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Program uses Psalm 23 to help women end domestic violence

A Northwest-based abuse recovery ministry uses Psalm 23 as a tool to help women distinguish between submission to righteousness and submission to oppression.

Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services (ARMS) uses the psalm as the basis for a curriculum to encourage women find new ways to deal with abuse and develop prevention plans for daily life.

Ophelia Araujo-Islas

Ophelia Araujo-Islas

Ophelia Araujo-Islas, director of the Spokane ARMS, expands on the curriculum, sharing her journey from childhood abuse into unhealthy relationships, pregnancy at 15, cocaine and alcohol abuse, intravenous meth abuse, porn and strip clubs.

“The Christian community has its own culture and needs an interpreter to walk beside Christian women, to invite them to develop self-esteem, find purpose and live life victoriously,” Ophelia said. “Secular approaches help, but God can take us the rest of the way.  Christians have hope and tools for daily living.” 

Now she uses her painful experiences for God’s glory, rather than to feed more pain.

“It’s a package, experiencing trials and tribulations to help others experiencing trials and tribulations, so they know they can move to health,” she said.  “When I am alone now, I am not lonely, because I know God has a plan.  I’m ready to speak truth to set captives free.”

The flow and imagery of Psalm 23 remind women that the “Lord is their shepherd,” Ophelia said. “God knows hearts and prepares “green pastures” and “still waters,” where we can release our anger and become restored and refreshed to follow God’s lead on paths of righteousness.”

The curriculum assures that God can heal depression for women “in the valley of the shadow of death,” so they “fear no evil.”  They are never alone.  God’s “rod and staff” protect them and guide them to focus on their relationship with Christ rather than on their abusers.

Insights and assurance from the psalm call women to set limits to oppression, to take responsibility for choices and to let God lead them in a new direction.

The promise then is that God is “preparing a table” and will anoint them, leading them to forgive their enemies in their own time, according to the curriculum outline.

“God’s way is goodness and mercy, anointing us so our ‘cup overflows’ and so ‘goodness and mercy will follow’ us,” said Ophelia, who grew up with her mother’s Seventh-Day Adventist teachings.

“Homeless, friendless and abused, I sought the Lord one day while driving.  I wanted a friend, and accepted Jesus as my friend,” she said.  “When I fell back into smoking pot and drinking, however, I felt condemned and thought it would be hypocritical to say I loved God. 

“I did not understand forgiveness and mercy, so I fell away.  The demons came back seven times worse for another 10 years,” she said, understanding the walk of women who are abused.

At a shelter in Portland, Ophelia was introduced to ARMS, which was started in 1997 by a pastor’s daughter and mother of six children in Hillsboro, Ore. 

Now there are 24 ARMS groups in Oregon and four in Northeast Washington—two in Spokane and one each in Wilbur and Davenport.  In Portland, ARMS also has programs for perpetrators and youth.

For several years, Ophelia worked as a street evangelist in Portland, working with and praying for addicts and prostitutes with Victory Outreach.  She also began to teach ARMS sessions there.

She moved to Spokane three years ago to help lead a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program with Victory Outreach.  She led ARMS groups on the side.

“God said I should not be afraid to move forward,” she said.

She opened the program in March at Hillyard Baptist Church, because the pastor, John Dotson, and associate pastor, Ron Ulmer, offered office space, and because she says the neighborhood has the most domestic violence calls in the state.

Ophelia began studies in sociology and completed a two-year program, using ARMS for her work-study project.  When her child died last September, she began attending Grace Harvest.

Since then, she has trained two facilitators to lead 15-week sessions—Charlotte Cozetto in Hillyard and Rebecca Harris in Davenport

“There are many hurting women who want to leave abusive relationships and do not know how to do it.  They need tools to help them,” Ophelia said.  “Housing, finances and loneliness become barriers, as does a desire to stay with their children’s father.

“Some Christian women believe divorce is not of God and think they should carry their cross as Jesus carried his cross,” she said, “but Jesus died so we would have life in abundance.

 “We walk people through anger to accept that forgiveness takes time and does not come until they are ready.  Some women in the program are in denial and do not realize the impact of childhood abuse,” she said.  “So we help them understand the effects of abuse and help them realize that cars, jewelry and material things will not make them happy.  Only God will make us perfect and happy.

“I am a vessel to help people.  I know God opens doors and God is the one who heals hearts, renews minds, gives financial blessings and makes the crooked path straight,” she said.

Last spring, Ophelia prayed with a woman whose abuser took her child.  “We fasted for three days, until the child was brought back,” she said.

Ophelia knows the power of words and presence.  Her mother, who came to the United States from Mexico, always told her she was beautiful and that she loved her.  Sometimes in her struggles, she would call her mother just to hear that reminder.

“Words have the power of life and death.  The Word of God came to give life, not death.  If we use the Word of God to justify abuse, it’s blasphemy.

“The curriculum is God’s Word, speaking the 23rd Psalm into the lives of women,” Ophelia said. “We seek to speak life and breathe into dry bones of people who have been abused, are spiritually dead, have no hope or dreams, may hate themselves and use alcohol and drugs to cover their pain.

“We let them know God has a plan for each of us.  No one else tells women that they have worth and do not need to accept abuse—that there is a way out.”

To tell them, Ophelia has to earn their trust and show them she understands, because she has walked in their shoes.

She networks with community agencies—such as a Hillyard pastors’ group, the Domestic Violence Consortium, Ogden Hall, the Interfaith Council, the YWCA and other agencies that make referrals.  She give presentations, leads sessions or goes to court as an advocate for women.

“Three million women in the U.S. are seen for ongoing treatment from domestic violence.  A woman is beaten every nine seconds.  Many who seek to leave their abuser are killed.  They are our mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters,” she said.

“If 3 million people had a disease, it would be an epidemic, but it’s ‘just women’—coming to emergency rooms with stab wounds, strangulation injuries  or sexual abuse,” said Ophelia, who met such women when she was a Spanish interpreter in an emergency room in Portland.

“I want women’s lives to be filled with laughter, smiles, playing with children, education and financial prosperity,” said Ophelia, who wants to offer classes in Spanish, too.

“I want to see justice, to see people treat people as equals,” she said.  “Much comes from injustices in society.  The system is not set up to help women coming out of abuse deal with its emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dynamics.  Many are not emotionally ready to work.  Many are grieving.

“We need a more compassionate system,” she said.  “Stereotypes hinder progress, too,” said Ophelia, who offers both words of assurance and the example of her life turned around.

For information, call 484-0600  or email ophelia@armsonline.org.

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © September 2005