NORTH TAMPA — They were Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Methodist and more.
They were men and women coming together for one cause.
In recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Family Justice Center of Hillsborough County gathered faith leaders this week to sign a proclamation and learn more about the role they can play in preventing domestic abuse.
"The intent is to recognize that domestic violence crosses all lines, including faith, economic, cultural … and to get faith leaders to take a stand on that," said Nikki Daniels, executive director of the Family Justice Center.
Michael Neely, pastor of New Millennium Community Church in Tampa, said that many women stay in abusive situations because of their religion.
Neely works with domestic violence victims through the interfaith chaplaincy program at the Family Justice Center, a one-stop service center for victims and their families.
"The majority (of victims) had the same struggle: 'Is God going to be angry with me if I leave?' " he said to more than 30 representatives of churches and organizations, including the Spring, LifePath Hospice and the Salvation Army.
"There are women in your congregations who are being abused. They exist in silence and darkness," Neely said to the clergy. "On this issue we agree. Domestic violence is not accepted in any shape or form."
Kimberly Alexander, whom Neely counseled, shared her story of being in a 20-year abusive relationship with a pastor. Alexander said her former husband used the word of God to subdue her.
She said she decided to get out of the relationship after he nearly strangled her.
"Know your power," she said to the church leaders. "Don't get so complacent with your congregation to think you know what they are going through."
Alexander now works with other victims of domestic violence and leads the center's VOICES Advocacy Committee.
"Watch for changes," she said, "because a woman will change when she's in the presence of her batterer."
Daniels said studies have shown that 45 percent of those killed in domestic abuse situations have worked with their pastors, while only 2 percent have worked with some type of domestic violence agency.
"It's really important that the faith leaders work with us," she said.
Many times, she said, an organization like the Family Justice Center has greater resources when dealing with an abusive situation.
Ministers, clergy and pastors took turns reading the proclamation that pledged "spiritual and religious leaders of Tampa Bay, proclaim with one voice, that domestic violence exists in our own Tampa Bay communities and is morally, spiritually and universally intolerable."
The proclamation was signed by representatives from 16 religious and community organizations, including Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the Congregation Schaarai Zedek, Unity North Tampa, CAIR Florida (Council on American-Islamic Relations), Peace Progressive Primitive Baptist Church, Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa and First United Church of Tampa.
Alexander said she felt gratified to see "faith leaders across so many beliefs … unified in having no tolerance for domestic violence."
Daniels hopes the leaders spread the word. "Part of our goal is that they will speak to their congregations to say that domestic violence is not accepted by their church," she said.
The faith leaders received information packets that included scriptures related to domestic violence.
Daniels urges clergy members who may be faced with dealing with possible domestic abuse victims to "believe them and support them, and encourage them to seek services to help them be safe."
For one representative, the cause hit close to home. Before his turn to read, Richard Behers of LifePath Hospice mentioned that a co-worker recently died as a result of domestic abuse.
"Faith leaders have a great impact on their churches. Hopefully this issue will get some notoriety," he said afterward. "This is an amazing turnout. There's hardly words to say … I'm very, very pleased."