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Whitworth graduate encounters hope and violence

Translating stories of El Salvadoran women’s experiences of violence from Spanish to English for a January Women Walking Together team from the Northwest meant Julie Lauterbach retold the stories she heard in first person.

Julie lauterbach
Julie Lauterbach

“It made the experience more personal and emotional than I was prepared for to say, ‘I experienced this violence’,” said Julie, a 2007 Whitworth graduate living for a year in intentional community with two other Whitworth graduates at Westminster House in West Central Spokane.

Having majored in Spanish and in English writing, she now seeks outlets to write the stories she translated to give voice to the women. 

She also finds insights from Central America helpful in understanding some dynamics in West Central Spokane.

At Westminster House, which marked its 15th year of Whitworth graduates and other community members serving a year in West Central Spokane, she has lived since late June with two others, who share and reflect about the children and the neighborhood.

Each also works part time or goes to school.   Julie has an editing business and writes freelance.

 “I am here intentionally to work closely with children in a poor community where there is much domestic violence, drug abuse and physical or sexual abuse,” she said.

“Here and in Guatemala and El Salvador, I have felt able to commune with God, to trust that no matter how in-depth God wants me to go into a community or a person’s life, God will go with me,” she said.

After hearing so many difficult stories, it was at first hard for her to pray or to see God’s work in a person or society that did such horrible things. 

“The women, however, could see God’s work in the tiniest things,” she said.

Julie realizes from both settings how important it is to resist pessimism and frustration, and to do what she can do.

It was hard for El Salvadoran women who came to the retreat to share about their experiences of violence, because “violence has become the cultural norm,” said Julie, who sees violence as a cultural norm in the United States, too.

Whether violence against women is in El Salvador or in Spokane, Julie said, it is hidden.

“Women don’t want to talk about it.  It is shameful and taboo to talk about abuse, so women feel they are the only ones experiencing it,” she said.  “They think they were or are abused because of their inadequacy.  Many think it’s just their cross to bear, their lot in life.”

It was so hard to share that some El Salvadoran women waited until the last day or two to open up.  One morning she awoke at 5 a.m. when the roosters crowed.  She could hear women gathered in the next room saying how they needed to stay strong so they could advocate for each other and for others.

“They were willing to share out of their desire to protect their daughters from experiencing violence,” she said.

“They are concerned that even though peace treaties have been in effect for 16 years, the agreements are fragile.  Some believe resistance armies are rebuilding and may start another civil war, said Julie, who studied spring semester 2006 through Whitworth’s International Student Exchange Program at the Catholic University in Valparaiso, Chile, and lived with a family who spoke no English.

When the women were ready, Julie translated stories of atrocities of war, related to an army of men violating women, children, and crippled and elderly people.

“Initiation into the military required a man to commit an atrocity against someone he loved,” she said.  “Many women lived through horrors they had not talked of until the workshop.  It’s a culture in which people don’t tell of their struggles and hardships, especially domestic violence.

Many who are married have experienced abuse, Julie said. 

Violence is often excused as an outlet for men’s anger and frustration because of what they experienced in the war, she said.

Bringing the stories out could disempower the women, but the way they share in workshops empowers them. 

In addition, an El Salvadoran woman pastor, who referred most of the women, would follow up with pastoral care and advocacy after the training, which was organized by CEDEPCA, the Evangelical Center of Pastoral Studies in Central America.

Women leaders at CEDEPCA teach that “the violence against women is violence against the image of God,” Julie said. 

They affirm that message to counter the accepted attitude that women are made less in the image of God and are more like objects made in man’s image, as if that makes it okay to abuse women, she added, noting that there’s a lack of recognition of the Divine in all of creation.

“While many expressed anger, adamant that they would not want the violence they experienced repeated in their own homes and families, they also expressed strong Christian hope in side conversations,” Julie said.  “They both shook me up and encouraged me with their stories.”

What she found positive was that women of faith found support in their beliefs and in the context of the workshops in which they realized they were not alone in their grieving about the violence they experienced and in which they learned it was okay to grieve.

“I was both thankful and heart-fallen that there were so many young women at the conference,” said Julie, who is applying for graduate studies in fine arts in writing creative nonfiction—travel, memoirs and personal narratives—with the goal of teaching at a university in Central or South America or the United States.

At home in Arnold, Calif, she had little exposure to people of different cultures.  She said she grew up in a loving, Christian home and knew little of other cultures, churches or violence. 

Julie describes herself as having a “protected childhood growing up in this isolated community” of 3,000 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California without a TV.  She read books, listened to the radio, watched movies, played outside and was exposed to TV content through classmates.

Westminster House, where about 10 children come after school each day as a safe place to “hang out” and receive help with homework, has no TV, but the children gravitate to video games.

She also meets neighborhood children who come to the Logos youth program Wednesday evenings at Westminster Presbyterian Church around the corner.

Beyond violence in U.S. homes, she observes violence against women through images and expectations in TV, magazines and other media.

“I was mesmerized by TV when I first saw it,” she said, noting that she is perhaps more sensitive to what she sees having not grown up watching it.

She observes the depiction of unhealthy images of women’s bodies, of women often scantily clad in seductive postures and speaking in sexy tones.

An ad campaign she heard about in Guatemala makes her realize how devalued women are and that advertisers push too far with what they depict, such as a shoe company using corpses of naked women to sell “shoes to die for.”  The ad was pulled after people complained.

A desire to protect others from experiencing violence motivates some women to speak out against cultural norms that excuse violence, Julie said.

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