year, and prepare the turkey that recently left the farm. We, as do many, become closer to our food as we cook and eat our Thanksgiving meal.

But there are many gifts in our lives that we can easily overlook. The fact that the food is safe enough for us to eat is a great blessing. Most of us probably also pay little attention to the water that fills our drinking glasses. Along the same line, I only think of the cleanliness of the air I breathe when I drive by the Oak Creek coal power plant just north of Racine. Still, many others are living with the health consequences of drinking contaminated water or breathing in air pollutants.

On Thanksgiving we can make a simple verbal acknowledgment of what we are thankful for, but how do we show our thanks? For example, if we spend one day in the year thanking our family but don’t regularly call, lend an ear, or see what we can do for them, then how else do we show our appreciation? How can we show our thanks for our air, our water, or our food? Certainly not by continuing to pollute, destroy, and ignore the environment.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Eco-Justice Center, a small group from the community went to the Lake Michigan shoreline, just a mile away, to pick up trash. As we were approaching the site, I mentioned to the group that only two months ago fifteen high school students and I visited the same difficult-to-reach beach front and picked up loads of Styrofoam, plastic and glass. After hearing that, the group I was traveling with expected a minute amount of refuse. Instead we were greeted with a shoreline covered in trash. While some of the garbage was left by people having late night bonfires, much of the Styrofoam surely washed in from the lake after blowing from someone’s possession on land.

It’s not just this beach front. There are few places now that you can drive, bike, or walk without spotting litter. If it was just an eyesore, I wouldn’t be so worried. Many of us know that animals can get trapped in litter. When I recently watched the documentary Bag It, I was shocked to find that there are 40 times more plastic particles in the oceans than there are plankton! Plankton – the organisms that provide a crucial amount of food for fish and whales. There are more plastic particles in the oceans than plankton!

Kate (kneeling in front) gathers with volunteers to clean up Racine's shoreline.

Recently, while meeting with a group of LaSallian Volunteers to discuss “peace” in our weekly “Spiritual Literacy,” I had a realization: entropy. I’ve always compared the second law of thermodynamics to my bed room. In the morning, it is easy to throw my pajamas over my chair and leave my bed unmade. I have to use energy to tidy my room. This seems to be true with most worldly issues. It takes effort to make a peaceful world, it takes effort to educate, it takes effort to have a healthy, clean environment, and it takes effort to think of new alternatives. If we continue to live our lives saying we are thankful, but not really showing it, what will our futures look like?

The Water Conflict Chronology sites nearly 100 attacks on water or conflicts over water around the world in the last four years. These numbers are sure to grow as our population continues to increase, as we carry on polluting the environment, and as we delay reducing our unnecessary use of water. There are a lot of challenges to caring for the Earth. Many Americans feel entitled. Cheap food, cheap electricity, cheap oil, and cheap water are expectations without acknowledging the actual cost of health or the cost to clean up the land. Doing nothing and accepting what we currently have will lead to a future generation making even harder decisions.

Still there is hope. Communities are joining together to learn, educate, and find solutions. On September 21, over 300,000 people marched in New York to advocate against climate change and to promote positive action. Close to home the Racine Dominicans, like many other religious communities, are paying attention to the companies in which they are investing their finances and working to leave a lighter footprint. There is even an Eco-Justice Committee within the Dominican Alliance, which includes representatives from the Racine Dominicans, Sinsinawa Dominicans, Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Dominican Sisters of Houston, Dominican Sisters of Kenosha, and Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids. As individuals we can work to make small changes: buy local (reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to transport food), be conscious of your water use, properly dispose of trash if items can’t be reused or recycled, reduce your use of plastics, write to politicians and support those in favor of protecting the environment.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I push you to stretch your mind. We are blessed. I personally feel blessed to have had the opportunity to serve as a Dominican Volunteer, to still have a number of sisters as close friends and mentors, and to live in a safe environment with access to organic produce and clean water. Now, this November, let’s not only give thanks, but show thanks for these many blessings.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why Domestic Violence Matters -- and not just in October

Amelia Vojt serves at Sarah's Inn in Oak Park, IL as an intervention advocate to victims of domestic violence.

When October rolls around every year, Americans expect to experience certain things. In many parts of the U.S., the changing colors of the leaves signify the change in seasons from summer to autumn. The introduction of fall items to restaurants and grocery stores ensures that people will be able to stuff themselves with plenty of pumpkin-flavored foods and drinks. And if you are sports fan, you can be sure that your television screen will be filled with players wearing pink athletic attire. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and major sports leagues have capitalized on the opportunity by outfitting teams in special pink hats, sweatbands, and jerseys, which are then sold to fans with a portion of profits going to breast cancer research. Pink is pervasive in October, but this year also saw the biggest push to date for teams to begin wearing an additional color throughout the month: purple.

Less known to the general population is that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and purple is the color! The first Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness Month was observed in October of 1987. This was only two years after the inaugural Breast Cancer Awareness Month, yet that movement has swept the nation while domestic violence seemingly remains on the backburner. Looking at the statistics, it makes sense that breast cancer research garners high responsiveness from the public. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that about 40,000 American women will die from breast cancer in 2014.1 The ACS also states that a woman in the U.S. has a 12.3% chance of being diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime, which is about 1 in 8.

In contrast, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reports that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men in the U.S. are victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.2 Approximately 20 people are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner every minute in this country, over 10 million men and women every year.3 I am not suggesting that people are wrong for supporting breast cancer research programs over domestic violence programs, but why is there such a discrepancy between the two causes? Why is pink visible everywhere and purple nowhere in sight?

My year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA started in mid-August as I moved to Chicago and began my ministry at Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence agency based in Oak Park. Sarah’s Inn offers free counseling and advocacy services to victims of domestic violence and their family members in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. My position at the agency is as an intervention advocate. I, along with several other advocates and counselors, work directly with victims to provide them with emotional support, help during crises, education about domestic violence, and ongoing assistance as they work through the myriad of problems that often occur in abusive relationships. We do everything we can to satisfy the needs of victims. If for some reason Sarah’s Inn cannot satisfy those needs, we refer victims to outside agencies that may be better equipped to aid them. Our main prerogative is to offer victims options for moving forward and to accompany them as they pursue whatever path is right for them.

Staff photo taken before Stand Tall with Sarah’s Inn, an annual agency fundraising event held during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Amelia Vojt is on far right in green, and former Dominican Volunteer Erin Hallagan (12-13) is in the center in blue.

Before continuing, I would like to point out that Sarah’s Inn works with both male and female domestic violence victims, but the large majority of clients are female victims with male abusers. So from this point forward, for the sake of clarity, I will be referring to abusers using male pronouns and to victims using female pronouns.

One of the most frustrating things to hear from those who are unfamiliar with the complexities of domestic violence is “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Many people are unaware that by asking this question they are partaking in victim-blaming. Saying that the victim should simply leave to escape abuse implies that it is her fault that she is in or remains in the abusive situation in the first place. The one thing I want everyone to take from reading this is that domestic violence is never the victim’s fault. No words that victims say or actions that victims take justify abuse.

The real question we should be asking is “Why does he abuse her?” This shifts responsibility for the abuse from the victim and back to the abuser, where it rightfully belongs. People sometimes forget that the abuser is the one committing a crime—abusing another human being—and he often gets away with it. Conceptualizing domestic violence in terms of the actions of the abuser causes us to think about the root of the problem, that the abuser wants power and control over his victim. Abusers use various methods to establish power and control in domestic violence relationships. An abuser might coerce and threaten his partner, isolate her, emotionally abuse her, use her children against her, downplay the abuse, financially abuse her, or use intimidation to get his way. Domestic violence victims usually experience a combination of these non-physical abuses to varying degrees, and from there the situation frequently escalates into physical and sexual abuse.

For outsiders it can be easy to say that the victim should leave the abuser. Besides this perspective entailing victim-blaming, a deeper examination of domestic violence reveals just how difficult it can be for victims to get away. Abuse can take a toll on all aspects of victims’ health, including their mental health. Domestic violence victims are at an increased likelihood for developing depression and suicidal behavior.3 Furthermore, financial abuse is one of the most widely-reported types of abuse.

To only briefly mention the case, suspended NFL player Ray Rice’s publicized domestic violence characterizes how economic circumstances can influence a victim. His shocking physical abuse of his then-fiancĂ© was caught on video and made headline news. However, she went on to marry him immediately after the incident. Many people did not understand her actions. Only she knows the true motivations behind her decision, but the fact that he is the source of financial viability for her and their young child was certainly a factor. When the abuser earns the income, victims commonly feel that they have no choice other than to stay. When a victim is an undocumented immigrant, there is a persistent fear of the abuser getting her deported, which could also mean a mother being separated from her children. Finally, when you consider that a victim’s risk of being murdered by her abuser is highest within the first few weeks of her leaving, fleeing can feel like more of a danger than a solution.

Part of the reason that domestic violence receives much less attention than breast cancer awareness lies in the name itself. The classification of the violence as “domestic” indicates that it is occurring within the home. Yet this classification can work against victims because it perpetuates the idea that matters should be settled within the home and misleads others into thinking that they should stay out of it. It is disheartening to hear clients explain how they called 911 after being abused and the police did nothing to help them. Sarah’s Inn conducts training for law enforcement officials and medical professionals to instruct them on how to handle domestic violence situations, but there are still some officers who are hesitant to get involved. Even worse is hearing clients report that their abusers are police officers or other civic officials, the people who are supposed to be helping their communities.

Amelia Vojt stands next to America’s Next Top Model Winner Jaslene Gonzalez, who spoke to children’s, teen’s, and women’s support groups about her experience in a domestic violence relationship and how she overcame her abusive past to launch a successful modeling career.

Another point I want everyone to take from reading this is that domestic violence can affect anyone. Victims and abusers can be of any gender, race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, religion, etc. You may have family, friends, and/or neighbors who are in abusive relationships. There is no “typical” example of domestic violence because the circumstances are different for every person and the abuse that a victim endures is unique to their situation. The ability for domestic violence advocates to assist victims lies in their ability to work with each individual to identify the most appropriate plan of action. We at Sarah’s Inn walk with clients in their journey towards healing and work towards breaking the cycle of violence.

As citizens living in a nation where domestic violence is all around us—and doesn’t just happen in October, we can all do our part to stand up for victims. Many people are uncomfortable discussing domestic violence or would like to help but are afraid to reach out. However, domestic violence warrants the same level of attention given to other major causes, and it is time for us all to let go of our fear and uncertainty. It is time for us to hold abusers accountable for their actions. It is time to rid ourselves of victim-blaming attitudes. It is time for us to stop criticizing those who suffer for not fleeing their abusers and to instead provide the resources for them to do so safely. It is time for us to stand up together and show victims that we care.

Going to Sarah’s Inn and constantly hearing stories of the horrible abuse that clients have lived through can be very tough at times. However, I go home every day remembering that they are survivors. Our clients have been through so much and they will likely face more obstacles in the future. Still, they push on. Their strength and resilience is a constant inspiration and gives me hope that we may one day live in a society free of domestic violence.

If you or someone you know is in a situation of domestic violence, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at for help or for more information. 


1. American Cancer Society. (2014, September 25). What are the key statistics about breast cancer? American Cancer Society. Retrieved from:

2. Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from:

3. World Health Organization. (2013). Global and Regional Estimates of Violence against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence and Non-partner Sexual Violence. Retrieved from: