Joyce Holt never expected to be a victim of abuse. Twice.
At age 22, she married a man who wasn't a Christian. Within weeks of the wedding, he began to tell her she was worthless and stupid. In the midst of arguments, he would punch her with her own fists.
Feeling she had nowhere to turn, she stayed with him. Until one night when he pulled out his pistol. Joyce watched in disbelief and panic as he toyed with the gun and eyed her.
Something snapped within her. "After he got out the gun," Joyce says, "I realized I'd done nothing that would have warranted him shooting me." She sought a divorce.
Eight years later, Joyce married again. She felt certain this man would treat her well since he was a Christian.
But just as before, within months this man began to verbally abuse her. After one fight, he said, "What are you going to do? Leave me? Everything you have is half mine now."
Mustering her courage, Joyce confronted him. To her relief, he recommitted his life to Christ and joined a men's accountability group. But not long after that, the abuse escalated. He choked her, trapped her in rooms, isolated her from family and friends, and berated and demeaned her. Joyce spiraled into depression.
"I constantly begged God to end my life," she admits.
Arise and Go
Without her husband's knowledge, she began to see a counselor, who told her that she was living in an abusive home. But it wasn't until a women's retreat that she finally saw clearly. "I realized that every year when I'd attend that women's retreat, I'd beg God to save my marriage. And every year I was at the same point of despair," she says. "God finally got through to me."
She prayed for direction and told God, "If you say go, I'll go." One day she heard God's words to Abraham as she read her morning devotional: "Arise and go hence." She called her attorney that morning.
But Joyce carried shame and humiliation with her. "I had two failed marriages, infant twins to care for, and I'd gained 90 pounds. I had difficulty just existing," she says.
In 2003 during a Sunday school class, the teacher asked everyone to partner up to discuss a passage about submission. Joyce turned to the woman next to her and said, "I'm not sure I'm the right person to partner with."
"I was thinking the same thing," the woman said.
"I'm getting a divorce," Joyce told her.
"Me too. But mine's not a normal divorce. I have a restraining order against my Christian husband."
"So do I," Joyce said.
Soon Joyce began to hear about other women in her church with similar stories. A choir member whose husband sexually abused her. A woman who endured a 20-year marriage to an alcoholic. Another whose story of abuse mirrored Joyce's.
A networker at heart, Joyce invited these women to her home for a monthly meeting to share their stories and form significant relationships. "Pretty soon there were 16 of us, then 36." She couldn't believe how many women had been affected by abuse.
"All I did was clean my house, make brownies, and call people," she says. "I was the janitor, cook, and telemarketer, but God brought the women. And the healing." This became a safe place for these women to talk and weep freely.
One evening Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger, founder of PASCH (Peace and Safety in the Christian Home), spoke to their group about Sarai's handmaiden Hagar—of her flight, desperation, and fear. God saw her and took care of her.
Feeling a kinship to Hagar, they decided to call their group Hagar's Sisters.
"I was amazed by what God was doing! All this happened with me being a single mom and going through a terrible divorce," Joyce says.
Today, the ministry runs biblically based support group meetings. It connects women in mentoring relationships and points to resources in an effort to meet the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of women in crisis. It identifies and trains leaders from within the organization, allowing victims to give back. It helps raise awareness in churches and communities, and trains church leadership to respond compassionately and empathetically to victims of domestic violence. In addition, Hagar's Sisters is committed to confidentiality and protection of all involved.
They don't view the sessions as therapy, nor do they offer guidance. "We encourage each woman to have her own counselor. Instead, we empower women to seek God and make decisions in light of his will."
One of the verses that defines Hagar's Sisters is, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). "God promises to give us the words and the power through his Spirit to comfort others," Joyce says. "And the courage these women have blesses me."
This year Joyce is serving more than 100 women, now meeting in a confidential public location. "We've expanded by the grace of God—not because we're so good or smart. He chose to bless us simply because we said yes to him. Hagar's Sisters is God himself reaching down."
For the past two years, Hagar's Sisters has been her full-time job. "Hagar's Sisters has changed me in ways I didn't realize I needed. I would never have grown this close to God. I love knowing that I'm in the center of his will, serving women."
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