“It’s been very hard for you.” At my words, Sarah’s eyes welled up with tears. She sat in the reception area of our centre, in an immigrant ghetto of the Spanish town.
It was our first conversation – she had come to sign up for classes, and like many we meet, it was the first times she’d felt safe confiding in someone.
“I arrived five months ago … I’d only met my husband twice before our marriage … He is very controlling … I don’t know anyone here … I’ve had a miscarriage …” An educated woman, brought up to submit to her father and then her husband, she was alone in a foreign country, dependent on her husband for everyday life and for her residence papers.
Precious times of ministry
The district consists of blocks of flats which (sometimes illegally) house Spaniards, Roma, Latin Americans and North Africans. It is not an easy area – one of our team has made friends with a local drug dealer; another North African was recently arrested for radical online messages. Sarah had reason to miss home.
She started coming to classes and blossomed as she met other young women trying to find their feet. But it was short-lived: her husband forbade her from coming, and then broke her mobile. Luckily, she’d written down my number and had an old phone that she had hidden away.
When lockdown began, her husband was working night shifts and we would frequently talk into the small hours. These were some of the most precious times of ministry for me, as we each curled up on our sofas, and talked about our lives and our faiths. When I had lived in North Africa, I never had an educated North African friend like Sarah*, who was so earnest to know the truth.
Sarah and I had wonderfully honest conversations. One time, as she questioned the incarnation, I responded, “Who are you to tell God that he can’t take on human form?”“You’re right,” she admitted. On another occasion, she explained how she fulfilled her religion’s requirements to pray and fast. I challenged her about the inconsistency of the religiosity she has been taught, where much outward ritual is thought to please God, yet there is no concern about the hatred, hurt and brokenness in family relationships underneath. She became very indignant. Usually I would finish our conversations by praying and reminding her that God was true and that she should never be afraid of seeking the truth.
“They gloried in their prison bars”
But there came a turning point during their month of fasting, “Will you still be my friend even if I don’t become a Christian?” When I assured her that I would, she withdrew into her religious practices. She is still lonely, vulnerable, and has serious health problems during her present pregnancy, but whenever I bring up a spiritual topic, she becomes evasive.
Situations like this leave me feeling impotent and uncertain. Just how widespread is domestic abuse and what should be our role? It is hard to see these women clinging to a system of practices that has led to such difficult family situations. “They gloried in their prison bars, believing their caging proved their status and value”**, Lilias Trotter writes, reflecting on her years of loving and witnessing to Muslims from the same part of the world. It seems that fulfilling religious requirements gives a sense of control in these women’s precarious lives.
There is spiritual blindness; this is a spiritual battle and our fiercest weapon is prayer. He can transform the hardest heart, release captives and produce God-glorifying relationships: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19). Please pray for many like Sarah. Pray that as a team we can learn how to wisely respond to situations of domestic abuse, for Jesus’ glory.
*Some names and identities have been changed
**Huffman Rockness, M. (1999), A Passion for the Impossible, the Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House Publishers