ELMIRA, Ont. — Cairine Domzella knew Valerie Ferguson wasn’t in a healthy relationship with her husband Kenneth, but she never suspected the life of her best friend was in danger.
“She was protective of him. She wanted to make it work. She thought she had married a Christian man,” Domzella said.
Domzella was speaking at a conference where participants were grappling with the silence often associated with domestic violence in rural congregations. She told participants that she was blindsided when Valerie was murdered by her husband.
On April 3, 2008, Kenneth Ferguson strangled Valerie with a zip tie in the bedroom of their Elmira home while their children, KJ and Tasha, were at school. Their son turned six on the same day.
Valerie, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mom, was a devout Christian who taught Sunday school at Woodside Bible Fellowship Church in Elmira and was a fixture at her children’s school.
Waterloo Regional Police initially were told by Kenneth Ferguson that her death was a suicide, but three days later he was arrested in the driveway of Domzella’s home.
He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and in February 2010 was given an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 20 years.
Domzella said, in hindsight, there were “whispers and hints” of spousal abuse, but “my biggest fear for (Valerie) was that her marriage might end in divorce. I never thought her life was in danger.”
In an emotional address, Domzella, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mother of three, said she counted herself as Valerie’s sister. The women, who knew each other for four years, were inseparable.
They saw each other daily at school, dropping off the kids, at swimming lessons and baseball practice. “We had walk-in privileges at each other’s home,” said Domzella, who still visits with the Ferguson children, who now live in Niagara Falls, Ont., with their godparents.
“The emotional pain I felt was so severe that I felt it physically,” she said through tears. “When she died there was less sunlight in the world.”
The April 6 conference, which attracted nearly 200 participants including pastors, lay leaders, church elders and congregation members, to Elmira was held in Valerie’s memory. Valerie’s church, Woodside Bible Fellowship, offered their space for the daylong event.
In her talk, Domzella shared her personal story of loss as well as her own experience of isolation felt by victims of domestic violence.
Days before Christmas, an accidental injury to her cheek, caused a “goose egg” on her face, which turned purple, then black.
Domzella said she was surprised how many people who saw her bruised face didn’t want to talk about what they presumed to be an incident of domestic violence.
“I felt abandoned, ostracized and isolated. Show me you care and ask,” she urged the group.
Virginia Logan, the family violence prevention co-ordinator at Woolwich Community Services, said women who are victims of domestic violence often feel alone in their pain and isolated in their rural communities.
Churches mean well, but often women are reluctant to talk to anyone outside the church and come to agencies such as the community services for help, Logan told participants in a breakout session on supporting women in congregations.
Some abused women are afraid to speak out about the violence because they feel they might be shunned by other churchgoers.
Logan said a victim told her a church member suggested she pray harder and “give it to God and it will be taken care of.”
“Now she (the victim) thinks she is not a good enough Christian,” Logan said.
Logan said she has never received a referral from a church or spoken to a woman who was accompanied by her pastor.
“I would love to have better working relationships with pastors. That would be huge,” she said.
Greg Mills, children’s pastor at Wilmot Centre Missionary Church in Petersburg, said pastors must speak openly to their congregations of the services available in the community for abused women.
“We have to let go of control that we are not all things to all people,” he said.
Andrew Mills (not related to Greg Mills), youth pastor at Wilmot Centre Missionary Church, said domestic violence centres on power and control, and some perpetrators abuse scripture passages to support their behaviour.
Mills referred to Ephesians 5:21-25 in which the Apostle Paul speaks of a man submitting to his wife. Mills said the submission is out of love, not power.
Mills, 27, said domestic abuse should be spoken about from the pulpit, and pastors should ask for help if they need it.
Discussions at the conference also touched on secrecy and how domestic abuse can be a taboo subject within some congregations.
Stefan Konig, an associate pastor at Woodside, said churches must engender a “culture of transparency” to allow members to open up.
A statistic often repeated at the conference — and a number that prompted organizers to hold the event — is that 83 per cent of pastors have counselled at least one abused woman and only eight per cent felt well-equipped to respond to domestic violence, as reported by Religion and Violence e-Learning.
Bishop Gordon Bauman of the Markham Waterloo Mennonite congregation, who along with a group of other Old Order Mennonites attended the conference, said he wants to help the five congregations he is responsible for.
“I’m not ignorant to the fact that in any congregation there is some domestic abuse. We are not free of the problem,” the Alma man said.
“We want our people to know there are resources,” he said in an interview.
“We want to work with faith-based organizations, but we recognize that government-based agencies have their place and we can learn from them. We need their support.”
Domzella hopes that the conference educated people on domestic violence and gave women the courage to come forward.
She said Valerie Ferguson’s children and her father were robbed of a mother and daughter. Domzella said she was robbed of a dear friend.
She also hopes those at the conference walked away learning something new about spousal abuse that they may not have considered before.
“With a full house here, it gives me hope that we will hear this call to action.”