After her husband abused her, Darla Olson knew she needed more than medical care. So she bravely opened up about the experience and sought healing for her spirit, too.
Content warning: This story talks about domestic violence.
A bruised face. A shattered arm bone. After a night where anger turned to spousal abuse, Darla Olson wanted healing—physical and spiritual. She got medical care, but she also wanted to get back to worship. After all, Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was where she had led worship for years. It was where she was part of a community of friends.
Yet she was uneasy about going back.
“No matter if you shouldn’t feel shame, you feel shame,” says Olson. The injuries caused people to stare and ask questions. Not to mention that she felt exposed and scared each time she left her house and sat in the sanctuary, which has a lot of windows. After many surgeries, physical therapy, and time, the bodily wounds healed. But both Olson and her pastor, Sarah Van Zetten-Bruins, knew those weren’t the only wounds. Van Zetten-Bruins, who has also been involved with the RCA’s We Are Speaking movement, which calls the church to end violence against women and girls, knew spiritual healing had to be part of that process as well. Together, the two women designed a service of healing.
Before anything else, the consistory, with Olson’s approval, wrote a letter to the congregation telling them what happened, explaining that she wanted to return to worship, and requesting that the congregation direct any questions to the elders, not to Olson.
As they planned the service, Olson and Van Zetten-Bruins realized that it wasn’t just Olson who needed healing—the congregation as a whole did, too. Olson had led worship with her then-husband, and though he was no longer at the church, the congregation knew him. Here were two people they loved: one who was hurt, and the other with whom they were very angry.
Since there are no set liturgies for this particular situation, Van Zetten-Bruins created one. She relied heavily on the psalms and on songs that would bring comfort.
“It was certainly one of the times in my ministry that I’ve been the most grateful for the biblical witness of the Psalms, and especially the psalms of lament,” she says. “We have this great biblical example. [Lament] is a good and right way to worship: to express our disappointment and our sadness and our anger to God. I didn’t need to come up with these powerful words; Scripture already gives us words to say when we are not sure what to say or what we are feeling.”
Van Zetten-Bruins and Olson decided to hold the service after the church’s Wednesday night meal. This felt less formal and less intimidating to Olson than returning to Sunday worship. Anyone in the congregation was invited come, but it was a smaller group that showed up, mostly close friends of Olson.
Together, the group read psalms and sang. They prayed for Olson, for her family, and for her husband. They named their own feelings—ones of confusion, frustration, sadness, and anger. And they met around the table for communion. Gathering in a circle and looking into each other’s eyes made the moment more powerful and brought many in the group to tears.
“There was the unfolding and the compassion and the love of God and just being able to worship together,” says Olson.
Working toward that service required total, painful honesty. Olson says she was willing to be vulnerable even though it was difficult because she knew that in most cases of domestic violence, the abuse is kept secret and the wounds remain open.
That service allowed the spiritual healing to begin. Olson eventually returned to Sunday worship, knowing that people wouldn’t ask her questions and that members of the congregation would sit next to her during services to protect her.
“When you don’t talk about things and are not open to it, that’s when pain continues to grow and recurs,” says Olson. “I think [approaching] the healing experience with openness and honesty—not pretending such things don’t happen to Christians—is so much greater. The mercy and compassion that can happen in that kind of situation is so much more than the hiding.”