'I ran for my life!' - How Shirley broke the chain of abuse in her Christian marriage
Ryon Jones, Staff Reporter
After suffering in silence for 10 years, a Christian woman walked out of her marriage, leaving behind an abusive husband and a life which involved several broken ribs and a miscarriage allegedly caused by the actions of her husband.
Since then, ordained minister Shirley Brown has been speaking out, trying to empower her church sisters who remain in abusive marriages, and a recent Sunday Gleaner exposé on the issue has encouraged her to share her story.
Like many women deep in the church, Brown felt powerless to change her circumstances. Having grown up with a religious background, the mother of three was resigned to the view that it was her lot in life to be beaten by her husband.
"I was very active back then in the church environment, and back then, you were told that you had to stay in your relationship, regardless of what is happening," Brown told The Sunday Gleaner.
"When I was in England, for years I stayed in an abusive marriage to the point that he tried to take my life twice. I had broken ribs and I lost a child at seven months because of the abuse. In the end, I had to run for my life."
ABUSE STARTED EARLY
Brown, who wed at age 22, says the abuse started just six months into the marriage and continued for the entire 10-year duration of the union.
According to Brown, simple questions like "Why didn't you come in last night?" would cause her husband to lash out.
Her husband was revered in the church as a strong born-again believer and was eyed to go on to become a pastor.
"He had a nice job, was strong in the church and well respected in the community, so he would say to me 'Who will believe you'?"
According to Brown, even her own pastor turned a blind eye during her years of abuse, while later admitting "he knew that I was going through it, but he didn't know what to do to help me. All he could think of was to pray".
But prayer was not the answer for Brown.
"If you are being abused mentally, verbally, emotionally or physically and then you go up into church and all they're going to say is just to pray; that is not enough. You need to start to dealing with these issues and what is actually happening. That man needs counselling, that woman needs counselling."
The England-born Brown, whose family migrated from Clarendon in Jamaica, said she took her children and moved in with her sister until she was able to start out on her own again.
"From there, I just started [re]building my life. I stayed at my sister for about eight months to a year and then I ended up buying my own house, having a job, going back to college, university and becoming a manager; became an ordained minister and international speaker."
A near-fatal experience forced Brown to take affirmative action to change her circumstances. But she acknowledges that many women do not have the strength or the motivation to get out of an abusive situation.
She shared her story in her book, Break the Chain, and now Brown wants to give hope to all the women in church who suffer in silence and cannot even find solace in their fellow believers.
"One particular pastor years ago used to go up and preach and say a woman should never leave her husband - 'til death do they part'. You were made to feel that if you separate or you were to leave, you're going to end up in hell. Growing up in the church, you don't want to go to hell, so you say, 'Okay, let me deal with the pain rather than deal with the problem'.
"And then you worry about how others are going to look at you if you open your mouth and say anything," declared Brown.
LOOk BEYOND SHAME
She wants churchwomen who are victims of abuse to look beyond whatever shame or responsibility they may feel and try to get help before it is too late.
"If they abuse you today, they will do it again tomorrow. Never make believe it will never happen again.
"The feeling of helplessness may consume you. Fear overtakes your life. Yet, it is important to face the fear, deal with it, and move forward with your life."
For Brown, the answer does not have to involve leaving the church, but certainly taking steps to remove themselves from the abuser.
"I am an international speaker, I do workshops and conferences sharing my journey in a spiritual and positive way in helping women to move forward with their life and still be involved in the church.
"I believe that the silence needs to be broken, but also that the chain needed to be broken where women are constantly abused and actually not saying anything. So I wrote the book with that intent - to share my journey about what I have been through … and give guidelines to women."
According to Brown: "If a woman is in a situation where she is in danger of her life being taken … she needs to get out. And she needs to tell somebody about what she is actually going through, and to try and bring that man to account.
"An action needs to be put in place for her to come out of an unsafe environment. Someone also needs to take the perpetrator, the person who is doing the abusing, and find out why it is he feels it necessary to be abusing and find out if he can be helped."
Brown, who has since remarried and moved to the United States, has also published a book of poems, Words of Life, which was a creative outlet during her years of being abused.