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Mable Dunbar believes church has obligation to heal abused

By Virginia de Leon

Mable Dunbar’s resilience and faith have empowered her to overcome her suffering as a child.

As an adult, she uses the pain of her past to bring hope to others and to shed light on domestic violence and abuse—problems, she said, many churches and religious organizations tend to ignore.

Mable Dunbar
Mable Dunbar

“My ministry is to help heal the broken-hearted,” she said. “I want people to speak the truth, to acknowledge what we’ve been through and endured, and to find healing through Christ.”

Mable is president of Polly’s Place Network, a nonprofit that provides education, counseling, research and resources on domestic violence and sexual abuse.

She is a counselor, author and speaker, traveling nationally and globally to share expertise on abuse and lead healing workshops for churches and religious organizations. In addition, she is director of the Counseling Center of the Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and works with Women’s Ministries, Family Life and other Seventh-day Adventist programs.

Her mission in these roles is to empower abused people.

After reading about her in “Women of Spirit” magazine in 1997, Linda Schultz of Spokane invited Mable and her husband, the Rev. Colin Dunbar, an Adventist pastor, to lead a workshop in 1998 in the Inland Northwest. 

When East Central Community Adventist Church needed a pastor, they called Colin.  The Dunbars moved to Spokane in 2000.

Mable felt called to the ministry of ending abuse as a result of her family background.

When her mother, Ellen, was 18, she was raped by a church youth leader. Instead of receiving support from her congregation—including her own father, an elder—Ellen was “disfellowshipped” for having a child out of wedlock.

Mable met her father only a few times before he died. She spent the first five years of her childhood in Jamaica, West Indies, with her grandparents while her mother worked and sent money home from Bermuda to support her.

“Because she was Christian, my mother didn’t want to say anything bad against my father,” Mable explained. “She wanted to forgive and forget. She was afraid to use the word ‘rape.’ Telling the story, however, is part of healing. As Christians, we must speak the truth.”

As a child, Mable realized she was different. Adults whispered about her in church, she said. Other children teased her for being an “illegitimate” child. She grew up consumed with anger and low self-esteem. Fear of rejection also led her to deny what happened to her mother and family. She remained a church member, but there was a void in her life.

“I didn’t talk about it,” she said. “We protect but we also hurt in the name of religion.”

Even though she and her mother received little support from the church they attended, faith kept both strong through their lives.

So many things could have discouraged her belief, but in her moment of desperation, “as I called out to somebody, Jesus answered my prayer,” Mable said. “I have learned through disappointment and hurts that I can trust him to take care of everything. God has done many good things in my life.”

As an adult, Mable overcame her childhood pain by focusing on education and her own family.

She graduated from Bermuda Institute High School, and earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education at West Indies College, a master’s in education and counseling from Andrews University in Michigan, and a doctorate in family mediation from LaSalle University. She spent several years at home to care for her three children.

During an internship at a domestic violence shelter in Michigan, she discovered her calling. She found homes for Christian women abused by their husbands and then became the shelter’s executive director. With the support of her husband of 36 years, Mable also started sheltering some women in their home. Several were wives of seminarians and pastors.

She thought of how her mother had nowhere to go for help.

“The Lord impressed upon me that I needed to start a safe Christian shelter,” she said.

Although women would also be safe in secular shelters, Mable said they need a place that offers the context of faith, because inaccurate interpretation of Scriptures helps perpetuate their abuse.

When Polly Westman, a nurse, learned about Mable’s efforts and the plight of these women, she donated property in Niles, Mich., to provide a home for them.

Since 1996, hundreds of women have come to this shelter, called Polly’s Place.  Many who experienced the two-month program left abusive relationships for good. Some returned to their husbands only after the men sought professional counseling to deal with their abusive behavior.

Through its programs, Polly’s Place Network, which will soon be renamed the Women’s Healing and Empowerment Network, helps individuals experience wholeness by discovering their value to God, Mable explained.

They also spend time recovering from dysfunctional thoughts, feelings and behaviors that predispose them to being abused or abusive so that they can heal, grow and become role models for others in the future.

Mable considers it the church’s obligation to provide safety and healing for individuals who have been harmed by abuse and domestic violence.  However, she knows that some churches and religious leaders have ignored these problems and use Scripture “to perpetuate abuse.”

For example, she knows some pastors advise women to go back to abusive husbands based on biblical texts quoted out of context to “give the idea that women have to be subservient and submit to their husbands,” she explained.

God, however, calls for mutuality in a relationship so both individuals support each other,” she said.

Without support of their faith communities, some abuse survivors are afraid to share their stories, she said. They fear they will be shunned and rejected. Because they suffer in silence, people mistakenly think abuse and domestic violence isn’t a problem among “good Christians.” Abuse remains a taboo subject, and some people of faith remain in denial of its pervasiveness in congregations.

 “Because of our religious beliefs, we may want to forgive quickly and forget,” Mable said. “This doesn’t allow for healing.”

Instead of ignoring the problem, churches need to provide funding and resources to help people who have suffered abuse, she said.

She urges religious leaders to speak against domestic violence from their pulpits and to empower church members with information, education and dialogue.

Mable wants seminaries and organizations offering religious formation to prepare future pastors and leaders to help victims of domestic violence and abuse.

“We want clergy to do something for us, but they’re not always educated on domestic violence issues,” she said.

Her next project is to garner support and funding for a women’s healing center. She wants to name it “Patty’s Healing Center” in honor of a young volunteer at Polly’s Place Network who died last year because of domestic violence.

Through this center, Mable hopes to provide refuge for abused women, particularly professional women who sometimes are too ashamed or fearful to speak out about their suffering at home. She envisions a house where women and their children have their own rooms and share common areas for exercise, meals and classes.

Mable also hopes to find a house on acreage so children have space to play and mothers can go for walks and garden.

“I hope churches will address domestic violence,” she said. “They need to give messages of healing and empowerment.”

For information, call 838-2761 or email info@pollysplacenetwork.com.