Rev. Sharon Hollis is president of the Uniting Church in Australia, and Colleen Geyer is assembly general secretary.
How did advocating against sexual and gender-based violence become a priority for you? Was there a particular event or moment when you realised that you had to take action personally as well as church-wide?
Rev. Sharon Hollis: Studying feminist theory and theology first awakened my desire to be an activist against gender-based violence. This gave me a theoretical lens to understand how violence towards women and children emerges from gender inequality, and I was encouraged to advocate from a feminist perspective. Over time I’ve expanded my understanding of gender to include trans and non-binary people. Once I gained a deeper understanding of gender-based violence, I couldn’t look away. I had to act and hope and pray.
Colleen Geyer: I remember distinctly the time when I knew that seeing God in a masculine-gendered way was never going to be enough to describe all that God is. Exploring feminist theology and theory in my studies not only changed my academic journey at the time but also my own personal understanding of myself. Leading the national Uniting Church’s gender unit allowed me to put into action my convictions and also to commit to raising awareness of gender-based violence. Many years have passed since those life-forming experiences, but they continue to shape my life and ministry. Having personal connections with women in domestic and family violence situations has heightened my determination to speak out and do what I can to make a difference.
What aspects of sexual and gender-based violence do you see as the highest priorities in your context in Australia?
Rev. Sharon Hollis: A high priority for us in Australia is taking the lead from First Nations people on how to respond to and prevent gender-based violence directed towards First Nations people. This includes addressing the impact of colonial violence on First Nations people. At the same time, as a priority, we must acknowledge that gender-based violence is present in all communities, in all occupations, income groups, all sexualities, all races and it needs to be addressed by the whole community. We all have a role to play.
Colleen Geyer: Something we have recently learnt in Australia is that giving a voice to people experiencing gender-based violence is vital. For far too long, stories have been silenced and the impacts of sexual and gender-based violence hidden in order to discount the reality of what is happening and the responsibility of governments, communities, business, churches and individuals to address gender-based violence and gender inequality. One woman a week dies from family and domestic violence in Australia. Much has been said, reports have been written, but we need action.
The Uniting Church in Australia has been addressing domestic and family violence for some time. How do you hope promoting Thursdays in Black – especially with both of you as ambassadors – will add to your efforts?
Rev. Sharon Hollis: I hope that being a Thursdays in Black ambassador will give renewed focus to the Uniting Church’s commitment to preventing gender-based violence. It gives us a framework to talk about and promote the work we are already doing to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. It also provides an opportunity to highlight and learn from the work being done in our community service agencies and schools to address domestic and family violence.
Colleen Geyer: Promoting Thursdays in Black will contribute to the work that has happened and continues to happen in the Uniting Church. My hope is that being Thursdays in Black ambassadors will provide us with a platform to engage in public discussions about what more can be done. I hope it gives us a chance to make connections with the work being done in other organisations, and also to advocate to government about funding for programs to alleviate gender-based violence.
What do you think has made the most impact in the church among the efforts to address gender-based violence?
Rev. Sharon Hollis: There has been a lot of focus on gender-based violence in the wider Australian community over the last few years, including reporting on gender-based violence in churches and other religious groups. This has led many churches to acknowledge we must address gender-based violence within the church. In 2018, the Uniting Church reaffirmed its commitment to repudiate and work against all forms of domestic and family violence.
In the wider community, there has also been a renewed focus on gender-based violence. A Royal Commission in one state looked at both best-practice responses to Family Violence and at what might prevent gender-based violence. Alongside this there was renewed focus on listening to victim/survivors and what they think would have helped them.
A range of responses are needed to make an impact, including:
Clear biblical theological teaching about the equality of people before God and that gender-based violence is against the will and purpose of God.
Training in how to begin a conversation with someone they are worried about or how respond to a disclosure of family violence.
Listening to the witness of victims-survivors and what helped them.
We must develop resources and training in all these areas.
Colleen Geyer: Public awareness of gender-based violence has grown over time with stories of people experiencing it in different contexts–in workplaces, in homes, in churches, in community groups. As a result, there has been a recognition and acceptance that gender-based violence occurs in the church and in church institutions.
Recent Royal Commissions into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Aged Care and Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, have also shone a light on what has happened in activities and institutions of the church with respect to abuse and violence. The community expects the church to stand by our public statements of apology and commitment to making a difference. We have to continue to have these expectations of ourselves too.
Resources and training are available in the church and its schools and agencies and they are important. My hope is that these will continue to urge us to action that contributes to the safety of all people.
From your experience and ministry in Australia, what message do you have for the global Thursdays in Black movement?
Rev. Sharon Hollis: The work of preventing gender-based violence is good work, hard work, holy work. We need to continue to focus on gender equality as key part of preventing gender-based violence. We also need to ensure that all our efforts are done with cultural sensitivity and we need to take a lead from First Nations people and victim/survivors.
Colleen Geyer: We stand together with people who are part of this movement all over the world to do this work to prevent gender-based violence. We must privilege the voices and experience of survivors to guide us and lead us. This work is not short term, we have to be committed to it for the long haul. God is with us.